Gulian C. (Gulian Crommelin) Verplanck.

The advantages and the dangers of the American scholar online

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Online LibraryGulian C. (Gulian Crommelin) VerplanckThe advantages and the dangers of the American scholar → online text (page 1 of 4)
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32) H S © W IB



JULY 26, 1836.


One of the Regents of the University of the State of New-York,



. 60337



88 William-Street.





The actual state and the probable future prospects
of our country, resemble those of no other land, and
are without a parallel in past history. Our immense
extent of fertile territory opening an inexhaustible
field for successful enterprise, thus assuring to indus-
try a certain reward for its labors, and preserving the
land, for centuries to come, from the manifold evils of
an overcrowded, and consequently degraded popula-
tion — our magnificent system of federated republics,
carrying out and applying the principles of represen-
tative democracy to an extent never hoped or ima-
gined in the boldest theories of the old speculative
republican philosophers, the Harringtons, Sydneys
and Lockes of former times — the re-action of our po-
litical system upon our social and domestic concerns,
bringing the influence of popular feeling and public
opinion to bear upon all the affairs of life in a degree
hitherto wholly unprecedented — the unconstrained


range of freedom of opinion, of speech, and of the
press, and the habitual and daring exercise of that
Uberty upon the highest subjects — the absence of all
serious inequality of fortune and rank in the condi-
tion of our citizens — our divisions into innumerable
religious sects, and the consequent co-existence, never
before regarded as possible, of intense religious zeal,
with a great degree of toleration in feeling and per-
fect equality of rights — our intimate connexion with
that elder world beyond the Atlantic, communicating
to us, through the press and emigration, much of good
and much of evil not our own, high science, refined
art, and the best knowledge of old experience, as
well as prejudices and luxuries, vices and crimes,
such as could not have been expected to spring up in
our soil for ages — all these, combined with nume-
rous other peculiarities in the institutions and in the
moral, civil and social condition of the American peo-
ple, have given to our society, through all its rela-
tions, a character exclusively its own, peculiar and

Circumstances and causes such as these, wide,
general and incessantly operative, thus pervading the
whole mass of the community, cannot fail, in some
way or other, to reach and powerfully affect every in-
dividual. Any American citizen who will look about
him with an attentive eye, and then turn his con-


templation inward upon himself, and examine his
own breast and his own hfe, will readily perceive how
sovereignly some or other of these external causes
control his fortunes, direct his destinies, and mould
his habits and his conduct, swaying or guiding his
tastes, his reason, his feelings, or his affections. But
if these can thus reach the humblest citizen, how
much more decided must be their effect upon the man
of native talent and improved intellect ! As his mind
expands itself more largely on the surface of society,
as it enters with a bolder ambition or a keener
relish into the concerns of men, the pursuits of
fame, of power, or of knowledge, just so in propor-
tion must he sympathize more readily with the sur-
rounding world, and in acting upon many, must feel
more sensibly the reciprocal action of the greater
mass upon himself. Hence, all that is singular and
peculiar in our country, her people or her institu-
tions, will be in some sort imaged in his mind, and
will operate upon his mental constitution as silently
but as certainly as his physical frame is affected by
the food that sustains him, or the air that he breathes.
It is, therefore, gentlemen, that I have thought
that I could not more usefully discharge the duty as-
signed to me by your kind partiality, or select a theme
more appropriate to the annual academic celebration
of a college, which already boasting among its


alumni so large a proportion of the active talent of
our state, continues annually to swell that number by
a numerous body of our most promising youth, than
to call your attention to the consideration of the bless-
ings and advantages resulting from the political
and social condition of our republic, to the Ameri-
can scholar — not merely in common to him with the
rest of his fellow-citizens, but to him especially and
above others, as an educated and intellectual man.

These are blessings and advantages, in them-
selves peculiar, unrivalled, inestimable ; still, like
all other temporal goods, they are not unmixed with
evil, not unaccompanied by dangers, always liable
to abuse. Like, too, to the other gifts of the Most
High, intrusted to man for the use of his fellow men,
they impose upon their possessor weighty, solemn
and holy duties.

It is then of these blessings and advantages of the
American scholar, their accompanying dangers and
their attendant duties, that I now purpose to speak
to you.

The subject ought certainly to interest those
whom I am called to address, for it is of themselves
that I must speak. From the lips of wisdom and
genius, the theme could not fail to be fruitful of
the deepest and most precious instruction. For
myself, and the very imperfect views I am about to


lay before you, I can claim no other weight or autho-
rity, than what may arise from the fact, that these
are neither the vague speculations of a politi-
cal theorist, nor the rant of patriotic declamation.
They are sober and deliberate opinions, the results
of much opportunity of observation, and that by no
means careless or hasty, and formed by one not in-
different to the imperfections of our political or social
system, or unwilling to confess them — not blind to
the faults and errors of his country or his countrymen,
but who has yet never wavered or faltered in his
veneration for the sacred cause of repubhcan liberty,
or in his confidence of the ultimate and certain ten-
dency of our free institutions to promote truth and
justice, to diffuse happiness and virtue.

First of all then — We all know and feel that every
thing in the condition and prospects of our country
tends to excite and maintain a bold and stirring acti-
vity of thought and action throughout the whole
community. Nothing is allowed to remain stagnant
or dormant. Every mind is compelled, sometimes
in despite of its own inclinations, to partake of the
buoyant spirit, the restless mobility, the irrepressible
energy of youth and hope.

In most other lands society moves with steady
regularity, in one slow, sure and accustomed round.
Each ascending step in the scale of wealth and dis-


tinction is completely filled up, and the Tast majority,
doomed to hereditary ignorance and privation, must
be content to pass their whole lives where birth or
accident has first placed them. Feeling no stimulus
to exertion, besides that of daily want, their desires and
their hopes confi)rm themselves to the narrow scale
of their regular toils and their humble enjoyments.
But with us, commerce, arts, agriculture, enterprise,
adventure, ambition, are crowding and hurrying
every man forward. Our past is but brief. We can
scarcely be said to have a present — certainly we
have none for mere indolent enjoyment. We are all
pressing and hastening forward to some better future.
No single mind can well resist the general impulse.
The momentum of the whole mass of society, com-
posed of myriads of living forces, is upon each indi-
vidual, and he flies forward with accelerated velo-
city, without any other power over his own motion
than that of the direction of its course. The univer-
sal ardor is contagious, and we all rush into the
throng of life, and are swept along by its broad, re-
sistless current.

Least of all can the mind, formed to liberal stu-
dies, habituated from early youth to the employment
of its most vigorous faculties, resist the wide spread
sympathy. " The clear spirit," to use Milton's
phrase, " nursed up with brighter influences and with


a soul enlarged to the dimensions of spacious and
high knowledge," sees in every direction careers of
honor, or of usefulness open to its exertions, and
tasking its noblest powers. For with us talent can-
not well slumber ; knowledge may always find some
fit application.

Travel elsewhere, and where is it that you may not
find talent chilled and withered by penury, or pro-
found learning wasted on the drudgery of elementa-
ry instruction, or else " lost in a convent's solitary
gloom t" With us this need never be. In fact, it
is seldom long so, unless from the positive fault of
the possessor. Excepting those melancholy cases,
where some unavoidable calamity has weighed
down the spirits and extinguished joy and hope for
ever, knowledge and ability cannot well run here to
waste without their voluntary degradation by gross
vice or the maddest imprudence. But I do not
now speak of the varied opportunities for the suc-
cessful exertion of matured, cultivated talent, or the
substantial rewards that its exercise may win, so
much as of the still greater advantage which that
talent may derive to itself from the prevailing
activity and energy that animate the whole commu-
nity. Under that strong and contagious stimulus'
the faculties are awakened, the capacity enlarged?
the genius roused, excited, inspired. The mind is


not suffered to brood undisturbed over its own little
stock of favorite thoughts, treading the same un-
ceasing round of habitual associations, until it be-
comes quite incapable of fixing its attention upon
any new object, and its whole existence is but a
dull, drowsy dream. On the contrary, it is forced to
sympathize with the living world around, to enter
into the concerns of others and of the public, and
to partake, more or less, of the cares and the hopes
of men. Thus every hour it imbibes, unconsciously,
new and strange knowledge, quite out of the sphere
of its own personal experience. Thus it receives,
and in its turn spontaneously communicates that
bright electric current that darts its rapid course
throughout our whole body politic, removing every
sluggish obstruction, and bracing every languid
muscle to vigorous toil. As compared with the
more torpid state of society exhibited elsewhere, to
live in one such as this, is like emerging from the
fogs of the lowland fens heavy with chilling pes-

" — -the dull pacific air

Where mountain zephyr neyer blew,
The marshy level dank and bare,
That Pan, that Ceres never knew — "

and ascending to inhale the exhilarating mountain
atmosphere, where the breeze is keen and pure, and


the springs gush bright from their native rock, be-
stowing on the children of the hills the bounding
step, the strong arm, the far seeing eye, and the
stout heart. It is much then to breathe such a
mental air from earliest youth. It is much to be edu-
cated and formed under such potent and perpetual
stimulants to intellectual development. But for a
mind thus formed and framed for vigorous and
effective action, it is not less necessary that fitting
occupations may be found for its nobler qualities
and powers. This is much for worldly success. It
is every thing for honor, for conscience, for content,
for beneficence. Let genius, however brilliant, how-
ever gifted with rare, or copious, or varied acquire-
ments, be but doomed to labor for selfish objects, for
personal necessities and sensual gratifications, and for
those only — and its aspirations too will become low,
its desires sordid, and its powers (adroit, doubtless,
and very eflfective as to their accustomed occupa-
tions) will dwindle and become enfeebled, until they
are quite incapable of any generous and magnani-
mous undertaking.

But with us the man of intellectual endowment is
not so " cabined, cribbed, bound in" to his own
puny cares. Far otherwise ; his generous ambition,
his large philanthrophy, his zeal for the service of his
Ood or his country, may spread themselves abroad


" as wide and general as the casing air," without
finding any check or barrier to their farthest range.
In the eternal order of Providence, minds act and
re-act, and become the transcripts and reflections of
each other, thus multiplying and perpetuating the evils
or the excellence of our short being upon this globe.
It is not the exclusive prerogative of the great, the
eloquent, the chosen sons of genius or of power,
who can speak trumpet-tongued to millions of their
fellow creatures from the high summits of fame or
authority, thus to be able to extend themselves in the
production of good or evil far around and forward.
We are all of us, in some sort, as waves in the
shoreless ocean of human existence. Our own
petty agitations soon die away, but they can extend
themselves far onward and onward, and there are
oftentimes circumstances which may cause those
billows to swell as they roll forward, until they rise
into a majestic vastness which it could scarce seem
possible that our puny efforts could have ever set in
motion. Such favoring circumstances, in other na-
tions comparatively rare, are here the common bless-
ings of our land. We have a population doubling
and re-doubling with a steady velocity so unexam-
pled in former history, as to have utterly confounded
the speculations of all older political philosophy.
We have a territory, which rapidly as that popula-


tion subdues the forest and covers the desert, has
still ample room for coming generations. These
things alone are enormous elements in the mighty-
process of social melioration. Whatever is effected
in removing any of the evils that afflict those about
us, must, ere long, reach far beyond us and beyond
them, to other and more numerous generations, to
distant fields, as yet silent and desolate, but destined
soon to swarm vv^ith a busy multitude. The charac-
ter, knowledge and happiness of that future and dis-
tant multitude, are now in our hands. They are to
be moulded by our beneficent labors, our example,
our studies, our philanthropic enterprise. Thus the
" spirit of our deeds," long after those deeds have
passed away, will continue to walk the earth, from
one ocean-beat shore of our continent to the other,
scattering blessings or curses upon after- times.

Consider too the general elementary instruction
of this nation — too slight, meagre and superficial in-
deed to content the patriot as an ultimate end where-
with to rest satisfied, but admirable as the means of
spreading information and pouring a bright flood of
light and truth over our whole continent. Books,
newspapers, periodicals, are scattered profusely
through the land, and present to a large proportion
of our population their favorite and most unfailing
relaxation from business and toil. Our people are


daily, hourly habituated to discussions of the most
interesting nature, sometimes upon the most ab-
struse, frequently upon the most important sub-
jects of human interest. All our experience, our
modes of business and ways of life, have a strong
tendency to teach us to regard science, not as a
thing mysterious and solitary, never to be mixed with
common life and its ordinary thoughts and concerns,
but as an exalted and munificent benefactor, con-
stantly and profusely contributing to our welfare and
happiness. Hence it requires nothing but the
steady and well-directed efforts of enlightened and
liberal minds to make a very large part, and that in
many respects too, the best part of science, familiar
and popular to a degree which the recluse scholar of
former days could never imagine. Much indeed of
the best science can only be useful, in any high
degree, by becoming thus familiar and popular ; for
unless it be so, it must remain a barren theory, dry
and useless.

This is eminently and self-evidently true in all
political and economical science. It is equally so
of all ethical truth : and as it is the beautiful charac-
teristic of the loftiest and most perfect science, most
rapidly to simplify and generalize its knowledge as
it increases its stores, it is not easy to conjecture any
assignable limit beyond which the grand conclusions


(at least) of sound scientific investigation, and
the results of learned labor, may not belaid open to
the hberal curiosity of the humblest artisan. In the
same or some similar way, the choicest refinements
of classical taste, and the congenial study of the
remains of ancient genius, which beautify and enrich
the scholar's mind, may be made through him to
enlarge, to elevate, and ennoble the general mind of
his country.

But these are not the only facilities we enjoy for
making the acquisitions of learning profitable to all,
and for bringing intellectual force to bear upon its
appropriate objects. The quick and keen sense of
self-interest, that gives such sagacity and energy to
the business operations of this country, is equally
propitious to the success of every art, every discovery,
invention, undertaking, and science, that involves in
it any amount of practical improvement or power.
Hence, whatever of theoretical science, inventive
skill, ingenious speculation, or reasoning eloquence,
can be made to tell upon any of the multitudinous
affairs making up the business of life, or to minister
in any way to the increased power or enjoyment of
man, will soon find ready attention for their claims.
Here no prejudices in favor of time-honored usages
are strong enough long to resist the advance of scien-
tific improvement or wise innovation. Society is not



divided into castes, each one of them watching with
jealous vigilance against any encroachment of their
several exclusive walks by any rude intruder from
another class, themselves clinging to the settled
usages and old forms of their own clan, with the
steady pertinacity of men whose unexamined preju-
dices are interwoven with their earliest habits and
their most valuable personal interests. If Science,
descending from her starry throne in the heavens,
light the student to any discovery or invention in
any manner applicable to the wants of his fellow
creatures — if Genius prompts the lofty thought —
if love of God or of man inspire the generous design,
no matter how the novelty may astonish for the
moment, no matter what prejudices may be shocked,
no matter what interests may be alarmed and band
themselves against the innovator, let him go on un-
dismayed. He advances to certain victory.

But it has often been objected that this all-absorb-
ing gravitation towards the useful, the active, and the
practical, in our country, propels every student from
his most favorite studies into the struggles, the com-
petition, and tumult of life, and is thus fatal at once
to all recondite and curious learning, to deep attain-
ment in pure science or polished excellence in
elegant art and literature. There is certainly some
portion of truth in this objection, and yet but a por-


tion only. Where the demands for competent
abihty are so pressing, and the temptations to em-
ploy that ability in such occupations as bring with
them instant rewards are so great, it is quite certain
that but few will be found inclined to spend their
lives in studies which have no interest for others,
and no perceptible bearing on private or public
good. When, however, we consider the wonderful
connexion and inter -dependance of all knowledge,
made more and more manifest by every day's advance
in science, so as almost to prove by an accumulation
of particular examples the sublime hypothesis of the
old philosophy, " that by circuit of deduction, all truth
out of any truth may be concluded ;" when we
reflect how singularly adapted the various parts of
knowledge are to the individual tastes and character
of difl'erent men, so as to seize and draw them as
with an irresistible mental magnetism to their several
studies, we cannot, I think, doubt that all that is most
valuable in science or literature, will find votaries
among us, who, not content to make such studies the
amusements of their leisure or to devote a life of
monastic gloom to their solitary worship, will make
or find for them a fit application. The experience of
scientific investigation has shown that such applica-
tion of the test of reality and experiment to theoretic
truth, has not only often thrown a clearer light on that


theory, at once limiting its generalities and confirm-
ing its evidence, but has also evolved new com-
binations, suggested new inferences, and mani-
fested higher laws. Art more than repays its
obligations to science. The large processes of
manufactures have proved the best school of che-
mical discovery. Natural knowledge has contri-
buted largely to medical skill, and it has in turn
received its most precious accessions from the obser-
vation of the physician. The abstrusest speculations
of the metaphysician, have found their place in those
controversies of theologians that rend the rehgious
world, as well as in questions of political discussion,
of legislation, and of jurisprudence. Thus contem-
plations, apparently the most shadowy, have often
operated with the greatest efficiency upon the most
engrossing concerns of daily life.

Nevertheless, it may well be that there are some
meditations so subtile and unreal, some branches
of learning so remote from use, some laborious arts
of refinement requiring for their successful cultiva-
tion such silent abstraction and unremitting, undi-
vided labor for years, that they can find no room amid
the strife and hustle, the fumum, strepitumque, — the
rail-road noise and rapidity of this work-day world of
America. Be it so. We would not willingly lose
them. For nothing that has filled the thoughts of


the good and wise, or weaned men from sensual
pleasure by the better attractions of art, taste or
learning, can be without value and dignity. But
if we must lose them, let us be content, and the
more so, because their deprivation, if such be of
necessity the case, is more than compensated by
countervailing benefits resulting from the same
causes. Such acquirements or accomplishments
cannot flourish here, because they require the devo-
tion of the whole man to their service, whilst the
American man of letters is incessantly called off
from any single inquiry, and allured or compelled
to try his ability in every variety of human occu-

Though he may be laboriously devoted to the
duties of a particular calling, or, on the other hand,
exempted from the pressure of regular professional
labor, no man of informed mind can with us exclude
the surrounding world. The Quidquid agunt
Jwmines, familiarity with men and their business is
forced upon him, and it is a rare thing indeed if he
can remain a cool looker-on. It may be patriotism,
it may be humanity, that animates him — it may be
personal pride, or political zeal, or ambition, or per-
haps merely the mysterious sympathy of universal
example ; but whatever may be the special motive in
the individual, no scholar, no professional student


or practitioner can well remain the mere man of
books. If in this acquaintance with many other
matters, something is lost as to particular skill and
minute accuracy of knowledge, assuredly much more
is gained in the healthful development of the facul-
ties, the enlargement of the understanding, the more
equable poise of the judgment, and the richness,
variety, and originality of the materials for reflection,
combination, or invention thus stored in the memory.
If awed by that veneration the scholar naturally

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Online LibraryGulian C. (Gulian Crommelin) VerplanckThe advantages and the dangers of the American scholar → online text (page 1 of 4)