Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen, — I hope you will not find fault with me for saying that I stand before you a proud man, and you are responsible for it. When I received your invitation to this dinner, and read the names of its signers, — among them poets who have charmed the minds and become dear to the hearts of all civilized mankind, men of science, scholars, publicists, ministers, leaders of thought, of commerce, and of industry, ornaments and illustrations of this renowned old Commonwealth; and when I considered that, in an expression of approval and confidence like this, votes are not only counted but weighed, and that this demonstration came to me, not as to one clothed with power and authority, but at the moment of my return to private life, — I felt that I was honored in a measure falling to the lot of not many men. That I heartily thank you for this extraordinary honor is saying but little, and I am only troubled by a doubt as to how I can have deserved it all. I may say, at least, that I am conscious of having earnestly and faithfully endeavored to do so.

This is not the first time I have received great kindness at the hands of citizens of Massachusetts. Twenty-two years ago, a young and obscure newcomer in this republic, as some of my friends here present may remember, I was, so to speak, introduced by public men of Massachusetts to the American people as one of the advocates of the Antislavery cause. Later, when Charles Sumner had departed from the living, the city of Boston deemed me worthy to express her appreciation of the patriotic career, and her grief at the loss, of one of her most illustrious sons. Still later, I was honored with a call to aid in public debate in one of your State contests, when the cause of honest money and public faith seemed to be at stake. And more recently, in a controversy concerning the Indian problem, referred to by our honorable chairman, my name has been discussed in Massachusetts with a warmth of interest which could not have been greater had I been a native citizen of your Commonwealth, and had I lived in it and been of it all the days of my life. It is not surprising, therefore, that I should not feel like a stranger among you; friend and foe here have treated me as one of your own, and I am perfectly at home with both.

The measure of praise you have been kind enough to award to me for my administration of the Interior Department is — I say this without any affectation of modesty — perhaps too generous. I know better than any body else that my administration has not been perfect. The Interior Department is not only the most difficult, it is also the most dangerous, department of the Government. It is so cumbrous and overgrown an accumulation of heterogeneous subjects, all of importance; the interests in its care offer such attractions and temptations to those who strive to overreach the Government by dishonest means, and the branches of the public service under its control are scattered over an extent of ground so extremely difficult to watch, that is requires a long and intense application on the part of its head to understand its different branches and all the places of danger, and to master its machinery. I think I am not exaggerating when I say that the Interior Department devolves as much labor and responsibility upon its head personally as any other two departments impose upon their chiefs combined. Under such circumstances, knowing the department as I do, I shall always be disposed to make ample allowance for extraordinary difficulties in passing judgment upon the success of a Secretary of the Interior, and to be very careful in charging upon him direct personal responsibility for occasional accidents, mistakes, or failures. All that I am willing to claim for my own administration of that department — and a great part of that credit belongs to the able and faithful subordinate officers who aided me — is a certain measure of improvement upon the condition of things as I found them; and I should be that last man to say that my successor may not find occasion for improvement upon the condition of things which I leave to him. He is a man of high character, just impulses, and great practical experience and sagacity; and one of the best wishes I can offer him is, that in the execution of his honest purposes he may find as kind a public judgment as you are giving me.

I am sure that the honorable chairman has not mentioned the recent controversy about the Indian question for the purpose of continuing it here, and certainly I do not mean to do so. While it may be necessary sometimes to repel attacks in self-defence, I am always ready to give to every honest critic of my acts the same credit for good intentions which I claim for myself. Among those who have the public good in view, differences of opinion should not be permitted too easily to degenerate into impeachment of motives. You are certainly right in thinking that I could not possibly have spent four years of my public life in maliciously plotting the oppression of a poor Indian tribe. You may safely assume that no man at the head of the Interior Department, unless he be a corrupt and depraved wretch, will ever be inclined wilfuly to maltreat the Indians.

But the management of Indian affairs has to deal with complications of difficulties of which nobody has any clear conception who is not personally conversant with its details. It may easily happen that those charged with responsibility, and having the whole field in view, find themselves forced to resort to expedients of which those who direct their attention only to one point of the intricate problem do not appreciate the necessity and bearing; and thus it happens that even honest criticism, while trying to be just to one side, may become flagrantly unjust to the other.

As to my own administration of Indian Affairs, I am perfectly content to leave it to public judgment, even to the judgment of its critics, when the heat of unnecessary controversy shall have subsided. I know that my conduct has grown from just and humane purposes; that my naturally kind feelings for the Indians have, by direct intercourse with them, ripened into a personal friendship, and that that friendship is reciprocated by most of the Indians with whom I have had personal contact, and who sometimes express their feelings in delicate and tender manifestations of attachment and gratitude. For I may assure you that the Indian is by no means devoid of such impulses and feelings.

I think also that the policy followed by me during my administration, — the policy of promoting the transformation of the Indians from shiftless paupers into thrifty and orderly workers, as agriculturalists, herdsmen, traders, and mechanics; of extending their educational facilities, so as to teach them how to learn and how to live; of stimulating their desire to become individual owners of land, and of other property, like white men: a policy, in a word, of preparing them for their ultimate absorption into the great body of American citizenship, with all its rights and duties, — has been as successfully carried on as four years of hard and conscientious work in an executive department could make it; and that a wise and vigorous pursuit of the same ends will finally solve that Indian problem which in the past has so often proved a trouble, and also sometimes a disgrace, to the American people.

Not as a matter of justice, but as a matter of fact, the rapid development of the country puts before the Indians the stern alternative of civilization, or destruction by conflict. Wise and human statesmanship will see to it that the Indians do not stand in the way of that development, but become part of it, and benefited by it. This is the “Indian problem” in a nutshell. And I do not hesitate to declare my firm conviction, — a conviction springing from much study and some practical experience, — that the Indians can be civilized, at least sufficiently to secure an orderly, harmonious, and prosperous neighborhood with the white race.

But to bring about this result all over the country requires not only the proclamation of general principles, but steady and judicious work in detail. To this work I have been devoted for four years, and the warm interest I take in the Indian race will induce me to aid it in whatever way I can, as a private citizen, as long as I live.

It is a singular thing, but not a rare one, that we are impugned in our best motives and actions by those whom an identity of general purpose should make our friends. The most discordant sounds are produced by different people playing the same melody at the same time in different keys; and so I have had to suffer attack not only from a reckless border sentiment, bent on war and destruction, but from some of those who speak in the name of philanthropy. I suppose I am not the first who has had to endure this, and shall not be the last.

But now the so-called Ponca question appears to be happily disposed of. Congress has appropriated a liberal sum to indemnify the Poncas for their loss, and to settle them comfortably according to their wishes. The Poncas in the Indian Territory are content to stay there; the Poncas in Dakota are content to stay there. The provision made for them is all they ask for. The Poncas are satisfied, the Government is satisfied, the American public at large seem to be satisfied; and it is to be hoped that soon to that general satisfaction there will be no exception, and that honest philanthropy will find for this unity of purpose also once more harmony of action.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of addressing a public meeting in New York in behalf of the enlargement of facilities of Indian education at the Hampton school, — a most worthy and important object. That meeting in New York was very successful, and I hope that the same movement will commend itself with equal success to the philanthropic citizens of Boston. Let us join hands in it, and do something of immediate practical importance for the Indians; and let us hope that in such useful efforts the old Ponca quarrel may no longer divide us.

But as the Ponca question was not the whole Indian problem, so the Indian problem is only a small part of our national concerns. Our honorable chairman has touched upon many topics, and opened a large field; and you will pardon me if, for a moment, I follow him.

I venture to say that no inhabitant of this country can survey the condition of things in the world abroad without congratulating himself with pride and gratitude upon being an American citizen, and upon living in this great and happy republic. While on the other side of the Atlantic we see England perplexed by the Irish problem, — that problem having assumed almost a revolutionary character, — and by a far-off war, rendered odious not only by occasional disasters, but still more so by the conscious injustice of its cause; while we see the nations of the European continent groaning under the terrible burdens of an armed and precarious peace, disquieted by social restlessness, political faction, and economic disorder; while we see the assassination of an emperor spreading general consternation, and an uncertain, threatening future hanging over all Europe like a gloomy thunder cloud: while we observe all these portentous signs there, the only question which immediately troubles us is, whether we shall or shall not have an extra session of Congress to enable the Government to fund our national bonds at a rate of interest less than four per cent! We justify once more the old saying, “Happy the country that has no history!” We make but little history at the present moment; we should, perhaps, be more comfortable if we made still less.

Indeed, never since the close of our civil war has our condition — economic, social, and political — been so generally satisfactory as it is now.

Of our material prosperity I need not speak. It is felt in every sphere of society, in every branch of industry and commerce. It is the envy of the world.

The animosities of our great civil conflict have, in a great measure, subsided. Prosperous activity in the South has accelerated the healing of old sores, and the people of the two sections are more and more drawn together again by the consciousness of common rights, common duties, common aims, and a common destiny; in short, by the inspiration of a common patriotism.

Our National Government has, I think, succeeded in proving once more the falsity of the old assertion, that corruption is an inevitable concomitant of democratic institutions. Whatever mistakes may have been made by the late administration, — and I frankly admit that they were not a few, — it is generally conceded that it has demonstrated the possibility of honest, business-like, and morally-respected government in this republic; and the new administration, I have no doubt, means to do no less, but will endeavor to do more.

Upon these things we may all congratulate ourselves; but even under such happy circumstances we should not permit our optimism to carry us so far as to think that everything is, and will remain, just as it ought to be.

As to our material prosperity, we ought to see to it that the spirit of enterprise and speculation do not run away with our judgment. Perhaps we are already going at a rate of speed which taxes the whole endurance of our energies. We are inclined to boast of the soundness of our money system; but we should take care that we may not find ourselves some day with a quantity of silver money on our hands with will drive out our gold, and leave us with all the disadvantages of an inferior currency in the great commerce of the world. We should consider that our excellent banking system, which is, in a business point of view, one of the most valuable legacies of the war, — in fact, the best banking system this country ever had, and, I think, the best which any country has to-day, — will be of no less value to the business of the country in prosperous times than in times of depression, and should not be lightly jeoparded for some comparatively trifling and apparent advantage. In this respect the best policy emphatically is, to let well enough alone.

As to the formerly hostile sections of the country, I am sure the number of those in the North who desire to keep alive old animosities for political purposes, or who think it politically profitable to do so, is daily growing less, and their influence on public opinion is decidedly declining. On the other hand, the wise and generous sentiment, that if we wish the South to be and remain loyal and patriotic, we must frankly and cordially recognize and encourage every evidence of loyalty and patriotism on its part, is every day becoming more emphatic and preponderant.

In fact, it is a great mistake on the part of our Southern brethren to believe that the people of the North are inclined to distrust them, and to deprive them of their share of political power, because they are Southern men; and that for this reason, and this reason alone, the majority of the Northern people discountenance a political organization in which the South has been striving to be a unit. I certainly do not speak as a partisan, when I say that it is no sectional feeling which induces most of us to criticise and oppose political practices and theories which, with equal determination, we would criticise and oppose among ourselves, — such as encroachments upon the rights of voters, a dangerous financial policy, and the like; things detrimental to the principles of republican government, and to interests common to the whole country, — South as well as North. In the same measure as Southern men show that they are willing to respect the rights of others as their own are respected; to treat living public questions on their own merits, making their party divisions on those questions; and that they value the interests they have in common with other parts of the Union above those which they have thought to be peculiar to the South, — the question of political power, as between the North and the South, will no longer have any force. When the South ceases to assert itself as a distinct section, different from others, the North will necessarily have to do the same thing; and sectionalism will be at an end. It is to be hoped that patriotic men, North and South, will work together to that effect; and I am sure that the enlightened people of Massachusetts have, on many occasions, shown their cheerful willingness to do so.

As to the character and efficiency of the Government in its different branches, something has been tried, and I think something has been accomplished, in the way of improvement. I highly value the compliment paid me by your chairman for my efforts in that direction; but more remains to be done. In the administration of the Interior Department I have become convinced, more strongly than I ever was, that a thorough and systematic reform of our civil service in the methods of appointment, tenure, and removal is not only necessary, but also practicable. I am convinced that as our National Government grows with the growth of the country; that as the questions it is to deal with become larger and more complicated, — the organization of the administrative machinery upon the principles of the old spoils system will show itself more and more to be a positive danger. It not only tends to render the service itself untrustworthy, in point of integrity and efficiency, but also to make political contests more struggles for power than for the realization of ideas; and it enables and encourages public men to make themselves leaders of faction instead of leaders of opinion; to rule the politics of the country by the power of organization rather than by the power of ideas.

While this is a dangerous thing under any circumstances, it will be doubly so as the spoils multiply, and the value of the interests acted upon by the Government grows larger and more tempting. The control of organized faction, held together in great part by the hope of spoils, — regarding principles and policies more or less as incidental to its aims, — is the natural outgrowth of this system. It cannot fail in the end to subject the body politic to selfish ends, and to undermine republican institutions.

To avert this danger, the abolition of the spoils system and the systematic substitution therefor of a civil service, organized upon sound business principles, is an absolute necessity. It is frequently said that this cannot be accomplished unless the people change their traditional notions and habits concerning this subject. This may be true. But I believe that the people are beginning to change their habits and notions. What the country desires is an honest, wise, business-like administration of public affairs. It would have questions of public interest discussed and decided upon their own merits. In order to have this, the offices of the Government must cease to be mere spoils of party warfare; and thus the spoils themselves must cease to be a great motive power in political contests. Many who did not see this yesterday see it to-day; and many who do not see it to-day will see it to-morrow. I believe that there is a growing sentiment in favor of a thorough reform, and greater hope of its accomplishment. What has been gained in that direction cannot be abandoned by either political party with impunity; and each party will find itself obliged to move onward, if it be only from motives of self-preservation.

When during the last session of Congress, certain Democrats brought forward a proposition for the reform of the civil service, some Republicans discredited and ridiculed the effort. I regretted to see this. An effort in so good a direction should be welcomed, from whatever side it may come. If the Republicans are wise, they will not ridicule the Democratic reformers, but take them at their word. If there is any insincerity in their movement, it will then show itself. To gain the advantage of the Democrats, the Republicans will have to prove that they are more sincere in the work of reform than their opponents. They can do so by taking up the work more vigorously; and I trust they will, for I know they can, having the largest reform element on their side.

I do not speak here merely has a party man, but rather as one who has an object of great public interest in view. It has always been, and is now, my opinion that the public interest is best served when each political party must depend for its success upon its own virtues, and not upon the shortcomings of its opponents. As a member of a party, I have therefore always desired, not that the opposing party should be as bad, but that it should be as good, as possible. It would thereby oblige my party to elevate its aims and to do its best. Such are my feelings now. I hope that the Democrats will, in the reform of the civil service, as in all other respects, do the best they can. As a Republican, I hope that the Republicans will do still better. In this way we may accomplish something of lasting value between the two.

At this moment the two political parties are pretty evenly balanced. In quiet times like ours that is, on the whole, a healthy condition. It reminds both parties that neither of them can venture upon mischief without seriously impairing its prospects for the future.

Between them stands an element which is not controlled by the discipline of party organization, but acts upon its own judgment for the public interest. It is the independent element; which, in its best sense and shape, may be defined as consisting of men who consider it more important that the government be well administered than that this or that set of men administer it. This independent element is not very popular with party politicians in ordinary times; but it is very much in requisition when the day of voting comes. It can render inestimable service to the cause of good government by wielding the balance of power it holds with justice and wisdom, and from purely patriotic motives. Ours must necessarily be, in a certain sense, a government of and by political parties; but it will be all the better for the country if it is a party government tempered by an unselfish, enlightened, and patriotic independent opinion.

I do not know of any period in our recent history so propitious for the treatment of public questions on their own merits, and for the reformation of existing abuses, as the present. There are no issues involving the life or death of the nation before us; there is no decision impending of such overshadowing and absorbing importance as to make us forget everything else. Unreasoning passion is out of place. We are on the whole in so favorable a condition that we can calmly consider the business in hand. A fair day is the best time for repairing the roof of our house. I trust that the American people will be mindful of this great opportunity. I am sure that the enlightened and patriotic citizens of Massachusetts will not let that opportunity pass unheeded.

And thus I heartily thank you for this demonstration which, while conferring such extraordinary honor upon me, illustrates once more the living, active sympathy existing between those who advocate the cause of just and good government in any place, in any part of the country, and this grand old Commonwealth, — a leader in progressive ideas, whose monuments are upon so many battlefields of thought and of patriotic action.

The Chairman. Gentlemen, we are honored to-night by the presence of several gentlemen distinguished among the literary men of Massachusetts. I ask you to listen for a few moments to one who officially and personally represents them with a great ability and character. I introduce to you the President of Harvard College.