The First Battle/Life of William Jennings Bryan/Illinois College Graduating Oration, by William J. Bryan (1881)
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Illinois College Graduating Oration,
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It is said of the ermine that it will suffer capture rather than allow pollution to touch its glossy coat, but take away that coat and the animal is worthless.
We have ermines in higher life—those who love display. The desire to seem, rather than to be, is one of the faults which our age, as well as other ages, must deplore.
Appearance too often takes the place of reality—the stamp of the coin is there, and the glitter of the gold, but, after all, it is but a worthless wash. Sham is carried into every department of life, and we are being corrupted by show and surface. We are too apt to judge people by what they have, rather than by what they are; we have too few Hamlets who are bold enough to proclaim, "I know not seem!"
The counterfeit, however, only proves the value of the coin, and, although reputation may in some degree be taking the place of character, yet the latter has lost none of its worth, and, now, as of old, is a priceless gem, wherever found. Its absence and presence, alike, prove its value. Have you not conversed with those whose brilliant wit, pungent sarcasm and well-framed sentences failed to conceal a certain indescribable something which made you distrust every word they uttered? Have you not listened to those whose eloquence dazzled, whose pretended earnestness enkindled in you an enthusiasm equal to their own, and yet, have you not felt that behind all this there was lurking a monster that repelled the admiration which their genius attracted? Are there not those, whom like the Greeks we fear, even when they are bringing gifts? That something is want of character, or, to speak more truly, the possession of bad character, and it shows itself alike in nations and individuals.
Eschines was talented; his oration against the crowning of Demosthenes was a masterly production, excellently arranged, elegantly written and effectively delivered, so extraordinary was its merits, that, when he afterward, as an exile, delivered it before a Roadian audience, they expressed their astonishment that it had not won for him his cause, but it fell like a chilling blast upon his hearers at Athens, because he was the "hireling of Philip".
Napoleon swept like a destroying angel over almost the entire eastern world, evincing a military genius unsurpassed, skill marvelous in its perfection, and a courage which savored almost of rashness, yet ever demonstrated the wisdom of its dictates. For a while he seemed to have robbed fortune of her secret, and bewildered nations gazed in silence while he turned the streams of success according to his vascillating whims.
Although endowed with a perception keen enough to discern the hidden plans of opposing generals, he could but see one road to immortality—a path which led through battle-fields and marshes wet with human gore; over rivers of blood and streams of tears that flowed from orphans' eyes—a path along whose length the widow's wail made music for his marching hosts. But he is fallen, and over his tomb no mourner weeps. Talent, genius, power, these he had—character, he had none.
But there are those who have both influence through life and unending praises after death; there are those who have by their ability, inspired the admiration of the people and held it by the purity of their character. It is often remarked that some men have a name greater than their works will justify; the secret lies in the men themselves.
It was his well-known character, not less than his eloquent words; his deep convictions, not less than the fire of his utterance; his own patriotism, not less than his invectives against the Macedonian that brought to the lips of the reanimated Greeks that memorable sentence, "Let us go against Philip."
Perhaps we could not find better illustrations of the power and worth of character than are presented in the lives of two of our own countrymen—names about which cluster in most sacred nearness the affections of the American people—honored dust over which have fallen the truest tears of sorrow ever shed by a nation for its heroes—the father and savior of their common country—the one, the appointed guardian of its birth; the other, the preserver of its life.
Both were reared by the hand of Providence for the work entrusted to their care, both were led by nature along the rugged path of poverty; both formed a character whose foundations were laid broad and deep in the purest truths of morality—a character which stood unshaken amid the terrors of war and the tranquillity of peace; a character which allowed neither cowardice upon the battle-field nor tyranny in the presidential chair. Thus did they win the hearts of their countrymen and prepare for themselves a lasting place of rest in the tender memories of a grateful people.
History but voices our own experience when it awards to true nobility of character the highest place among the enviable possessions of man. Nor is it the gift of fortune. In this, at least, we are not creatures of circumstances; talent, special genius may be the gift of nature; position in society the gift of birth; respect may be bought with wealth; but neither one nor all of these can give character. It is a slow but sure growth to which every thought and action lends its aid. To form character is to form grooves in which are to flow the purposes of our lives. It is to adopt principles which are to be the measure of our actions, the criteria of our deeds. This we are doing each day, either consciously or unconsciously. There is character formed by our association with each friend, by every aspiration of the heart, by every object toward which our affections go out, yea, by every thought that flies on its lightning wing through the dark recesses of the brain.
It is a law of mind that it acts most readily in familiar paths, hence, repetition forms habit, and almost before we are aware, we are chained to a certain routine of action from which it is difficult to free ourselves. We imitate that which we admire. If we revel in stories of blood, and are pleased with the sight of barbaric cruelty, we find it easy to become a Caligula or a Domitian; we picture to ourselves scenes of cruelty in which we are actors, and soon await only the opportunity to vie in atrocity with the Neroes of the past.
If we delight in gossip, and are not content unless each neighbor is laid upon the dissecting table, we form a character unenviable indeed, and must be willing to bear the contempt of all the truly good, while we roll our bit of scandal as a sweet morsel under the tongue.
But if each day we gather some new truths, plant ourselves more firmly upon principles which are eternal, guard every thought and action, that it may be pure, and conform our lives more nearly to that Perfect Model, we shall form a character that will be a fit background on which to paint the noblest deeds and the grandest intellectual and moral achievements; a character that cannot be concealed, but which will bring success in this life and form the best preparation for that which is beyond.
The formation of character is a work which continues through life, but at no time is it so active as in youth and early manhood. At this time impressions are most easily made, and mistakes most easily corrected. It is the season for the sowing of the seed—the springtime of life. There is no complaint in the natural world because each fruit and herb brings forth after its kind; there is no complaint if a neglected seed-time brings a harvest of want; there is no cry of injustice if thistles spring from thistle-seed sown. As little reason have we to murmur if in after-life we discover a character dwarfed and deformed by the evil thoughts and actions of today; as little reason have we to impeach the wisdom of God if our wild oats, as they are called in palliation, leave scars upon our manhood, which years of reform fail to wear away.
Character is the entity, the individuality of the person, shining from every window of the soul, either as a beam of purity, or as a clouded ray that betrays the impurity within. The contest between light and darkness, right and wrong, goes on; day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, our characters are being formed, and this is the all-important question which comes to us in accents ever growing fainter as we journey from the cradle to the grave, "Shall those characters be good or bad?"