A Great Bridge Must Be Built


By L. F. CHAPMAN, Superintendent State Prison, Raiford, Florida

Commencement Address, University of Florida, August 24, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 765-766

AMERICANS are great bridge builders. Linking the desire for swift travel with the native ingenuity of construction engineers, bridges have become prominent features of the American scene. Over river and creek, bay-head and bayou, swamp and morass, these structures of concrete and steel lift themselves across breath-taking depths to prove that Americans can accomplish whatever they wish to accomplish.

Although they are commonplace, they are far from casual. The famed Brooklyn Bridge, which set in its day a new standard of engineering; the Bear Mountain Bridge and its sister bridge, the Washington, are far from insignificant features of the skyline of the world's greatest city. Even the Grand Canyon of the Colorado has been spanned and in far south Florida, the traveller spins over green water nearly a hundred miles out to sea. So marvellous is the Golden Gate span, that it is called a grand opera in steel frozen into immobility against the gold and purple of the Pacific sunset.

Yes, great bridge builders are Americans, who even have built bridges beneath rivers instead of over them. But there remains another bridge to be built—a bridge long and high across a canyon deeper and wider than any the continent has shown. When complete, it will not lift itself into the sky nor will it carry material burdens, but it will be the most important bridge ever constructed by the genius of our people.

America has been "hurried to heights that blind and dazzle mortal eyes." Protected by the best of governments, supported by boundless wealth and surrounded by comforts and delights of invention, our people have occupied a "promised land." The commonest comforts of today are greater than the best of comforts enjoyed by kings four hundred years ago. Even Aladdin's lamp could not have provided such a scale of living, for the trinkets of these times could not have been imagined in the days of Aladdin.

Yes, America is greatly favored and Americans blest beyond description. But alas, all is not well in America. The serpent is in the garden. The rift in the lute. Extending through the whole length of our nation is a mighty gulf, wider than the Grand Canyon and deeper than the chasm of which Dante dreamed, whose dark depths divide the nation against itself.

On one side of the gulf are crime, poverty, illness and ignorance. On the other side are the favored sons anddaughters of promise. This gulf must be spanned. The bridge to be built is the American Bridge.

Spanning social canyons, over-reaching trends of thought, crossing currents of ancient origin, from human strata to human strata, this vast structure, unseen but vital, will be the best and the last of the nation's high thoroughfares. Can it be built? And will it? I cannot believe that a people who have spanned every material depression on the face of the continent can fail in the effort to span spiritual depressions.

But this bridge will not be built by government. The trend in recent years has been in the direction of governmental regulation of every human endeavor, but government fails in the disposition of spiritual and economic forces. For six thousand years government has been handling crime, facing poverty, regulating education and bowing before illness but in spite of countless efforts the four horsemen of the modern Apocalypse remain.

Nor will luxury build the bridge by which crime can be banished, illness cured, poverty remedied and ignorance driven from dark minds. This too has been a trend in recent years. For a century our people have trained themselves to interpret problems in terms of money. With even an international effort in this direction, distresses remain "when wealth accumulates and men decay." The dream of affluence as a remedy has advanced before succeeding generations as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, but it has been one of the world's fateful delusions. Of recent years it has been called "security" and countless millions have been poured out by government to provide security for our people. But all such panaceas are futile. Apples of Sodom which turn to ashes on the lips.

"A bridge across a thousand years;
The way that brings a flood of tears;
A thing of laughter, fleers and jeers
Is American aristocracy."

Political mechanisms likewise must fail in the spanning of the gulf between law and lawlessness, between health and illness, between knowledge and ignorance, between wealth and poverty. In such a connection the promises of political leaders are idle gestures. Machinery never can control human values or human emotions or correct human ills. The reverse is true if the experience of many cities and some states be correctly interpreted.

In spite of government, luxury and political machinations crime remains a tragic feature in the life of the nation, for upwards of half a million men and women are behind bars in great America in this enlightened year of 1940. Illness too claims its victims for thousands in suffering wait through the day for the coming of night and through the night hours for the coming of day. Poverty lifts its hideous heads in slums and farms, in mine and mill while upwards of ten million remain without employment of any sort. And ignorance swells its rank faster than education can train its recruits.

What then can build this new American bridge? What force can cure crime, illness, poverty and ignorance? The answer will be sneered at, perhaps discarded, possibly misunderstood. It is the old, old answer. Ancient as humanity. Present in the affairs of men from the beginning of the world. But the true answer none the less. Individual effort, sponsored and enlivened by the stimulating impact of some compelling personality.

Personality! Here is the solution of every social problem. Here is the material out of which the American Bridge can be built. Only by life can life be changed. The one power that can lift men now devoted to crime from their dark ways is personality. Only the stimulus of a high personality can stir men to achievement which will lift them from the realm of poverty, of ignorance, and mayhap from illness.

To illustrate: thousands of men are sent to prison in Florida through the years, and it is tragically true that few of them at any time in their lives have come under the quickening influence of some great character. I cannot believe otherwise than that many of them never would have gone wrong if they had lived under the corrective influences of fine leaders. All too often prisoners explain their crime by saying: "I got into the wrong company!"

Now in the prison, the chaplain may preach to the men every day, but if he be not in himself a compelling personality his words will have little weight. On the other hand, if he be in himself a great character, he will need to talk little.

Here then is the contribution which you graduates can make to the life of our state—the contribution of your own personalities. In you we shall find the material out of which to build the American Bridge. This University will count its work with you of little avail if you selfishly retire within your shells like hermit crabs.