Whitelaw Reid.

A commenment address before the [Phi Beta Kappa] society of Vassar Collge, June 8, 1903. The thing to do; online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryWhitelaw ReidA commenment address before the [Phi Beta Kappa] society of Vassar Collge, June 8, 1903. The thing to do; → online text (page 1 of 2)
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JUNE 8, 1903






JUNE 8, 1903





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Before one word on the theme which has been announced, I
want to express my grateful remembrance of the fact that this is
the second, if not the third, successive year in which I have been
invited to Vassar. Let me add the earnest hope that you may
not repent of it before the evening is over, and conclude from this
experience that, however it may be with a woman, it is always a
mistake to give a man more than one chance to say Yes.

The brilliant President of a great California University has de-
fined Wisdom as " Knowing What to Do Next,*^ and Virtue as
" Doing It." Responding to the call with which the young ladies
of the Phi Beta Kappa have honored me, I shall try to merit your
attention by speaking to you for a little of " The Thing to Do."
In proportion, then, to any success in saying the right word to you
on this subject, that word must come, however unworthy the
voice through which it speaks, as the counsel of Wisdom and the
command of Virtue.

The universal inquiry in the graduating class on Commence-
ment Day is, What next ? The mere man has no monopoly of it.
The girl graduate too is absorbed in questions about what she
shall do. Misty visions float before her eyes. Now, as always, the
vague outlines are apt to shape themselves, to the first gaze alike
of the simplest and of the wisest, into happy homes and home
responsibilities. But in these days of broader horizons, many
another purpose in life comes in to enlarge or to confuse the pic-
ture. Whether with the home or without a home, comes the
thought of a career worthy of the capacities here discovered, the
training here given ; perhaps a literary, or artistic or scientific
career, perhaps educational or professional, perhaps reformatory,
perhaps social : but always a career, always the desire for a sphere
in which to exercise the proper power of the trained abilities and
enjoy their rightful influence, always the resolve to do something.


Excesses of



Let lis first see now if there is not one especial thing which, in any
career and whatever else may or may not be done, it is the duty
of every girl graduate to attempt, in her respective sphere and to
the full measure of her capacity.

The ^ It ^as sixty-five years ago that a singularly acute French ob-
server pronounced the legal profession the most conservative ele-
ment in this country, and the greatest safeguard against the
excesses, as he called them, of Democracy. But the intervening
two-thirds of a century have shown many changes. We have
seen no political craze, from secession to the payment of national
debts in fiat money or in silver, no popular delusion, from spirit
portraits to communism or to the right of some laborers to pro-
hibit free labor, that has not been led by lawyers; and we have
seen no depth of degradation to which, in pursuit of a fee, some
members of this profession have not descended, and that, too
often, without incurring the active repudiation of the majority.

Perhaps the dangerous tendencies in America of which De
Tocqueville spoke are at the present time " the excesses of De-
mocracy " ; though perhaps again they may be merely the general
tendencies of the age, exhibited here a little earlier or more freely
because of the liberty of action Democracy affords. At any rate,
there has never been a day in the history of the country when
such a restraining influence as he attributed to the lawyers was
so much needed as at present. Meanwhile the legal profession,
through a not inconsiderable number of its members, has devel-
oped into one of the active means, not for restraining but for ac-
tually furthering the excesses; and, as a whole, it certainly exerts
now a less conservative and restraining influence than was grate-
fully recognized in our earlier history.

When John Stuart Mill taught, in a little book less talked about
now than his later publications, that women made contributions
to the sum of human knowledge and consequent progress as im-
portant as those coming from men, though different in kind,
being apt to be intuitional rather than logical, he may have fur-
nished a hint as to the real safeguard against social disorders
that in his time were hardly known. If the conservative influ-
ence which is hereafter to protect us from the excesses either of
Democracy or of the spirit of the age is no longer to be surely
and always found in the old quarter, it may still prove that we
can turn for it to a class with higher inspirations and keener
moral perceptions, to a class with deeper interest in the outcome,
and capable of unquestionably greater influence, whenever
aroused to exercise it. It may prove, in fact, that we can look to


the educated women of the country rather than to its lawyers for
the true conservatism in principle, in methods and in constant
application that is to save us from many of the most dangerous
tendencies of the time. Hope, then, will not be lost for the future
of our triumphant Democracy till the characteristic excellencies of
educated women are corrupted or destroyed.

The reasons for such an expectation lie in human nature itself, Conserva-
and in that female ability which Mr. Mill demonstrated for such J)*" ®*
contributions to human knowledge and progress. All the in- womea
stincts of the educated woman are toward good order and good
morals and good life ; all her interests are against rash experi-
ments and revolutionary changes ; the character alike of her judg-
ment, her feelings and her needs gives promise of sound and sane
views of life and of human conduct. Both by inherent qualities and
by acquired relations, the^ rightly educated woman is a natural
and necessary conservative. With her mental alertness and vivid
perceptions, she can never be a drag upon the machinery of human
progress ; but, thanks to her special aptitudes, she may always be
its moderator and its governor.

This at least is clear, that the Twentieth Century woman has
greater opportunities than were ever given to human creature of
her kind before, in the eighty centuries of the world's history of
which we are supposed to have some records ; that she has been
better prepared to improve them ; and that she is more peremp-
torily called to the work, — this Twentieth Century woman to whom
have been given the keys of knowledge, which are becoming al-
most the keys of life and death. The ferment and amazing dis-
covery and development of the Nineteenth Century did not end
when it closed ; — they could be but the hotbed for starting the
prodigious, myriad-formed, almost infinite growths to be confi-
dently expected in the Twentieth. K, in the midst of these teem-
ing and steaming activities, woman now possesses the real power
which Mr. Mill attributed to her, then the imperative duty which
her superior moral elevation, her nature and her surroundings
impose, for the whole term of her existence and throughout the
whole course of our bewildering progress, is to furnish this con-
servative force in American life, which two-thirds of a century
ago De Tocqueville thought already necessary. Her Wisdom
will point it out as the thing to do next, her Virtue will shine in
doing it. Thus the subject to which I have ventured to invite
your attention, " The Thing to Do," rises before you, attends your
incoming and your outgoing, and henceforth forever entreats and
commands you.



Loss of Of specific excesses toward which our Democratic institutions
Faith and ^^^ ^^ tending, perhaps we do not need now to speak in any-
great detail. It may be enough to recognize that the American
who colonized the Atlantic Coast and the great Middle West,
who framed the Constitution, started the Government, developed
the country under it, and fought a gigantic civil war to preserve
it, is not the American who leads the popular movements of to-
day. The type is changing; the beliefs are changing, and the

He is neither Puritan any longer, nor Cavalier. He may out-
wardly deny the decay of faith, but he inwardly feels it. Noth-
ing is more noticeable at the great centres of population and of
national activity, or in any large section of what calls itself, and
is often called, our best society, than this disappearance of the old
foundation of character and action ; this loss of profound, endur-
ing, restful faith in anything. It is a laissez-aller age ; an age of
loosening anchors, and drifting with the tide ; of taking things
as they are, with cordial readiness to take them hereafter as they
come ; of an easy indifference, whose universal attitude towards
each startling departure from old standards is "What does it
matter, anyway ! " — an age, in short, marked by a refined, " up-
to-date " adaptation of the old Epicurean idea that there is noth-
ing in this world to do but to eat and drink and make merry, for
to-morrow we die. As Omar, prime favorite of the flower of this
new school, has sung :

What boots it to repeat
How time is slipping underneath our feet ;
Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday,
Why fret about them if To-day be sweet !

The loss of faith brings us by a short cut straight to the loss of
purpose in life — of any purpose, at least, beyond purely material
ones. To those who need money, the duty of getting it first and
above anything else becomes the gospel of life. To those who
feel the need of position, whether in society, business or elsewhere,
their gospel drives them to all means within the law to attain
that. To those who have both money and position comes the
only remaining purpose in life, that of using them for an exist-
ence of amusement and enjoyment. Is it too much to say that
never before in our history have such aspirations so completely
dominated and limited such large classes f

The Madness g^t this crazc for mere amusement and enjoyment, like other
of Extremes perverted appetites, grows by what it feeds on. The amusement


soon becomes wearisome, the enjoyment soon palls, unless con-
stantly more and more spectacular and bizarre. Perpetual change
and constantly increasing variety of extremes seem to be the ever
rising price of keeping amused. One never is for long where one
wants to be, or doing what one desires ; there must be incessantly
a rushing to and fro, and a change of pursuits, all under the
glare of electric lights and the blare of brass bands. If in the
country, one must hasten to the city, where something is going
on ; if in the city, one must fly to the country, where the crowd is
not so mixed and where pleasanter house-parties can be gath-
ered ; if in one's own land, one longs for the boulevards or the
Alps ; if abroad, one is eager to try the new steamer back ; if at
the sea-shore, one wants suddenly to know what the mountains
are like, and can find amusement only in going to see, when
clothed in leather jackets, protected by masks and goggles, and
powdered with dirt, rushing through the dusty air on the high-
ways at forty or fifty miles an hour in a Red Devil, and leav-
ing the luckless rustics in the way to go to a fiend of any color
they like.

Even then this vehement vacuity is not amusing unless it is
talked about. One must be forever before the footlights, and, if
possible, in the centre of the stage. Privacy is deadly dulness.
Not to have your name every other day in the newspapers, and
especially in the most hopelessly vulgar and inane of the news-
paper columns, the so-called social ones, is to be out of the world,
to be bored to death. Not to see every intimate fact about your-
self or your friends thrust naked and shameless under the public
eye is to feel that you are dropping out of the swim. If there is a
steamer that has raced across the Atlantic in fifteen minutes less
than any other, you suddenly realize that nothing is going on
here, and you must immediately cross back on that steamer. If
there is a White Ghost that has flitted over crowded country
roads half a mile an hour faster than the last Red Devil, and has
caused more runaways and killed one or two more people, you
will be leading a very dull life till you have gone faster in that
same or in some better and uglier machine, and have left a wider
swath of disaster and terror behind you. Even then the amuse-
ment is stale unless the papers tell that you broke the record, if
not somebody's neck also, print your portrait, and mention who
your grandfather was, by way of showing how proud the pre-
sumably worthy old man ought to be of his hopeful, goggle-eyed

Gregariousness and glare are the irredeemably vulgar notes of
it all. To seek enjoyment within yourself and your own circle,


in resources of your own, and without a fresh flash-light picture
every day, becomes unendurable. A country residence is impos-
sible unless a dozen others, "of our own set, you know," are within
five minutes' call ; and even then it is slow without a thronged
race-track at hand. Thus Newport rather than Biltmore be-
comes the veneered and shiny national type for those who can,
at will, command either. As for the babes that must struggle
through childhood into precocious maturity in such surround-
ings, why, they are to live in this world, are n't they — not in the
Happy Valley of Rasselas ? Why should n't they get on without
rest and real country life, as well as their parents ?

Political If loss of faith and loss of purpose have led to such changes
Pickieness from the decorous albeit a little provincial society of a hundred
years ago, what transformations may not be expected from the
same influences in our political life? Already we begin to note
the same fever for variety and unreasoning change. We know
now how Aristides was banished because the citizens were tired
of hearing him called the Just ; we have more than once given in
modern phrases the same old Greek reason for our own banish-
ments : " Oh, well, they 've been in long enough ; let 's try a
change." The steady persistence in policy of the Fathers and
Founders of the Republic seems disappearing, and the political
characteristics displayed are becoming noticeably less English,
and even less Northern. " You are as fickle as the French, and
as fond of sudden excitements," is a criticism of over-candid ob-
servers from the north of Europe which we hear with increasing
frequency; and it must be confessed that of late we do show,
oftener than could be desired, sudden and irresponsible popular
movements which we are apt to look for in the Latin rather than
the Northern races. A wave of excitement sweeps over the coun-
try, and throughout whole communities the very best and most
conscientious of our people are stampeded with sudden fear of Eu-
ropean domination, and alarm about the Pope of Rome, if we do
not hurriedly erect legislative dams against foreign invasions on
our Eastern shores. The Know-Nothings had a close race with
the Free-Soilers for first place, and for a time were ahead, — seem-
ing actually about to succeed in making hostility to the foreigner
rather than sympathy with the slave the shibboleth of the new
national party. Within my own experience a distinguished offi-
cial and highly honored citizen of New York has vehemently ar-
raigned me for neglect of duty, in my own modest sphere, in not
trying to arouse the people against the peril to our liberties and
the alarming violation of the Constitution of the United States


involved in the creation of a foreign prince in this country, — in
the person of Cardinal Gibbons ! But presently the wind is blow-
ing from the exactly opposite quarter ; sympathy for the sweet
Emerald Isle in turn overpowers us ; we raise money by the hun-
dred thousand dollars, are hardly dissuaded from raising volun-
teers also for the Fenian army, and shout ourselves hoarse in
pecuniary and rhetorical efforts to force on a friendly nation an
acceptance of the solution ive think best for her most perplexing
domestic problem. Next a sudden fear of Asiatic competition
stampedes us ; and we instantly abandon, as to Orientals at least,
our old boast that our land is the home of the oppressed of every
clime, the land of opportunity for all who would better their condi-
tion. Straightway Congress is busy building dams on our Western
coast to keep the waves of slant-eyed invaders out, while our people
rush into excesses against those who are in, reaching sometimes
to riot, but more often merely to such refinements of cmelty as
cutting off their pigtails or burning down their joss-houses.

A cry that the money that was good enough for us should be
good enough for our foreign debtors carries half the people cap-
tive; a great National Convention comes near nominating the
chief advocate of this notion for the Presidency, and the country
is on the verge of paying the National Debt in greenbacks. A
few years later a rather cheap rhetorician catches the fancy of an
excited assemblage by talking about crucifying the people on a
cross of gold, and straightway there sweeps over the land, like a
prairie fire, a wave of excitement for persuading water to flow up
hill, and silver to be as good as gold without the advice or con-
sent of any other nation on earth. Next we plunge into munici-
pal affairs ; give away priceless franchises because we are in such
a hurry we can't take time to see what they are worth ; borrow
till we have exhausted the limit, and then mark up the value of
our property in order to be able to borrow more upon it, and
chuckle over every fresh million of debt incurred, as if this were
the end of that trouble. We turn out a reform Administration
for not reforming fast enough, and install Croker and Tammany
to improve the job. We grumble that the town has been too
strait-laced, rejoice that at last it is blissfuUy wide open, then
wake up to find it intolerably wide open, and once more put in a
reformer, finally threatening to turn him out again because every-
body that voted for him has n't in the first year got everything
he wanted.

For a long time we itch to interfere in Spain's trouble with her
chief colony, and at last, in a white heat over the explosion of a
naval vessel, we do rush into war, but not before being caught in



the ebb of the same tide and swept by it into the sentimental
declaration that we will never, no never, permit our country to
reap, from this expenditure of its money and its young life, such
security and advantage as every other nation which ventures on
the solemn sacrifice of the treasure and blood of its people has
felt bound to require from the beginning of time, and ivas bound
to require. Next the whole country is up in arms in another gush
of sentiment to protest that instantly, without safeguards of any
sort, a little island off in the Atlantic, more than a fourth of the
way over to Africa, must be given admission at once to all the
rights and privileges of American citizenship. Presently the sen-
timental wave turns the other way, and another island, nearer,
larger, far more important, with far gi'eater claims, over which
we have asserted a species of protectorate for three-quarters of a
century and which we profess to be tenderly guiding into the
family of nations, is kept waiting for months and years for help
long since acknowledged to be our plain duty. Far from being
a mother to this suffering orphan whom we have ourselves dragged
to our door and dropped helpless there, we are exhibiting a ca-
pacity, colossal as our strength, for being a stepmother.

Next we forget all about these burning issues, put them behind
us as if they had never existed, and plunge pell-mell, clergy, edi-
tors, laity and all classes and conditions of men, into a race with
the politicians for the favor and the political influence of the
down-trodden contract coal-miners who were only getting three
dollars a day and had proclaimed against free labor in a so-called
free country, lest competition might drive them to work for this
wage more than six or seven hours a day, and so make coal cheaper
for the multitude. Thus, between our own meddling and the dull
inactivity of the employers, blindly dreaming that it will soon
blow over, we prolong the industrial paralysis till winter is at
hand and the President himself is forced to intervene in an irreg-
ular and unprecedented way to save us from a national calamity.

One day we go wild over a guest because he is the brother of
an Emperor; the next we are in a pet because the same Emperor
wants to collect money from an unwilling debtor who does n't pay
his debts to us, either. One day we scoff at European opinion
about the Monroe Doctrine, and the next we laugh with delight
at what it pleases us to call the new European Monroe Doctrine
for the Persian Gulf. One day we proclaim Eussia as our dear-
est friend, and fret with but half-concealed contempt at Chinese
complaints about the massacre of their countrymen in Wyoming,
or Italian complaints about similar atrocities in Louisiana, or
foreign comment generally on our burning of negroes at the stake j


and the next day we are demanding that our Govornment shall
at once and oflScially serve peremptory notice on that same dear-
est friend at St. Petersburg that we won't stand his equally wicked
persecution of Jews at Kishineff in the heart of Russia. We are
bent on an isthmus canal at Nicaragua, and can hardly keep our
hands off our ancient ally for attempting one at Panama ; laugh
loud and long at the De Lesseps collapse as proof of all we have
said about the utter impracticability of the Panama route, then
suddenly turn around, buy up the bankrupt, abandon the Nica-
ragua concern and set out to finish that same impracticable and
preposterous Panama scheme ourselves.

Thus wave after wave of half-considered opinion sweeps over
the country ; we flash into flames of sudden excitement which,
fortunately, for the most part, die out like heat-lightning ; feel
equally fit to flout all the world's experience, solve at sight all its
problems, or fight all creation at the drop of a hat; and are
always in danger of going off at half-cock into a new party or
out of it, into some untried policy or out of it, into some mon-
strous injustice or out of it, into war or out of it.

A graver change, amounting to a distinct degeneration in the One Man
average American character, may be a further consequence, and ""' "*
is at any rate a further accompaniment, of the tendency to loss of Another
faith and loss of purpose. It is the extravagant notion, never
held in the days of the Fathers, that this is a land of equality,
and that one man is as good as another. It has never been a land
of equality, and one man never has been as good as another, and
never will be, in this country or any other, in this life or any
other — till the just God turns unjust, and the creature that does
ill becomes in his eyes as the creature that does well.

What is true, and it is the shining glory of the Fathers to have
established it, is that this is a land where all men are on a par
just once in their lives, for they have an equal start. Each man
is guaranteed certain fundamental essentials at the starting-post —
his life, his liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in his own way,
so long as he respects the corresponding rights of others. Beyond
that it is a fair field and no favor ; and from the very moment of
the equal start some draw ahead and others lag behind. The
equality has disappeared like the morning mist — the inequality
that lasts to the end, and is greater here than anywhere else in
the world, is the inspiring fruitage of those blessed Republican
institutions under which no man can be too low to rise to the top
if he is fit for it.

But the delusion of equality remains and poisons. The laggard


declares he is just as good as the man that has outstripped him,
and that he is the victim of a monstrous injustice in being left


Online LibraryWhitelaw ReidA commenment address before the [Phi Beta Kappa] society of Vassar Collge, June 8, 1903. The thing to do; → online text (page 1 of 2)