’In 1778 Monsieur Turgot wrote that America was the hope of the human race—that the earth could see consolation in the thought of the asylum at last open to the down-trodden of all nations. Three years later the Abbe Taynals, writing of the American Revolution, said: “At the sound of the snapping chains our own fetters seem to grow lighter, and we imagine for a moment that the air we breathe grows purer at the news that the universe counts some tyrants the less.” Ten years after that the editor Prudhomme declared: “Philosophy and America have brought about the French Revolution.”
’I will not weary you, gentlemen, with further extracts, but I ask you to note—and this is something which many of our public men have forgotten to-day—that at the very commencement of our career we were inextricably involved with European affairs. Entangling alliances—no! But segregation—impossible!’
For an instant his cold, academic manner was galvanised into emphasis. His listeners, who were still smarting under Watson’s words, and had been restless at the unimpassioned tone of Van Derwater’s reply, began to feel the grip of his slowly developing logic.
‘Thus,’ the speaker went on, ’at the commencement, our national destiny became a thing dominated by the philosophy of humanitarianism. When we had shed our swaddling-clothes and taken form as a people, the issue of the North and the South began to rise. Because of his realisation of the part America had to play in human affairs, Lincoln, the great-hearted Lincoln, said we must have war. Against the counsel of his Cabinet, loathing everything that had to do with bloodshed, this man of the people declared that there could be no North or South, but only America. And to secure that he plunged this country into a four years’ war—four years of untold suffering and terrible bravery. When, during the struggle, Lincoln was informed that peace could be had by dropping the question of the slaves’ emancipation, his answer was the proclamation that all men were free. With his great heart bleeding, he said, “The war must go on.” Philosophy and America brought on the French Revolution. Philosophy and humanitarianism brought on the war of North and South.
’The psychology of America, which had been hidden beneath the physical side of our rebellion, took definite form as a result. The gates of the country were open to the entire world. The down-trodden, the persecuted, the discouraged, the helpless, no matter of what creed or nationality, saw the rainbow of hope. By hundreds of thousands they poured into this country. Slav and Teuton, Galician, Italian, Belgian, Jew, in an endless stream they came to America, and, true to Washington and Lincoln, she received them with the words, “Welcome—free men.” And so we shouldered the burdens of the Past, and men who had been slaves—white as well as black—drank of freedom.’
There was no applause, but men were leaning forward, afraid they might miss a single word. Van Derwater’s depth of human understanding, his lack of passion, his solitariness that had been likened to an air of impending tragedy, held his listeners with a magic no one could have explained. He might have come as a spirit of times that had passed, so charged with the ages was his strange, powerful personality.