Posted by: Democratic Thinker | June 16, 2011

William Wirt: Address at Rutgers College—Public Character

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.

I am no party-man. I belong to no party but that of my country: to that alone do I wish you to belong.

Opening Remarks—Public Character—Private CharacterEducation

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


II. Public Character.


LET it be your first object to form to yourselves a character suited to the country in which your lot is cast, so as to be able to play, with honor, your part in the various scenes both of public and of private life, in which you may be called to act or to suffer. If you have not yet thought of the subject, in this point of view, it is high time that you should do so: for you will soon begin your journey, and ordinary prudence dictates that you should be providing the means to render it comfortable and successful. If you had to travel through a hot and barren desert, like that of Arabia, you would load your camels with water and provisions. If your way lay through a savage wilderness, or over mountains infested with banditti, you would furnish yourselves with armour for your defence. The same prudent foresight calls upon you to examine well the character of the country, and of the age into which it has been the pleasure of Providence to place you: and to supply yourselves, now, with those qualities, moral and intellectual, that may best enable you to sustain, with advantage, the various parts that may be cast for you in the drama of life. Permit me to assist you in this preparatory examination, not with reference to the whole train of your duties, (for that would be beyond the compass of a discourse like this,) but with the view of discovering whether there be any leading or master quality, which the character of the country and of the age indicate as pre-eminently worthy of peculiar culture.

The duties which you will have to perform divide themselves into two classes: they are public and private. By your public duties, I mean those which result from the political institutions under which you live: and to ascertain those duties, it is obviously necessary that you should understand well your institutions and the relation in which they place you towards society. I propose only to take a passing glance at this subject, since the nature of this discourse will bear no more.

The political phenomenon, then, on which your eyes have opened, is that of a great national government, composed of a confederacy of many states; each of these being, in itself, a separate sovereignty. This confederacy extends from north to south, through several degrees of latitude, and stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The states which it embraces are various in their soil and climate, and necessarily various in their productions, in the pursuits of their citizens, and in their local interests.

All these governments, both state and federal, are republics: that is to say, the whole power is in the body of the people. These governments all belong to them, were formed by them for their own good, and are administered by officers chosen by them and responsible to them. But in order to qualify the people to enforce this responsibility with effect, it is necessary that they should understand well the boundaries which part the powers of the federal and state governments, and that they should understand, also, their interests, foreign and domestic; since otherwise, it will be impossible for them to know whether those boundaries have been properly respected by their servants, and those interests faithfully and judiciously pursued.

These institutions are beautiful in theory, but they are complex: and the principal dangers which environ them are these: first, lest the people should not sufficiently understand them, and, not understanding them, should fall into the hands of corrupt and ambitious leaders, who will contrive to make a job out of these governments for themselves, and, by their rival struggles for power, finally destroy both the people and their institutions; and, secondly, lest the conflicts of local interest in this widely extended empire, and the collisions between so many separate sovereignties, operating at the same time over the same territory, should produce a concussion which may bring down the whole fabric in ruins about your ears.

Hence, it is manifest that the success of these beautiful institutions depends entirely on the illumination, the wisdom and virtue of the people. These it is the function of education to impart; and as you are soon to belong to the body of the people, in the character either of constituent or representative, you cannot but perceive that, if you mean to qualify yourselves eminently for the discharge of your public duties, and not to become “ hewers of wood and drawers of water” to the ambitious, it should be your ardent and unwearied study now to acquire all that strength and power of character which may qualify you to protect and defend your institutions, and hand them down, unimpaired, to your posterity.

From this glance at the political character of the country, let us pass, for a moment, to that of the age, for the purpose of ascertaining how far the dangers which were to have been, apprehended from the theory of our institutions, have been realized by practice.

This is delicate ground, and I am aware of the impossibility of treating the subject with candor, without exposing myself to illiberal and invidious criticisms. But I have undertaken a duty towards you, and, with Heaven’s assistance, I will perform it, honestly. I should not expect the banditti either of the desert or mountains to thank me for warning the traveler to arm in his defence. I might expect the gratitude of the traveler himself; and even if I missed that, I should have the consolation of knowing that I had done my duty. You, gentlemen, I am sure, will not suppose me capable of prostituting an occasion like this, to party-purposes. I am no party-man. I belong to no party but that of my country: to that alone do I wish you to belong. In relation to those duties on which you are soon to enter, I think it right to give you a political sketch of the age; and I shall give it on the historian’s maxim: Ne quid falsi audeas, ne quid veri non audeas dicere. My remarks will be general, not personal. I propose to describe the age, not the individuals who compose it: and if any one choose to make a personal application of what is intended to be general, I can only say, qui capit, ille facit.

The first impulse which the people have to give their institutions, in order to set them in motion, is by the election of their public officers; and in such a number of republics, state and federal, in which all the officers, from the highest to the lowest, are elective, these elections must be continually going on. Now, according to the theory of our governments, these elections are to be made by the people themselves, on their own mere motion. They are, of their own accord, and by their own option, to call from their own body such of their fellow citizens as they deem best qualified by their wisdom and virtue to serve them. We had a beautiful example, a fine practical exposition of this feature in our government, in the election of the first President under the federal constitution. Gen. Washington did not offer himself. All of you who have read the history of his life, by a man of closely analogous character, must have been struck by the virtuous diffidence with which he shrunk from the office, and the extreme difficulty with which it was overcome by his compatriots throughout the Union. Sed tempora mutantur: The importunity is now on the other side: and were that illustrious man now alive to witness the number of competitors, and the unblushing importunity with which this high and fearful office is solicited, he might well exclaim with Epaminondas, on a similar occasion,(if, indeed, he could indulge in a sarcasm on any occasion,) “I rejoice that my country has so many better men than myself.” One of the most striking features of the age is this avidity for office. Every man now thinks himself qualified for any office: and

“Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread.”

These elections are, at once, our glory and our shame: our glory in theory; our shame in practice. Real merit is always modest and retiring. Such was Washington’s. But this is no longer sought after. It is only those who impudently obtrude themselves on the public notice, and clamor for their own elections, that are deemed worthy of the suffrage of the People. And at the recurrence of these elections, and the canvass which precedes them, what disgraceful scenes do we continually witness! What corrupt combination in some quarters; what vile intrigues in others; what slander and falsehood; what criminations and recriminations; what “fending and proving” throughout the land; what hollow promises made merely ad captandum; what coarse and vulgar flattery, and wheedling and coaxing of the Dear People! And the people themselves, who on these occasions should be everything, what have they become? In some parts of our country, literally nothing; and the fatal leprosy is rapidly spreading throughout the Union. For we learn from the mutual accusations of the parties of the day, (I speak of them all,) that among other devices, a kind of electioneering machinery is in use in some places, by which the people have become spell-bound, and taught to play the part of automatons in their own elections. If these accusations be true, (and I have not seen them contradicted,) the people, where this machinery prevails, are no longer, in any proper sense of the term, free agents, but act by a kind of fatal necessity; and our elections are not, in truth, made by the people, but by the power of machinery. In those quarters of our country, in order to calculate the probability of the election of an individual, the question is no longer “is he honest, is he capable?” but is he a good engineer, with powerful machinery? Thus, instead of permitting the people to practice on the theory of our constitution, by choosing for themselves, and of their own accord, the best and wisest of our citizens, they are constrained by a sort of mechanical duress, to choose the ablest juggler. And, as the success of one juggler naturally invites the competition of others, and one patent machine is sure to lead to rival discoveries, the evidences of this species of internal improvement are multiplying and thickening over the land; and, by the time that you come on the stage, your streets and highways will be beset by political mountebanks, and your whole society will be stunned and deafened by the clangor, or dismembered by the violence, of this high-steam apparatus.

Such, gentlemen, are the scenes which you must soon be called to witness, and in which you must play your parts according to your respective tastes; unless you shall be rescued from the disgrace by some great and glorious revulsion of public sentiment and feeling. But how is such a revulsion to be brought about? You have no longer a Washington: and it is much to be feared that it would require all the magic of the living man to touch with his wand this disgraceful scene, and force it to vanish. There is another cause that might produce it; and to this the virtuous part of the community look with hope, not for themselves, but for you. It is Education, which, by pouring on the rising generation a purer and a stronger light, by investing them with more energy of character, by inspiring them with loftier conceptions of their own importance, and of the honor and dignity of their country—a holier patriotism—may, at once, dispose and enable them to crush these spiders in their webs, and annihilate the whole train of their sycophants and dependents. Unless some such revolution shall take place, the whole value of your institutions is gone. Your governments are no longer republics, but corrupt aristocracies. You will degenerate into a mob. To borrow a bold figure from a deceased patriot, your people will become horses, “ready saddled and bridled,” to be mounted at pleasure by every bold and crafty adventurer who chooses to boot and spur himself for the occasion; and you will rush first into anarchy, and then—emerge from it in the form of a despotism.

Besides this frightful jarring throughout the land produced by the struggles of rival ambition, there is another cause which threatens us with a long succession of storms: it is the realization of the other danger which has been already noted, as seated too deeply, I fear, in the theory of our institutions; the conflict of local interest, and the collisions between the Federal and State authorities. These have already risen to such a height as to menace, openly, a rupture of the Union: and, indeed, from the sharpness of the conflict, and the increasing acrimony with which it is maintained, there is too much reason to fear that the spirit of mutual concession and forbearance which animated our fathers, has been buried in their graves, and that their children will, in their wantonness, pull down the noble edifice which it cost them so much pains and anxiety to build up for our happiness.

Thus, gentlemen, you perceive that your lot has been cast in stormy times: and every political indication warns you than the quality which, above all others, you should seek to cultivate, is strength of character: strength of character, as displayed in firmness of decision, and vigor of action.

If, gentlemen, you were about to embark in the voyage of life on a summer’s sea, in a barge like that of Cleopatra, with zephyrs only to fan, and soft music and sweet perfumes to breathe around you, I might recommend it to you to give yourselves up entirely to the culture of those bland and gentle accomplishments which contribute to cheer and sweeten social intercourse. But I foresee, distinctly, that you will have to double Cape Horn in the winter season, and to grapple with the gigantic spirit of the storm which guards that Cape; and I foresee, as distinctly, that it will depend entirely on your own skill and energy whether you will survive the fearful encounter, and live to make a port in the mild latitudes of the Pacific. Hence it is that I recommend it to you most strenuously to devote yourselves, with unwearied zeal, to the cultivation of those bold and manly qualities which are calculated to bear you, fearless and triumphant, through the fierce contention.

The excellence of a character consists in its fitness to the times and the service to be performed. We are disgusted with effeminacy in a man, on occasions which call for courage; and are shocked to see him play the trembling dastard, or whining sentimentalist, at a moment when he should be blazing in the front of war. Thus, when we see Henry the VIth. in Shakspeare, retiring from the battle on which his crown and life depended, and, seating himself pensively on the side of a hill, hear him exclaim,

O God! I would I were an humble swain,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they pass—

how painfully do we feel his unfitness for his station, and how do we long for that bold and dauntless voice of his father, which, at the storming of Harfleur, cried out,

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!”

Gentlemen, you will not confound the firm and strong character which I am recommending, with a turbulent, factious, incendiary spirit. Nothing can be more contrary. The blusterer is seldom brave. True courage is always calm, and is never so captivating as when set off by courtesy. The Chevalier Bayard, one of the proudest ornaments of the age of chivalry, was the flower of courtesy, and he was not more without fear than without reproach. No, gentlemen: every good man prefers peace. It is the only condition that accords with that brotherly love which ought to prevail among men; the only state that reason and humanity can approve. But it has grown into a maxim, that the best mode of preserving peace is to be prepared for war. That strength of character, which I recommend, is for armour of defence, not of offence. Heaven forbid that we should ever see the war of the Roses enacted in real life, in our own land! But if we ever should, it will proceed from that ignorance, and consequent imbecility, on the part of our people, which will surrender them as tools into the hands of ambition, and make them the instruments of their own destruction. An enlightened community, who understand their rights, and possess the skill and firmness to assert them, are in no danger from the intrigues of the selfish and designing. Peace is lovely. Those moral and intellectual qualities that adorn it, have charms for a virtuous mind that ought not to be resisted. But their attainment is perfectly compatible with the habitual cultivation of that firmness and energy which are the best, and, indeed, the only earthly guardians of Peace itself; and without which, our altars and firesides will be no protection against the insidious visits of unprincipled and ruffian ambition. What I recommend to you, therefore, is, to endeavor to unite in your characters the quiet, but determined, heroism of the patriot soldier, with that love of peace which becomes the Philanthropist and the Christian.


[ Continued ]