William Everett.

Patriotism. An oration delivered before the Phi beta kappa of Harvard college, commencement, 1900 online

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Online LibraryWilliam EverettPatriotism. An oration delivered before the Phi beta kappa of Harvard college, commencement, 1900 → online text (page 1 of 2)
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I do not see how any one can rise on this occasion with-
out trembling. It has been illustrated by too many dis-
tinguished names, it has brought forth too many striking
sentiments, not to give every orator the certainty that he will
fall short of its traditions and the fear that he will do so
disastrously. But of one thing I am sure : it behooves the
speaker to-day to be candid. No elegant or inflated com-
monplaces, concealing one's real sentiment by the excuse
of academic dignity or courtesy, ought to sully the honesty
with which brethren speak to each other. The first, the
only aim, of every university, is the investigation and propa-
gation of truth, truth in the convictions and truth in the

My very first knowledge of the Phi Beta Kappa dates
back to early childhood. In the year 1846 I was present at
a portion of the Commencement exercises, when the parts
were sustained by Francis James Child, George Martin
Lane, Charles Eliot Norton and George Frisbie Hoar.
Those exercises were followed by a Commencement dinner,
whose good cheer proved too much for a boy not yet seven
years old. It was a dinner at home ; no one ever wanted to
eat too much at the official Commencement dinner. I heard,
therefore, at my bedside, the next day, the tale of Phi Beta
Kappa, how Charles Sumner had held his audience for
two hours, relating the achievements of four Harvard grad-
uates who had lately died, Pickering, Story, Allston and
Channing; winding up with the magnificent peroration,
transferred, I believe, from an earlier address, in which he
appealed so earnestly for peace, as the duty of our time,
and answered Burke's lament that the age of chivalry had


gone by the declaration that the age of humanity had come,
that the coming time should take its name not from the
horse, but from man. I cannot even think of Phi Beta with-
out these names and these thoughts ringing in my ears and
almost dictating my words.

It seems to me that an orator can hardly go wrong if he
holds fast to our motto, Philosophy the Guide, or, rather,
the Sailing Master of Life. There is little doubt that, when
this motto was first taken by a secret fraternity, "veiled in
the obscurity of a learned language," it meant that philoso-
phy which rejects revelation, the philosophy of the ency-
clopaedists of France. Accordingly, when the veil was
taken away from the mystic characters Phi Beta Kappa, it
was declared that philosophy included religion. How many
who accept membership in it to-day direct their voyage of
life by philosophy or religion either, it might not be safe to
say. It cannot, however, be wrong, whatever our subject
is, to steer our way in it with her at the helm.

I am not going to plunge into a discussion of what philo-
sophy means. It has been used to mean many things, and
to some it means nothing at all. When Wackford Squeers,
who sixty years ago we all knew was of the immortals and
who is now in danger of being forgotten, was asked by any
parent a question in some occult branch of study, like trigo-
nometry, he was wont to answer, "Sir, are you a philoso-
pher?" And to the invariable negative he would then reply,
"Ah ! then I can't explain it to you." As one of Wackford
Squeers' humblest successors, I feel there is something not
absurd in his counter-question, when I meet what are called
practical men discussing what they call the practical prob-
lems of life.

He who, whether decked with blue and pink ribbons or
not, steers his course with philosophy as his guide, ap-
proaches all life's problems in another temper and another
spirit; he is working by other roads to other ends, than he
who is guided by the passions and worships the idols of the
hour. Philosophy has different meanings for different men;

but the gulf is boundless between those who accept it with
any meaning and those who know it not, or know it only as
an object of patronage or scorn.

The philosopher walks by principle, not merely by inter-
est or passion ; by the past and the future, not merely by the
present; by the unseen and the eternal, not merely by the
seen and temporal ; by law, and not only by accident. It is
not, as sometimes fancied, that he does not see and, seeing,
does not heed these things. He does not, as Plato bids him,
turn his back on what this world shows. He meets im-
mediate duties; he lives with contemporary men; he deals
with existing demands. But he does all this by the light and
guidance of rules of which the servant of time and place
knows nothing.

I claim for this the assent of all my brothers here as an
intellectual fact ; but I desire at the outset of what I say to
rouse your thoughts to it as the dictate of emotion and of
conscience. Philosophy, the study of causes in their deepest
effects, beginning with the true use of terms and proceed-
ing by sound reasoning, has the power to transmute and
sanctify the most commonplace transactions, the most hack-
neyed words. The master of all philosophy began his work
by forcing his contemporaries to define the commonest sub-
jects of conversation. I would, as his follower, ask you to
apply that method to one of the favorite watchwords, one
of the pressing duties of to-day, and see if philosophy has
not something to define and correct in a field where her
sway is scarcely admitted.

You cannot talk for ten minutes on any of what are
rightly held to be the great interests of life without feeling
how loosely we use their names. We seem not to be dealing
with sterling coin, which has the same value everywhere and
always, but with counters that, passing with a conventional
value here and now, are worthless when we come to some
great public or private crisis. Education, business, amuse-
ment, art, literature, science, home, comfort, society, poli-
tics, patriotism, religion, how many men who use these

words have any true conception of their force ? How many
simply mean that form of education, that line of business,
that sect in religion, that party in politics, to which they are
accustomed? How many are led by this loose yet limited
use of words into equally loose and equally narrow ways of
action? How many need a Socrates to walk through the
streets and force them to define their terms? And how
many, if he did appear again, would be ready to kill him for
corrupting the youth, and holding to a God different from
those the country worships?

^ Patriotism, love of country, devotion to .the kind that
i) r r is pressed upon us now as paramount to every
other notion in its claims on head, hand and heart. It is
pictured to us not merely as an amiable and inspiring emo-
tion, but as a paramount duty, which is to sweep every
other out of the way. The thought cannot be put in loftier
or more comprehensive words than by Cicero: Carl snnt
parent cs, cari libcri, can fainiliarcs, propinqui; scd omncs
omnium caritates una patria complcxa cst. "Dear are par-
ents, dear are children, dear are friends and relations ; but
all affections to all men are embraced in country alone."
The Greek, the Roman, the Frenchman, the German, talks
about "fatherland ;" and we are beginning to copy them,
though to my ear the English "mother country" is far more
tender and true.

Cicero follows up his words by saying that for her no
true son would, if need be, hesitate to die. And his words,
themselves an echo of what the poets and orators whose
heir he was had repeated again and again, have been re-
echoed and reiterated in many ages since he bowed his neck
to the sword of his country's enemy.

Hut to give life for their country is the least part of what
rnen have been willing to do for her. Human life has often
seemed a very trifling possession, to be exposed cheaply in
all sorts of useless risks and feuds. It has been the cheerful
sacrifice of the things that make life worth living, the eager
endurance of things far worse than death, which show the

mighty power which love of country holds over the entire
being" of man. Wealth that Croesus might have envied has
been poured at the feet of our mother, and sacrifices taken
up which Saint Francis never knew. Ease and luxury, re-
fined company and cultivated employment, have been re-
jected for the hardships and suffering of the camp; the sym-
pathy and idolatry of home have been abandoned for the
tenfold hardships and sufferings of a political career; and,
at the age when we can offer neither life nor living as of any
;' value to one's country, those children and grandchildren
, which were to have been the old man's and the old woman's
solace are freely sent forth in the cause of the country,
which will send back nothing but a sword and cap to be
\ hung on the wall and never be worn by living man again.
_Such are the sacrifices men have cheerfully made fprjtjje
existence, the honor, the prosperity of their country. But
perhaps the power of patriotism is shown more strongly in
what it makes them do than in what it makes them give up.
You know how many men have been, as it were, born again
by the thought that they might illustrate the name and swell
the force of their country, achieving what they never would
have aroused themselves to do for themselves alone. I do
riot mean the feats of military courage and strategy, which
are generally talked of as the sum of patriotic endeavor. I
recollect in our w 7 ar being told by a very well-known soldier,
who is now a very well-known civilian, that it was conceited
for me or any other man to think that in time of war he
could serve his country in any way but in the ranks. But.
in fact, every art and every science has won triumphs under
the stress of patriotism that it has hardly known in less
enthusiastic days. The glory that runs through every line of
Sophocles and Virgil, as they sung the glories of Athens and
Rome, is reflected in the song of our own bards from
Spenser and Shakespeare to this hour ; the rush and sweep
of Demosthenes and Cicero, dwelling on the triumphs and
duties of their native lands, are only the harbingers of Burke
and Webster on the like themes ; the beauty into which Bra-


mante and Angelo poured all their souls to adorn their
beloved Florence was lavished under no other impulse than
that which set all the science of France working to relieve
her agriculture and manufactures from the pressure laid
upon her by the strange vicissitudes of her Revolution.

Not all this enthusiasm has succeeded : there have been
patriotic blunders as well as patriotic triumphs; but still it
stands truq that men are spurred on to make the best of
themselves in the days when love of country glowed strong-
est in their hearts. It would seem as if all citizens poured
their individual affections and devotions into one Superior
Lake, from which they all burst in one Niagara of patriot-

I am ashamed, however, to press such a commonplace
proposition before this audience and in this place, where the
walls are as redolent of love of country as Faneuil Hall
itself. The question is if philosophy, our chosen guide of
life, has anything to say of this same love of country, if
she brings that under her rule, as she does so much else of
life, supplementing, curtailing, correcting, or whether
patriotism may bid defiance to philosophy, claiming her sub-
mission as she claims the submission of every other human
interest, and bidding her yield and be absorbed, or stand off
and depart to her visionary Utopia, where the claims of
practical duty and natural sentiment do not seek to follow

^For, indeed, we are told now that patriotism is not merely
a generous and laudable emotion, but a paramount and over-
whelming duty, to which everything else which men have
called duties must give way. If a monarch, a statesman, a
soldier, stands forth pre-eminent in exalting the name or
spreading the bounds of his country, he is a patriot; and
that is enough.)

'^ /Such a leader may be as perjured and blasphemous as

( Frederic, or as brutal and stupid as his father ; he may be as

\ faithless and mean as Maryborough, or as dissolute and

< bloody as Julius Caesar ; he may trample on every right of

independent nations and drive his countrymen to the sham-
bles like Napoleon ; he may be as corrupt as Walpole and as
wayward as Chatham; he may be destitute of every spark
of culture or may prostitute the gifts of the Muses to the
basest ends; he may have, in short, all manner of vices,
crimes, or defects. ' But, if he is true to his country, if he is
her faithful standard-bearer, if he strives to set and keep
her high above her rivals, he is right, a worthy patriot.) And,
if he seems lukewarm in her cause, if, however wise and
good and accomplished he may be in all other relations, he
fails to work with all his heart and soul to maintain her
position among the nations, he must be stamped with fail-
ure, if not with curse.

For the plain citizen, who does not claim to be a leader
in peace or war, the duty is still clearer. He must stand by \ >
his country, according to what those who have her destiny
in their control decide is her proper course. In war or in
peace, he is to have but one watchword. In peace, indeed,
his patriotic duty will chiefly be shown by obeying existing
laws, wherever they may strike, even as Socrates rejected
all thought of evading the unjust, stupid, and malignant
sentence that took his life. But it is not thought incon-
sistent with that true love of country to let one's opinions
be known about those laws, and about the good of the coun-
try in general, in time of peace. In a free land like ours,
every citizen is expected to be ready with voice and vote to
do his part in correcting what is amiss, in protesting against
bad laws, and, as far as he may, defeating bad men whom he
believes to be seeking his country's ruin. Nay, a citizen of
a free country who did not so criticise would be held to be
derelict to that highest duty which free lands, differing from
slavish despotisms, impose upon their sons.

But in time of war we are told that all this is changed.
As soon as our country is arrayed against another under
arms, every loyal son has nothing to do but to support her
armies to victory. He may desire peace; but it must be
"peace with honor," whatever that phrase of the greatest


charlatan of modern times may mean. He must not ques-
tion the justice or the expediency of the war ; he must either
fight himself or encourage others to fight. Criticism of the
management of the war may be allowable; of the fact of
the war, it is treason. And the word for the patriot is, "Our
country, right or wrong." )

Right here, then, as I conceive it, philosophy raises her
warning finger before the passionate enthusiast, and says,
"Hold!*' in the name of higher thought, of deeper law, of
more serious principle, to which every man here, every child
of Harvard, every brother of this society, is bound to listen.
Philosophy says, "Hold !" with the terror of the voice with-
in, with the majesty of the voice from above, to Americans
now; and, with the spirit of Socrates returning to earth, it
bids them know what they mean by the words they use, or
they may be crowning as a lofty emotion that which is only
an unreasoning passion, and clothing with the robes of duty
what is only a superstition. This love o countryi_thisjpa-
triotic ardor "f onr^ " g * .submit to have philosophy m-.
vest igateher^cl aims to rule ab^ve all oth^L^Hl^ii^I!-^ not in
the interest ofl_ajiyLjss - ^nerous - em<>tion,4 : K)t4o make men
more sordid or selfish, but simply because there is a rule
called Tj^juaad - ar-measui ; called Right^-bjLJW-hich -ev-e*y-
human action is bound tn be gauged. because, though all
gods and men and fiends should league all their forces, and
link the golden chain to Olympus to draw its glory down to
their purposes, they will only find themselves drawn up-
wards, subject to its unchanging laws, the weak members
hanging in the air and the vile ones hurled down to Tar-

4 What is this country this mother country, this father-
land, that we are bidden to love and serve and stand by at
any risk and sacrifice? Is it the soil? the land? the plains
and mountains and rivers ? the fields and forests and mines ?
No doubt there is inspiration from this very earth, from
that part of the globe which our nation holds, and which we
call our country. Poets and orators have dwelt again and


again on the undying attractions of our own land, no mat-
ter what it is like, the Dutch marshes, the Swiss moun-
tains, soft Italy, and stern Spain, equally clutching on the
hearts of their people with a resistless chain. ( But a land is
nothing without the men. The very same countries whose
scenery, tame or bold, charming or awful, has been the in-
spiration to gallant generations, may, as the wheel of time
turns, fall to indolent savages, listless slaves, or sordid
money-getters. Byron has told us this in lines which the
men of his own time felt were instinct with creative genius,
but which the taste of the day rejects for distorted thoughts
in distorted verse:

" Clime of the unforgotten brave !
Whose land, from plain to mountain cave,
Was Freedom's home or Glory's grave !
Shrine of the mighty ! can it be
That this is all remains of thee ?
Approach, thou craven, crouching slave !

Say, is not this Thermopylae ?
These waters blue, that round you lave,

O servile offspring of the free,
Pronounce what sea, what shore is this ?

The gulf, the rock of Salamis !

" ' Twere long to tell and sad to trace
Each step from splendor to disgrace.
Enough, no foreign foe could quell
Thy soul till from itself it fell !
Yes : self-abasement paved a way
To villian bonds and despot sway."

(It is the nation, not the land, which makes the patriot. If
the nation degenerate, the land becomes only a monument,
not a dwelling.) Let the nation rouse itself, and the country
may be a palace and a temple once more.

But who are the men that make the nation? Are they
the whole of the population or a part only? Are they one
party only among the people, which is ready perhaps to
regard the other party not as countrymen, but as aliens?
Is the country the men who govern her and control her
destinies, the king, the nobles, the popular representatives,
the delegates to whom power is transmitted when the peo-


pie resign it J- Once the king was the nation, with perhaps
a few counsellors ; patriotism meant loyalty to the sovereign.
Every man who on any pretext arrayed himself against the
crown was a disloyal rebel, an unpatriotic traitor, until at
length God for His own purposes saw fit to array Charles I.
against the people of England, when, after years of civil
war, and twice as many years of hollow peace, and five
times as many years when discussion was stifled or put
aside, the world came to recognize that loyalty to one's king
and love to one's country are as different in their nature as
the light of a lamp and the light of the sun.

' And yet, if a king understands the spirit and heart of his
nation, he may lead it so truly in peace or in war that love
of country shall be inseparable from devotion to the sov-
ereign. ) Modern historians may load their pages as they
please with revelations of the meanness, the falsehood, the
waywardness of Queen Elizabeth; yet England believed in
her and loved her, and if England rose from ruin to pros-
perity in her time, it was because her people trusted her.
In her day, as for two centuries before, Scotland, where
three different races had been welded together by Bruce to-
produce the most patriotic of peoples, had scarcely a true
national existence, certainly nothing that men could cling
to with affection and pride, because kings and commons
were alike the prey of a poor, proud, selfish nobility, who
suffered nobody to rule, scarcely to live, but themselves ; ex-
empting themselves from the laws which they forced upon
their country.

(. An American cries out at the idea of a limited aristocracy,
seeking to drag the force and affection of a nation of vas-
sals, and calling that patriotism. Then what will he say
to the patriotism of some of those lands which have made
their national name ring through the world for the triumphs
and the sacrifices of which it is the emblem?) What was
Sparta? What was Venice? What was Bern? What was
Poland? Merely the fields where the most exclusive aris-
tocracies won name and fame and wealth and territory only


to sink their unrecognized subject citizens lower every year
in the scale of true nationality. Not one of these identified
the nation with the people. / Or does an American insist on a
democracy, where the entire people's voice speaks through
rulers of its choosing? Does he prefer the patriotism of
Athens, where thirty thousand democrats kept up an inter-
minable feud with ten thousand conservatives, one ever
plunging the city into rash expeditions, the other, as soon as
its wealth gave it the upper hand, disfranchising, exiling,
killing the majority of the people, because it could hire
stronger arms to crush superior numbers? What was the
patriotism of the Italian cities when faction alternately ban-
ished faction, when Dante suffered no more than he would
have inflicted had his side got the upper hand? What was
the patriotism of either Greece or Italy, which confined it-
self to its own city, and where city enjoyed far more fight-
ing against city than ever thinking of union to save the
common race from bondage? For years, for centuries, for
ages, the nations that would most eagerly repeat such senti-
ments as Cicero's about love of country never dreamed of
using the word in any sense that a philosopher, nay, that
a plain, truth-telling man, could not convict at once of
meanness and contradiction.

But we of modern times look back with pity and contempt
on those benighted ages which had not discovered the great
arcanum of representative government, whereby a free na-
tion chooses the men to whom it entrusts its concerns,
its presidents and its prime ministers, its parliaments and
congresses and courts. Yet even this mighty discovery,
whereby modern nations are raised so far above those poor
Old World creatures, the Greeks and Romans and me-
diaeval Italians, has not so far controlled factional passion
that many countries do not live in a perpetual civil war
which Athens and Corinth would have been ashamed ofJ We
all know how our dear sister republics of Central and South-
ern America, which, as Mr. Webster said, looked to the
great Northern Light in forming their constitutions, treat

their elections as merely indications which of two parties
shall be set up to be knocked down by rifles and bombshells
unless it retains its hold by such means. But how with our-
selves? How with England? How with France? How
often do we regard our elected governors as really standing
for the whole nation and deserving its allegiance?

In 1846 the President of the United States and his coun-
sellors hurried us into a needless, a bullying, a wicked war.
Fully a quarter of the country felt it was an outrage, and
nothing else. But appeals were made to stand by the gov-
ernment, against which our own merciless satirist directed
the lines which must have forever tingled in the ears and
the consciences of the men who supported what they knew
was irretrievably wicked :

" The side of our country must allus be took,

And President Polk, you know, he is our country ;
And the angel who writes all our sins in a book
Puts the debit to him and to us the percontry."

No, brethren ! no president, no prime minister, no cabinet,
no congress, or parliament, no deftly organized representa-
tive or executive body, is or can be our country. To pay
them a patriot's affectionate allegiance is as illogical as
loyalty to James II. or to the French National Convention.
Mere obedience to law, when duly enacted, is one thing : So-
crates may drink the hemlock rather than run away from


Online LibraryWilliam EverettPatriotism. An oration delivered before the Phi beta kappa of Harvard college, commencement, 1900 → online text (page 1 of 2)