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AT CAMBRIDGE, BEFORE THE SOCIETY OF PHI BETA
KAPPA, AUGUST 26, 1824 :
BY EDWARD EVERETT.
MR. PRESIDENT, AND GENTLEMEN, In discharging the honorable trust of being the public organ of your sentiments on this occasion, I have been anxious that the hour, which we here pass together, should be occupied by those reflections exclusively, which belong to us as scholars. Our association in this fraternity is academical; we engaged in it before our alma mater dismissed us from her venerable roof, to wander in the various paths of life; and we have now come together in the academical holidays, from every variety of pursuit, from almost every part of our country, to meet on common ground, as the brethren of one literary household. The professional cares of life, like the conflicting tribes of Greece, have proclaimed to us a short armistice, that we may come up in peace to our Olympia.
But from the wide field of literary speculation, and the innumerable subjects of meditation which arise in it, a selection must be made. And it has seemed to me proper, that we should direct our thoughts, not merely to a subject of interest to scholars, but to one, which may recommend itself as peculiarly appropriate to us. If that old man eloquent, whom the dishonest victory at Cheronæa killed with report,' could devote fifteen years to the composition of his Panegyric on Athens, I shall need no excuse to a society of Ameri. can scholars, in choosing for the theme of an address,
on an occasion like this, the peculiar motives to intellectual exertion in America. In this subject that curiosity, which every scholar feels in tracing and comparing the springs of mental activity, is heightened and dignified, by the important connexion of the inquiry with the condition and prospects of our native land.
In the full comprehension of the terms, the motives to intellectual exertion in a country embrace the most important springs of national character. Pursued into its details, the study of these springs of national character is often little better than fanciful speculation. The questions, why Asia has almost always been the abode of despotism; and Europe more propitious to liberty; why the Egyptians were abject and melancholy; the Greeks inventive, elegant and versatile; the Romans stern, saturnine, and, in matters of literature, for the most part servile imitators of a people, whom they conquered, despised, and never equalled ; why tribes of barbarians from the north and east, not known to differ essentially from each other, at the time of their settlement in Europe, should have laid the foundation of national characters so dissimilar, as those of the Spanish, French, German, and English nations; these are questions to which a few general answers may be attempted, that will probably be just and safe, only in proportion as they are vague and comprehensive. Difficult as it is, even in the individual man, to point out precisely the causes, under the influence of which members of the same community and of the same family, placed apparently in the same circumstances, grow up with characters the most diverse; it is infinitely more difficult to perform the same analysis on a subject so vast as a nation; where it is first not a small question what the character is, before you touch the inquiry into the circumstances by which it was formed.
But as, in the case of individual character, there are certain causes of undisputed and powerful opera
tion; there are also in national character, causes equally undisputed of improvement and excellence, on the one hand, and of degeneracy and decline, on the other. The philosophical student of history, the impartial observer of man, may often fix on circumstances, which, in their operation on the minds of the people, in furnishing the motives and giving the direction to intellectual exertion, have had the chief agency in making them what they were or are. Nor are there many exercises of the speculative principle more elevated than this. It is in the highest degree curious to trace physical facts into their political, intellectual and moral consequences; and to show how the climate, the geographical position, and even the particular topography of a region connect themselves by evident association, with the state of society, its predominating pursuits, and characteristic institutions.
In the case of other nations, particularly of those which in the great drama of the world have long since passed from the stage, these speculations are often only curious. The operation of a tropical climate in enervating and fitting a people for despotism; the influence of a broad river or a lofty chain of mountains, in arresting the march of conquest or of emigration, and thus becoming the boundary not merely of governments, but of languages, literature, institutions and character; the effect of a quarry of fine marble on the progress of the liberal arts; the agency of popular institutions in promoting popular eloquence, and the tremendous reaction of popular eloquence on the fortunes of a state : the comparative destiny of colonial settlements, of insular states, of tribes fortified in nature's Alpine battlements, or scattered over a smiling region of olive gardens and vineyards; these are all topics, indeed, of rational curiosity and liberal speculation, but important only as they may illustrate the prospects of our own country. * It is therefore when we turn the inquiry to our countrv, when we survey its features, search its history, and contemplate its institutions, to see what the motives are, which are to excite and guide the minds of the people; when we dwell not on a distant, an uncertain, an almost forgotten past; but on an impending future, teeming with life and action, toward which we are rapidly and daily swept forward, and with which we stand in the dearest connexion, which can bind the generations of man together; a future, which our own -characters, our own actions, our own principles will do something to stamp with glory or shame; it is then that the inquiry becomes practical, momentous, and worthy the attention of every patriotic scholar. We then strive, as far as it is in the power of philosophical investigation to do it, to unfold our country's reverend auspices, to cast its great horoscope in the national sky, where many stars are waning, and many have set ; to ascertain whether the soil which we love, as that where our fathers are laid and we shall presently be laid with them, will be trod in times to come by a people virtuous, enlightened and free.
The first of the circumstances which are acting and will continue to act, with a strong peculiarity among us, and which must prove one of the most powerful influences, in exciting and directing the intellect of the country, is the new form of civil society, which has here been devised and established. I shall not wander so far from the literary limits of this occasion, nor into a field so oft trodden, as the praises of free political institutions. But the direct and appropriate influence on mental effort of institutions like ours, has not yet, perhaps, received the attention, which, from every American scholar, it richly deserves. I have ventured to say, that a new form of civil society has here been devised and established. The ancient Grecian republics, indeed, were free enough within the walls of the single city, of which most of them were wholly or chiefly composed; but to these single cities the freedom, as well as the power, was confined. Toward the confederated or tributary states, the government was generally a despotism, more capricious and not less stern, than that of a single tyrant. Rome as a state was never free; in every period of her history, authentic and dubious, royal, republican and imperial, her proud citizens were the slaves of an artful, accomplished, wealthy aristocracy; and nothing but the hard fought battles of her stern tribunes can redeem her memory to the friends of liberty. In ancient and modern history there is no example, before our own, of a purely elective and representative system. It is therefore, on an entirely novel plan, that, in this country, the whole direction and influence of affairs; all the trusts and honors of society; the power of making, abrogating and administering the laws; the whole civil authority and sway, from the highest post in the government to the smallest village trust, are put directly into the market of merit. Whatsoever efficacy there is in high station and exalted honors, to call out and exercise the powers, either by awakening the emulation of the aspirants or exciting the efforts of the incumbents, is here directly exerted on the largest mass of men, with the smallest possible deductions. Nothing is bestowed on the chance of birth, nothing depends on proximity to the fountain of honor, nothing is to be acquired by espousing hereditary family interests; but whatever is desired must be sought in the way of a broad, fair, personal competition. It requires little argument to show, that such a system must most widely and most powerfully have the effect of appealing to whatever of energy the land contains; of searching out, with magnetic instinct, in the remotest quarters, the latent ability of its children.
It may be objected, and it has been, that for want of a hereditary government, we lose that powerful spring of action which resides in the patronage of such a goyernment, and must emanate from the crown. With many individuals, friendly to our popular institutions, it is nevertheless an opinion, that we must consent to lose something of the genial influence of princely and