In the year 1776, while the fathers of the American nation were sending forth their immortal declaration of independence, asserting the right of every man to his life, liberty and the rightful pursuit of happiness, a brave and free people in Eastern Europe were being robbed of their lives, their liberty and their happiness. They were the victims of the basest political crime in the history of the world.
Three rulers of great states, Catherine of Russia, Frederick II. of Prussia, and Marie Teresa of Austria and Hungary conspired together to destroy the nationality of Poland and to divide its territory among themselves.
Without provocation or warning, the armies of the conspirators invaded the doomed nation, desolated great tracts of country and reduced its people to subjection. The complete dismemberment of Poland and the destruction of its national life was not consummated until twenty years after the infamous compact made in 1776. During those twenty years Poland was in its death throes, struggling in the grip of the robbers and the murderers who were wasting the land, killing the men and ravishing the women.
The Poles, a brave and turbulent people, did not die easily; they resisted as long as resistance was possible. After their overthrow in 1776, Kosiuszko, their great leader, with other patriots, fled to America and gave their services to the struggling nation of the west and by their skill and bravery contributed not a little to the success of our arms--Washington expressed to them the gratitude of the people and congress recognized the value of their services.
After our liberties were secure these men went home to strive once more to win back the lost freedom of their own country. Fighting against fearful odds, they were reduced to submission only after their land was laid waste by fire and sword and the flower of their manhood had perished. Then Poland, as a nation, ceased to exist, and the last shred of its territories were appropriated by the conspiring powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria.
Of these three conspirators Russia was by far the guiltiest. Catherine, the empress, was a woman of depraved morals, but of great ability. She represented absolutism in its foulest forms. She had no pity when she poured her savage soldiery onto the plains of Poland and swept all its life away. Her policy was followed by her successors. For fifty years and more Russian Poland was the scene of frightful cruelty and oppression. Every uprising of the people was put down with ruthless severity, the knout, death and Siberian exile were the lighter forms of punishment visited upon these devoted patriots.
This is of immediate and awful interest to us this day because the consequences of that crime have cast this whole nation and the whole world into mourning. The ruler of a great and free people has been stricken down by the hand of one who hated him, not as a man, but as a ruler. He was put to death by one who thought he saw in government the cause of all the evils of the world. And this man was a man of Polish name and of Polish blood. He was, indeed, born in this country, but he is only once removed from the land of his fathers that still lies prone under the heel of its oppressors. Hatred of government runs in his blood and is bred in his bones.
He is a superficial observer who thinks to see the cause of this crime, which we all so deeply bewail and deplore, in the vaporing speech of any man or woman on any American platform. The real cause of this crime, committed in the first year of the twentieth century, is to be found in a crime still more heinous, committed in the last years of the eighteenth century. Our beloved president died not because of his own sins but because of the sins of Catherine of Russia, of Frederick of Prussia, and of Joseph and Maria Teresa of Austria. It is the awful law of this world that the sin of one man is the sin of all, the sin of the first man is the sin of the last, and it is also the strange awful law of atonement that the innocent suffer for the guilty. The comparatively good Louis XVI. suffers for the sins of his ambitious and licentious predecessors. Louis XIV. and Louis XV. And by the working out of that law our president has died for the sins of men and women who, in far away lands and long ago, used the powers of government for the oppression and destruction of a great people.
But, if we will, his death may be a great cleansing and propitiation.
This brings us to the consideration of the subject of political crimes in general: These have been of two kinds. Crimes of rulers against the people and crimes of people against their rulers. Almost down to the present day, human society has oscillated between despotism and anarchy. Anarchy begets despotism and depotism begets anarchy. The violence of rulers stirs the people to violence, and the outbreaks of the people lead to crushing severity on the part of the rulers; and between the upper and the nether mill stone poor human nature is crushed out of all shape and beauty. Not to multiply historical instances to teach how violence begets violence, we have but to show how the indifference to human life and happiness, which marked the era of Louis XIV, as an era destructive of the prosperity of the great mass of the French and neighbouring people was the moving cause of that equal indifference to human life and happiness on the part of the people which sent Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette to the guillotine and uprooted the house of Bourbon from the soil of France forever.
And that nonchalant indifference of Louis XV. and his mistress, Pompadour, in the presence of the misery of the peasant, was followed by the equally nonchalant indifference of Robespeirre and the committee of safety in the presence of the misery of the king and the nobles.
Read history from the beginning to the end and you will see the truth that Jesus taught in the Garden of Gethsemane. "They that take the sword, perish by the sword."
What is true of the crimes of the rulers is equally true of the crimes of the people. When Cromwell and the leaders of the people of England in the revolution of 1640, committed the political blunder and crime of executing Charles I., in defiance of all law and precedent, they executed also the republican party in England. They handed the English people in due time over to the licentious rule of Charles II., to the selfish rule of William III., to the stupid rule of the four Georges and made loyalty to kings so deep-seated a principle in the English nature that, so far as we can see, pure republican institutions are impossible there for generations to come.
And when the Girondists and the Jacobins consented together to vote the death of Louis XVI. and to send an innocent man to the guillotine, they voted to send the chiefs of that national convention to the same dread instrument; they voted not only the death of Louis, they voted also the death of Brissot and the Girondists; the death of Danton and the Septemberists; the death of Robespierre and the Terrorists. They voted also the military despotism of Napoleon, the futile restoration of the Bourbons, the abortive republics and empires that followed and they voted the decadence of France. Such is the disastrous effect of the violence of the people against their rulers.
Our own country has of necessity been free from crimes of rulers against the people. Our rulers are the servants of the people, chosen by them for specific duties and when their term of service is over retired by law to the ranks of the people again. Our constitution and laws were framed to guard carefully against the crimes of rulers. There is, however, one terrible exception in the history of the American republic. The sovereign people were guilty of a great crime against a subject people. Proclaiming to all the world as their fundamental principle that all men were created free and equal, they, in violation of that principle, forcibly restrained a class of men of their liberty and held them in chattel slavery. This political blunder and crime stains with its dark hue our noblest names. Washington was not guiltless and Jefferson was greatly to blame. With his immense influence he could have abolished slavery in Virginia and so throughout the country as easily as he disestablished the church. He knew it was wrong, a plague spot breeding evil to come; but he was a Virginian gentleman and a slave owner; his friends were of his class and so he paltered with his conscience and faltered in his duty and spit upon the words of his own immortal declaration and left as an heritage to his country the terrible Civil war of the nineteenth century and the disastrous race question of the twentieth century.
Four great crimes of the people against their rulers have been committed in this country; the great rebellion, the murder of Lincoln, the murder of Garfield and now the murder of McKinley. The great rebellion defeated its own purpose, it abolished slavery and devastated the lands and humiliated the people of the South. The murder of Lincoln made the hard fate of the Southern people harder and plunged them into a deeper distress. The murder of Garfield, whose assassin cried "a stalwart sends you this," retired the stalwart leader Conklin to private life and sent him down to an embittered grave.
And now the murder of McKinley, done in the name of the down-trodden and the oppressed can have no other effect than to take from the down-trodden and the oppressed their one refuge in the world, to strengthen the despotism of Russia, to shake the fundamental principles of the American republic and make government of the people, for the people, by the people harder than it has ever been before.
But must these calamities necessarily follow this calamitous event? Must the old law of nature reign and violence beget violence? Do we still live under the kingdom of nature and not under the kingdom of Grace?
Once in the history of this world violence did not beget violence. There was a Man in a garden called Gethsemane, whose enemies came against Him and laid violent hands on Him to lead Him away and put Him to death. One of His followers, thinking to do Him service, stretched forth his hand and drew his sword and cut off the right ear of one of the assailants of the Man in Gethsemane. But this Man rebuked His violent disciple and said "Put up thy sword in its place for they who take the sword shall perish by the sword," and then, the story goes on to say, this Man stretched forth His hand and touched the wounded ear of His enemy and healed it. With these sublime words and this sublime act the kingdom of God began to be. A new principle of action enters the world. Forgiveness takes the place of revenge, and violence no longer begets violence but only the greater tenderness, gentleness, meekness, patience and love. And shall we to-day live as though these words had never been spoken, this deed never been done. After an act of violence should our thoughts run to violence again?
We hear men and women saying of a certain man, who has done an awful deed of murder, that he should be seized upon by the people, not waiting for the slow operation of the law, and torn limb from limb or burned at the stake. As one walks the streets he hears such sentiments expressed on every hand. They who say such things know not of what spirit they are. They at heart are murderers and anarchists, and if they mean what they say are most dangerous to the safety of the state. They would have murder beget murder and anarchy beget anarchy and make the way easy for the coming of a despotism and the overthrow of the liberties of the people. The wild talk that one hears would lead him to suppose that the great fundamental principles of the American republic had failed. That we must go back to where we were before the great struggle for human liberty began; we must forsooth clothe our courts with the secret powers of the Star Chamber of Charles I; we must permit our judges to browbeat prisoners at the bar after the manner of Jeffreys, the infamous creature of James II. on the Bloody Assize; we must have a censorship of the press and must spy upon every man in his talk. We must have islands of banishment like the Roman emperors and bastiles like the French kings. We must strengthen the hands of tyranny in the East and make the lot of the people harder than it is. We must no longer be the home of the down-trodden and oppressed. Against such we must shut the gateway to this fair land because we are afraid to trust the eternal principles of righteousness and peace and love.
Much that we hear is but idle talk, but idle talk shows the condition of idle hearts and unless such talk is restrained by saner thought we are in danger of sending the shadow of the sun of liberty back ten degrees on the dial of human progress.
God forbid that the name of William McKinley should be associated with such a reaction as this. God forbid that the American people should forsake their high priesthood for which they are anointed of the Lord. Let them cry still "The spirit of the Lord is upon me. Because He hath anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor. He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives. And the recovering of sight to the blind, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." This is our mission and we cannot lay it down. The lives of our presidents are precious but the spirit and principle of our national life is more precious still. Our presidents die, as all men must die, but our nation lives on, having in its keeping the highest interests of mankind.
There is a better way than the way of violence to meet the evil which the dreadful crime recently committed has brought to our notice, and that is the way of persuasion and self-sacrifice and love. This is no time to talk of repression, of prisons, of exile and of death, but it is a time to talk of expansion, of freedom, of home and of life. It is a time to think how we can best send the light of our civilization into the darkest places of the earth. It is a time for us to devise a way by which every man can have his due and rightful share of all the blessings of human existence. It is a time when our rulers should cease to be politicians and become statesmen; when laying aside all desire for mere party advantage and greed for the spoils of office, they should devote their whole energy to making government of the people for the people by the people not a mere phrase but a reality. It is a time when our newspaper press should cease pandering to the depraved appetites of the people and strive to lead them into ways of thinking that are pure and honest and noble.
Above all it is a time when the leaders of the religious world should lay aside their absurd and criminal sectarian differences and leave off from their sectarian hatreds; put an end, if they can to their everlasting debate about words to no profit, and go forth upon their mission to declare the righteous law of a righteous God and to preach peace to them that are far off and to them that are nigh. Let these things be done and anarchy will be no more. It will flee away as darkness flees from the presence of light as cold is driven away by the power of heat and as winter is not when summer is here.
Let these things be done and the name of William McKinley will be associated with the greatest enlargement and expansion which the world has ever seen, not the enlargement of our borders and the expansion of our trade, but the enlargement of our heart and the expansion of our love. If we say these things cannot be because human hearts are what they are, then we answer that human hearts are anarchic, bidding defiance to the law of God in Christ even as he whom we condemn has given defiance to the laws of man.
Our very rancour toward him is one evidence that we are as yet untouched by the spirit of our holy religion. Only yesterday I read that people drew the line at sympathy with and pity for the murderer. Is it so! and are we still so far from the kingdom of God?
Why, of all who have been engaged in this terrible transaction the murderer is the only one who needs our sympathy and pity and for whom our sympathy and pity can avail.
Shall we pity the people of these United States? Why the people of the United States have been ennobled and purified by this great sorrow. We have been lifted, each one of us, out of his sordid cares and selfish griefs. We have felt as never before our unity as a people; no sectional warfare nor factional hatreds divide us in our grief. We are gathered, as one man to mourn our dead and to bury him out of our sight.
Our president is dead. Yes, but our president lives. Our institutions are unshaken, our credit unimpaired and we move to-day as we were moving yesterday with resistless force along the way of national prosperity and national greatness. We sorrow indeed but not those who have no hope. We do but bury the body of our dead, his spirit we enshrine in our hearts as we go forward.
And shall we give our Dead our sympathy and our pity. He was taken at the supreme moment of his life, when his existence had reached its climax. There was for him no going down from his high station, no anti-climax, no long dreary waiting after the play was over for the fall of the curtain. For him is the high privilege of leaving this world before the world leaves him. He dies not in one darkened chamber but in all the darkened chambers of the country; followed to his grave by the love and tears of hundreds of millions of people. Pity him! we might as well pity Jesus on the right hand of the Majesty on high.
Again, shall we pity her who mourns him as no one else can mourn him? His life-long companion; the object of his daily solicitude? No we cannot pity her. We can give her our profoundest veneration; she has been hallowed by a holy grief; she has entered into the sacred silence where they that mourn are comforted; she belongs already to the choir invisible when spirit sings with spirit. She has our love, she does not need our pity.
But what shall we say of him who sits in the darkness of his prison cell with no other companion than his own darker soul; hearing nothing but words of loathing and execration, seeing his awful fate drawing ever nearer and nearer. Outcast, hopeless and alone. Shall we not pity him? Is there none who will pray for him; none who will speak a word of peace to him?
The legal profession have nobly provided eminent counsel to speak for him but there is no one to speak to him. Would to God that there were some holy man, not some professional priest or minister but some real saint of God to go into that dark prison house and sit in silence, until by the power of sympathy the hard heart is softened and the fountain of tears is broken up and sorrow leads to confession and confession to repentance.
Would to God some one could whisper to him in his despair, "Brother Leon it is all a mistake, all a hideous mistake. Things are not as you thought them. This country is not as your old country, it does not mean to oppress you, it means only to give you life, liberty and the means of happiness. The man whom you killed was not a tyrant as a czar might be; he was only a fellow citizen appointed for a little time to serve you and then to become your fellow citizen again. In killing him you did not kill a ruler, for here the people rule; you only killed a man. You see; Leon, it is all a mistake; a hideous mistake. Your deed did no good but wrought great evil. You must die, brother; because you have violated the law of the land, but do not die in hatred and do not die in impenitence. The great American people grieves over your dreadful act, but it can also pity and forgive. It remembers your poverty and your heritage; it remembers the anguish of your people, it remembers the years of their oppression; it remembers Kosiuszko and as it remembers, it forgives. Repent my brother repent and be saved. It may be that in your death hour God will send you the great soul of William McKinley and he will take you to your Lord Who will lead you in the way everlasting."
It would be a great thing if among our religious leaders there was one who could show this kindness to a desperate man. One who could so love him in and for Christ that he could save him from his darkness and despair. But if we cannot have this mighty manifestation of love at least let us have no manifestation of useless anger and sinful spite, but in the presence of this awful providence of God this frightful man infestation of the spirit of man, this brooding horror of darkness and death, let us lay our hand on our mouth and our mouth in the dust and after confessing our sins as a people and our sin each for himself let us commune with our heart and be still.
The ages wait upon us. If love conquers hate to-day; if gentleness overcomes violence it conquers and prevails for all time to come.