Gulian C. (Gulian Crommelin) Verplanck.

The advantages and the dangers of the American scholar online

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How forcibly must the contemplation of these men,
in such opposite situations, teach persons engaged
in political life, that a free and popular government
is desirable, not only for the public good, but for their
own greatness and consideration, for eveiy object of
generous ambition."

Every good citizen of our republic will readily
acquiesce in the soundness of this political conclu-
sion of the English statesman. But I do not hesi-
tate to give the doctrine a much wider application,
and to say that a state of society, free and popular,
is eminently conducive to exalted principles of
thought and action, and the best energies of intel-
lectual men in every liberal and generous pursuit,
and is therefore desirable to them, not only for the
public welfare, "but for their own greatness and
consideration, for every object of generous ambi-
tion." In such a state, Poetry and Painting may
perhaps look around in vain for Macenases. They
need not despair if they find them not in individu-
als — for they will find them in the multitude.

" Unbroken spirits cheer ! still, still remains,
The eternal patron Liberty, •v\^h6se flame.
While she protects, inspires the noblest strains ;
The best and sweetest far are toil-created gains."

So many historical and biographical illustrations in
the belles lettres, in jurisprudence, in the arts of


taste and design, in the numberless applications of
science, all strongly corroborating the views I have
just stated, are crowding upon my memory, that
were I to recapitulate them in detail, I should weary
your patience with a string of names and incidents
already familiar to every reading man ; whilst I should
be compelled to leave the remaining parts of my sub-
ject wholly untouched. To them I must hurry, and
I can speak of them but briefly.

It is of the intellectual dangers, growing out of
circumstances otherwise thus fruitful in blessings,
that I purposed also to speak. The dangers of
prosperity, more insidious than those of adversity,
are often more fatal, and these are of that class.

One of the most obvious of them, is the danger
of falling into a conceited, smattering superficiality
in consequence of that very universality of occupa-
tion and inquiry which seems, in other respects, so
propitious to the formation of a sound, comprehen-
sive understanding, so useful to the man of books,
so graceful to the man of business. Such superfi-
ciality is undeniably one of the besetting sins of our
reading men. It shows itself in the capacity of
talking fluently upon all things, and of doing every
thing ; and in the habit of talking inaccurately upon
all things, and of doing every thing badly. It
nourishes and sustains itself upon compends, abridg-


ments, extracts, and all the other convenient subsidia
of improved education ; excellent things in their way,
but like other great improvements of our day, wheel-
ing you to the object of your journey, without per-
mitting you to know much of the country you pass
through. You may trace it by the small pedantry
that commonly accompanies half knowledge. You
may track it in legislative speeches and reports, in
public documents and legal arguments, and even in
judicial opinions, where facts, and numbers, and
grave statements of argument and collations of
authorities are all that is wanted ; but where their
place is filled by puerile rhetoric, by common-place
instances of Greek and Roman history, or by mouldy
scraps of thumb -worn school-boy Latin — shabby
finery at the best, and all of it out of place. Yet
the temptation to the commission of such folly is not
great, and the remedy is easy. No man can hope
to know every thing within the knowledge of his
whole race. Let him then study with diligent accu-
racy that single branch of knowledge which it happens
to be most his duty to know well, and he will have
time and opportunity left to learn much more. Let
him keep his curiosity awake, and his afiections alive
to whatever concerns the welfare of his neighbor,
his country, or his kind. He cannot then fail to
learn much, and he will know how to use all he learns


well. His understanding' will be tempered by use
to that right medium that best brings the scattered
and broken rays of light from all quarters, to con-
verge upon any object on which the mind is called
to fix its attention.

This impatience of continuous systematic labor,
and the hope of reaching by some new and short
road those objects of human desire which the
Creator has not less beneficently than wisely de-
creed, should be gained only by the sweat of the
brow or the toil of the mind —

Pater ipse colendi

Haud facilem esse viam voluit, —

this same impatience of slow study that engenders
the parading superficiality which I have just describ-
ed, is often seen to produce still more serious effects
upon the character and the whole course of life.
Such effects are peculiarly apparent at the present
time in our own country.

In the wonderful and accelerated progress of this
nation to wealth and greatness, the public mind is con-
tinually surprised by the sudden apparition of enor-
mous riches gained as it were in a moment, some-
times seemingly by accident, sometimes the hasty fruit
of a quick-eyed and bold sagacity. Then again in our
political contentions, the unexpected mutation of po-
pular favor frequently raises an individual at once to


eminence from some humble professional walk, where
he leaves his former superiors to toil on far beneath
him. Under the strong excitements of such exam-
ples, it is but natural that the ardent youth of ac-
quirement and ability should be often tempted to
look with disgust upon the slow returns of regular
labor, whether in study or in business. He closes
his books, or he flies from his office or counting-room,
and rushes to the field of gambling speculation, or it
may be of equally gambling politics, trusting to
become immediately rich or great, by the favor of
fortune, as others have become before him.

Unquestionably in such a republic as ours, the
rewards of public favor are legitimate objects of
honorable ambition. So too in a country where
population and capital are so rapidly augmenting, to
neglect the means of securing to ourselves some
share of that general prosperity, which long-sighted
sagacity assures us must be the natural effect of
causes already in action, would be to reject the
goods which Providence tenders to our acceptance.
But the great danger in this country, and especially
at the present time, and pecuharly to the well-educa-
ted young man, is that he is most strongly tempted to
stake at once his whole chance of success and of hap-
piness upon such uncertain contingencies and upon
them alone ; turning with scorn from the sober


certainties of life, as being worthy the attention of
none but dull, plodding spirits.

Now viewing this subject as a mere question of
prudent calculation, we are met with the striking
and certain fact, that the whole aggregate profits of
mere speculative gain among us (throwing aside all
account of the perhaps equal losses) are utterly insig-
nificant in comparison with those of regular com-
merce, or well directed industry in other pursuits.
In the same way, and for precisely the same reasons,
the highest honors and rewards of the mere political
adventurer are just as paltry, when placed by the
side of those of Marshall, and Wirt, and Dwight,
of Wistar, or of White, and, I might add, many
living names scarcely less honored than those of the
venerated dead — whose long, steady, successful
course of professional or of learned labor, was
crowned by the universal and affectionate veneration
of their countrymen. But if turning our view from
external circumstances of wealth or of respect, we
look to the influence of such a temper upon charac-
ter and happiness, the contrast is still more striking.
On the one side are domestic quiet, calm content,
cheerful industry, well employed days and peaceful
nights, and above all, a steady reliance on your own
exertions — under the care of Heaven, the true secu-
rity of independence and the best guarantee of vir-


tue. Yet all this our youth are seen throwing aside
to take in exchange the feversh excitement of
the gambler, now elated into wild exultation, now
harassed by doubt and fears, now weighed down by
mortification, disappointment, and sorrow of heart —
ay, and to take the gambler's hazardous, precarious
fortunes too, his frequent, sudden and dreadful fluctu-
ations from wealth to poverty, from power and splen-
dor to beggary, a state of mind and of fortune leaving
no room for domestic happiness, little for personal
independence, hardly any for steady, straight-forward
honesty. Nor let the young man flatter himself
with the false hope, that all this is but for a time, and
that when his fortunes are made, he will rest in
safety. If he starts into life, risking every thing
upon hazards like these, he is a doomed man. He
must go on to the end of life as he begun. His
early habits are incongruous with the calm, unex-
citing details of ordinary life, and render his mind
eventually incompetent for the ordinary duties of

Against this danger there is but one sure safe-
guard of intellectual disciphne. Rehgious and
moral duty may indicate others. I am far from
advising a timid abstinence from any creditable
or honest undertaking that may offer strong in-
ducements to enter upon it. Such advice would be


idle and ineffectual, if it were in other respects wise,
and it is not wise in the times and country in which
we live. The intellectual safe-guard I would re-
commend is simply this : — to form your permanent
habits and tastes to some study, some business,
some profession, of common and constant utility:
to become masters of this, familiar with it, fond of
it. If afterwards more exciting avocations call you
off for a time, to this you may always look as the
agreeable and respectable employment of your pros-
perous leisure, and upon this you may fall back in
adversity, with the certainty of finding a sure pro-
tection for your honor, your independence, and your

There is another fault with which our country has
been sometimes reproached, and this reproach, to
which I have already alluded, much exaggerated as
it is, is not without some foundation in reality. This
degree of reality is again another of the evils that
may befal the American scholar, and against which
it most behooves him to guard. It has been said by
shrewd though unfriendly observers, that in America
the practical and the profitable swallow up every
other thought. There, say they, fancy withers, art
languishes, taste expires ; there the mind looks only
to the material and the mechanical, and loses its
capacity for the ideal and the abstract ; the sensuous


Understanding is vigorous, the pure reason is torpid
and blind. It might seem that there were very httle
reason to complain of our lot, if our nation effects
every thing it attempts in the useful and practical ;
and that the ideal and the abstract might will be left
to others who have less of solid and material con-
solation. Yet I think not exactly so ; and, first
wholly protesting against the sweeping broadness
of the charge — am willing to confess, that the
American mind is peculiarly exposed to sujBfer in
this very way. The demands upon talent for active
service are so numerous and imperative, the compen^
sation and rewards for such service are so imme-
diate and tempting, that the educated man is induced
naturally to value the worth of knowledge by its
direct utility. This is not amiss in itself, if it stop
there, but he is often led on to take another step,
and measure the degree of that utility by its value
to his own interests — thus paring down utility to
mere selfishness, and that too most commonly the
selfishness of the coarsest and meanest material
interests. To this, there are, it must be confessed,
stronger temptations here than in other countries.
On the other hand, there are here also stronger in-
ducements to a more liberal habit of thought and a
more generous course of action. If the facilities of
advancing our personal interests are here numerous


and absorbing, so again those interests will here be
found to be peculiarly bound up and interwoven
with those of our country and our neighbor. The
prosperity of each man depends upon the prosperity
of all. Every active citizen feels that he partakes
largely of the practical and real, as well as of the
theoretical sovereignty, and may make his own cha-
racter and influence felt far and near. For the same
reason, in all the operations of private enterprise,
and in our public concerns, as the laws and principles
regulating their action are evolved and manifested,
even enlightened self-interest is constantly called to
look to something loftier and more lasting than its
own direct and immediate objects. Thus whilst the
intelligent American citizen is surrounded by the
strongest temptations to devote himself solely to
selfish pursuits, he is at the same time every where
invited to conform his own spirit to that of our
liberal institutions, and instructed to uplift his mind
to the consideration of large principles, and to re-
gard himself as being but a small part of the vast
whole which claims his best affections.

With such a choice before him, pitiable indeed is
the lot of him who turns from the nobler and
manlier side, to think, to live, and to drudge for him-
self alone. He cuts himself off from the best de-
lights of the heart — its endearing charities and its



elevating sympathies. He paralyzes his own intel-
lect by suffering it to become half dead through in-
action, and that in its nobler parts. The mighty
ladder of thought and reason, reaching from the visi-
ble to the invisible — from the crude knowledge
gained through the senses to the sublimest infer-
ences of the pure reason — from the earth to the very
footstool of God's own throne — is before him and
invites his ascent. But he bends his eyes obsti-
nately downwards upon the glittering ores at his
feet, until he loses the wish or the hope fur any thing

This, however, is but an extreme case, to be
pointed out as a beacon to mark the covert peril.
That such grovelling materiality, such mean selfish-
ness, is not the necessary, nor the constant, no, nor
the frequent result of our ardent industry in the
affairs of life, let th€ discoveries of Franklin, and
the magnificent far-drawn speculations of Edwards —
let the grand philosophy, and the poetic thought,
flashing quick and thick through the cloudy atmos-
phere of political discussion in our senate-house —
let the open-handed charity, the more than princely
munificence, the untiring personal labors of bene-
volence, exhibited by our most devoted and success-
ful men of business, bear splendid testimony.

There is yet a danger of quite another sort, that


with us sometimes besets and misleads the Hterary
man. Familiarized from youth with the glories and
beauties of European literature, his ambition is early
fired ta imitate or to rival its excellence. He forms
to himself grand plans of intellectual exploits, all of
them probably incongruous with the state and taste
of his country, and most of them doubtless beyond
his own ability. The embryo author projects epic
poems, and in the mean while executes sonnets in
quantities ; the artist feeds his imagination with ideal
historical compositions on the scale and above the ex-
cellence of those of Raphael ; the young orator
dreams of rivalling the younger Pitt, and of ruling
the nation by his eloquence, at the age of four-and-
twenty. These enthusiasts enter the living world,
and soon find that their expectations are but a
dream. They discover either that the world rates
their talent very differently from their own estimate
of it, or else that the state of society about
them is wholly adverse to its exercise in the
direction or on the scale their ambitious fancy had
anticipated. The coarse matter-of-fact character of
our world begins to disgust them. They see duller
school-fellows outstrip them in worldly success.
They see the honors and profits of public office
bestowed upon some whom they know to be un-
worthy. The profits of trade and speculation
are gathered before their eyes by the unlettered.


Disappointed and disgusted, they are now tempted
to ascribe their disappointment to the repnbhcan in-
stitutions of their country ; not reflecting that it is im^-
possible to enjoy all kinds of good at the same time ;
that whatever is administered by men must be sub-
ject to abuse ; and that to be happy and success-
ful, every man must some how or other conform him^r
self to the sphere where Providence has placed him.
If the scholar gives way to this temptation, he
becomes a discordant, jarring thing in society, har^-
monizing with nothing near or around him. He
dwells with a sort of complacent disgust upon
every imperfection of our social state. He gradu^
ally becomes a rebel in heart to our glorious institur-
tions. His affections and secret allegiance transfer
themselves to some other form of government and
state of society, such as he dreams to have formed
the illustrious men and admirable things of his
favorite studies — forms of government or states of
society, such as he knows only by their accidental
advantages without a ghmpse of their real and terri-
ble evils.

When this mental disease, for so it may be called
without a metaphor, seizes irrecoverably upon the
thoughts of the retiring, the sensitive, and timid
lover of books and meditation, his capacity for useful
exertion is ended ; he is thenceforward doomed to lead


a life of fretful restlessness alternated with queru-
lous dejection. On the other hand, should he be
naturally a man of firmer temperament and sounder
discretion, time and experience will sober down
his fancies, and make him join in the labors of life
with cool submission. Still he is in danger of being
a soured and discontented man, occasionally com-
pelled to feign what he does not feel, and always
unsustained by that glad confidence, that eager zeal
and gay hope, which ever cheer him who loves and
honors his country, feels her manifold blessings, and
is grateful for all of them.

As various bodily diseases are observed to be spe-
cially incident to their several particular arts, trades,
and professions, so the malady I have just described
seems in this country to be that to which men of
purely literary cultivation are specially predisposed.
The men of daily toil seem happily to live quite
below the level of its agency, those of abstract in-
quiry, of mathematical study, physical observation
and high science, as much above it.

The early history of American literature affords a
distinguished example of this influence upon a most
elegant, accomplished and brilliant mind. So
modern are our American antiquities, that much of
this early history is within the memory of men not
beyond the middle of life, and such it happens to be


in this instance. It is that of one once called the
American Addison, and still justly regarded as a
father of our native literature, the late Joseph Dennie.
Nature had endowed him with the quickest taste
for beauty, the keenest sensibility for all intel-
lectual excellence. A scholar from his cradle, he
became very soon, by practice, " a ripe and good
one." His ready memory was stored to a degree
unequalled by any one on this side the Atlantic, and
surpassed by none on the other, except his contem-
porary, the celebrated Porson. It was filled, crowded,
bursting with the choicest beauties of thought, the
rarest gems of expression that refined taste could se-
lect from the most extensive range of reading. He
united to this reading much originality of thought, a
gay and sportive fancy, and an unsurpassed power of
brilliant expression. He was a genuine enthusiast in
his love of literature, and he made it the pleasure and
the business of his life to propagate the same taste
among his countrymen. In this he achieved much,
but he would have accomplished very far more, had he
not yielded to a strange, unwise and unhappy morbid
dislike for the institutions and social order of his own
country. This discolored his views and distorted
his judgment. It enabled inferior, every-day men, to
vex and thwart him in his best and most favorite de-
signs. It abridged the influence of his opinions and


of his taste, and broke down the authority of his
criticism and his example. Worst of all, it iden-
tified in the minds of the unlettered, the cause
of elegant literature with that of attachment to
foreign principles and establishments, and contempt
for our own. Honest men reasoned, and correctly
too, though from false premises, that if literature
could be gained only at the expense of patriotic feel-'
ing, it is best that we should go without it. It lessen-
ed too the merit and value of his writings as literary
compositions ; for it tended to strip them of the ori-
ginal American air they would otherwise have had,
-^ and to give them the common cast of mere English
^ literature. Hence, instead of ranking with those of
Irving, at the head of our literature, both in time and
in merit, his works are already passing into oblivion.
The same perverse prejudice had also, I fear, an un-
happy effect upon the regular activity of his intellect
and the course of his life. Peace to his spirit, and
gratitude for his services to our commonwealth of
letters at a time when most it wanted aid. But let
the student take warning from his great and single

I would not now have called forth his frailties from
the tomb, did I not consider them as affbrding a
most salutary and impressive lesson to the youthful
enthusiast. More especially on a literary occasion


like this, I could not have brought myself to speak
thus publicly of the weakness of one whom I
esteemed and honored, did I not firmly believe that
it was for a purpose which his own gentle spirit,
could he know of it, would approve, and could I
not, at the same time, pay a cordial, heart-felt tri-
bute to his many amiable and generous qualities,
his worth, his accomplishment, and his genius.

It is the happy privilege of Americans to be free
from the necessity of miserable dependance upon
the caprice of other men for their daily subsistence
or enjoyments. An honorable pride of character is
native to our soil. Our reason and our conscience
are our own. No man need to seek for himself a-
master, no man need to fawn upon a patron. Yet
another danger, similar in effect to that from which
we are thus exempt, yet quite opposite in its cause,
threatens our mental liberty. It is that of slavery,
not to one but to many, not to a patron but to a party.
In our popular form of government, the existence of
organized parties for the promotion of any system
of policy, for the success of any principles of admi-
nistration on which opinions are divided, and even
for local objects and questions that must be decided
ultimately by the ballot-boxes and legislative action,
seems to be unavoidable, and when confined to their
legitimate sphere, not only harmless but salutary.


They keep up a more constant and exciting interest
in public affairs through the whole community.
They lead to a more vigilant watchfulness of those
intrusted with power. They give greater stability
and regularity to the action of government, and pre-
serve it from becoming the sport of accident and
caprice. But no dispassionate man, who examines
the character of all our political parties for the last
few years, can fail to perceive that there is some-
thing in their organization threatening to defeat the
primary object of their own formation, and injurious
to personal honor and independence.

The rule of a majority of the people is the fun-
damental law of our institutions, and the will of the
people has a right to be expressed on every question.
But the modern doctrine loses sight of the people

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Online LibraryGulian C. (Gulian Crommelin) VerplanckThe advantages and the dangers of the American scholar → online text (page 3 of 4)