The Meaning of the Four Centuries
"The spectacle America presents this day is without precedent in history. From ocean to ocean, in city, village, and country-side, the children of the States are marshaled and marching under the banner of the nation: and with them the people are gathering around the schoolhouse. Men are recognizing to-day the most impressive anniversary since Rome celebrated her thousandth year—the 400th anniversary of the stepping of a hemisphere into the world's life; four completed centuries of a new social order; the celebration of liberty and enlightenment organized into a civilization.
And while, during these hours, the Federal government of these United States strikes the keynote of this great American day that gives honor to the common American institution which unites us all, —we assemble here that we, too, may exalt the free school that embodies the American principle of universal enlightenment and equality: the most characteristic product of the four centuries of American life.
Four hundred years ago this morning the Pinta's gun broke the silence, and announced the discovery of this hemisphere.
It was a virgin world. Human life hitherto upon it had been without significance. In the Old World for thousands of years civilized men had been trying experiments in social order. They had been found wanting. But here was an untouched soil that lay ready for a new experiment in civilization. All things were ready. New forces had come to light, full of overturning power in the Old World. In the New World they were to work together with a mighty harmony.
It was for Columbus, propelled by this fresh life, to reveal the land where these new forces were to be given space for development, and where the awaited trial of the new civilization was to be made.
To-day we reach our most memorable milestone. We look backward and we look forward.
Backward, we see the first mustering of modern ideas; their long conflict with Old World theories, which were also transported hither. We see stalwart men and brave women, one moment on the shore, then disappearing in dim forests. We hear the axe. We see the flame of burning cabins and hear the cry of the savage. We see the never-ceasing wagon trains always toiling westward. We behold log cabins becoming villages, then cities. We watch the growth of institutions out of little beginnings —schools becoming an educational system; meeting-houses lending into organic Christianity; town-meetings growing to political movements; county discussions developing federal governments.
We see hardy men with intense convictions, grappling, struggling, often amid battle smoke, and some idea characteristic of the New World always triumphing. We see settlements knitting together into a tuition with singleness of purpose. We note the birth of the modern system of industry and commerce, and its striking forth into undreamed-of wealth, making the millions members one of another as sentiment could never bind. And under it all, and through it all, we fasten on certain principles ever operating and regnant — the leadership of manhood; equal rights for every soul; universal enlightenment as the source of progress. These last are the principles that have shaped America; these principles are the true Americanism.
We look forward. We are conscious we are in a period of transition. Ideas in education, in political economy, in social science are undergoing revisions. There is a large uncertainty about the outcome. But faith in the underlying principles of Americanism and in God's destiny for the Republic makes a firm ground of hope. The coming century promises to be more than ever the age of the people; an age that shall develop a greater care for the rights of the weak, and make a more solid provision for the development of each individual by the education that meets his need.
As no prophet among our fathers on the 300th anniversary of America could have pictured what the new century would do, so no man can this day reach out and grasp the hundred years upon which the nation is now entering. On thy victorious results of the completed centuries, the principles of Americanism will build our fifth century. Its material progress is beyond our inception, but we may be sure that in the social relations of men with men, the most triumphant gains are to be expected. America's fourth century has been glorious; America's fifth century must be made happy.
One institution more than any other has wrought out the achievements of the past, and is to-day the most trusted for the future. Our fathers in their wisdom knew that the foundations of liberty, fraternity, and equality must be universal education. The free school, therefore, was conceived the corner-stone of the Republic. Washington and Jefferson recognized that the education of citizens is not the prerogative of church or of other private interest; that while religious training belongs to the church, and while technical and higher culture may be given by private institutions—the training of citizens in the common knowledge and the common duties of citizenship belongs irrevocably to the State.
We, therefore, on this anniversary of America present the Public School as the noblest expression of the principle of enlightenment which Columbus grasped by faith. We uplift the system of free and universal education as the master-force which, under God has been informing each of our generations with the peculiar truths of Americanism. America, therefore, gathers her sons around the schoolhouse to-day as the institution closest to the people, most characteristic of the people, and fullest of hope for the people.
To-day America's fifth century begins. The world's twentieth century will soon be here. To the 13,000,000 now in the American schools the command of the coming years belongs. We, the youth of America, who to-day unite to march as one army under the sacred flag, understand our duty. We pledge ourselves that the flag shall not be stained; and that America shall mean equal opportunity and justice for every citizen, and brotherhood for the world."