Title: John Ericsson
Date: May 29, 1926
Location: Washington, D.C.
Context: The dedication of the statue of John Ericsson
It is one of the glories of our country that we all have the privilege of being Americans. Some of us were born here of an ancestry that has lived here for generations. Others of us were born abroad and brought here at a tender age, or have come to these shores as a result of mature choice. But when once our feet have touched this soil, when once we have made this land our home, wherever our place of birth, whatever our race, we are all blended in one common country. All artificial distinctions of lineage and rank are cast aside. We all rejoice in the title of Americans. But this is not done by discarding the teachings and beliefs or the character which have contributed to the strength and progress of the peoples from which our various strains derived their origin, but rather from the acceptance of all their good qualities and their adaptation to the requirements of our institutions. None of those who come here are required to leave any good qualities behind, but they are rather required to strengthen and fortify them and supplement them with such additional good qualities as they find among us.
While it is eminently proper for us to glory in our origin and to cherish with pride the contributions which our race has made to the common progress of humanity, we can not put too much emphasis on the fact that in this country we are all bound together in a common destiny. We must all be united as one people. This principle works both ways. As we do not recognize any inferior races, so we do not recognize any superior races. We all stand on an equality of rights and of opportunity, each deriving just honor from his own worth and accomplishments. It is not, then, for the purpose of setting one people above another that we assemble here to-day to do reverence to the memory of a great son of Sweden, but rather to glory in the name of John Ericsson and his race as a preeminent example of the superb contribution which has been made by many different nationalities to the cause of our country. We honor him most of all because we can truly say he was a great American.
Great men are the product of a great people. The are the result of many generations of effort, toil, and discipline. They do not stand by themselves; they are more than an individual. They are the incarnation of the spirit of a people. We should fail in our understanding of Ericsson unless we first understand the Swedish people both as they have developed in the land of their origin and as they have matured in the land of their adoption.
Sweden is a country where existence has not been easy. Lying up under the Arctic Circle, its climate is tinged with frost, its landscape is rugged, its soil yields grudgingly to the husbandman, so that down through the centuries its people have been inured to hardship. These external conditions have contributed to the strength, the greatness, and the character of that little nation which even now numbers scarcely 6,000,000 people. Independence, courage, resourcefulness have marked the race since we read of them in Tacitus and Ptolemy. The meagerness of their soil drove them to the sea; their natural characteristic drove them to adventure. Their sea rovers touched all known shores and ventured far into the unknown, making conquests that have had a broad influence upon succeeding European history. At an early period they were converted to the Christian faith and their natural independence made them early responsive to the Protestant Reformation, in which their most famous king, Gustavus Adolphus, “The Lion of the North,” was one of the most militant figures in the movement for a greater religious freedom. It was under this great leader that plans were first matured to establish a colony in this country for purposes of trade and in order that the natives, as was set out in the charter, might be “made more civilized and taught morality and the Christian religion * * * besides the further propagation of the Holy Gospel.”
While it was under a new charter that a Swedish colony finally reached the Delaware in 1638, they never lost sight of their original purpose, but among other requests kept calling on the mother country for ministers, Bibles, and Psalm books. Forty-one clergymen came to America prior to 1779. One of the historians of this early settlement asserts that these colonists laid the basis for a religious structure, built the first flour mills, the first ships, the first brickyards, and made the first roads, while they introduced horticulture and scientific forestry into this Delaware region.
It was not until after 1843, when the restrictions on leaving their own country were removed, that the large movement of Swedish immigrants began, which with their descendants are now estimated at nearly 2,000,000 people. Stretching into our Northwestern States they have cut down the forests and brought the wide prairies under cultivation over an area of more than 10,000,000 acres. The building of nearly 2,000 churches and nearly as many schools stands to their credit. They have established about twenty higher institutions of learning; set up a large number of charitable organizations and more than a thousand societies for public welfare and mutual benefit; written thousands of books and published hundreds of newspapers, among which are some of the leading journals of the country. Always as soon as they have provided shelter for themselves they have turned to build places of religious worship and founded institutions of higher learning with the original purpose of training clergymen and teachers. Augustana College, Gustavus Adolphus College, and Bethany College are seminaries of learning which stand to their credit.
Though few in numbers during the period of our Revolutionary War, they supported the Colonial cause and it has been said that King Gustavus III, writing to a friend, declared “If I were not King I would proceed to America and offer my sword on behalf of the brave Colonies.” One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was John Morten or Mortenson, and it has been claimed that Betsy Ross was of Swedish descent. No less than fourteen Swedish officers served our cause either in the Army or in the French fleet which took part in the Revolutionary campaigns. After the close of the war the Swedish minister at Paris called upon our representative, Benjamin Franklin, and offered to negotiate a treaty of commerce and amity, thus making Sweden the first European power which voluntarily and without solicitation tendered its friendship to the young Republic. This treaty was ratified by Congress in July, 1783. The title of “President of the United States in Congress Assembled” was first held by John Hanson, of Maryland, in 1781.
As these Americans of Swedish blood have increased in numbers and taken up the duties of citizenship, they have been prominent in all ranks of public life. They have been distinguished in the public service of the States, filling many of the offices from the governorship down. I shall name but one of the public officials of the Swedish race who have served our country so faithfully as representative of the great legion whose names spring to our thoughts, a learned lawyer, blessed with great ability, possessed of high character, a seasoned parliamentarian with a record of prominent leadership in the legislature of his own State and in the Congress of the United States, a man endowed with the old Norse spirit, a true American, the senior Senator from Washington, Irvine L. Lenroot. Others of the race have sat in the National House and Senate and been prominent at the bar and on the bench. Their painters were among the earliest and have produced pictures of great merit; but of all the arts they have been most proficient in music. Inspired by Jenny Lind and Christina Nilsson they have as a people given great attention to vocal music, maintaining famous choral clubs and producing noted opera singers, displaying also a high degree of talent as composers.
When Lincoln began his great struggle for the integrity of the Union this strain was becoming increasingly numerous, and Dr. Amandus Johnson declares that 16½ per cent of all Americans of Swedish blood volunteered for service in the Federal Army. Among those who reached a high command were General Stolbrand and Rear Admiral Dahlgren, while the rank and file maintained the record of fame for the fighting qualities which from time immemorial have characterized the race. Such is the background and greatness of the Swedish people in the country of their origin and in America that gave to the world John Ericsson. They have been characterized by that courage which is the foundation of industry and thrift, that endurance which is the foundation of military achievement, that devotion to the home which is the foundation of patriotism, and that reverence for religion which is the foundation of moral power. They are representative of the process which has been going on for centuries in many quarters of the globe to develop a strain of pioneers ready to make their contribution to the enlightened civilization of America.
The life of this great man is the classic story of the immigrant, the early struggle with adversity, the home in a new country, the final success. Born in the Province of Vermland in 1803, at the age of seventeen he entered the army. But the urge for a wider opportunity for his talents possessed him, and at twenty-three he went to England. He entered an engineering firm and always preferred to be considered an engineer rather than an inventor. The development of power interested him, and within a year his fertile mind had begun improvements of far-reaching extent upon boilers and engines. With that boundless energy which was to characterize him through life he soon designed the fire engine and developed the screw propeller for marine use. It was this new invention which brought him to America in 1839. His hopes to interest the Federal Government in this method of navigation were not immediately realized, but he began constructing propeller boats on the Great Lakes and started a fleet on the canal between Baltimore and Philadelphia, which caused the railroad to cut its fare in two, and where the boat service still keeps the name of the Ericsson Line. He was soon building a small steamboat, called the Princeton, which was the first man-of-war equipped with a screw propeller and with machinery below the water line out of reach of shot. In 1876 he described this vessel as “the foundation of the present steam marine of the whole world. She revolutionized naval vessels.” President Tyler and his Cabinet made a trial trip down the Potomac on this boat, which, although marred by a fatal accident caused by the bursting of a gun, demonstrated the desirability and success of this type of warship.
It was therefore no novice but a seasoned and practical shipbuilder who responded when the Secretary of the Navy, alarmed at reports of a Confederate ironclad, advertised for armored ships. This great mechanical genius wrote to President Lincoln offering to “construct a vessel for the destruction of the hostile fleet in Norfolk and for scouring southern rivers and inlets of all craft protected by southern batteries.” He further declared:
“Attachment to the Union alone impels me to offer my services at this frightful crisis—my life if need be—in the great cause which Providence has caused you to defend. * * * It is not for me, sir, to remind you of the immense moral effect that will result. * * * Nor need I allude to the effect in Europe, if you demonstrate that you can effectively drive hostile fleets away from our shores.”
This offer was accepted, and as a result a strange new craft, sometimes described as a cheese box on a raft, steamed into Hampton Roads late after dark on the day of March 8, 1862. It arrived none too soon, for that morning the Confederate ironclad Virginia, reconstructed from the Merrimac, began a work of destruction among 16 Federal vessels, carrying 298 guns, located at that point. The Cumberland, with 24 guns, was battered to pieces, losing 117 of its 300 men. The Congress, with 15 guns, was grounded and set afire, and the Roanoke and Minnesota were badly damaged and run ashore.
The result was consternation among the Federal authorities. A Cabinet member is said to have exclaimed that a shell from this new engine of destruction might be expected to fly into the White House at any time. In the South expectations were entertained of a complete destruction of the northern ships, the raising of the blockades, the capture of Washington and other cities, recognition of the Confederacy by Europe, and ultimate victory.
When the ironclad Merrimac went out on the morning of March 9 to complete its work of destruction it was at once surprised and challenged by this new and extraordinary naval innovation. Speaking before the Naval Institute in 1876, Admiral Luce said that the Monitor “exhibited in a singular manner the old Norse element in the American Navy.” He pointed out that it was Ericsson “who built her,” Dahlgren “who armed her,” and Worden “who fought her.” And well might he add:
“How the ancient Skalds would have struck their wild harps in hearing such names in heroic verse. How they would have written them in immortal runes.”
After a battle lasting four hours in which the Monitor suffered no material damage, except from one shell which hit the observation opening in the pilot house, temporarily blinding Lieutenant Worden, the commanding officer, the Merrimac, later reported to have been badly crippled, withdrew, never to venture out again to meet her conqueror.
The old spirit of the Vikings, becoming American, had again triumphed in a victory no less decisive of future events than when it had hovered over the banner of William the Conqueror. It did for the Union cause on the sea what the Battle of Gettysburg later was to do for it on land. If some of the European countries had any serious thought of joining with the South, such intentions were speedily abandoned. That engagement revealed that in the future all wooden navies would be of little avail. The London Times stated that the day before this momentous battle England had 149 first-class warships. The day after she had but two, and they were iron-plated only amidships Naval warfare had been revolutionized. The great genius of Ericsson had brought about a new era in naval construction. Naval authorities now recognize the armored vessel which he sent into action as “the germ of the modern battleship,” and behold in “the modern dreadnought the glorified Monitor.”
Great as were these achievements, they are scarcely greater than those which marked the engineering and inventive abilities of this great man, which were to benefit the industry, commerce, and transportation of the country. He was a lover of peace, not war. He was devoted to justice and freedom and was moved by an abiding love of America, of which he had become a citizen in 1848. He had a peculiar horror of slavery. In 1882 he wrote to a United States Senator:
“Nothing could induce me to accept any remuneration from the United States for the Monitor once presented by me as my contribution to the glorious Union cause, the triumph of which freed 4,000,000 bondsmen.”
Ericsson continued his labors in his profession with great diligence, even into his eighty-sixth year, when he passed away at his home in New York City on the 8th of March, 1889, the anniversary of the arrival of the Monitor in Hampton Roads. At the request of the Royal United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, all that was mortal of the great engineer was restored to his native land during the following year. Although he had not returned during his lifetime, he always remembered with the keenest affection the people of his native land. The high estimate he placed upon their character led him at one time to say:
“It is with true satisfaction I now recall to memory the time when I associated and exchanged thoughts with the energetic youth of Norrland. Without disparaging other nations, I must say that the perseverance, sense of right, and clear heads of these youths place them far beyond the young men of the working class in the other countries. I estimate the Swedish vigor and innate good sense as beyond that of other nations.”
The high opinion he held of them was no less than the high opinion they held of him. Because of the fidelity and generosity which he had exhibited toward Sweden and Norway, and his helpful service to the United Kingdoms, a captain of the Swedish Navy wrote to him: “If there is in heaven a special dwelling place for patriots, your place will certainly be in the State Apartments.”
He was borne to his last resting place with appropriate honors by the cruiser Baltimore under the command of Admiral Schley. Desiring to give expression to the cordial and fraternal ties that united a kindred people, the President of the United States caused to be issued the following order:
“In recognition of this feeling and of the debt that we owe to Sweden for the gift of Ericsson, whose genius rendered us the highest service in a moment of grave peril and anxiety, it is directed that at this other moment, when we give back his body to his native country, the flag of Sweden shall be saluted by the squadron.”
Crowned with honor by the land of his birth and the land of his adoption, he sleeps among the mountains he had loved so well as a boy. But his memory abides here.
Both nations unite again to-day in dedicating another memorial to the memory of this illustrious man. His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf, and Her Royal Highness, Crown Princess Louise, have most graciously come from Sweden to be present on this occasion and join with us in paying tribute to a patriot who belongs to two countries. It is significant that as Ericsson when he was a young soldier had the friendship and favor of the Crown Prince of that day, so his memory has the marked honor of the Crown Prince of to-day.
This memorial by which we rededicate America to the spirit which Ericsson represented stands most fittingly by the bank of the river on which floated the first craft with which he undertook to benefit this Government, in the shadow of the majestic temple which has been reared to the fame of the immortal Lincoln, whose cause he served, and within sight of the lofty monument that recalls the name of Washington, whose country he helped to save. As the ceaseless throng of our citizens of various races shall come and go, as they enter and leave our Capital City in the years to come, as they look upon their monuments and upon his and recall that though he and they differed in blood and race they were yet bound together by the tie that surpasses race and blood in the communion of a common spirit, and as they pause and contemplate that communion, may they not fail to say in their hearts, “Of such is the greatness of America.”
Citation: Foundations of the Republic
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Mary Christopher who prepared this document for digital publication.