Posted by: Democratic Thinker | June 15, 2011

William Wirt: Address at Rutgers College—Opening Remarks

American Thought

In 1830, William Wirt—late retired as U.S. Attorney General—delivers a speech before a group of students at Rutgers College. The address, widely reprinted—his opening statement particularly—, inspired generations of students.

The Education, moral and intellectual, of every individual, must be, chiefly, his own work.

—Opening Remarks—Public CharacterPrivate CharacterEducation

Delivered Before the
Peithessophian and Philoclean Societies
Of Rutgers College.
(July 20, 1830)


I. Opening Remarks.



IT is by your invitation that I am here, and to you, of course, that I am expected to address myself. Permit me, in the first place, to thank you for the honor of the invitation. You have done me justice in believing that I take a deep interest in the pursuits of my young countrymen, and that I would not, lightly, permit any consideration of personal inconvenience to disappoint the desire you have expressed to hear me. You will probably learn, from my compliance, one lesson of experience, at least—and lessons of experience cannot come too soon—which is, that in the intellectual as well as the material world, distant objects are apt to loom larger than the life, and that you are not to trust, with implicit confidence, to the Reports of Fame, whether they relate to men or things.

Gentlemen, you do not, I hope, expect, from me, an oration for display. At my time of life, and worn down, as I am, by the toils of a laborious profession, you can no longer look for the spirit and buoyancy of youth. Spring is the season of flowers; but I am in the autumn of life, and you will, I hope, accept from me the fruits of my experience, in lieu of the more showy, but less substantial, blossoms of spring.

Gentlemen, I could not have been tempted hither for the puerile purpose of display. My visit has a much graver motive and object. It is the hope of making some suggestion that may be serviceable in the journey of life that lies before you—of calling into action some dormant energy—of pointing your exertions to some attainable end of practical utility—in short, the hope of contributing, in some small degree, towards making you happier in yourselves, and more useful to your country. This alone could have tempted me to forego the short interval of repose allotted for my health, and to venture upon a field of speaking so far removed from the ordinary walks of my profession.

I consider the cause of education as the cause of my country; for the youth, who are now at their studies, will soon compose that country. On them, in a very few years, must rest the whole burthen of sustaining the political institutions, the liberty and happiness of the United States. I consider the learned men, who are directing the studies and forming the character of our youth, as engaged in the noblest employment that can task the powers of man. They are, in truth, weaving the web of the future destinies of our country, and on their skill and fidelity depend, in a great degree, the texture, the strength and the color of that web. I hold it to be the duty of every American citizen, who can aid them in this process, to furnish the aid; if it be only by those demonstrations of respect which are calculated to cheer them and their pupils onward, in their arduous and honorable task, this tribute should be promptly and willingly rendered.

Such, my young friends, are the sentiments which have led to my visit; such the feelings with which I have come among you. You have been pleased to think that I may be of some service; and I have been willing, as you see, to make the experiment. But you will permit me to speak for your instruction, rather than your amusement, and to leave it to younger men to play the orator.

Suffer me, in the first place, to call your attention to the power of this great magician—Education—in forming and directing the human character. It is of consequence that you should distinctly apprehend the prodigies of which it is capable, in order that you may perceive the decisive importance of the work in which yon are engaged, and apply yourselves, with corresponding earnestness, to the performance of this work.

We learn, from divine revelation, a truth, which, to the discomfiture of the infidel, the discoveries of modern science are rapidly confirming—that the whole human family has descended from a single pair. With this fact before us, how wonderfully curious is it to observe the vast variety of character into which this common family has been modified; their religion, laws, manners, customs, opinions, sentiments, tastes, how infinitely diversified! How is this to be explained? Whatever share climate, accident or caprice, may be conjectured to have had in the origination of this variety, we know that from time immemorial, it has been continued among them by the force of education; and that from the earliest period of authentic history to the present day, they have been, and still are, the mere creatures of education. But let us pass from this general survey to one more particular, in which extrinsic causes could have had no agency; but the whole phenomenon must be referred to the force of education. Those two small republics of Greece, Athens and Sparta, are, both of them, believed to have been, in their origin, Egyptian colonies; they had, therefore, the same mother country. They were nearly coeval in their settlement: they were, therefore, of the same age. They were near neighbors; they lived, therefore, under the influence of the same climate. Their general political interests were the same, and their intercourse was frequent and constant. Yet were they, in their modes of thinking, speaking, and acting, as diametrically, as obstinately, and proudly opposed, as if they had inhabited the opposite sides of the globe. Nor need we leave the walls of Athens itself, to see exemplified the astonishing power of this great moral lever—Education. The different sects of philosophers in that city, were as strikingly distinguished, and the classes of men whom they threw into society, from their schools, were as strongly contrasted in their modes of thinking and principles of acting, as if they had been parted by the poles. The same is equally true in modern times. Compare France with her neighbor, Switzerland—compare the different cantons of Switzerland among themselves—nay, compare even the different counties of the small kingdom of England; cast your eyes over the earth, in any direction, and you will see, on every hand, the most interesting and convincing proofs of the plastic temper of man, and of the infinite variety of forms into which he may be moulded by the single force of education. It is the power of the potter over the clay, which makes one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor; with this advantage in our favor, that unlike the vessels of the potter, we have a voice, and a voice potential too, if we choose to exert it, in fixing our own destination; since, for our consolation, but, at the same time, to our fearful responsibility, it depends essentially on ourselves, whether we will be doomed to honor or dishonor.

And this leads me, gentlemen, to another remark, to which I invite your attention. It is this: The Education, moral and intellectual, of every individual, must be, chiefly, his own work. There is a prevailing and a fatal mistake on this subject. It seems to be supposed that if a young man be sent first to a grammar school, and then to college, he must, of course, become a scholar; and the pupil himself is apt to imagine that he is to be the mere passive recipient of instruction, as he is of the light and atmosphere which surround him. But this dream of indolence must be dissipated, and you must be awakened to the important truth that, if you aspire to excellence, you must become active and vigorous co-operators with your teachers, and work out your own distinction, with an ardor that cannot be quenched, a perseverance that considers nothing done while anything yet remains to be done. Rely upon it, that the ancients were right—Quisque suœ fortinœ faber—both in morals and intellect, we give their final shape to our own characters, and thus become, emphatically, the architects of our fortunes. How else should it happen, gentlemen, that young men, who have had precisely the same opportunities, should be continually presenting us with such different results, and rushing to such opposite destinies? Difference of talent will not solve it, because that difference is very often in favor of the disappointed candidate. You shall see issuing from the walls of the same school—nay, sometimes, from the bosom of the same family—two young men, of whom the one shall be admitted to be a genius of high order, the other, scarcely above the point of mediocrity; yet, you shall see the genius sinking and perishing in poverty, obscurity and wretchedness; while, on the other hand, you shall observe the mediocre plodding his slow but sure way up the hill of life, gaining steadfast footing at every step, and mounting, at length, to eminence and distinction, an ornament to his family, a blessing to his country. Now, whose work is this? Manifestly their own. They are the architects of their respective fortunes. The best seminary of learning that can open its portals to you, can do no more than to afford to you the opportunity of instruction: but it must depend, at last, on yourselves, whether you will be instructed or not, or to what point you will push your instruction. And of this be assured—I speak, from observation, a certain truth: There is no excellence without great labor. It is the fiat of Fate, from which no power of genius can absolve you. Genius, unexerted, is like the poor moth, that flutters around a candle till it scorches itself to death. If genius be desirable at all, it is only of that great and magnanimous kind, which, like the Condor of South America, pitches from the summit of Chimborazo above the clouds, and sustains itself, in that empyreal region, with an energy rather invigorated than weakened by the effort. It is this capacity for high and long-continued exertion—this vigorous power of profound and searching investigation—this careering and wide-sweeping comprehension of mind—and those long reaches of thought, that

—————Pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon,
Or, dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom line could never touch the ground,
And drag up drowned honor by the locks—

This is the prowess, and these the hardy achievements which are to enrol your names among the great men of the earth.

But how are you to gain the nerve and the courage for enterprises of this pith and moment? I will tell you: As Milo gained that strength which astounded Greece: By your own self-discipline. In hoc signo vinces: for this must be your work, not that of your teachers; and, gentlemen, it is on that part which you are to bear in your own education, that I propose to address you. Your learned professors will do their part well. Be you not wanting to yourselves, and you will accomplish all that your parents, friends, and country, have a right to expect.

The remarks which I am about to address to you will be founded on the hypothesis, that you have it in your power to make yourselves just what you please; and of the truth of this hypothesis, to an extent quite incredible to yourselves at this time, observation and experience leave no doubt in my own mind. You may, if you please, become literary fops and dandies, and acquire the affected lisp and drawling nonchalance of the London cockney; or you may learn to wield the herculean club of Doct. Johnson. You may skim the surface of science, or fathom its depths. You may become florid declaimers, or cloud-compelling reasoners. You may dwindle into political ephemera, or plume your wings for immortality, with Franklin, Hamilton, Jay, Jefferson, the Adamses, and a host of living worthies. You may become dissolute voluptuaries and debauchees, and perish in disgrace; or you may climb the steeps of glory, and have your names given, by the trumpet of Fame, to the four quarters of the globe. In short, you may become a disgrace and a reproach to this institution, or her proudest boast and honor; you may make yourselves the shame or the ornament of your families, and a curse or a blessing to your country. Can it be doubted which of these two destinies a generous and a high-minded youth will choose? I cannot permit myself to doubt it; but will take for granted that you are disposed to receive, with attention, whatever my experience may suggest in advancement of that nobler course, on which you are resolved to enter; and to these suggestions I will now proceed.


[ Continued ]