This returning Decoration Day brings our entire nation in reverence and respect to the graves of our departed soldiers. Each year, their number has increased, as that long blue line which stood so valiantly for the cause of the Union has grown thinner and thinner, until today it has almost vanished from earthly view.
On Fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.
We do not come to lament, but to give thanks. With one acclaim, the people bestow upon them all that divine salutation, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
To express our devotion, we have come to the field of Gettysburg. It ranks as one of the great historic battlegrounds of this continent. In the magnitude of its importance, it compares with the Plains of Abraham, with Saratoga, and with Yorktown. It is associated with a great battle between the Union and Confederate forces and with one of the greatest addresses ever delivered by one of the greatest men ever in the world, Abraham Lincoln.
All the countries on earth in all their history, all put together, have not done as much for those who have fought in their behalf as our country alone had done in the past 50 years. Our appreciation and our devotion is evidenced by something more than tributes and monuments and yearly assemblages devoted to their praise.
The worldwide interests of the United States aside from the dictates of humanity make us view with peculiar disfavor not only any danger of being involved in war ourselves, but any danger of war among other nations. Our investments and trade relations are such that it is almost impossible to conceive of any conflict anywhere on earth which would not affect us injuriously. The one thing that we want above all else for ourselves and for other nations is a continuance of peace. Whether so intended or not, any nations engaging in war would thereby necessarily be engaged in a course prejudicial to us.
The strength of this nation, however, is not expressed merely in terms of an Army and Navy. A yet greater power is derived from the happiness and contentment of the people. During recent years, this has been our national position to a greater extent than ever experienced by any other people. A realization of the benefits derived from our political and economic institutions naturally results in patriotic devotion. The efforts made to establish a government free from tyranny, in which the fullest freedom consistent with order and justice would be granted, and where opportunity would be open and industry attended with the largest rewards, all have an important bearing on the subject of national defense.
But to the contentment and patriotism of the people there must be added the resources that are derived from prosperous industry, agriculture and commerce. Good credit, which is derived from sound financial conditions, is the principal foundation of national defense. That country which has so ordered its finances as to be in a position to furnish the largest amount of money will always be in the best position to protect itself. Reduction of our national debt, permitting a reduction of taxes, which stimulates private enterprise and increases our credit, is an important addition to our national strength. The industrial advance, the agricultural development, the financial resources, strengthened by wise policies in time of peace, are of inestimable value in time of war.
A people which gives itself over to great armaments and military display runs great danger of creating within itself a quarrelsome war spirit. But these other elements of power, although their importance is usually ignored, by contributing to the happiness and contentment of the people, are important influences for peace. Those who seek for vast military establishments, requiring enormous expenditures of money, are not necessarily contributing so much to national defense as those who would apply more of our revenue to the payment of our debt and a corresponding reduction of our taxes, which would be reflected in increased prosperity. With this method of preparedness, the more peaceful we become.
For the purpose of promoting a reign of law in the world, there is a special obligation resting upon all public officials. In our own country, and in most others, the government is one of limited powers. The purpose, as has been so well expressed, is to provide a government of law and not of men. The great majority of offices are those created by statute. Those who fill such places should be alert to ascertain the powers with which they have been invested and scrupulous to observe the law under which they have been appointed. But in addition to these, there is a considerable body, executive, legislative and judicial in its functions, which derive their authority directly from constitutional sources. None of these are all-powerful, but are held within strict limits. They have all come into existence because the people have decreed by their constitutions that they should be clothed with certain limited authority.
The chief temptations to go beyond the bounds which the people have set arise in legislatures. In their desire to take some action which they conceive to be in the public interest, they oftentimes manifest a disposition to exceed their constitutional authority. Such action is a larceny of power. Responsibility for it cannot be evaded by the weak plea to let the law be passed and the courts can decide its constitutionality. Legislators are required to qualify upon their solemn oath. That oath is not that they will leave the courts to defend and support the Constitution, but that they themselves will defend and support it. When additional authority is required, they should apply to the people to amend the Constitution, and not attempt to evade it or strain it by subterfuge and misconception.
A government of the United States that failed in its duty to protect the lives and property of its citizens would be justly condemned at home and covered with derision abroad. But our citizens ought to remember that it is their duty so to conduct themselves in their relations with foreign interest that they are worthy of whatever protection they may need from their home government.