This essay was written by Fayette M. VanWormer (1844-1865), the son of Valentine VanWormer (1812-1897) and Anna Cleveland (1817-1900) of Cohocton, Steuben County, New York.
Fayette enlisted as a private in Co. G, 189th New York Infantry on 31 August 1864 at Livonia, New York. He was mustered into the service on 1 October 1864 and died of typhoid fever in early February 1865 at his home in Cohocton, New York.
Fayette no doubt delivered this essay before a Literary Lyceum in his hometown of Cohocton, New York. It was probably written and delivered in 1864 prior to Lincoln’s re-election.
By this, as it will be readily perceived, is not meant men of enormous size and great physical powers. If this were the case, Samson, Goliah, Maximim and such like would be classed among the greatest men that ever lived. But such is not the case. We mean by this men of great minds who have moved the world by their influence and have made the whole Nation’s tremble at their power. As we look over the pages of history and view the ages and generations which have passed away, we see only here and there one which have won for themselves a name which shall last as long as time endures. Among these may be found those of different classes, such as Warriors, Statesmen, Orators, Poets, Philosophers, and those of other classes too numerous to mention — all of which have distinguished themselves as being far above their fellow men around them. Some have made the world to fear them on account of their great military genius; others have made it to reverence them for their superior skill in the management of the affairs of Nations; others have by their eloquence changed the designs of people, Nations, and the whole world; and still others have left behind them such records as shall make them live afresh through all time in every intelligent mind. It might be proper here to mention some of the most prominent of those who have distinguished themselves as the great men of the earth.
Alexander has been called the greatest man that ever lived. He truly was a great man in one sense of the word, for he showed his superior talent as a warrior in that he conquered all the known world. But after he had accomplished all this, he showed his weakness in that he wept that he had no more worlds to conquer. Although he power to conquer the world, yet he had not the power to conquer himself of that passion which he had incurred in himself.
How different the character of Washing. He also proved his skill as a general, and after he had conquered his enemies, he proved himself still greater in that he threw off the yoke which the people tried to throw on the Nation in making him King, desiring rather the honor and good of his country than his own wealth and honor. And as we examine more closely, we see that nearly every age and every stirring event, there is someone raised up as it were by the hand of Providence to work out his designs in the affairs of Nations.
And now we will come down to our own day and generation, and see who is the hero in this our great struggle for freedom and union. It has been said by some that if Washington were here to lead our country through this great struggle, that it would soon end. But although he is is not here, yet there is one here which will, I trust, be looked upon by future generations as a greater [man] than he; him it is who is so successfully leading our troops on to victory. It was also thought by some that he who now occupies the Presidential chair was the man to lead our armies, but it has long since been proved that he was the man to occupy the position which he now occupies and we hope, Providence permitting, he may occupy it for four years to come.
We might speak of thousands of others, both in our own day and in days and ages which have passed who have done themselves great honor, and many of them perhaps as much or more so than those which have been mentioned. Yet time, nor your patience, would not permit me to speak of them. The question may arise why some men reach so much higher position in life than others. This question may be easily solved, not however without acknowledging that some men naturally have greater talents than others. But no one with the talents that are first given them, unless they improve upon them, will reach a very high position. But everyone with a proper use of those talents that are given them may raise themselves from those low grounds to those that are higher, if not to the highest. The reason that so many remain on those low grounds is that they bury the talent that are given them, instead of improving upon them as they ought.
I hope, my brother Lyceums, that we may have energy and perseverance enough to so cultivate the talents that are given us, that we may not be classed among the low, the ignorant, and vile, but that we may fill the places which we are designed to occupy so that when we are called to leave this world, it may be said of us that one is gone who hath not lived in vain.
[in another hand]
Written by Fayette M. Van Wormer. Emilie W. Stanton recognizes the writing. He died in 1865 from fever developed in the army. W. D. S.