Progress Towards Freedom

Title: Progress Towards Freedom

Date: February 12, 1923

Location: Tuskegee, AL

Context: At the dedication of a government hospital for colored veterans of World War I


This day and this occasion naturally invite our thought to our government. It is a time when we may well consider some of the aims and purposes of those who founded it, and the general success which their principles when carried into effect have brought to all the people.

Very few of the original settlements of the American colonies were made because of a desire for gain. They were a practical people, not unlearned in the art of making a living, not without the ordinary human motive for success, but, broadly speaking, their chief purpose was to escape from a condition of tyranny and create institutions in accordance with their own choice. These settlements were made at a time of extraordinary change. The old order was passing away and the new order was coming in. Both the religious and the political life of the people passed into a new era. Both to the church and the state there came a new freedom.

Before this result had become manifest, during the uncertainties of the struggle which preceded it, many people sought refuge in America, in order that they might accept the chance of securing the privilege of free worship and of free government here, in case despotism should triumph in the Old World. In its very beginnings, America was dedicated to liberty.

Throughout more than three hundred years her great decisions have been made to this end. The romance of the Pilgrim and Puritan, the Dutch, the Swede, the Quaker, the Catholic, the Cavalier, and the Huguenot runs through it all, as by a separate path each sought a common end. The purpose which they were all seeking to accomplish has not yet been fully attained, but a strong and enduring foundation has been laid by the establishment of great principles, by the constant adherence to which much progress has already been made and great promise lies before us.

Nothing is ever felt to be of value which is not won as a result of sacrifice. The early American colonists had to endure a great hardship in order to accomplish their purpose. In the early seventeenth century, merely the voyage across the Atlantic was a most serious undertaking, but when in addition to that it was proposed to hew out a home in the wilderness, to protect it from hostile natives, to clear the land and cultivate the soil, to be self-existent and self-supporting where neither produce could be sold nor supplies bought, there was required a courage and a determination which could not be surpassed. A people who could engage in that great enterprise and by bringing it to a successful conclusion, establish and cherish institutions of self-government, would soon reach a position where they could never be overcome.

That position had been reached by America at the end of the old French Wars. By the time Great Britain had become the dominant power in North America, the colonists had become so powerful that they were able to direct their own course. It was then that there was taken one of those great forward steps in the march of human progress for which there had been more than one hundred and fifty years of immediate preparation but for which the whole experience of Western civilization had been the ultimate preparation. Breaking away from their political connection with the Old World, they were able to realize the dream of their forefathers in the establishment of a government which was not only independent but free. This in its turn cost the sacrifice of seven years of treasure and of blood.

When the American Constitution was finally adopted, when the government was organized, when it increased in strength and efficiency under a President like Washington, a secretary like Hamilton, a judge like Marshall, and a popular leader like Jefferson, a new power destined to preserve and extend the rights of mankind had come into being. What this government really was, what powers it possessed, what national character it represented, it was many years in developing. Liberty is of slow growth, but irresistible. It took the long debates of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, and the vigilant action of Jackson, no less than the decisions of Marshall and the wise counsel of Washington, to reveal the true spirit of the nation.

At length the time came for another forward step, another extension of the principle of freedom. Like all others, it was wrought in sacrifice. At last the national character of our government was finally established. The fabric of the Union was finally complete. The rank of citizens was all free.

It was out of this period of suffering and sorrow that there emerged the great statesman Abraham Lincoln, and the two great soldiers Grant and Lee. Each of these represented an American ideal. Lee stands for the power of the States. Grant stands for the power of the nation. But to Lincoln it was given to stand for the power of the people.

It was under him and through him that this power was at last developed and fully revealed. No other figure in all history so understood the people, was so loved by them, or could so enable them to identify their government with themselves. He had a human sympathy that embraced the whole nation. He never recognized any enemies. He did not hesitate to call to his Cabinet those who had opposed him. He had but one motive, which explains all his actions. He was determined to save the Union. He was never influenced by animosity toward any of it. “We are not enemies,” said he, “but friends. We must not be enemies.” The rule which he followed was the law. The sentiment which he felt was compassion. He was justice and mercy.

The great men of all times baffle all analysis and all description. They rise above all precedent to heights where none may follow. We know that Lincoln was born in adversity. That has been the birthright of many Americans. We know that his youth lacked opportunity for that education which comes from books. This, too, has not been uncommon. We know that he struggled and toiled and studied to perfect himself in learning and in the practice of law. Many others have done the same. We know that he served his local community in the legislature and in Congress. All this was not unusual. We know that he had a great intellect and a great heart, great patience and great forbearance. He had a great soul. He was a revelation. He showed to men their better selves. He had the power to bind together discordant elements. He reconciled differences. He was a universal friend. But all this fails to describe him, for he was infinitely more.

But we can understand the principles which he announced, the contribution which he made to human welfare, and some of the methods by which he accomplished his purpose. The chief of these was his belief in the people. “”Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?” he inquired. He there stated the principle that lies at the foundation of American institutions. His life showed that to this inquiry there could be but one answer. He never sought to injure any, but to do good to all. He required the nation to make great sacrifices, not for a partial advantage but for the common welfare. “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free-honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve,” he explained. He recognized that no principle could be right which could not have universal application, and no principle could be maintained which was not universally applied. To deny right to a part could end only in denying right to the whole. Whatever others might do, he chose to follow the truth, trusting that by his example they would come after him. He defended the rights of mankind because he knew that was the only means by which he could defend the rights of any one. Recognizing that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” he removed the cause of division that it might all rest secure on a common foundation.

He re-established the theory of the Fathers, that the government belongs to all the people. He made forever plain and clear the right to individual freedom. The whole power of America now stands unchangeably committed to that principle. The life of Abraham Lincoln gave a new and practical meaning to the right of self-government, which was to grow into a great world of influence.

Americans are not without justification in assuming that this nation has been called into existence to establish, to maintain, to defend, and to extend that principle. In so far as the World War was a conflict between different theories of civilization, it was a conflict between those who supported this principle and those who opposed it. It was the liberty-loving nations of the earth, those most generously committed to the principle of sovereignty of the people, who were victorious. In that victory Abraham Lincoln had a very large share.

Theories are of very little use in this world which cannot be put into practical operation. The theory of freedom would not help any one unless it worked out by bringing greater happiness and success to those who were in the possession of it. There is very much that the people need which cannot be bestowed upon them by the Constitution, or by laws. If they have it at all, they must provide it for themselves. The government can help, but in the last resort every one must work out his own destiny. Freedom is a high estate. It places on the individual grave duties and grave responsibilities. If these be met and performed, success will follow. If they be neglected and evaded, the end will be failure. To a great extent it is a question of obedience. It was the belief of Abraham Lincoln that all people could and would finally rise to these requirements. In the less than seventy years that the negro race in America have been in the enjoyment of freedom, they have made marvellous progress. That progress is shown not only in the property which they have acquired, not only in the talent which they have exhibited in the arts, not only in the professions of the law, of medicine, of the ministry, of teaching, nor yet in the administration of business affairs, all of which have been very great, but most of all in the honest, industrious way in which the great body of their people have performed the plain every-day duties of life. Their greatest contribution lies in the fact that they have helped to do the work of the nation.

When the call came in time of war they were ready and desirous to respond. More than two and one-quarter millions of them were registered under the selective draft. They were more anxious to enlist than they were to evade any service for their country. In spite of every deception or temptation to which public enemies artfully subjected them, they exhibited a loyalty and devotion to the cause of America which was unsurpassed. Nearly 400,000 of them went into military service. The 92d Division was composed exclusively of negro troops. They had 639 commissioned officers especially trained at Fort Des Moines. They furnished 100 medical reserve officers, while the total of their commissioned officers reached about 1,200 in number.

They were brave and courageous in the face of the enemy. Their total casualties were approximately 103 officers and 1,543 enlisted men, of whom 6 officers and 203 enlisted men were killed in action.

The high character of their service is shown by the fact that 14 officers and 43 men received the Distinguished Service Cross, while the First Battalion of the 367th Infantry and the 369th Infantry were awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French.

It was not merely their soldiers in the field but their citizens in the supporting army of production and transportation at home, both men and women, whose efforts contributed to the success of the allied armies. More than that, they gave generously of their resources, purchasing the securities of the government, and contributing to the Red Cross and other war charities. Their patriotism shone forth in every field of action.

They had the commendation of the secretary of war, General Pershing, and former President Roosevelt. Brigadier-General Sherburne, of Massachusetts, who trained and commanded some of the negro artillery, gave me this statement: “Tuskegee, during the war, furnished to the colored artillery regiments some of the finest troops in France. In technical excellence they were unsurpassed. They developed wireless and telephone communication effectively and showed marked ability in the technical lines of artillery. President Moton himself saw the work of the colored artillery and the destruction wrought by it.” That is high praise from a man who knew. For the service of the negro race at home and abroad during the war they have the everlasting gratitude of the American people. They have justified the faith of Abraham Lincoln.

Returning home, in common with their comrades, they resumed their peace-time occupations. Like other Americans, they have as a result of their experience a broader outlook, a firmer patriotism, and, like the other peoples of the earth, they are in the enjoyment of a great freedom.

There came also to all Americans, as a result of the war, new duties and new obligations. The first and foremost of these, the one to which the people through their government responded with the greatest readiness and generosity, was the necessity of caring for those who had been injured in the service and for their dependents. There was at once organized the Reconstruction and Restoration Service, under different departments, finally all consolidated in the Veterans’ Bureau, to do what was necessary to restore health, provide education, and administer compensation. Very large sums have already been appropriated for these purposes, for which the expenditures are well over $1,000,000 each day. For allowances to families expenditures have been about $300,000,000. For compensation to those who suffered injuries $675,000,000. For medical and hospital services $262,000,000. Hospital care is now granted to all who request it, at least for a period of observation. For educational and vocational training about $590,000,000. For insurance $90,000,000. For the construction and repair of hospitals about $45,000,000. Other items make a grand total of about $2,500,000,000, all of which has gone directly for these great relief purposes, with the exception of about 4 per cent, which has been the cost of administration.

There are now about 25,000 men in hospitals. During the past year and one-half government-hospital beds have been increased by 9,686, so that they total at the present time 24,759. Money has been provided, and work is in progress, to equip 7,619 additional beds.

More than 232,000 compensation claims and more than 143,000 war-risk term insurance claims are paid each month. There are nearly 550,000 insurance policies in force, representing more than $3,000,000,000 insurance. More than 160,000 men have entered vocational training, of which more than 96,000 are still receiving that instruction. The generosity of the American people reaches directly more than a million service men and their dependents.

It is not possible to administer a great service of this kind without mistakes and delays. The government has had up for consideration more than 1,000,000 service cases of one kind or another. It is the policy to err on the side of the service man. There has been a great expenditure of money and every possible attempt adequately to provide for every service man and his dependents who are entitled to the bounty of a generous and grateful people. The dedication of this hospital, constructed new throughout, at an expenditure of nearly $2,000,000, providing accommodations for 600 cases, exclusively for negro service men, shows the appreciation in which they are held by the government. Here on a beautiful tract of 464 acres there are located 27 permanent buildings, with every facility for the care and cure of those who are afflicted. The government has nothing better anywhere.

Together we are working out, in theory and in practice, that hope of Washington and Lincoln. It is a long, slow, toilsome, and laborious process, accompanied oftentimes with disappointment and delays, but in the progress which has been made there is every reason for encouragement and satisfaction.

It takes time and patience and perseverance to put into practice our theory of human rights. Lincoln knew that. If there was one virtue that he seemed to possess more than another, it was that of forbearance. It is well for us, who must live together as Americans, whatever our race or creed may be, constantly to remember his words: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” Those who stir up animosities, those who create any kind of hatred and enmity are not ministering to the public welfare. We have come out of the war with a desire and a determination to live at peace with all the world. Out of a common suffering and a common sacrifice there came a new meaning to our common citizenship. Our greatest need is to live in harmony, in friendship, and in good-will, not seeking an advantage over each other but all trying to serve each other. In that spirit let us dedicate this hospital and dedicate ourselves to the service of our country. To do that wisely, patiently, tolerantly, is to show by the discharge of our duties our indisputable title to fellow citizenship with Abraham Lincoln.


Citation: Everett Sanders Papers, Library of Congress

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Joshua Tyler Williams who prepared this document for digital publication.

One Response to “Progress Towards Freedom”

  1. Joshua Tyler Williams

    Coolidge’s summation of the liberties the nation was founded upon and fought the Civil War over, struck a strong chord with me. To remember that his words were spoken only 70 years from the events of Bull Run to Appomattox makes them even more striking. Coolidge’s recognition of the African Americans who sacrificed in the Great War also came with a recognition of the blossoming Civil Rights movement. His call for perseverance in the face of “those who create any kind of hatred…” would be ideals sorely needed over the decades, and on to 2020.

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