Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard
PHI BETA KAPPA.
ELOQUENT ORATION BY THE HON. CARL SCHURZ.
Yesterday forenoon the annual meeting of the Harvard chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society occurred in Boylston hall, with President Joseph H. Choate in the chair. The result of the election of officers was as follows: President, Joseph H. Choate of New York; vice-president, Theodore Lyman of Brookline; corresponding secretary, William G. Hale of Cornell University; treasurer, H. G. Denny. The following honorary members were also elected: George L. Baxter, '63; Francis B. Gummere, '75; Dr. Edward Waldo Emerson, '66; James Herbert Morse, '63; Professor C. H. Toy. The literary committee is as follows: G. M. Lane, E. L. Godkin, Alexander McKenzie, C. L. Smith, A. S. Hill, William G. Hale. The following were chosen a committee on nominations for next year, William G. Hale, A.P. Peabody, H. G. Denny, J. B. Thayer, Alexander McKenzie, C. L. Smith, C. B. Bowditch.
Discussion ensued over the proposition to send delegates to the national convention of the society at Saratoga, September 6, and finally the following were appointed without power to commit the chapter: Colonel T. W. Higginson, the Rev. O. B. Frothingham and George Dexter. It was reported inexpedient to limit the membership to twenty-five from each class.
The application of the University of Illinois and University of California for chapters were tabled. The committee on by-laws reported inexpedient to make any change as requested by the class of '81.
At a little past twelve o'clock the procession, under Chief Marshal C. J. Hubbard, and headed by the Germania band, marched to the Sanders Theatre. The younger classes led and the orator of the day, — the Hon. Carl Schurz, — escorted by the president of the society, brought up the rear of a long line of college officers and graduates. On reaching the entrance the procession opened to the right and left, the rear end passed into the hall first, and the whole body entered in the order of the procession reversed. All of Sanders Theatre was open to the public except the level seats in the centre, and these were occupied by the members of the society. Veteran members of the society had seats on the platform. After the audience had come to order, prayer was offered by the Rev. E. B. Hall of Cambridge, and then Mr. Choate presented the Hon. Carl Schurz. He was most warmly received and spoke as follows:
Mr. President, and Brothers of the Phi Beta Kappa: — When, as a younger man, I read, for the first time, the history of the New England colonies, none of the many stirring passages struck me as more peculiarly significant and touching than this: Only sixteen years after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, the settlers of Massachusetts “thought upon a college.” The General Court of the Colony voted to give the sum of £400 toward that end. Two years later one John Harvard bequeathed to the college half his fortune and his whole library, consisting of three hundred volumes. The income of the ferry between Boston and Charlestown was also bestowed on it as a permanent revenue. Subsequently Connecticut and Plymouth and the towns in the east “often contributed little offerings to promote its success; once, at least, every family in each of the colonies gave to the college at Cambridge twelve pence, or a peck of corn, or its value in unadulterated wampumpeag.” And some years after the establishment of the college it was ordered in all the Puritan colonies “that every township, after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty householders, shall appoint one to teach all children to write and read; and where any town shall increase to the number of one hundred families, they shall set up a grammar school, the master thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university.”
For what end, I asked myself, did those men under such circumstances want a college? What made them think of a university? Seeking the salvation of their souls, the colonists had first to struggle against the starvation of their bodies. They were just emerging from the first terrible trials and hardships of the early settler's life. They were just beginning to look into the future with some hope and confidence. A modest prosperity, or what appeared like prosperity after their first sufferings, seemed to be just dawning upon them. Still the necessities of the day claimed all the labor of their hands and the ingenuity and resolution of their minds. The first Indian war in New England was hanging over them. The security of their settlements depended upon their prudence, watchfulness and energy. Hoes and ploughs, horses and cattle, corn-fields and cabins, block houses and guns, seemed to be far more needful to them as yet than mathematics and classics, grammar schools and universities. But it was in the very midst of such labors, cares and danger that they “thought upon a college,” and thus Harvard University was born, and the New England system of common schools and popular education had its beginning.
Was it not a profound and keen instinct that inspired this early creation; and instinct which in fact reached far beyond the actual needs of the day and of the generation then living? The Puritan colonists were not republicans in theory, but they were democrats in spirit and by force of circumstances. They began the building up of a commonwealth of which they felt that the government could only be that of the people. For the order, safety and growth of that commonwealth they depended not upon any extraneous power, but upon the strength that was in them and that was to be in their posterity. At the very time when the college was founded their apprehension of Old World interference with the concerns of their new home had suggested the first thought of an independent union in New England. They wanted to stand on their own feet. They wanted real self-government. Did not their instinctive foresight tell them that this would be a government of public opinion, and that, to be safe under all circumstances, it must be one of instructed public opinion?
It may indeed well be asked whether, situated as they then were, general, and especially higher education was needed for the building up and maintenance of democratic government among them. No community in history ever developed itself more naturally in that direction. They had fled from religious persecution and sought a place of freedom for at least their form of worship. Their religious ideas abhorred inequality of rights, at least among themselves, whatever they may have thought of the rights of others who were not of them. Their condition of society was essentially democratic. They were all virtually depending upon their steady exertions for existence. The differences of fortune among them were not large enough to produce great differences in the mode of life. There were no idlers among them. All had to work, and all work was equally respected. They practiced frugality and self-denial, not only from principle, but from necessity. It was not only their religious spirit, enforcing a severe censorship of private morals, but also their dependence on one another for the maintenance of the order and safety of the Commonwealth, that kept alive their rugged domestic and public virtue. All had the same stake in the community. All were bound to it by the ties of identical interest and feeling, and all felt, therefore, equally called upon to take part in its organization and management. Even the religious bigotry of the times and their peculiar intolerance of sect which only a few enlightened minds among them, like Roger Williams and Sir Harry Vane, had shaken off, could lead only to temporary inconsistencies, but it could not prevent, nor even long impede, the growing up of pure democracies in the colonies of New England, the purest democracies probably, that ever existed in history.
It is an interesting question, not only whether a community so constituted and situated really needed a system of general, and especially of higher education for its immediate tasks, but also whether it might not have gone on for several generations without seriously feeling the want of it for the orderly working of its democratic institutions. Probably there would have been no such need so long as the condition of society maintained its original simplicity; as everybody remained at work; as the relations between man and man were not changed by great inequalities of fortune, and as frugality of habit and domestic virtue remained the general rule. History knows of more than one community of rough tillers of the soil and artisans, and small traders, who maintained in orderly and successful working, barring occasional turmoils, a democratic social and political organization without any effective system of popular organization without any effective system of popular or of higher education to open to them wider fields of inquiry and invention, or to aid them in the solution of problems of government.
But the founders of Harvard University and of the common-school system of New England did not think only of the circumstances under which they lived at the time. They were men who had the instinct of the future for which they planted. And of that future, which has grown much greater than they could foresee and imagine, we form part. The question of what immediate necessity and importance their educational creation was to them at the time dwindles into insignificance compared with the question of what necessity and importance it is to us now. And, as I am now addressing many who from the quiet of studious preparation are about to enter the active contests of the world, it seems a fit occasion for a rapid survey of what the world at this moment looks like. I shall attempt this in a plain, sober way, without any effort at oratorical ornament. Let us listen for a moment to those political thinkers, most of whom are speaking to us from abroad, who, while recognizing the naturalness of the growth of democratic republican government from the original condition of society in the American colonies, are in the habit of expressing grave doubts as to its durability. So far, they say, you have succeeded tolerably well, notwithstanding your great civil war. You have grown rich and powerful, and your republican government stands. It may and probably will continue to stand as long as there are large bodies of virgin soil to receive the overflow of population, where the poor may find a chance to become independent property-holders. So long as this safety-valve exists, the growing differences of fortune and condition, and the gradual formation of social classes antagonistic to one another will not produce their most dangerous effects. But when that stock of virgin lands has passed into private ownership; when the poor find themselves confronted with the same difficulties with which they have to struggle in older countries, while the rich relentlessly use their advantages to increase their wealth, — all the more relentlessly as the accumulation of riches will have bred habits of profligate luxury and insatiable selfish indulgence, — what then? Will not the poor, seeing the avenue to prosperous independence, formerly open, now blocked, will they not remember that, in universal suffrage, they possess the power which democratic institutions vest in numbers, and will they not use that power to upset the rights of property, to strip the rich, and thus to possess themselves of what they may desire? Will not that lead to rapacious abuses of power, to reckless policies of conquest and robbery, and to wild and interminable convulsions? And will your political system have conservative force, and your corrupted society moral strength enough, to resist such tendencies and commotions, and to prevent them from breaking down your constitutional fabric and from turning your republican government into every conceivable form of revolutionary despotism? Is it not to be feared, as Macaulay expressed it, that “there will be spoliation; that spoliation will increase the distress; that the distress will produce fresh spoliation; that there is nothing to stop you, and that your Constitution is all sail and no anchor?”
There was a time when such questions would have been simply referred to the American eagle, and when the answer in good old Fourth-of-July fashion would have been that the political philosophers who trouble themselves with such fears do not understand this country, this country being the most extraordinary country that ever was. Now, in many respects, no doubt this is true. But I trust all sensible Americans are now more disposed seriously to inquire in what respects it is and in what respects it is not true.
In fact, while we have not reached the development pointed out by the prophets of danger, a great change in our condition has indeed taken place. Look at the contrast. The small colonies, in the infancy of one of which this university was planted, have meanwhile expanded into a great empire. Its population, diversified in its character by a constant stream of immigrants, now counts twice as many millions as that of New England then counted thousands. In the place of scattered settlements struggling for modest prosperity there are populous and magnificent cities busy with immense commercial and industrial activity; harbors crowded with the ships of all nations (except our own) [laughter and applause], for we have ingeniously managed to kill American maritime commerce by means of laws [applause]; the banks of our streams alive with factories; our mines pouring forth rivers of coal and iron and copper and silver and gold; our agriculture able to feed the world; our wealth growing with unprecedented rapidity, beginning to challenge the riches empires of the world — all this standing in as glaring a contrast to the modest beginnings as the Rome of the Cæsars stood to the republic of Cincinnatus. This is glorious, no doubt, and so far the American eagle has it his own way. Now turn to another side of the picture.
The ancient equality of social condition which prevailed in the New England colonies has given way to new relations between man and man. New methods of production and of transportation have caused enormous combinations of capital and increased the power of wealth on one side, while seemingly threatening the independence of the worker on the other. Real and imaginary antagonisms between classes are beginning to disquiet society. The feeling of an identity of interests, formerly shared by all members of the community, is gradually disappearing. With the accumulation of wealth the old simplicity of life and frugality of habit have ceased to be general. We see the overgrown millionnaire by the side of millions of men toiling for subsistence; the luxury of the palace exciting the envy not only of struggling poverty, but also of impatient greed; a feverish chase after riches gradually invading all walks of life and unsettling the integrity of the government as well as of society; the trickery and power of selfish organization trying to supplant public opinion in the conduct of public affairs — all this creating new problems and new complications and conflicts the simple-minded forefathers knew not of.
Certainly we have not reached the point of danger indicated by the prophets of evil. There is still ample room for many more millions of people in our vast boundaries. The productive capacity of our land is still far from touching its limit. Comfort and independence are still within the reach of all who have but little more than sturdy arms and willingness to work. In spite of the disturbing influences that have grown up the great body of our people are still uncorrupted in their habits of life, proudly loyal to their political institutions, devoted to good order and conservative in their aspirations. The dangers predicted appear, therefore, at least still a good distance ahead of us; but after all, is it not a fact that we are gradually moving in a direction which will bring us in the course of time face to face with things which in the modest past were not thought of? It is in vain to look back upon that past with sentimental regret for the “good old times” which are gone and can never return. What we see before us, be it good or evil in appearance, is the natural consequence of a development such as this country was bound to have, with a field of labor, resources and opportunities so great, with a population so ingenious, restless and energetic, with rewards of enterprise so certain, rapid and abundant. And so we are bound to go on. The treasures of our soil will be brought to light in increasing richness. Our means for the creation of wealth will be more and more perfected by science and mechanical invention. Our modern methods of production and communication still further developed and applied to larger fields, will bring on still more powerful associations of capital. The accumulation of wealth will at least threaten to produce still greater inequalities in its distribution, and the formation of social classes upon more distinct lines of difference as to condition and interest. Growing wealth cannot fail to affect powerfully the habits of society, the aspirations of those who have it as well as of those who have it not. New social influences and new forms of political contest will spring up. With our physical power will grow at the same time the temptation to enlarge our fields for the acquisition of wealth by conquest.
These things are inevitable. This is the direction in which we are moving, and this movement brings a question before us which involves the whole future of the republic. It is the question how with these forces working upon the social condition, the ways of thinking, the habits and morals, the ambitions and the internal relations of the people — how with all this our democratic institutions can be preserved as an agency and safeguard of justice, order, peace, liberty, progress and happiness. This question cannot too soon and too seriously occupy the minds of all thoughtful and patriotic Americans. In the first place let us see how far that movement has already carried us. We have been in the habit, when hearing of socialism and communism, to say with a smile of lofty superiority: “Well, such things may frighten timid souls in the effete monarchies of Europe; but in this country people are too busy getting rich and feeling too comfortable to trouble themselves about such fantastic nonsense.” This would have been the almost universal judgment only twenty years ago. Now, it is true today, that the imported article of revolutionary state-socialism with its red flag and its dreams of a millenium to be brought about by first blowing up all existing things with tin cans of dynamite, whereupon the omnipotent state is to feed us all with a spoon, does not find the American a very congenial atmosphere. The cleverest of the importers soon drop it as an article of faith, although some of them may keep it for small knots of youthful customers who are fond of admiring themselves for uncommon thoroughness and general superiority in their plans to reorganize the universe. This kind of socialism does not thrive among us. Neither do I think that the theory set forth by Mr. Henry George in his brilliantly written book, “Progress and Poverty,” the theory, namely, that private property in land must be abolished for the salvation of society, will find any lodgment in this country. It will certainly not as long as the number of the holders of landed property in endless subdivisions remains as large in proportion as it is now and as it promises to be here for an indefinite future. Such theories can be patent only in countries of large landed estates and a pauper rural population. Mr. George has therefore sagaciously chosen Ireland as his field of agitation, where the landlords have already been informed through Mr. Gladstone's recent Irish land act that if they believe their Irish estates are property in the sense that the owners can do with it whatever they please they are mistaken. The time is, perhaps, rapidly approaching when like information will be served upon the landlords of England and Scotland. From us here this form of the problem appears very far off.
But there are other things of which we may well ask ourselves what they mean. There are the colossal combinations of capital I have mentioned on one side, and on the other the colossal and constantly growing organizations of working men, who from time to time startle the country with their concerted strikes and other demonstrations of a common will, endeavoring to force organized capital engaged in industrial production to yield to labor a proportion of the proceeds, such as labor considers its just and equitable share. There are the tremendously powerful railroad and telegraph corporations on the one side, and on the other the so-called anti-monopoly movements, which for a time strongly agitated our agricultural population, and now constantly spring up in a variety of forms — evidently gathering force, not from the skill or wisdom of their leaders, but from a deep-seated and wide-spread feeling that the power of the large corporate bodies controlling the means of transportation has grown so great as to oblige the people to look for protection against its arbitrary exercise. What does all this mean? Does it not mean that the laborers say to the capitalists engaged in industrial production virtually this: “If you think that these factories and implements of production are your own exclusive private property in the sense that you can do with them whatever you please, to make them pay you a maximum of profit while leaving to the laborers who help to produce that profit only a minimum of compensation, you disregard our rights which we are bound to protect?” Does it not mean that the producers and consumers say to the transportation corporations: “If you think that your railroads are your private property in the sense that you can manage them so as to make us pay any price for a service we cannot do without, or so as to arbitrarily benefit one place or person to the injury of another, we must find means to teach you that we have some rights in that property, too?”
Now, this may have a startling sound. But these are not imported fancies. These are movements and endeavors grown upon our own soil from existing circumstances, not born of fantastic theories but of facts. Neither will they be mere seven days' wonders. There are undoubtedly many ill-advised and also sometimes very reprehensible things connected with the conduct of these movements; but they will live and grow until that which is really just in their demands is fairly won. They are even likely to take a wider range. It will not be surprising at all to see some day a movement set on foot to put an end to the operations of the modern robber barons who by corporate rascality supplemented with tricks of the stock exchange manage to plunder at will not only their fellow gamblers, but the innocent bona fide investors in corporate enterprises — doing it all within the forms of law woven into ingenious meshes from which there is no escape. You may have read in the last number of the Atlantic Monthly a charming story, strikingly in point, of a philanthropic mouse-trap inventor so skilful in his operations that he may catch you all if he lives long enough.
There are some of the problems which the modern methods of production and communication and financial business, together with the rapid creation of wealth, have brought upon us, — problems which the good old Puritan fathers never dreamed of, for which our old political forms and doctrines furnish no ready solution, and which, to some extent at least, seem to withdraw themselves from the laws that are the boast of modern political economy; problems not only perplexing but possibly becoming dangerous, be it by ignorance, impatience or mischievous demagoguery on the side of those who agitate them, or be it by a narrow-minded, short-sighted conservatism, or a selfish greed resisting beyond reasonable measure a solution just to all.
But we have to consider another thing of scarcely less importance. It is the effect produced by the accumulation of wealth upon the habits, the tone, the morals of society. In this respect we have already been able to gather some valuable experiences. In this country only a small proportion of the wealth accumulated in single hands is what may be called old family wealth. Most of it is of recent acquisition, those who possess it having grown up from small beginnings, either through honest industry and far-seeing enterprise, or through good fortune with a small degree of merit, or through unscrupulous operations.
As a general thing it may be said that wealth acquired by honest industry is apt to carry self-denial and public spirit with it. Men who have risen from very modest circumstances will but in rare cases lose their sympathy with the class of society to which they once belonged. Many of them will not only remain simple and frugal in their habits, but also keep alive in their hearts a sense of obligation to the community in which they enjoyed fortunate opportunities, and whose combined progressive energy, facilitated the growth of their own prosperity, — a consciousness, in other words, that their own wealth in a certain sense does not altogether belong to themselves alone. This is the source, or at least the principal one of the sources, of that splendid public spirit for which this country is justly renowned.
Look at the munificent donations for our colleges, for our libraries, for the elevation of the lowly, for the support and comfort of the afflicted, at all those princely gifts in aid of all kinds of private and public benefaction, which have done so much for the common welfare and for the honor of the American name — from whom did they come? A large majority of them from men who by their own honorable exertions and enterprise had risen from poverty to affluence. There are exceptions, of course, but not enough to impeach the rule. And most of those exceptions are found in this neighborhood, where, I trust, the good old tradition that no rich man can die a decent death without leaving a large sum of money for the college will never fall into disuse. [Laughter and applause.]
On the other hand, who are the rich men, who, in the operations and enterprises their large means enable them to undertake, are in the habit of using their superior advantages, with hard, merciless selfishness, looking upon all within their reach as mere victims to be plundered, without any thought of what good they might do, and without any remorse at the evil they are doing? And who are those who by vulgar display and profligate self-indulgence endanger public and private morals through vicious example and influence? In most cases persons who acquired their wealth by unscrupulous tricks of spoliation, or they are the fast young men who inherited their riches from their fathers. Again, there are exceptions, but scarcely enough to make the rule doubtful.
It cannot be denied that while a large number of our rich people still belong to the first class, the second is constantly growing in numbers as well as in influence. The effect is two-fold. First, as simple and virtuous habits of life, uprightness in their business conduct and a benevolent public spirit on the part of the wealthy softens the antagonisms that may spring up between the rich and the poor, so hard selfishness in the use of large means and ostentatious profligacy in the enjoyment of them aggravate and embitter those antagonisms. And, secondly, profligate luxury on the part of the rich is apt to have a demoralising influence upon the whole social body. That influence is much more dangerous in a society organized upon democratic principles than in a society with aristocratic institutions and traditions. In the latter, the lower social classes being separated from the aristocracy by an almost insuperable barrier of rank, and not feeling themselves its equal, are less liable to be contaminated by its example. They may even regard certain vices as an aristocratic privilege, and so it has happened, that the aristocracy of a country became in a high degree profligate and rotten, while the other social orders remained morally sound.
But in a democratic society like ours, everybody feels himself everybody else's equal, at least in his rights. We have no legal or traditional barriers separating social classes. The lines of division between different conditions are only accidental. What one man has or enjoys, every one else considers not the possessor's privilege, but a legitimate object of his own aspirations. The influences which work upon one part of society are not by any fixed wall of division shut off from the others. There is, therefore, nothing except wise self-restraint to keep those who are not rich from yielding to the temptation of doing as much as possible as the rich do, and of appearing as they appear. The result of all this is that in a democratic country large accumulation of wealth ill employed will at the same time tend to demoralize society and to develop the germs of dangerous antagonisms between its different classes or conditions. The effect produced by the seductive example of wealth displaying itself in extravagant luxury is an often told story. It is undoubtedly true that a very large portion of our people has so far been untouched, or at least been very little touched, by these dangerous influences. And yet the number of families in the cities who live far beyond their means in order to do as the rich do, depending upon all sorts of shifts and tricks to keep up appearances, until ruin overtakes them, is by no means small. It has been estimated that the average duration of the fashionable glory of households on Fifth avenue in New York is about five years. Then most of them disappear in obscure misery, sometimes after a flash of more disgraceful notoriety in consequence of desperate attempts to mend their fortunes. But even our rural folk have not quite escaped the contamination. We may regard as a sign of the times the constantly-growing number of young men born and bred on farms who grow tired of agricultural labor and seclusion and wander away from their country homes to seek their fortunes in the cities, where they think they can prosper and live like men of means without hard work. We observe a growing tendency among our young people generally to abandon those walks of life which demand arduous exertion, especially physical labor, and to seek occupations by which they expect to get rich quickly in a more speculative way, in the meantime wearing fine clothes and keeping their hands white and playing the nice young men, not seldom assuming the appearance and indulging in the enjoyments or affluence before they can even hope to have it. It is a well-known fact that the mechanical trades are more and more deserted by the native element and have to look to immigration for recruitment. All these are symptoms of a spreading distemper.
It seems, therefore, that there is after all some truth in the predictions of the unwelcome prophets, although they may not on the whole understand this country and its people. A great change has indeed taken place from the simple conditions of the early days, magnificent and glorious in some respects, but disquieting in others. New relations between man and man, new social influences, new complications, new antagonisms have grown up, somewhat perplexing already, but threatening to become more perplexing still, as we approach the time when the wilderness ceases to be a wilderness, and when our population, so far accustomed to large elbow room, begins to be crowded and cramped in its movements and to have no longer within easy reach fields and pastures new.
The next question suggested by the political philosophers who are troubled about the future of this republic is whether our political system has conservative force, and our social condition moral strength enough to prevent the tendencies and commotions likely to grow out of these changed conditions from becoming dangerous and destructive. This question is of vital importance. Whatever changes may have taken place, one thing has remained unaltered. The will of the people is still the source of all political power. That power is exercised by the suffrage common to all, rich and poor, educated and ignorant. That suffrage is governed in each individual case by opinion, variously affected by different influences and interests. The contests of opinion are decided by the greatest number. The laws of the land indeed provide that under certain circumstances questions submitted to the suffrage may be decided by mere pluralities or by constructive majorities. But it is substantially the greatest number that is to rule. The rule of the opinion of the greatest number through the suffrage with us means something different from what is called by the same name in other countries. In France too, they have universal suffrage. But the government of France is a strongly centralized government which has at its disposal an immense administrative machinery, with its controlling hand governing the smallest community in the land, and a large standing army at the command of the central power; and public opinion is, in a very great measure, determined and organized at the seat of that central power. This power acts as a restraining and coercive force, be it for good or evil, and although it is subject to revolutionary changes, it has so far always emerged again from periods of confusion virtually as strong as before. In Germany they have universal suffrage, but the monarchy is so stable and so strongly intrenched in tradition, as well as in bayonets and artillery, that when it cannot direct public opinion it can resist it.
In England, while the suffrage is not universal, the government is really controlled by a public opinion expressing itself in a majority of votes. But although the suffrage is not confined to the wealthy and educated, the wealthy and educated are virtually intrusted with the execution of its verdict. It is indeed no longer the aristocracy that enjoys that privilege, but the plutocracy; not birth but property. By the reform acts of 1832 and 1867, the suffrage has indeed been diffused among many. But the many still look up with traditional reverence to the few for the exercise of their power. The lower classes may want to be represented in the government, but in a vast majority of cases they are satisfied, they even prefer, to be represented by a man of the upper class. When they decide with their ballots between candidates, they decide only which of two or more rich men it shall be. The poor may want, and even urge and insist that certain things be done, but they leave the doing of those things to the rich, who do them according to their lights and very much in their way. Among the middle and lower classes in England “the sneaking affection for a lord” is by no means dead. The reform act of 1867 may not have developed its full effects yet, but those it has developed have not materially changed this state of things.
But in this republic there is no strong central power that can effectually control or resist the will of the greatest number when it asserts itself. There is no social class to which any other looks up with traditional veneration and deference. Here everybody feels himself as good as anybody else. Here the masses have from generation to generation been accustomed to the exercise of political power in their own right and in their own way, — at least in the way they tolerate, if they do not in every respect specifically direct it. Here the opinion of the masses, in the broadest sense of the term; the way in which they feel and think or understand their interests, or misunderstand them, as the case may be, expressed in the greatest number of votes, are the real power that controls the government. And that power creates its own executive to carry out its decrees. And when that power is well organized, and with great determination bent upon carrying out certain objects, it may upset or override the laws, and it may break through the Constitution when it finds them in its way.
It is this power that will have to carry the republic through the complex problems and conflicts of interests which grow from our changed condition, under circumstances perhaps much more difficult than the present, and it will depend upon what wisdom, justice, moderation and self-restraint this power possesses, how it will succeed in solving and composing those problems and conflicts. Now, it is likely to possess those qualities? Is it true, as has been said, that it lacks the conservative balance-wheel? Is it true that it is like a ship “all sail and no anchor?”
Here the prophets of evil show that they really do not understand this country, or at least do not appreciate the most important and characteristic feature of its political life. For, the conservative balance-wheel consists in the very thing which they look upon with fear as the source of destructive commotion. That conservative element is popular discussion with power to act; that is, discussion connected with the power of the people and with the opportunity to carry the evolutions evolved from it into practical effect. Those communities or States in which discussion preliminary to action is most open, most general and most habitual, have in fact proved the most exempt from revolutionary commotion. A man may be ever so stubbornly bent upon a certain purpose — when the regular order of things obliges him to discuss it, he will have to hear the other side; when he has to hear the other side, he has to concede to those on the other side, not that their opinion is right, but that they have a right to their opinion. This is the spirit of tolerance. [Applause.] And when that man fails in convincing the other side, or in coming to an agreement with it, or is outvoted by it, he will remember that where discussion prevails, nothing is finally and forever concluded, and that what is resolved upon today, although it must be submitted to for the time, may be discussed again and then with the light of more experience and perhaps a better chance for him. This is the spirit of patience, peace and order. Discussion brings out complaints and grievances, unsparing criticism of existing things, and fresh thoughts, new ideas, plans of improvement, and induces the popular mind to consider them. Thus it is a progressive force. Discussion with power to act imposes upon those who try to make their opinions prevail with a view to practical effect the responsible duty of ascertaining whether those opinions are suited to the ideas of the times, to the common understanding to existing conditions, and thus, whether under existing circumstances and with the means at hand, they have a chance of being successfully carried out. Thus discussion prevents dangerous jumps in progressive movements; it fosters the sense of responsibility, and becomes a restraining and conservative force. And when discussion is what it should be, it is the most reliable, restraining and conservative force yet discovered by political philosophers. [Applause.]
I am far from saying that free discussion gives absolute command of the field to the wise men. On the contrary, it also calls out the fools and the mischief-makers. But it makes them less dangerous than they otherwise would be, just by calling them out and making them show how foolish and mischievous they are. But it is essential to this end that they be there confronted by the wise men. Neither do I assert that the conclusions evolved by discussion are always the wisest. Not at all. Sometimes they appear strangely deficient in point of foresight and completeness. But frequently they contain as much wisdom as the popular mind, affected as it is by a variety of influences and interests, is able to agree upon and is willing to accept. And in most cases that indicates the limit of immediate practicability, not, however, shutting out further action in the future. In this connection it may be said, without disrespect, that in this grand republic of ours we seldom do anything upon a thoroughly digested, systematic and complete plan. Usually we just stumble along; but we have good sense enough, not always, but in most cases, to stumble in the right direction. [Laughter and applause.] Not all, and perhaps not many, nations can say that.
Neither do I pretend that countries that are governed by discussion are entirely exempt from revolutionary commotions. We have had our great civil war. But that may be looked upon as an exception for two weighty reasons. First, the slavery question was by the most powerful interested party excluded from discussion on the spot. Slavery was discussed in the North, where it did not exist; but it was not permitted to be discussed in the South, where it did exist. And, secondly, the slavery question involved interests that were geographically limited, and the people of the North and the people of the South, holding opposite views on slavery, were geographically divided; they lived apart and did not, therefore, enjoy that opportunity and habit of a free and candid exchange of opinions and sentiments which is necessary to give to discussion its full effect as an agency of peace. But for these circumstances it is not unlikely that the slavery question would have been peaceably disposed of, and we might have become a nation of freemen without a war
We observe a similar thing in Great Britain with regard to the Irish question. There is the same circumstance of geographical division, and also the same disinclination to discuss the matter on the side of one of the interested parties. There never has been a fair and frank discussion of the Irish question between England and Ireland. When you speak to a full-blooded Englishman about Ireland he does not want to discuss — he wants to swear. [Laughter.] And when one Englishman shows himself inclined fairly to discuss it the other Englishmen feel like swearing. at him. The consequence is riot and bloodshed in Ireland and the constant smoldering of revolutionary fires, threatening to break out in destructive flame. These exceptions rather prove the rule.
It is evident, however, that discussion, in order to perform its office as a progressive and, at the same time, peaceful, restraining, conservative force, must have two important attributes — it must be general and it must be intelligent. It must be general in the sense that it should draw within the reach of its influence all classes and conditions of society. This is necessary to prevent the recurrence of such dangerous exceptional cases as I have mentioned. In this respect there is a tendency in the “labor movement” which deserves attention. The modern methods of industrial production have, indeed, not geographically separated the industrial laboring population from the rest of society, but they have caused large concentrations of laboring people in certain places. At the same time, by the conspicuously powerful combinations of capital on one side, the laboring people on the other have been impressed with the idea that they have peculiar, separate interests and claims which the strongest influences in the rest of society are not disposed to respect, unless forced to do so. This has, not unnaturally at all, produced among them an inclination to regard themselves to some extent, and to organize themselves, as a separate community, within the community, animated by a feeling that they have to reason from points of view, and have to protect their rights and attain their ends by means different from the points of view held and from the means used by other people. This feeling has been intensified, if not embittered, by the large accumulations of wealth in single hands, and by the use made of that wealth by some of its possessors. This is evidently not a wholesome state of things. I am far from blaming the laboring people for it, for they have in many cases undoubtedly had very just cause of complaint. It should not be forgotten that they are constantly harrassed by the urgency of their daily necessities. They have only one thing to sell: their labor. This they must sell every day in order to live. They cannot, like the capitalist, temporize and wait for the best chance. This being calculated to inspire them with a class-feeling, it is clearly demanded not by the interests of the laboring people alone, but by the interests of society in general, that all reason and excuse for such an attitude of separateness be removed. The laboring men must be made to feel, not by mere hollow pretence, but by a sincere and candid consideration of their rightful claims, that there is as strong a disposition outside of their own ranks as within them to understand their grievances and to see justice done, and that their interests can, therefore, confide themselves as safely as others to that discussion which in this republic regulates everything. This can be accomplished if the press and our ablest public men will devote more serious attention to the real merits of this class of questions, instead of treating them with haughty indifference or in the way of mere vote-catching demagoguery. The second attribute discussion should have is that it be intelligent. This sounds like a truism. What I mean is, not that discussion should be carried on only by wise and learned men, but that it should be calculated to make those who take part in it and who listen to it wiser and more learned than they were before. It must have the benefit of knowledge and of the capacity of receiving knowledge. It must bring the highest and best instructed intellects in the country into contact with the lower, so that they may act upon one another, the higher intellects to indicate in what direction we should go, and the lower to show us how far in the direction indicated we can go without leaving the masses behind. It is needless to say that as the condition of society becomes more complicated and the problems to be solved more difficult and perplexing, a larger and better instructed intelligence is required for leadership and a quicker and keener faculty of understanding in the popular mind.
To provide for this constantly growing need is the business of education in the largest sense, which acts upon the moral perception of man through his intellectual development. When I speak of education in the largest sense as applied to a whole people, I do not mean that higher elementary popular education alone which our system of common schools affords to all, nor do I mean that higher education alone which our colleges and universities and the contact with the civilization of other countries gives to the favored few — but I mean both together: the elementary popular education which does not impart a high degree of knowledge and culture itself, but makes, or should make, men open, accessible, susceptible to the influence of superior knowledge and culture when they come in contact with it; and that higher education which enables and incites, or should enable and incite, those to whom it imparts superior knowledge and culture, to make their influence felt among others who have not had the same advantages, and thus to impress itself upon society at large, its ways of thinking, habits and tastes, and thus upon the public opinion which controls its public life and its government.
And here we may pause to look back again with gratitude upon the instinctive wisdom of the forefathers who, two hundred and fifty years ago, when just emerging from the first miseries and struggles of the early settlers' life, at the same time “thought upon a college” and devised a system of common schools. Under circumstances when popular and higher education were comparatively little needed for the then existing wants of society, they laid the foundation for both upon which they could develop for the time when they are needed very much. I repeat, in view of the requirements of our time and condition, neither elementary popular education nor higher education alone is sufficient for the end to be reached, but the cooperation of the two. All education, to be efficient, must serve three objects: First, to impart certain specific knowledge; second, to stimulate the desire to learn more; and third, to teach the mind of the pupil how to satisfy that desire, how to go on learning more after the regular school time is past. The instruction which any common school system can give to the masses of the people as to specific knowledge, is necessarily very limited. But if it were far less limited, popular education would fail to perform its most important office if it failed so to conduct that instruction as to stimulate the desire to learn, and to teach how to learn things which cannot be taught at school. It must aim rather to quicken than to fill the brain. Instead of merely cramming the memory, it must endeavor so to train, practise, discipline and inspire the mind that it may become observing, active, inquisitive, receptive, and thus easily accessible to those instructive and elevating influences which may afterward, in contact with men and things, be brought to bear upon it. [Applause.] Popular education will thus enable the masses of the people, to whom more extensive and higher instruction is unattainable, to follow the progress of civilization and to become an active part of it. In this respect I may say, by the way, the manner of teaching in many of our public schools is seriously defective. The memorizing method, which has justly been called an invention for the propagation of human stupidity [applause], is still here and there doing its murderous work. One of the causes of this undoubtedly is that much of the teaching is done by ill-prepared and immature persons, who teach what they themselves scarcely understand, and hide their incapacity behind the intrenchments of the text books. The mere formal prescription of more rational methods is, therefore, not alone sufficient. It must be accompanied with the employment of able and well-trained teachers, who can make such methods their own. There has, unquestionably, been great improvement in this respect in very many places, and that improvement will spread as “teaching school” ceases to be looked upon as a mere temporary makeshift for young persons to bridge over certain periods in their lives when they cannot find more profitable employment. [Applause.] The business of teaching should be looked upon and treated as a profession, aye, as one of the most honorable and important of all professions, and persons of ability and ambition should be encouraged to prepare themselves for and to stay in that profession, not only be social regard, but also by simple remuneration. [Applause.] A despotic government may think it consistent with its aims to starve the schoolmaster. A republic, whose government is controlled by the opinion of the people, will disgrace as well as endanger itself if it fails to respect and support him. The more this is done — and I am happy to say it is beginning to be done in a measure — the more will the public school fulfill its vital mission in the republic; to make the people not only a knowing, but a learning and an actively thinking people.
As to higher education, such as is or should be afforded by our colleges and universities, we cannot possibly have too large a conception of its objects, considering the needs of democratic society. It goes without saying that those objects are not exhausted by cramming students' heads with the knowledge required for the drudgery of some profession or other calling; and still less by giving young snobs that veneering which may enable them to masquerade as superior beings in the circles of fashionable superficiality. [Applause.] The same general principle applies to the college as to the elementary school, only in a larger sense. The college can give its students more, but after all only a little share of the general store of knowledge. But while giving them only a little of the ore that is in the mine, it can show them the gleaming veins of precious treasure, and furnish them the tools and teach them the use of those tools with which to work the lode. This will quicken their ambition to keep those tools effectively at work after the college days are over. That is the way students are formed; genuine, thinking students I mean, who will remain students all their days, whatever profession or occupation they may embrace — whether they devote themselves in quiet seclusion to the researches of “science for its own sake,” or whether they engage in the bustling competitions and contests of life. It is of the highest importance in this respect that young men leaving college should take with them an intelligent and just appreciation not only of what they have learned but of what they have not learned. What a student can learn at college he should so learn that it impress him with a profound sense of his ignorance. The more a man knows well the more keenly he feels how little he knows and how much more he ought to know. Among the noblest and most fruitful moments of a man's life are those when a deep and keen consciousness of his own ignorance most seriously disturbs him, for those moments stimulate the healthiest thirst for knowledge. Nothing is better calculated to protect young men against that early bankruptcy which is apt to overtake those who rush at once into practical life with the little they have learned, thinking they have learned enough, and trying to do a large business upon a very small mental capital. [Applause.] That in training students of the right stamp our institutions of learning should also form men and citizens of the right stamp is repeated on all possible occasions, but can never be repeated too often. What our public as well as our private life needs is minds trained to the habit and courage of that intellectual honesty which boldly recognizes the truth as it sees it, and never is afraid to draw the straightforward, logical conclusions which truthful premises command. [Applause.] Not all will do that. This is one of the tests of true manhood, and one of the prerequisites of large usefulness, especially in public life. The man who has cultivated that habit and courage will also want to be always sure of his premise, which will make him a conscientious and untiring searcher for the truth, and give him one of the highest and most fruitful faculties the human mind can possess; readily to recognize his own errors and honestly to admit them.
All the schools of a republic should contribute to the making of good citizens. But our higher institutions of learning will fail in their duty if they do not aim to make the best and most dutiful and the most public spirited of them. To this end various branches of political science are taught here and there, which, as far as it goes, will undoubtedly have a good effect, provided it be well enough done not to make the abstract science of government a tedious bore to the students. But it seems to me there is nothing that will produce upon the youthful mind a quicker, deeper and more lasting impression of the duties and opportunities of the citizen in a free State, and a keener taste for honorable and useful work on the public field than the study of history. [Applause.] I do not, of course, mean that study of history which only freights the memory with a load of names and dates, of births and deaths, of dynasties and battles, making the student curse the time when such bothersome things ever happened. I mean that kind of historical instruction and study which revives before our eyes the mean and peoples of bygone times as living, active forces; the origin and rise and decline of states and nations, the springs and objects of popular commotions, with all the motives, causes and achieved results of failures; the sources and effects of laws and institutions; the movements of ideas and the developments of various civilizations; in all this the part performed by men of genius and men of power, by individual wisdom or folly, knowledge or ignorance, strength or weakness; and, finally, that eternal kinship of human nature and that logic of events in effects following causes, which, in spite of the difference in ages and customs and circumstances, make the past and the present mirrors of one another. There is nothing that, like such a study, charms and fructifies the imagination with impulses of active public spirit, warms the heart with a large sense of duty and noble ambition, and quickens the mind not only with valuable knowledge — for the history of governments contains the science of government — but also with a thirsty desire to advance from inquiry to inquiry and to add to the studied lessons of the past a clear understanding of the problems of the present. Every institution of learning should, therefore, as I think, strenuously endeavor to draw every one of its students, whatever his plan of life may be, into the influence of this study, by making it peculiarly attractive. And to this end historical instruction should be — and I trust here it is — put into the hands of men who with a thorough mastery of the subject unite a high degree of perfection in the art of teaching. And this study will, by its effect upon the student, greatly facilitate at the same time the efforts that are, or should be, made to cultivate, together with the acquisition of knowlege, the faculty of expressing and imparting it to others. We hear much sense and nonsense — largely owing to Carlyle — about the great things accomplished in the history of the world by the “silent men.” And many seem to have come to think that a man, to be really wise and strong and highly useful, must hold his tongue. The truth is that, as a general rule, only those are useful, by holding their tongues, who have nothing sensible to say. [Laughter.] In a government which rules by force, or under circumstances which require the use of force for the accomplishment of necessary ends, the silent man has his place. Under such conditions he has done, and may do great service much to be honored. But in a government controlled by public opinion, which public opinion is inspired and guided by discussion, it is not the man who makes it a business to be silent, but it is the talking man, who, provided his talk be reasonable, does the greatest service. [Applause.] We are told that the age of oratory is past. However that may be, the age for “talking sense” is certainly not past. [Applause.] Besides, the citizen of a republic should feel that neither his material nor his mental possessions belong altogether to him alone. That is true public spirit. It has been said that he is a benefactor of mankind who makes two blades of grass grow where only one grew before. A much greater blessing is he to his fellow-man who plants a truth or a useful idea where ignorance or error had been before. [Applause.] More good has been done by wise words, fitly spoken, than by all the silent acts of power which history records or the poets have sung. [Applause.] The discussions which democratic institutions live on is speech by voice or pen, and the safety of those institutions demands that knowledge should have a voice and use it.
Here is the place, I suppose, where I should say something about the “scholar in politics.” [Applause and laughter.] There is, I apprehend, more of the scholar in politics about commencement week than at any other time of the year. [Applause.] Most of them, and among them the best, never needed any admonition, and they do not need it now. But that the fine emotions of zeal and enthusiasm and the noble sentiments of public duty which are awakened and expressed on academic occasions should even with some of them evaporate before the next opportunity to make them tell; in other words, that so many of the scholars who feel that they should be more active in public life, shirk that recognized duty, is not only not a discreditable thing, but it is also a serious misfortune. For the scholar is very much needed in politics, and he is needed in mass. That those who have knowledge should make the influence of that knowledge felt in the discussions by which public opinion is formed and the government controlled, is of vital necessity, especially now when the real or fancied antagonisms of different classes and conditions begin to agitate society. Ignorance has impulses; it requires knowledge to have convictions. The impulses of ignorance are sometimes a motive power for good, sometimes a merely destructive force. Knowledge is the force that moderates, guides, preserves, remodels, creates and developes. In discussion, that knowledge which higher education gives must meet that desire to learn whcih elementary popular education has stimulated — not for the purpose of denying, repelling and defeating the demands of ignorance, for those demands are frequently just as to the end in view — but for the purpose of candidly investigating and honestly recognizing what right there is in them; of dev sing proper means for the attainment of just ends; of adapting those means to the preservation of that which is good in the existing state of things; of leading the changes that are necessary into the way of organic development, and of thus averting the danger of v olent and destructive commotion which is apt to come when just demand run against selfish and stubborn resistance, in one word, doing that which ignorance, even when acting upon the more righteous impulses, cannot do. It is thus the meeting in frank and candid conference of knowledge and the desire to know, of higher and popular education as they should be, that must insure the peaceable working of democratic institutions through all the trials and strains that difficult and exciting problems may impose upon them. I am, of course, far from saying that knowledge can be obtained only through a collegiate course of instruction. But it is certainly true that with a liberal education its avenues are more largely open that without it, and that such an education is apt to inspire those who have profited by it with a sense of the sacredness of true conviction which scorns the betrayal of it for mere personal advantage. If it is true that convictions so obtained are sometimes coupled with an impracticable, stubborn pride of opinion, it is also true that actual and active contact with the affairs of the world makes the educated mind sensible of the limits of the possible and then peculiarly practical, because he is not so apt to lose the larger and higher points of view. [Applause.] Look over the pages of history and you will find that the great moderators of mankind were almost all men representing the high education of their times.
What is it then that deters still many of the educated classes from active participation in public life? I can discern only two reasons that might be called serious. One is that the methods of practical politics which have grown from the spoils system render it difficult to high-toned men of pure aims, who will not descend to the low arts of the wire-puller and patronage-monger, to exercise large influence, or at least to get into positions where they might make their abilities most directly useful; or, if by happy accident they get there, to maintain themselves there. This is indeed a difficulty from which in our days but few seem to be exempt. But if there is such a system, is there not a so much greater necessity for a vigorous effort to put an end to it? Is that system not more likely to continue if men of high purpose yield the field to it? Do not the press and platform today furnish more powerful agencies of influence upon the public mind than ever before? Do we not see at this very moment one popular insurrection after another battering the strongest fortresses in which that vicious system has intrenched itself? Is it not now time that the best thought of the country should give strength and direction and confidence to these movements, and is there not hope, real, well-founded hope, that by courageous and persevering effort that best thought may at last reconquer its largest field of usefulness? If now the scholar fails to do his duty in politics, will he ever again have a right to complain of a lack of opportunity? Will not the fault be wholly his own? Another reason is that men active in public life are exposed to all sorts of slander and defamation from low blackguards. Well, what of it? Men of experience will tell you that you will render the most venomous defamer harmless by letting him disdainfully alone. Or, if it gives you pleasure, and you have time to spare, you may expose him for the public benefit and amusement. But necessary it is not. Public opinion is always just in its final judgements. Unscrupulous slander and unjust vituperation carry their antidote with them. An honorable character well built up by honest conduct and patriotic service can safely defy wanton attempts to destroy it. It will issue from the contest with greater brightness and also with just pride. For a man of genuine well-founded self-respect will be rather proud of the fact that scoundrels are his enemies. [Applause.] Read upon your soldiers' monuments the laurel-crowned names of American scholars in the war. They did not think of deserting their colors and running home to their cosey libraries when the roads in the field were muddy. Worse than all the slanders of the blackguards would it be, if it could truthfully be said of the American scholar in peace, that when his country called upon him to contribute his knowledge, his genius, his high sense of honor to those discussions and movements of opinion which are the life pulsation of the republic, he did not find politics nice enough for him. Pardon this seemingly disparaging suggestion. I know it would be grieviously unjust to apply it to very many who with patriotic spirit stand already in the front. I trust the time is not far when it cannot be applied with justice to any.
But it is not upon political discussion and action alone that higher education has to impress its stamp; it is also upon the habits, the enjoyments, the tastes, the morals of society. I have already pointed out how the accumulation of wealth had in a great measure changed the original frugality and simplicity of our habits, not only among the rich, but also among those who are affected by their example; and how a change in our habits of life would be apt in its turn to touch the relations between the different conditions of men and the working of our institutions. This may be for good or for evil. How can the evil tendency be counteracted? We must not indulge in the delusion that mere exhortation and preaching will do it. You cannot persuade the rich to abstain from all the enjoyments which wealth affords by mere homilies on the beauties of self-denial. You cannot prevail upon those who witness the display and the pleasures of the rich not to envy or to desire to imitate them, by mere fine descriptions of the happiness which springs from the suppression of our appetites and from quiet contentment in poverty. You cannot regulate our society, whose means of indulgence grew rapidly from day to day, by merely singing the praises of republican simplicity and by classical eulogies on the black soup of the Spartans. Neither you nor I like the black soup of the Spartans, and I do not see why we should so long as we have something better. [Applause and laughter.] This is natural, and it is far from being wrong. Human wants will increase and multiply, human appetites will grow keener and more exacting as they grow more knowing, and as the ability to satisfy them grows; sometimes even ahead of that ability. Neither religious nor secular teaching has ever succeeded in effectually checking this, except, perhaps, in a few individual cases. It is the law of nature, and also one of the agencies of progress. The question is, therefore, not whether and how these wants and appetites of enjoyment can be suppressed, but how they can be kept from running into vicious channels, and so guided and satisfied that they may elevate instead of corrupting and degrading society. And how is that to be accomplished? If you want men to give up that which is bad or base show them and put within their reach that which is better and higher and which will please and satisfy them just as well. The tone, the habits, the tastes, the pleasures, and, in a large sense, the morals of society depend upon its culture. I use the word culture with the meaning which is commonly given to it in the conversational language of this country, signifying not merely that training of the mental faculties by which useful knowledge is acquired, but the knowledge, appreciation and enjoyment of the beautiful in nature, literature and art, and of the noble, elevated and refined in sentiment and feeling. The ideal effect of true culture upon man should be to make him instinctively ashamed of all that is gross, mean or vicious in thought, language and action. Its effect upon society should be not only to elevate the common work of life, but so ennoble its tastes, enjoyments and pleasures, and to lift up and refine its moral through its intellectual tone. It is to teach men not so much how to acquire wealth, as how to spend it; not so much how to use their working time, as what to do with their leisure. It is to open to them not only new ways of occupation, but also new sources of enjoyment.
There has lately been some spirited discussion called forth by the assertion of an English writer of note that, in point of culture and refinement, the American people were sadly deficient. In one sense this is true, and it is but natural that it should be true. It was but yesterday that, in the largest part of this country, the people had to subdue the wilderness and to wring bare existence from the unbroken forces of nature. Such circumstances are apt, rather than lift up man to a higher culture, at first to strip him of that which he had. And even in the older settlements and cities the struggle from comparative poverty to comfort and affluence, and the task of satisfying the wants of rapid expansion, far and near, almost monopolized the energies of the people. Culture requires a certain age of civilization and leisure and American society has had but little of either. Not until recently have we had an appreciable number of men whose hours were not filled with the tasks and cares of the day; and even now that number is not large, although constantly increasing. And yet is it not also true that in spite of all this restlessness and these adverse conditions, an eager and active desire and endeavor for the attainment of higher culture manifest themselves not only in the older and wealthier cities and the seats of learning, but everywhere from the large country town to the frontier settlement, and not merely in such trivial fancies as the painting of sunflowers upon earthen pots, but in an earnest and grasping pursuit of knowledge and in a quickly advancing cultivation also of the graces of life? All these things naturally appear rough and uncouth in the beginning, but has not the progress made in this respect within our lifetime been marvellous? Thus that English writer is undoubtedly right in denying the assertion that every country town in the United States there were a respectable number of people equal in culture and refinement to the most cultivated in Europe; but it is also true that no country on earth can show, not only in the centres of civilization but far away from them, so many people earnestly and thoughtfully striving in that direction, as ours. As to culture and refinement the old civilization of Europe excels us in results, but we far excel it in the vigor and universality of endeavor.
The conditions for the progress and diffusion of higher culture will improve as the eager restlessness of our activity decreases, and with the possibility of withdrawing more of our means and time from tasks of immediate necessity. But in a society whose habits are still forming — or reforming as the case may be — and whose tendencies are not firmly fixed, there are usually different elements contending to gain a sort of social mastery, to establish themselves as a kind of an aristocracy that is to set the example for imitation to the rest. It may be by pretensions on account of birth, or by the influence of wealth, or that of superior intelligence and education. The issue of this contest is of great consequence to the whole development of social life. The setting up of pretensions on account of birth is scarcely to be feared among a people like ours. When attempts of this kind are made among us, here and there, they uniformly end in the formation of small circles and coteries without any influence reaching far beyond themselves. It is the quiet stupidity of old family pride seeking the distinction in dreary exclusiveness. [Applause.] Without any legal privileges, which in this country are of course out of the question, this is perfectly harmless. The pretensions of one man, whose grandfather made a fortune in hides, to be socially superior to another man whose father or who himself made a fortune in leather, on account of the age of family wealth, are only ludicrous. With us the real contest lies elsewhere. It is between wealth as such and education, between the superiority of mere money and the superiority of mind. If the tone and habits of society are determined, if the examples that stimulate imitation are set by brutal wealth, that is by men who are only rich and who would be nothing were they not rich, society will be in danger of being demoralized by a tendency in the direction of coarse display and vicious indulgence. There is nothing more vulgar in his being and his influence than a vulgar rich person of great pretensions. Against this influence education, that is those who have enjoyed its benefits and carry its standard, must with courageous determination get their faces. There is a popular tradition in America which is of inestimable value. It is that every man must have some useful occupation, and that he who has none and who, while still able to work, lives only for his pleasure, is not entitled to respect. It is true, with accumulating wealth the number of men of leisure will steadily grow among us. But this, in itself, is not to be deplored, so long as leisure does not mean idleness. It is to men of leisure well employed that England owes many of her proudest illustrations. It will be a blessing to this country to have men who can stop to think in repose. It is unemployed leisure that demoralizes and contaminates. Pleasure is a good and necessary thing in the material and moral order of things. But it is the pursuit of nothing but pleasure, without any work to earn a right to it, that turns it into a social poison. The great war that education has to carry on in society is a war against the brutal self-assertion of vulgar wealth, with no quarter for the pleasure-hunting idler, and merciless contempt and ridicule for the snob. [Applause.] The prize of this contest is that the rich man shall gain his social position not by the mere fact of his possessing wealth, but by the manner in which he employs his wealth for worthy ends; and when that prize is won by the influence of education and intellectual superiority, wealth itself will be subjugated for the promotion of true culture and all its elevating influences as the inspiring and pervading force in society.
This, then, is the great office of education in this republic: it is to insure the durability and success of democratic government by guiding and moderating with knowledge and high sentiment that discussion which has to grapple with the great problems of the present and the future, which has to reform and to preserve, and which alone can lead the people through all the clash of opinions and interests to a peaceable understanding and harmonious action. And it is, amid all the seductions of rapidly increasing wealth, to elevate the intellectual and moral tone of our social life by inspiring it with the refining and ennobling influence of higher culture. Thus it will bring to naught the evil predictions of the prophets who see only disaster and ruin in the future of this republic. The civil war rudely shook us up from that youthful dream of security and easy greatness which had formerly filled the popular mind. It placed us face to face with a terrible national danger and blessed us with moments of a keen consciousness of our imperfections. We began to see the tasks of the future in a new light. Since that time the American people have lost their taste for that naïf jubilant self-glorification which had been the characteristic tone of our popular oratory. The old Fourth of July speech with its magnificent confidence of a tremendous destiny, with its glowing pictures of irresistible power and unprecedented greatness no longer has its ancient charm. Its imitations, which we shall hear at rare times, lack the power of spontaneity and strike the ear tame and stale. A more sober, inquiring, critical, not to say anxiously doubting temper has come upon our days. This is well and worthy of a great people, but it should not go too far. It should certainly not be suffered to run into the dreary channel of pessimism and self-irony. There are certain things which without vain glory we may well think of, and which in a dutiful spirit we should not cease to think of. Look at this country and this people, as they stand in the history of the world, and you will in all soberness be bound to say that no part of mankind has ever had a greater opportunity before it than we have. It is the opportunity to secure freedom, civilization, peace and happiness to more human beings than ever enjoyed these blessings before. Never in human history was there a country offering so lavish and abundance of wealth and power to a great people. And never was there so strong, so vigorous, so gifted a people in possession of so magnificent a field of action; a people with the healthiest blood of all civilized nations constantly streaming into its organism; a people with its minds and hands free, unhampered by obsolete customs and traditions, and institutions, and yet with all the rich treasures of old civilizations, freely to be drawn upon, at the service of its fresh impulses and energies. Never has any people in history been so wonderfully blessed, and never has any received a more tremendous trust than we have. This we should continue to remember and to speak of, not with vain boastfulness, but with a profound sense of responsibility. Of this responsibility each generation has its share, and in each generation the largest share will fall upon those whose intelligence and knowledge should take the lead in the movements of opinion.
When endeavoring to conceive the grandeur of the prospect before you and of the task that has fallen to your lot, never fear to be called idealists, for your ideals cannot be too high, nor your enthusiasm too warm, nor your ambition of duty too eager. And when that duty is dearest to your minds, you will certainly never fail to remember that the surest way to the solution of the mighty problem was pointed out by the poor colonists of Massachusetts bay, when, standing at the cradle of this great nation, they “thought upon a college” and founded the common school for all the children of a people destined to be free.
At the close of Mr. Schurz's address there was prolonged and enthusiastic applause.