PHI BETA KAPPA SOCIETY
SEPTEMBER 7, 1842.
BY FRANCIS C. GRAY
B. CRANSTON AND COMPANY.
Among our numerous anniversaries, there are none more interesting, than those, in which we come up from the cares, and the turmoil, and the contentions of the world, like the Jews of old yearly to their temple, to the sacred seats of learning; to witness the proficiency and. do honour to the merit of the Youth, who, having completed their collegiate course, are about entering on the duties of society, and to welcome them as fellow labourers in. the field of life. The occasion carries us back to the period, when we stood, as they do, on the threshold of existence, gazing eagerly into a future, not with clouds and darkness resting on it, but glowing with the sunshine of hope, and peopled with the brightest visions of youthful expectation. It carries us forward to the day, when they will look back, like us, on realities--how different from their dreams! It is good for us to be here, and being here, to contemplate the past and the future. For us, who have come up hither from our daily pursuits, as it tend to revive in all their original ardour, the generous purposes and high resolves of our youth, so that we may descend again into the arena of the world, refreshed and reinvigorated for its conflicts. It is good for them, to pause before they step down among us, and to recall the principles here inculcated, with the firm resolution, that in every hour of temptation or of peril, they will cling to them and hold them fast. It is good for us both, to look round on our actual position, and forward on the task before us, and to consider in what manner it may be best accomplished, what are the dangers and the obstacles in our way, and how we may avoid or surmount them.
Such a survey will show that there are many circumstances in our present condition, leading to the belief, that the generation now rising into active life, in America, is destined to exert an uncommon influence on the fortunes, not only of our country, but of the whole human race; and it is my purpose at this time to point out some of those circumstances, and some of the dangers and the duties, that attend its career.
I am induced to select this in preference to any literary topic, by a sense of its immediate importance. There are periods, when some great struggle is going on, in which all men have an equal interest, and which all must be called on to meet, when the summons may be fitly sounded, not only in the groves of the academy, but even from the pulpit, to bid all be up and doing. Such a struggle is already begun. How long it will last, or how it may end, I know not; but I am persuaded, that within fifty years, and during the life-time of some of those, who this day quit these halls, it may produce results, such as have rarely been brought about during a similar period. It has seemed to me, therefore, that I could not occupy the hour allotted d to me, more usefully than in stating the reasons of this opinion and if in so doing I shall impress on the mind of any one a conviction of its justice, and a deep sense of the duty resulting from it, so as, in any degree, to confirm his resolution or animate his efforts in the performance of that duty, I shall not have spoken altogether in vain.
To men living in the midst of the world, the present moment is always of quite enough importance; and the controversy of the day, whether political, religious or literary, absorbs so much of their attention, that they rarely look beneath it, even though it be in fact but as a ripple on the surface of the mighty stream, whose irresistible current sweeps on unheeded. The student, on the other hand, whose knowledge of the world is derived mainly from books, and whose fancy is filled with the forms of heroes, who have founded or overthrown empires; of sages, who have established schools of philosophy; and of patriots, who have saved their country in the hour of peril; is apt to look upon our own times as degenerate and commonplace, and to dream that it were better to have lived in the days of old, when he might have heard the lessons of divine philosophy from the lips of their authors, and have witnessed, perhaps shared the labors of the great men he admires. Such an idea has no doubt, crossed the imagination of many of our young friends; but let me say to them and to their youthful contemporaries: You, know not your fate. It may be, that you, who are now entering into active life, need not look back to any age with regret, that you were not born to partake its duties and its triumphs, for if the signs of the times may be trusted, there have been few periods in the history of mankind more big with the fate of nations, than that, from which the veil of futurity is in your day to be lifted; few theatres more worthy the regards of men and of angels, than that, where you are destined to tread.
A mighty revolution has long been going on throughout the whole of civilized Europe, not a revolution in the forms of government alone, but in the whole structure of society. Slow, indeed, and fluctuating in its progress, but so important in its object and results, that all the merely political revolutions, which have shaken that quarter of the world for centuries, changing dynasties and establishing, or subverting thrones and empires, are, in comparison with it, but as the dust of the balance.
Eight centuries ago, the mass of its inhabitants were bowed down to the earth under the iron yoke of the feudal system, subjected to the mere caprice of petty military despots, under whose stern rule they were almost without rights, and entirely without security; and destitute even of the semblance of political power, so that neither rulers nor ruled ever dreamed that the happiness of the people was any object of government, or the will of the people any source of authority. But almost all the great changes, which have taken place during that long period, have tended, more or less, to elevate the condition and character, to increase the acknowledged rights and the political power, and to promote the comfort of the people. Many events, which seemed in themselves unmitigated evils, were made, by the blessing of heaven, to work together, in the end, for the advancement of this great good. The constant wars of these chieftains with each other; the crusades, in which the whole chivalry of Europe poured out their blood like water; and in England especially, the wars of the Roses, during which three-fourths of the nobles of the land fell upon the field or on the scaffold, by diminishing the power of the great lords, increased the relative influence of the people. Many politic sovereigns also granted important privileges to the latter, for the sole purpose of making them a check on the turbulence of the nobility. The invention of gunpowder brought them nearer on a level with their steel-clad masters. Improvements in agriculture and the mechanic arts and the extension of commerce gave them wealth, --and wealth is power. The establishment of towns and cities, in consequence of these improvements, gave them union and organization, --and these are power. The cultivation of literature and the sciences, especially when aided by the art of printing, diffused knowledge among them, and knowledge is power. It is hardly possible to overrate the influence of the reformation of religion in promoting the same great result, not only in Protestant but in Catholic countries also. Moreover, the consciousness of increasing strength led them to seize every opportunity for throwing off their burdens, and not unfrequently with success. And though in many cases the ignorance resulting from their former degraded condition, or other causes, prevented their maintaining their newly acquired rights, and made them fall back under the dominion of their former rulers, yet these occasional and momentary triumphs created more respect for their strength and more unwillingness to drive them to extremity, and thus tended on the whole, to elevate their position in society; so that, though the wave advanced and receded, the great tide of liberty was always rising. There is another circumstance in the history of the transatlantic world, to which I would call your attention. For four centuries past, the nations of Europe have been gradually and constantly extending their sway over all the other portions of the globe. Our own continent, may be deemed entirely subject to their rule, and is chiefly peopled by their offspring. I speak not now of the validity of the claim thus to extend their power, nor of the manner in which that claim has, in many cases, been enforced; but merely of the fact of such extension, and the probability, judging of the future from the past, that they and their descendants will sooner or later obtain, if not absolute dominion, at least a predominant authority over every other portion of the globe. Whatever, therefore, materially affects the character and institutions of these nations, must necessarily affect all who may be subject to their sway, and have no inconsiderable influence on the improvement and happiness of the whole family of man.
These European nations are now turning their eyes upon this country with an eagerness of inquiry hitherto unknown. For many years after the establishment of our present form of government, their attention was too entirely absorbed in their own terrible struggles to think much of a people so inconsiderable and so remote. But as soon as they had sunk into repose after the pacification of Europe, we rose more and more into notice. The manner in which our contest with great Britain had terminated, the enforcement of our claims to indemnity against France and other powers of the continent, our unexampled growth, our immense commerce, and the ubiquity of our enterprize, excited an increasing respect for our power, and they began to look more closely into our internal condition. Our public institutions first caught their attention, and commissioners were sent across the Atlantic by all the great sovereigns of Europe, to examine our prisons and penitentiaries. Then our railroads, which were spreading all over the face of the country, and were constructed more speedily and more economically than in England, were made the objects of similar commissions. Yet still nothing was known of the character or operation of our political system by the best informed statesmen of Europe, not even by those of England, whose most intelligent travelers, among us, in treating of this subject, exhibit nothing clearly, but their own gross ignorance of it, until about six years ago, when a work was published in France, which was pronounced by the most celebrated and the most successful of modern diplomatists, M. Talleyrand, to be the, ablest work on the science of politics, which had been written for more than a century, and which certainly contains the most complete and philosophical account of our political institutions ever published. It excited universal attention and interest, and at once gave its author, M. de Tocqueville, a place among the first political philosophers in Europe.
This writer, from the fact, that the social revolution just mentioned, is the most ancient, the most steady, and the most uninterrupted , in all history, concludes, that it is inevitably predestined, ultimately everywhere, and.in his own country speedily to be fully accomplished, and accordingly he studies the political condition of America, the only country where it is already completed, and where the institutions resulting from it are in full and peaceful operation, in order to judge of its natural consequences, and the means, of rendering it most beneficial to mankind.
The eyes of the statesmen of Europe then, are upon us, of those most competent to judge of our institutions, and to influence their own. The mass of the people, indeed, understand little, of our system, and they understand their own no better. Yet they too, are no longer indifferent to events in this country, and all feel, that on our success or failure the hopes of the friends and of the enemies of liberty among themselves are mainly dependent. Even in the least enlightened parts of the continent, no striking occurrence here escapes notice, and whenever they receive some exaggerated account of an outrage in America, it causes them, according, to their several opinions, to exult over the excesses of liberty, or to hang down their heads in shame and sorrow.
But even those most favorably disposed towards us do not consider our prosperity hitherto as an entirely satisfactory experiment on the merits of our political system. Nor can this excite our wonder. There were many circumstances in our early condition calculated to have no little effect in counteracting the evil tendencies of any system, however imperfect in itself. Besides, when first united by the revolution, our whole population hardly exceeded the present population of Switzerland; and it is admitted, that very small states may maintain free institutions, if they can secure themselves against foreign enemies. There is a little republic of San Marino, on the top of a hill in Italy, containing about seven or eight thousand inhabitants, which is so little an object of envy or ambition to its neighbors, that it has preserved its freedom for fourteen hundred years.
But the question, which the statesmen of Europe wish to have settled, is this: whether a nation, extensive, populous and wealthy enough to defend itself, unaided, against all aggression, and maintain its fleets and armies without summoning its citizens on every alarm of war from their daily occupations and their firesides to the field, thus letting the mere sound of the trumpet interrupt all the pursuits of peace,--to make all the internal improvements which modern science is perpetually suggesting,--to establish the division of labor and the competition for success in every pursuit, essential to the perfection of the useful arts,--to promote the cultivation of science, and literature, and supply the innumerable wants of civilized life,--whether such a nation be capable of maintaining a system of government, under which the citizens possess equal rights and equal political power without a degree of anarchy as intolerable as despotism itself.
Where else in the world can they look for the solution of the question but to this country, where only the elements of the problem are found united. Already its population has so increased, that it is surpassed in this respect by only four European nations, and at the end of the period we now contemplate, if the rate of increase be the same as hitherto on both sides of the Atlantic, it will be equalled by none but the gigantic empire of Russia. Without meaning to dwell on this point, there is one light, in which I would present it to you, somewhat striking. So rapid has been our increase, that the number of persons of European descent now living on the surface of these United States, is greater than the whole aggregate number of the dead of all generations of the same race, that lie buried beneath it. Surprising as this may seem, it is capable of mathematical demonstration, and this in a form so simple, that I will venture to state it even here. Taking a generation to be the period, during which as many persons die as existed at its commencement, and supposing the population to be exactly doubled in the period of a single generation; begin your settlement with one thousand inhabitants. At the end of the first generation you have one thousand dead, and two thousand living. At the end of the second generation you add the same number, two thousand, to both, making three thousand dead and four thousand living, which last number you add to both at the end of the third generation; and as you add at the end of each generation the same number, that is, the number living at its commencement, both to the dead and to the living, the difference between them will always remain the same, and the living will always exceed the dead by the number with which you began. Now this is on the supposition, that the population exactly doubles in the period of one generation. But our population is found to increase much faster. It doubles in less than twenty-four years, and has done so from the beginning, so that in fact the number of the living far, very far, exceeds the whole mighty congregation of the dead. As long as the same rate of increase shall continue, and nothing has hitherto checked it, this will always be so, and the child that opens its eyes to the light this day, and lives to see old age, will close them on an empire of one hundred and seventy millions of people. Should our institutions, therefore, be henceforth successfully administered, it will no longer be objected, that the population is too small for a satisfactory experiment.
Neither can it be said, that we are too poor or too inconsiderable in any other respect, since the wealth and resources of the country have increased even faster than its population. Had they increased only as fast and maintained the same relative proportion, the condition of individuals in every class would remain unaltered, whereas it is in fact very much changed for the better; and when you take into consideration the value of the improvements of every kind, private and public, the difference is beyond calculation. Our progress in manufactures, and the useful arts, in every department of commerce, in facilities for intercourse with our fellow men, whether for purposes of business, pleasure or instruction, has been no less unexampled. And if men do not think faster, yet the interchange of thought is far more rapid and more extensive, and most of the results of thought are sooner produced and more widely and speedily diffused, so that if the length of human life is to be measured, not by the succession of day and night, nor by the recurrence of mere physical wants, but by what may be accomplished in it for our own improvement or for the good of others, our lives almost rival those of the Patriarchs.
Here let me pause, and ask you to estimate, if you can, to weigh well the duties incumbent upon those, to whose hands all the happiness and all the hopes of such a nation running such a career are directly and entirely committed. Even though it were to be utterly secluded from the rest of the world, and to have no influence by its example, but to prosper or perish unnoticed and unknown by other nations, even in that case the responsibility were enough. How much more then, when the execution of this trust is at the same time a great experiment, the result of which is to have an incalculable influence on the progress of liberty throughout Europe, and on the prosperity of the whole human race?
Such is the task assigned to the rising generation in America, so momentous in itself, so extensive, I may say universal in its consequences. It is a reflection at once solemn and encouraging, which should excite their hopes of success as well as increase their sense of responsibility, that no similar undertaking has ever been entered on with so many circumstances favorable to its accomplishment.
A few of these circumstances, especially such as are peculiar to us, may deserve a moment's attention. Most of the States, from their first settlement, had been, accustomed to manage each its own internal concerns, with almost entire freedom, and this long experience in self government is certainly of no little utility. Moreover, no such distinction of classes ever existed among us, as to leave any permanent divisions in society, so that our present system is perfectly consentaneous with all our social institutions, feelings, habits and usages; a fact highly important, when we consider how many generations are requisite to eradicate a deep seated prejudice from the hearts of a people, or even to remove the traces of any thing peculiar in its manners. How many years was it in England, after all ground for the popular dread of Catholic Power had ceased, before that dread could be so far subdued, as to permit the repeal of laws, which enlightened men had long regarded as disgraceful to their country? And how many little peculiarities still exist among ourselves, which can be traced back to the days of our puritan fathers?
Our resent strength, combined with our geographical position, places us altogether beyond the apprehension of any foreign aggression or interference, by which our political system could be in the slightest degree endangered. And the vast extent and fertility of our unsettled country, capable of affording all, who choose to seek it there, an abundant subsistence, tend greatly to diminish that accumulation of abject poverty in crowded cities, which is the fruitful parent of ignorance and crime, always the most fatal enemies of freedom. Such, too, are our habits and character; our soil and climate, our laws for the distribution of property, and all the other circumstances of our condition, that almost every individual either actually possesses some property, or has the power and the expectation of soon acquiring it; and of course has a direct interest in maintaining law and order, and in repressing that license, which is equally destructive of all such hopes and possessions, from the greatest to the least. The wonderful facilities for mutual intercourse, which belong to our age, though not exclusively to our country, and which are constantly increasing, tend also to favor the diffusion of correct information and sound opinions, and to promote that respect for each others sentiments, that regard for each others interest, those connexions, of family, of friendship, and of business, and those thousand other nameless ties, which are bonds of union lighter than air, yet stronger than adamant.
Another advantage peculiar to us, is the distribution of power between the nation and the states, conferring on the former all that is requisite for the regulation of our foreign affairs and the promotion of the general welfare, and leaving to the latter, under certain necessary restrictions, the management of their own concerns. This is an extension of our ancient practice of allowing towns and parishes, with certain limitations, to regulate their own affairs, and rests on the great principle, which lies at the foundation of civil liberty, that every man and every lawful association of men have the right to govern their exclusive concerns, entirely according to their own will and pleasure, so far as this can be done without putting at hazard the safety or the rights of others.
It is true, that these various subdivisions of power, and the checks and balances necessary to enforce them, require many and complex laws but these are necessary to secure our liberties. Under a despotic government, in any state of society, few laws are necessary. The will of the sovereign is the law, and as cases arise, he may decide them in favour of which party he pleases. But this is favour, not justice. So a free people, in a very rude state of society, having few wants to be supplied, few interests to be protected, few trusts or contracts of any kind, require but few laws. But the innumerable wants, and interests, and pursuits, and engagements in a civilized community, absolutely demand numerous, various and minute provisions of law to guard them beforehand, on all sides, from violence or fraud; for to leave them unprotected is anarchy, and to determine questions concerning them, not according to previous law, but by subsequent arbitrary decision, is despotism. Civilization and liberty cannot dwell together under a code of few and simple laws, and if the attempt thus to unite them be made and persisted in, one or both must perish.
The practice of delegating the power of legislation to representatives chosen by the people, instead of passing laws, as in the petty states of Greece, in the primary assemblies of the people themselves, though quite essential to the security of rational liberty, is not peculiar to us. But the paln of imposing limitations on the power of the legislature itself, and the manner in which we enforce those limitations, so as to compel its submission to them, are entirely our own. In other countries, the legislative power is unlimited. The phrase in England is, that Parliament is omnipotent; and accordingly it may alter or contravene Magna Charta and all the other securities of English liberty at pleasure. The political system of France is peculiar to that country. Its theory is that the legislature cannot alter the charter, which is their constitution; but if a law directly repugnant to it be in fact passed, it is the duty of the king and of all magistrates to enforce the law in spite of the constitution; so that in practice, the legislative power is no more restrained there than in England. With us, the constitution is paramount to the law, and is designed to impose effectual limitations on the legislative body. After all, if the legislature were allowed to interpret the constitution for itself, and thus to determine the extent of its own authority, no constitutional provisions could afford any security against its invasion of private rights. Whatever powers it should choose to exercise, it would be sure to find in the constitution. We therefore, hold any law repugnant to the constitution to be utterly void, and accordingly there is established, by the constitution itself, a judiciary with full power to decide, whenever a law affecting any individual is called in question by him, whether that law is compatible with the constitution, and so valid, or repugnant to it, and so void; and in the latter case, to refuse to enforce it. Thus, in this country, and here only in all the world, are private rights protected against the encroachments even of the legislature itself.
If, notwithstanding these peculiar advantages, this great experiment, to which the friends of liberty every where are now looking as conclusive, should be found by them to fail within a single generation after they began to make it their study, it would stifle their hopes and paralyze their efforts, and retard the progress of the good cause perhaps for centuries. And we see nothing to encourage the expectation, that a similar experiment will ever again be made, here or elsewhere, under more favorable auspices.
If, on the contrary, it should be carried on with success for the period I have mentioned, its advantages will be by that time so fully developed, and it will inspire such universal respect and confidence, that the people will look on it with a gratitude, affection and pride, that can hardly fail to make it perpetual. Nor can it be doubted that, within that time, other nations, influenced by our example, will catch and foster the sacred spark of liberty, so that, if our light should subsequently be quenched, new beacons will then be already kindled for the guidance of those who shall still remain in darkness. At any rate, it will stand recorded in history forever, and the friends of liberty throughout the world, whether oppressed or triumphant, will, in all future time, look back to those by whom her cause was thus sustained, in the very crisis of its fate, with admiration and gratitude; and will rise up and call them blessed.
And well will they deserve their fame, for their path is beset with dangers, and we see on all sides causes of anxiety and alarm as to the fate of our political institutions. It is not, perhaps, so much the magnitude of any one of these dangers, though many of them are great, as their union, number and frequency, which should excite apprehension. One perversion of the constitution does not abrogate it, nor one abuse subvert the government, nor one triumph of demagogues subjugate the people, nor one menace dissolve the union, nor one breach of private or of public faith annihilate all credit, nor one act of lawlessness produce anarchy. But when we see all these things taking place together and frequently, and recollect that every repetition facilitates their recurrence, we may well tremble for our country. And is not this now the case? Is not, in the first place, is not the constitution constantly perverted by fanciful theories, which would defeat the most important securities of our liberty? Let me mention one only, but one pregnant with mischief.
One of the greatest of these securities is the authority of the supreme judiciary to decide conclusively, and in the last resort, on the constitutionality of all laws brought into question before it, so that such decision shall be binding on every department of the government. This is the only possible security against the assumption, by the legislature, of despotic power. Its effect is to prevent their determining the extent of their own authority, and to compel them to keep within the limits of the constitution. When the judiciary, invested as it is, by the constitution, the act of the people, with that exclusive power, decides on the constitutionality of a law, that decision is the will of the people constitutionally expressed, and neither Congress, nor any other department, has a right to dispute it. And yet we have seen such decisions again and again disputed, both in Congress and by chief magistrates, on the absurd ground, that as they are sworn to support the constitution, they are bound in conscience to support it according to their own understanding of its meaning; and argument, which would equally apply to every national or even state officer, since all take the like oath, and would authorize a petty constable to refuse obedience to the mandate of the courts, unless his private judgment coincided with theirs as to the meaning of the constitution. The real obligation imposed by this oath is to support the constitution as constitutionally interpreted, and the only constitutional interpreter is the judiciary. In cases of doubt not yet decided by it, the officer must, indeed of necessity, act according to his own best judgment. But he does so at his peril, and if it be subsequently determined, that his judgment was erroneous, he has, through mistake, violated his duty.
Adopt the opposite doctrine, and since there is manifestly no other tribunal competent to decide such questions, it necessarily follows, that every constitutional doubt that sophistry can devise, must remain a moot point forever; and the constitution, instead of deriving, as all other laws do, certainty and stability from judicial decisions, and thus growing stronger and stronger with age, will become weaker and weaker as such doubts are multiplied, till at length, instead of being a system of rules defining the structure and powers of the government, it will cease to define any thing, and be an incoherent mass of doubt, uncertainty, and confusion.
As to the abuses of the government, their name is legion. One of its chief duties is to establish a uniform currency: yet by its capricious legislation, all uniformity is destroyed, and the currency of the country brought into a state of almost inextricable confusion. Its duty is to provide for the general welfare, yet the laws affecting the occupations and the industry of the whole people, which ought, above all things, to be fixed and stable, are kept perpetually fluctuating. It would be superfluous, as well as endless, to enumerate abuses in detail, when we see rulers, with the public good always on their lips, evincing no regard for it in their practice, nor any other motive than greediness for office and spoil, and trampling, without hesitation, on the interests of the public in their struggles to triumph over some rival;--when we see chief magistrates, in gross violation of their highest and peculiar duty, "to take care that the laws are faithfully executed," laboring "indirectly and directly, too," to defeat their operation;--when we see the lessons of experience altogether unheeded, and experiment after experiment made upon the prosperity of the country, till it seems likely to suffer the fate of the poor Italian, on whose tombstone it was written, "I was quite well, but would get better, and got here."
It might perhaps be presumed, that since in a perfectly free government, the whole power is ultimately vested in the people, it would be exercised only for the good of the people. And if they were so enlightened as always to understand their true interests, and so firm and upright as not to sacrifice them to the temptation of the moment, the fact would accord with this presumption. But this is not the case. They are not only liable to err, as they are men, but peculiarly so, s they are sovereign. The demagogue, who seeks office or power, omits no flattery, no falsehood, no intrigue, no deception, no appeal to passion or prejudice, for his own aggrandizement. Some plausible but false theory, some specious name, some popular watchword, some maxim, true perhaps in one sense, but not so in the sense in which he uses it; these are the false lights he holds out to lure the people to their ruin. In this way the ballot box itself, the great remedy designed to cure all the abuses of government, is made to aggravate and perpetuate them.
It may be worth while to sift one of these specious doctrines, and see how a proposition, perfectly just and true in itself, may be so perverted and misapplied, as to produce incalculable mischief, and to defeat the very object it professes to accomplish. Let us take one of the most ancient, the most common, and the most mischievous of them all, which has deluded multitudes for centuries; the maxim that all men are born equal, and the deduction from it, that in a free country, they ought to be kept equal in every respect.
It is true, that in a free country all men are born with equal legal rights, and this equality ought always to be maintained. It is no less true, that men every where have by nature an equal right to exercise all the faculties and to enjoy all the blessings, which a beneficent Providence has given them; and this precious equality ought never to be invaded. But it is not true, that all men are born with equal health and strength of body, and they cannot be made equal in this respect in any other mode, than by reducing them all to the level of the feeblest. You cannot give the cripple the giant's strength to produce equality, you can only cripple the giant. So it is with the faculties of the mind. Give them free scope, and there will be an immense difference in the attainments of different men, and you can make them equal only be preventing them all from acquiring any thing; and in both cases, for the sake of establishing an equality of misery, you violate their equal right to exercise their natural powers, fro the attainment of happiness.
It is the same with property. If all men were made equal and kept equal in this respect, all would be entirely impoverished. No one could make any use of his property. I could hire no man's services, for as soon as he had rendered them, he must return his pay to re-establish the equality of our property. I can buy no food, for all know that as soon as I have eaten it, I must have the price back again to restore the equilibrium. But our reformer perhaps would not keep up this equality, but having made his distribution, would let things take their old course, and inequality be reestablished. This is clearly a violation of his own principle, and gives his proposition the air of a scheme for present plunder, rather than for the maintenance of a natural right; for if property ought to be equalized at one time, by virtue of any such right, it ought to be so at all times. But whatever might be the reformer's design, after one distribution, every man would apprehend another, and of course would take good care to be in the position of a receiver from the general fund rather than a contributor to it, i.e. he would produce no more than he could consume, before the distribution should take place; and thus the whole community would live, as the phrase is, from hand to mouth, without resource for seasons of unexpected calamity, and be involved in universal poverty, with the constant danger of famine.
The compulsory equality of property would stifle all exertion, for who would do more than procure a bare subsistence from day to day, if certain that whatever he might acquire would not be for his own peculiar benefit, nor for that of those, whose interests are dear to him as his own; but would be scattered like the rain from heaven, on the evil and the good, and operate as a direct bounty for the promotion of indolence? It is then mainly for the encouragement of labor, of bodily and mental labor, that property should be made secure. Their interests are inseparable. It is impossible to protect labor without protecting property. And it is no less true, that it is impossible to protect property effectually, without protecting labor. What indeed is property but the fruit of labor? Destroy the fruit, and where is the object or the probability of the existence of the tree? Destroy the tree, and farewell to the fruit.
A perfect equality of condition is as undesirable as it is unattainable. The infinite diversity, which exists in our faculties, in our attainments, in our possessions, this it is and this alone, that enables us to render each other those mutual aids, and to make those mutual interchanges, which bind society together as with hoops of steel, and form the grand secret of all its improvement and all its happiness.
There is indeed a kind of equality, which may be wisely and honestly aimed at, an equal and constant improvement in the social condition of all men; and this can be attained only by rendering property perfectly secure, and thus affording the greatest possible stimulus and reward to ingenuity, enterprize, skill and industry. These, when thus stimulated, tend continually to extend and improve the sciences and the useful arts, so as to multiply and cheapen their productions, and thus to bring them within the reach of all men.
The operation of this principle will be shown in the most striking manner, by comparing distant periods of time. There is not one among us, who is not better sheltered from the inclemency of the weather at all seasons, more comfortably clad, and supplied with food more wholesome and with physick less unwholesome, than the greatest sovereigns of Europe three hundred years ago. We do not indeed wear intertissued robes of gold and pearl, but we wear garments much more conducive to health and to comfort; and this difference extends from the least of our daily conveniences to our highest intellectual wants. A fork to eat with at the dinner table is now indispensable in the poorest dwelling, and the want of one would be deemed a hardship even in an alms-house--yet to Queen Elizabeth and to all her royal predecessors, it was a luxury unknown; and they had no other fork than their fingers. Less than three centuries ago, in the time of Edward Sixth, we are told by the Master of King's College, at Cambridge, in England, that the students there had for their daily food a pottage made of one farthing's worth of beef with a little salt and oatmeal, literally nothing else. What would our students now-a-days say to such commons as that? At the same time, artificers and laboring men were driven for subsistence to horse corn, i.e. beans, peas, oats, tares and lentiles.
As to mental culture, any man may now have access to more good books and better books, in his own language, than all Europe could then furnish.
Thus it is, that the rare and costly luxury of one age becomes the cheap and daily comfort of another, by means of improvements, which can only be brought about by that security and free control of property, of which the inequality complained of is the necessary consequence.
This mode of constantly and equally improving the social condition of all men, not by preaching, plunder and spoil, corrupting one part of the community for the ruin of the rest -- for the ruin of the whole, since the very object of the contest is destroyed in the struggle, but by exciting industry, and invention, and enterprize, to the utmost exertion in improving the useful arts, so that they may pour forth a harvest sufficient for all, a harvest constantly increasing from generation to generation, and almost from year to year, and which places the peasant of to-day in a better condition than the sovereign of former times, and the peasant of the next age than the sovereign of to-day; this, this is the true Agrarian Law, the only one compatible with the existence of civilization, or which can promote the improvement or the real happiness of any portion of the people.
In like manner the terms Monopoly, Corporation, and other popular watch-words, mostly borrowed from Europe, and having some significance there, are misinterpreted and misapplied to our institutions, so as to lead multitudes astray, and induce them to support measures hostile to the public interests and to their own, and which tend to hurry them the downward path to anarchy, and thence to despotism, so often trodden by republics.
In speaking of the dangers of our condition, it is impossible to omit the difference between the domestic institutions of the North and the South, since it has often led to the threat of dissolving the Union. And when we see many, on the one hand, instead of carefully refraining from touching a brother's wound, which they are powerless to heal, doing all they can to irritate it; and many, on the other, who, instead of lamenting their calamity, as did their fathers, hold up the festering deformity as their glory, and challenge admiration for it, we cannot but say to both parties: Ye know not what spirit ye are of. Surely not of the Christian spirit of charity and peace.
The madness of speculation, so often indulged in, the enormous frauds, which sometimes accompany it, the heedlessness, with which Corporations, and even States, plunge into debt, the coolness, with which the former defraud or defy their creditors, and the latter repudiate their engagements, or still more frequently, form mere party of personal motives, neglect to use the means entirely within their reach, for fulfilling them, all evince a want of self-control and of moral principle, which augurs ill for the stability of our political institutions.
The acts of violence and gross outrage, also frequently occurring, the utter recklessness of all legal and constitutional duty, occasionally evinced by every class, from the highest functionaries to the lowest of the people. Here, Representatives deserting their posts, and thus for a time breaking up the government, in order to defeat the will of the majority, to which, however unjustly exercised, they are bound to submit, till it can be corrected by the only safe and constitutional remedy, the voice of the people; -- and the halls of Legislation disgraced by brawls and even stained with blood. There, the mob, taking the law into its own hands, and punishing without trial, or hearing, or justice, or mercy; at one time perhaps blinded by obsolete prejudices, and excited by fanaticism and credulity, invading, in the stillness of midnight, the dwelling of unprotected females, devoted to religion, and committing it to the flames; at another, lifting its audacious head and calling itself the people, while committing acts of violence manifestly disapproved by them, and pronouncing sentence of outlawry upon the law itself; these things admonish us, that Anarchy is too justly deemed the natural destroyer of freedom, and remind us of the growlings of the tempest, ere it comes in its fury to devastate the land.
Another danger, which is in part the source of some already mentioned, and which tends to aggravate them all, is the highly excitable and imaginative character which distinguishes our age and especially our country, never resting satisfied with any thing established. No experience, however long, no consent, however universal, can secure any general principle form attack and denial. This quality is no doubt nearly allied to a virtue, and would do nothing but good, if it led always to thorough investigation, which gives strength and confidence to truth. But it is in fact often followed by the rash assertion of some fantastic theory, suggested, perhaps, by the passion or the interest of the moment, and which has no recommendation but its novelty, a charm but too seductive to such a people.
With such a character, amid such elements of strife and commotion, under an impulse which hurries on every thing before it so rapidly, it is vain to imagine that our country can remain stationary and be transmitted to the next generation without material change; on the contrary, it seems to be rushing onward to its destiny, be it good or evil, with the speed and the force of a torrent. May it not be with its recklessness also.
Since, then, the people are liable, like other sovereigns, to be misled by deception and flattery into measures fatal to their own best interests, and which tend, not only to defeat all the ends of free government, but to subvert free government itself, to overturn their own authority, and bring them down at last prostrate and helpless before the footstool of despotism; the question becomes all important in what manner we may best guard against this political suicide.
Undoubtedly the most effectual mode is to enlighten them as to their own true and permanent interests, so that they may estimate the promises and flatteries of demagogues at theri just value; may avoid sacrificing great principles to the shortsighted expediency of the moment, and may reject with scorn, like the Athenians in their better days, every political project, however plausible and tempting, of which men worthy of their confidence may say, as did Aristides, that though nothing could be more profitable to the republic, it is yet unjust.
Do you ask how the people is to be thus enlightened? I answer, your first, your second, and your third duty, is to promote the interests of education in every department, from the highest to the humblest. To begin with our public schools. Some of the New England states established, at their very first settlement, a system of common school education far superior to any then or previously existing in the world. But its improvement has by no means kept pace with our progress in other respects. Within a comparatively short period, a system has been established and matured, in the kingdom of Prussia, altogether more efficient than ours, and by which all men are trained up in obedience to the government under which they live. How much more necessary is education, where the people are to be qualified, not for obedience, but for rule?
It is shown by the last census, that more than half a million of free white inhabitants of the United States, above the age of twenty years, are unable to read and write, which means, no doubt, unable even to write their names or to read their primer. It is true, that this amount of knowledge would not, of itself, aid them much in performing their political duties. But this is the first step in education, and those, who have not learned this, have learned nothing. Besides, if such be the number who know not thus much, how immense must be the multitude who have learned nothing more, and whose acquirements are therefore far behind those of a good common school. But there is more than this in the training of a school. The slightest impressions on the child have an incalculable influence on the character of the man. And the habits of order and decorum, of patience and self-command, and intellectual effort, however humble, acquired in the school, are of inestimable advantage to the individual and to society; especially when we consider that the almost certain alternative is a toatla abandonment to indolence, recklessness, caprice, and self-indulgence.
Every effort should be made, therefore, to improve these and all our higher seminaries of education, to increase their efficiency and to elevate the standard of instruction in them; and above all, to introduce that thoroughness of scholarship in every thing, the want of which is the greatest defect of education among us. All projects not quite unreasonable, which are sincerely directed to these ends, should be encouraged, though not in the best possible form, nor likely to produce all the good, which their advocates, in their zeal, expect from them. They can produce no evil, and will at least tend to excite a greater interest in the subject, which is of itself a positive good.
Public lectures, and all other assemblages of men for literary of scientific purposes, are also worthy of encouragement, though the knowledge obtained in them is, for the most part, superficial and incomplete. They can deter no reasonable being, otherwise disposed to it, from the thorough investigation of any subject; but on the contrary, by exciting curiosity, may induce many to enter on studies, which they would not else have thought of pursuing. Such meetings, too, of persons of different occupations and positions in society, to engage in the same pursuit, and share the same pleasure, tend greatly to remove mutual prejudices, and to facilitate intercourse among them by affording them topics of common interest.
But, in relation to the subject we are now considering, the most important education is that obtained in society, the education of the world, which lasts as long as life, and the great object of which should be to give a right direction to that mighty power, public opinion. The first step towards this is to acquire correct opinions yourselves, and for this purpose to examine diligently and impartially the great questions, which may arise touching the public interests, and to interchange your views with others, especially with those who are most enlightened and best informed, and having thus matured your own opinions, to communicate them, with the reasons of them, on all fit occasions, frankly and decidedly. Refute fallacies and correct misrepresentations at all times, and meet the reiteration of error by the repetition of the truth; and whenever and wherever any enormous fraud, abuse, or outrage, threatening the safety of society, shall lift up its shameless front, cry aloud and spare not, brand it with infamy, set the mark of Cain upon its forehead, that it may flee from the face of man.
Nor is it less important to provide for the education of the heart; and establish a correct tone of public sentiment, and to this end to take a lively and sincere interest in the pursuits of others, to promote their honest views, sympathize in their feelings, give ready aid and even personal service to every institution designed for the good of any class of men, and seek to allay all prejudices, which may exist among different portions of the community.
In these things we may be constantly occupied; and we shall do a small part of our duty to the public, if we neglect them, under the idea that there is no immediate danger to our free institutions, and that when any pressing emergency shall arise, it will be time enough to meet it. No immediate danger? There is always danger, and the greatest of all dangers is, that we shall not be prepared for the emergency when it comes. No one can foresee what precious opportunities for action time and chance may bring him, and which he may lose for want of being ready to grasp them.
Chance will not do the work; chance gives the breeze,
But if the pilot slumber at the helm,
The very wind, that wafts us towards the port,
May dash us on the shelves.
The time would fail me to suggest, even in the most general terms, all the means that may be adopted to further the accomplishment of the task assigned you. But to those who feel an intense interest in it, they will suggest themselves. Be vigilant, then, in watching for every opportunity to promote it, and cherish a constant and deep sense of its importance, and, as opportunities arise, it will be put into your mouth and into your heart what you shall do and what you shall say, to discharge the duty you owe to your country, and your country to mankind.
All nations are bound to acknowledge their obligations to the past, by contributing something to the great stock of civilization, which is the common inheritance of the whole human family, and their true glory consists in not only fulfilling this obligation, but in going beyond it, so as to make the world their debtor. The peculiar situation of each points out its peculiar duty. One nation has claimed the gratitude of mankind, for bringing to perfection the elegant arts, and poetry, and eloquence, and has left to posterity the miracles of its skill in these, to excite universal admiration and despair. Another has given lessons of military prowess, planting its trophies in every part of the ancient world, and has bequeathed to us a code of legal principles, from which all civilized nation derive the greatest and the best portion of their laws, and which will endure as long as the name of justice itself shall be venerated. Others, again, have instructed us in the useful arts, and have brought down the sciences from heaven to dwell among men, and to contribute to our daily and hourly comfort; and have given us lessons of policy, and taught us the only mode of organizing judicial tribunals compatible with the preservation of liberty.
The duty, which our situation calls on us to perform, is to exhibit to mankind a popular representative system of government; and to prove to them by our example, not only that it is perfectly compatible with law, and order, and civilization, but that, rightly administered, it improves, in every respect, the social condition, humanizes the feelings, elevates the intellectual and moral character, secures the rights, and promotes the best interests and permanent happiness of the whole people.
Such is the Mission of America. Let her say to her sons of the rising generation: Go ye forth and fulfil it. Its fate is in your hands. Should you fail, it will be defeated, if not forever, yet for ages, beyond which the eye of expectation cannot penetrate. Should you succeed, the failure of any subsequent age to perform its duty, though it might retard, could never prevent its accomplishment. Do not dream, that you can transmit these great interests to your successors in the same condition in which you received them. You might as well think to arrest the flight of time itself.
Let no vain presumption induce you to believe that all will go well, and to indulge in those day dreams so common, of the future glories of your country. All will not go well, that glory will not be attained, nor even safety secured, without your efforts. While humbly trusting, that He, who has so favored you hitherto, will keep and save you, and out of evil bring forth good, let no overweening reliance on his aid lead to the torpor of fatalism. Yes, he will save you, if you will save yourselves; but not otherwise. He will bring good out of all your evil; but not good for you. Should your country be ruined by your guilt or supineness, the good to come of it will be, that the mighty ruin will stand forever a monument of shame to you, and a warning for the instruction of all other nations.
On the other hand, do not despair; since no one can foresee how far the good influence of the humblest efforts may ultimately extend; and many circumstances, never before united, now conspire in favor of the great cause you are called on to maintain. It is not certain, indeed, that your efforts will be successful. But, the certainty of success would diminish the energy, and the motive, and the merit of all exertion. One thing is certain; that there can be no success without effort. If you sow not, neither shall you reap. Sow the good seed, then, and though it be small as a grain of mustard seed, yet by the blessing of heaven, it may prosper, and spring up, and flourish, and spread abroad, till its branches shall reach to the ends of the earth, and afford food, and shade, and shelter, to the nations.
Behold your duty. May your lives be spent in the steady purpose and strenuous effort to fulfil it; and when the last hour shall come, may you lay down your heads in peace, grateful for the past, confiding in the future.