Saturday, July 26, 2014

Benjamin Harrison’s 1895 Flag Speech

1895 Forge House flag raisingDuring ex-President Benjamin Harrison’s first summer stay in 1895 at Dodd’s Camp, he gave a rare public address commemorating the raising of a new 112 foot flagstaff holding an 18 x 24 foot flag.  This address, given on a rainy July 27, 1895 afternoon, was later printed in the Lowville Journal & Republican. Though the language is somewhat dated, its sentiments are just as inspirational today when we consider the struggles our diverse republic faces as a free nation.

Place yourself on the Old Forge dock facing, perhaps in the Forge Motel direction, and imagine a rainy day (not too difficult), a large flag and a former President with a long historical family tradition.  Listen as Benjamin Harrison rises to speak…Oh, an interruption as Riley Parsons gets the crowd to give a “tiger” cheer.  Then Harrison speaks, without the benefits of a wireless microphone…

“Mr. President (hotel magnate Henry Mowbry of Syracuse, designated president of the flag ceremony) and neighbors and friends, I congratulate you upon the success which has attended this patriotic effort.  You have triumphed over all conditions.  I thought for a time this morning that you would postpone to a more auspicious day the raising of this handsome flag at Old Forge.  But, after all the discomforts and inconveniences which this depressing day impresses upon us, I am glad to know that your patriotism has triumphed.  That your love of the flag is not of the fair weather kind. (Applause)

And, after all this beautiful emblem of liberty never shines so well as when its background is dark.  It has been loved best when the clouds were low.  In those dark days of its early history when it seemed that the God in whom our fathers trusted had forsaken them; when their resources seemed almost spent and their indomitable valor to have reached its last attainment, the flag which was the first emblem of our organization for free government shone so brightly and luminously and so drew the hearts of men and the love and prayers of women, that in that dark day we were lifted out of the valley of despair and defeat to a glorious consummation, and to victory that surprised the world.

And so in the serious days of our later conflict for the integrity of union, men seemed to love the flag most when fortune was most against it.  In the dark days of ’62 (1862), when every circumstance of almost every campaign seemed to be adverse, when Kirby Smith had penetrated the Cumberland Gap and was threatening the Ohio River cities; when Buell was returning unsuccessful from his campaign through  Alabama; when McClellan seemed to be rendered powerless in the peninsula (Virginia)- in that time when the clouds hung very low, there was revealed another triumph of the national spirit and another illustration of the indomitable patriotism of our population. (Applause)

For just at that time, when Mr. Lincoln’s call came for 500,000 volunteers, though there seemed to be for a short time a rest and a pause, yet it was only the rest which the water makes before its leap over Niagara.  That call was responded  to with a magnificent impulse and quickness that again surprised the world and renewed the heart and courage of the noble man who presided over the destinies  of our country; and again these clouds were lifted with the pledge that in no time of darkness would we forsake the flag.

That flag (he probably pointed to the star spangled banner) stands to us for a sentiment for institutions.  In itself-in the combination of colors that made it, in the bunting of silk of which it is made, there is nothing.  It is what it stands for that makes it dear to us.  It is not this land of ours, wide and rich as it is; it is not this wonderful scenery that opens to us here-these mountain peaks, these great lakes, these enticing summer grounds, nor the great plains of the west, where, while we rest, the farmer is pushing the plow to fill the grainaries to feed the world; it is not this stretch of land, these rivers and mountains; it is not the products of these; it is not Wall Street; it is not the produce exchange; it is not bulk meats; It is nothing that has bulk.  It is something that lives in the heart; it is an enshrined sentiment that makes this flag, and it stands for a glorious history.  (Applause)

We look upon that flag and we think of Bunker Hill; we see that gallant band expending the last charge of ammunition and battling with clubbed muskets over the breastworks and retiring at last–defeated!  Yes, as someone said, ‘Britain won the victory that day and we kept the Hill.  (Applause)

It speaks to us of Lexington and Concord, of Valley Forge, of Saratoga, of Yorktown, and of all these great achievements.  We look upon it and think of Washington.  We look again and see the benign face of Abraham Lincoln.  We look again, and Grant and Sherman and Sheridan are revealed to us.  We see upon its folds the story of Vicksburg and Chickamauga and Chattanooga, of Gettysburg and Appomattox.  It is this story that is woven into it that makes it precious to us.  It is the thought that it inspires.  It is that for which it stands—A union of states, a government of the people, for they made it; by the people for they conduct it; and for the people for it has missed its object if it does not accomplish their good.  (Applause)

It stands for a government of law for a civil organization; for a constitution that has assigned powers.  It stands for the thought that our people have pledged their loyalty to a system of laws of their own making, subject to be changed by them; but, while they are laws, demanding the allegiance of every man and woman in the country. (Applause)

It is because we have learned the lesson –  and it seems to me that the Anglo-Saxon people or that people that have been wrought out of the various contributions that have come to these shores, are the only people in the world that understand what it is to give allegiance of the mind and of the heart to civil institutions and not to men.

What can any man do against that flag?  Let him have mounted ever so high on the roll of honor; let him have entrenched himself ever so strongly in the affections of the people – if he lifts his hand against that flag, he falls at once.  (Applause)

He can lead no following against it or against our free institutions.  We have not forgotten as a people to esteem and honor greatness in men.  We have a veneration, deep, abiding and fervent for the great men who have served this country; but we love them because they have served it.  No one of them has been so great that he could steal away the hearts of the people from their love of it.  We have in this at once the explanation of the guarantee of the performance of our civil institutions.

Why is it that that the South American countries that have imitated our example and organized republican governments, have been so racked and tortured with revolutions.  It is because they have not learned this great lesson-to give their affections and allegiance to institutions, to a constitution and not to a man.  In their impetuosity, in their wild, unregulated thoughts of liberty, they follow a cockade, and are continually led into revolution.

I congratulate you, my countrymen, that it has become our settled habit to give our love to institutions, to the institutions for which that beautiful emblem stands.  Again I congratulate you that you have lifted here in this gateway in this beautiful chain of lakes, this emblem that shall greet the coming and the going of the tourists.  I beg to express my gratification at having been permitted to participate in these ceremonies, and to thank you for your generous and kind attention.”  (Loud applause).

Photo: The Flagpole at Old Forge House at another time. Courtesy Town of Webb Historical Association.





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Charles Herr

Since the early 1980s when Charles Herr purchased a camp in Inlet he has been interested in the history of the Fulton Chain region of the Adirondacks. He has been contributing history articles about the times and people of the Fulton Chain, covering transportation, steamboats, hotels and most importantly, the people to the Weekly Adirondack of Old Forge since November 2006.

His ambition is to uncover local and regional Fulton Chain history about people and events prior to 1930 and little covered in the histories of the region. He was the first president of the Inlet Historical Society and presents summer programs on Inlet history at the Town Hall in Arrowhead Park in Inlet, NY. His first book, The Fulton Chain-Early Settlement, Roads, Steamboats, Railroads and Hotels, will be available May 2017. More information is available at .

3 Responses

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Thanks and a good reminder for all.

  2. Bob Meyer says:

    yes a good reminder.
    unfortunately many seem to have forgotten the part that says: of the people, by the people, for the people.
    instead, to a disturbing degree it’s: of the well connected, by the vested interests, for the wealthy.
    for our children’s & future generation’s sake, i hope this trend is reversed toward a more democratic state of affairs.

  3. Ann Parrish says:

    I had not known that Benjamin Harrison was such a fine speaker! Thoughtful, eloquent, filled with memory and patriotism — the only shock (in the 21st century) is the unfortunate sentence with the Anglo-Saxon reference). The speech was well worth your bringing it to our attention.