Commencement Oration of Inman E. Page, Class of 1877
Transcribed from The Providence Press, Friday evening edition, June 15, 1877
“Intellectual Prospects of America”
Transitional periods in national life are always suggestive of momentous questions. At such times it is fitting that we should cast a horoscope of the national sky in order that we may see what are the prospects of our native land. And while others are absorbed in questions concerning our political future, may we not, consider some of the questions with regard to our intellectual future? But in addressing ourselves to this task, we are met at its very threshold with the opinions of distinguished critics, who affirm that in our political system there are certain circumstances which are unfavorable to the production of great statesmen in the government, and great scholars in literary pursuits. With regard to the influence of our system on the production of statesmen, it is evident that many adverse criticisms have been made in consequence of certain observed effects without a profound investigation into the causes. It was the practice of almost every writer on America since the time of De Tocqueville, to ascribe the peculiar phenomena of American life to the nature of our government, without ever discrimination between the character of democratic institutions, and the circumstances peculiar to the new world. When our legislators were found to be incompetent, with little regard for the past, and hence still less ability to provide for the future, it was argued that this was the necessary result of the principles of equity, and that nothing more could be expected.
But manifestly, this view of the tendency of our political institutions has been carried too far, for in the light of later years we have seen that in proportion as the advantages of education have been more generally extended among the masses, they have had just regard for the intellectual forces in society and have recognized the right of the more intelligent to exercise the functions of government. That there has been, and still is, a tendency to place men in positions of responsibility for which they have had no special training, is a truth which no one can deny, but to say that such a tendency is an inherent defect in our political system, is to say something which cannot be successfully maintained. If this opinion be true, why is it not equally as true of one part of the country as of the other? Why is it not as true of the North and the East as it is of the South and the West? Why is it that New England in point of intellectual capacity has generally been foremost in the National Councils? The answer is plain. The New England father were men of strong intellectual proclivities, who had enjoyed the best advantages of English culture and had imbibed their convictions from the streams of English thought, and settling in the New World they lost none of their original character save that they ceased to submit to oppression and robed themselves in the mantle of liberty. These tastes they imparted to their children, who still continue to exercise them in spite of every foreign influence. The people themselves being educated, or, if not swayed by educating influences, have as a rule demanded ablest men for their representatives. But with regards to the South, we know too well the blighting influence which often lent the color of truth to unfriendly criticisms. The great wave of population which swept over the West after the war of independence, at once introduced into the body politic a new element molded entirely by new influences, and actuated by new motives.
Confronted with natural barriers which caused innumerable hardships, he settlers who had received the refining culture of New England were obliged to submit to the vigorous law of necessity. These simple, practical men inured to hardship and toil, accumulating fortunes, and laying the foundation of great commercial centers, building railroads and tilling the soil, forgot the maxims which had come down to them through successive generations, discarded all authority which in any way came in conflict with their immediate purposes, and which did not conserve their highest interests. Hence it is not strange that those statements were so acceptable who were devoted to the interests of monopolies and of sections of the Union, rather than to the interests of the whole Union. But it is not the Wets making rapid strides in everything that has conferred glory upon the East? Is there not a healthful interchange of relations between the two sections, which tends to counteract every pernicious influence? Are not the schoolhouse and the church, the two controlling forces of our civilization, giving evidence of their power in the character and lives of her distinguished men?
From the foregoing considerations we may safely conclude that the circumstances which have often been regarded as unfavorable to the development of the highest order of statesmen are not permanent defects in our system, but are due mainly to the unsettled condition of the population in certain sections of the country, and when these shall have reacted to their normal state they will be in harmony with New England where all the forces of our political system are in better operations. Moreover there are certain considerations which lead us to think that instead of our political organization being unfavorable to the production of the best type of statesmen, it is controlled by certain elements which make this production a necessity. In a country like ours where similar opportunities for distinction and usefulness are presented to all, to the highest and the lowest alike, it is unnatural to suppose that with the advantages of education, which the schools and the universities’ afford aspirants for the highest political honors, will not be possessed of the qualities which are essential to true statesmanship. The road which leads to public honors is always traversed by numerous competitors equally anxious for the laurels of fame and when all corrupt influences are judged simply by their merits, the ablest will generally be successful. Nor is this picture merely an ideal impossible of realization. For, the consideration of questions affecting our political progress and destiny, the growth of commerce, and the development of our national resources, for the management of our varied interests both at home and abroad, men not of pure character only, but of superior mental culture, are demanded by the voice of the people. And here more than anywhere else in the world, this voice exercises a potent influence. Above the roar of revolution and the turmoil of jarring factions it is ever heard summoning the ablest men to take the lead. Although our legislators may at times the incompetent and unscrupulous, although they may become public plunderers instead of public benefactors, yet the reaction speedily follows, and they are called to give an account by an intelligent people who demand that their interests be honestly and intelligently represented. The representatives will generally possess a degree of intelligence corresponding to, if not surpassing that, of the people by whom they are chosen, and since the facilities for popular education are rapidly improving, and a jealousy of the sacred character of the ballot is leading many wise men to consider the importance of making the right of its exercise dependent on a certain degree of intelligence, there are brighter prospects of a wise, sagacious statesmanship in the future than we have seen in the past.
But even if our expectations of the future rested solely upon the encouragement which the past affords, we should not be entirely without hope. In building a great nation, extending over such a wide extent of territory, involving such mighty interests, in trying a new experiment before the gaze of the whole world, it would have been remarkable had no mistakes been made, and had the statesmen to whom that vast undertaking was entrusted not at times misdirected the ship of State. But what is the testimony of history? Have not the problems of government which seemed most difficult of solution been grappled by master minds? Has not the republic been conceived, begotten, and elevated to the rank of a leading power all within a century? Has she (some text is lost in this sentence) throughout all her borders come into harmony with the teachings of the Declaration? Surely it would be encouragement enough if this record were the only argument against adverse criticism. If statesmanship is to be judged by what it actually does; if great deeds are the indices of great qualities of mind, then looking back upon the past we do not despair of the future.
But above the past rises a living present; instead of the old has come the new with all its beacon fires burning. In the light of events which are transpiring what patriot does not take courage? Who does not rejoice in the efforts which are making to purify and exalt the public service, and in the reactionary influence which it will exert on the character of our public servants? When it shall once become generally understood that the duty of a statesman is not to be confounded with that of a functionary; when he shall be expected to bring to his office the character of a diligent student whose mind has been enriched with the lessons of political history, then we will have reached a period in which our national life which was contemplated by the framers of the Constitution.
Besides contending that it is impossible for us to produce the highest order of statesmen, our our critics have endeavored to show that it is equally impossible to produce men of superior literary attainments. among other things, it is said that the inducements which are held out in political life tend to draw the literary class from the seclusion of the study, where success is not so immediate and easy of attainment. But while there grounds for this opinion at the time when it was most generally held, the mistake was again made of confounding tendencies of a young country and an unsettled population with the basal principles of a democracy existing under the most favorable circumstances. Moreover our critics too often regarded America as separated from Europe by insuperable barriers, and forgot that although the two continents are divided by a mighty ocean, they are nevertheless united in the commonwealth of letters; that the same problems in science and philosophy which engage the attention of European thinkers, call forth similar exertion here; that there are sources of poetic inspiration beneath the sceptre of a free and sovereign people as well as beneath that of Kings. The base of Parnassus is not confined to a single continent, or to a single race; it extends wherever there is mind, and all may at least secure a foothold if they cannot reach its lofty summit. and how could it be otherwise? Is not America an outgrowth of all these forces which for centuries have been working in the old world? Is she not the continuation on a broader scale of those democratic tendencies which have caused the thrones of monarchs to tremble all over the world? And shall we conclude with those who have drawn such gloomy pictures that this steady development of free institutions, this inevitable tendency of the principles of political equality to follow the march of Christian civilization and to manifest itself in the form of a democracy is antagonistic to the progress of thought, the growth of literature, and the development of the highest order of mind? No if we cannot, we must not-
“For I doubt not through the ages
One increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widened
With the process of the suns.”
Instead, therefore, of being unfavorable to the attainment of literary excellence there are reasons which lead us to believe that our literature will be commensurate in its range with that of our new experiment, and as far reaching in its influence as are the sentiments of liberty which we cherish.
No study of the nature of our institutions can fail to reveal the fact that excellence in the performance of literary labor will be appreciated in proportion to the intelligence of the people. Here, more than in any other country in the world, master minds address their works to larger and more appreciative audiences, whose facilities for the acquisition of knowledge are constantly increasing. In Germany the great mass of the people sustain hardly any relation whatever to the literary class who write for a select few, to whom alone their dialect is intelligible. What is true of Germany is in many respects true of the rest of Europe, and if there exists any degree of sympathy between the two classes it is mainly due to the sway of democratic ideas.
But with American writers it is different. While they find with advancing years that a strictly educated class is growing more numerous, yet they cannot fail to cheer and elevate the masses by the fire and glow of their genius, for the hearts of the people are always thrilled with delight with each new triumph of mind. In a country therefore, where the sympathy between the two classes is so close, and the appreciation of high attainments so general it is not unreasonable to suppose that a corresponding desire for distinction in the field of letters will exist. The love of fame has always been a master motive in the breast of man, and whenever it can be secured in those pursuits for which he has the greatest liking he will not be slow in seeking it. Nor is it a valid objection to say that a great many American readers do not discriminate between the valuable and the worthless in literary composition, and in this way encourage mediocrity instead of excellence; for in an age like this when the beauty and the defects of literature are so well pointed out by able critics who have become head lights in the intellectual world, it is almost impossible for grave faults not to be detected and for excellence to remain long undiscovered. Accordingly those who seek literary fame will prefer that which is permanent and valuable, not that which is short lived and valueless. They will imitate the examples of the poets and philosophers o other times who secured their places in history by patient labor and by seeking to approximate the highest ideals.
Besides the stimulus which may be found in the appreciation of intellectual labor, there is that favorable influence which generally exists in the absence of an established religion. If history teaches anything with regard to intellectual progress it is that the mind is fettered by an extreme reverence for the past which is generally the fault of a State religion. That spirit which leads man to cling with tenacity to religious dogmas, to make war upon every effort of the mind which in any degree has the appearance of conflicting with his teachings and beliefs has retarded many of the noblest achievements in the march of truth. Who does not stand with reverence in the presence of those great minds who in every age of the world have struggled to burst asunder the chains of superstition in order that a new idea might be born into the world? From the time of Socrates who drank the fatal hemlock, down to that of Galileo, we read of the same sublime rage against intolerance of religious and intellectual liberty. but the last vestiges of this curse of the ages are rapidly disappearing, and here in America we are the advanced guard of the new era. Here the spirit of liberty pervades the atmosphere of a whole continent, smiling alike upon those who are most devout in religion and those who reverently or irreverently seek to reveal the mysteries of the labyrinth of nature. This benign influence gives a mighty impulse to intellectual efforts. The soul stirred with sublime thoughts and struggling to give them fit expression walks abroad with a serene countenance when he breathes the air of liberty. Without titles or illustrious ancestry, he feels that he belongs to the highest nobility, to the noblest brotherhood-the brotherhood of freemen!
Under circumstances so favorable, so new, it is a reproach to human nature, an insult to the highest instincts of man, to say that he will simply employ all these advantages to minister to his physical needs, to build up a great state in which ease, luxury and political enjoyment will be sought, and the great ocean of truth, with all its treasures, will be left unexplored. On the contrary, it is encouraging to find an example of the rich fruit which we expect America to produce in the life of one who recently completed his earthly career, and to whose scholarly attainments an eloquent tribute was paid by an English divine. Making the most of the advantages which Harvard could afford, Mr. Motley completed his course at the German universities, and beginning his literary career as a novelist, he soon abandoned the realm of fiction to enter upon the investigation of the stern facts of history. Himself an advocate of the rights of man, he became the historian of the Netherlands, and the story of their long struggle for liberty and republican government, adorned with his learning and eloquence, will be read and admired till the latest generation as a model of American literature.
But while we are thus confident of the nature of our surroundings, and of the elements in our political system which are favorable to intellectual progress, to the development of statesmanship in the government, and of superior men in literary pursuits; while we are thus hopeful of the intellectual prospects of America, we must never lose sight of the means to be employed in accomplishing the great ends which we desire. In vain is it to speculate concerning the nature of democracy, to boast of the grandeur of our free institutions unless we address ourselves with equal earnestness to the work which awaits honest hearts and industrious hands. Although we have made rapid strides in the work of education, yet the demand for renewed efforts is increasing with the growth of population and the extension of our government towards the Pacific coast. The introduction into our body politic of a large class of citizens whose facilities for education are limited, the constant emigration to our shores of the inhabitants of the old world, who are unacquainted with the nature of our government, and hence devoid of that national pride which is so essential to it perpetuity, call upon us to exercise all the means in our power to extend the blessings of liberal culture to every nook and corner of the Republic, and to extend them not grudgingly, but with that generous munificence which is necessary for the promotion of the public weal. The school house has always been an important factor in American life. It has followed the march of Republican institutions from New England to the farthest West, and even as the adventurer in search of gold plods his weary way over the Black Hills it will follow him as the constant reminder of the genius of America, and as her strongest safeguard. Let it ever be cherished as the nurse of the great and the good; let its rich blessings flow alike to the huts of the poor and the palaces of the rich; let the just indignation of the whole country rest upon those who shall in any way abridge its privileges! Genius is not always the gift of those in fortunate circumstances. A nation’s proudest chief is often he
“Who breaks his birth’s invidious bar,
And grasps the skirts of happy chance,
And breasts the blows of circumstance,
And grapples with his evil star;
Who makes by force his merit known,
And lives to clutch the golden keys,
To mold a mighty State’s decrees,
And shape the whisper of the throne.”
And while the school cannot create, it can at least shape and direct genius. It can fashion it for its high calling; it can furnish aid in surmounting many difficulties which might otherwise delay and keep it in obscurity.
But while the school may direct the energies of a struggling genius and open to it new beauties in the intellectual world, it cannot accomplish everything. For constant exertion in the pursuit of knowledge there should always be inducements, and although continuous study and investigation in any department of knowledge should be pursued for the love of it, yet there are often grave difficulties in the way which retard one’s progress, and often divert one’s attention to pursuits which are more remunerative, and in which success is more immediate. When we scan the long list of great minds who have struggled against adverse circumstances, we cannot but conclude that something should be done to aid these ministers of truth. To-day we stand amid historic associations, and from this high vantage ground we may look down through all the past upon the sacrifices made, the battles fought and the hardships endured, in order that we might enjoy this rich legacy of the ages; and standing thus shall we not extend our sympathies and our aid to all who are laboring, silently perhaps, but earnestly to extend the boundaries of knowledge?
Besides the interest which we take in the cultivation of mind from personal considerations we should never forget those of a national character. The true greatness of a nation consists in the influence which it wields for good. If these institutions of ours shall ever molder and decay, the monument which shall attest our greatness will be the writings of our poets and philosophers, the eloquence of our orators and statesmen, a monument which will be a source of comfort and inspiration to struggling humanity in all coming time.