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AT SCHENECTADY, JULY 22, A. D. 1823, BEFORE THE NEW YORK ALPHA OF THE PHI BETA KAPPA,
BY DE WITT CLINTON.
AND GENTLEMEN OF THE SOCIETY:
IN accepting the honor of your renewed invitations to appear at this place, I have not been insensible of your kind preference; and when you were pleased to intimate that the deep interest of science, in exhibitions of this nature, might be promoted by my co-operation, I considered it my imperative duty to yield a cheerful compliance. When I endeavor to enforce those considerations which ought to operate upon us generally as men, and particularly as Americans, to attend to the cultivation of knowledge, you will not, I am persuaded, expect that I shall act the holiday orator, or attempt an ambitious parade, an ostentatious display, or a gaudy exhibition, which would neither suit the character of the society, the disposition of the speaker, the solemnity of the place, or the importance of the occasion. What I say shall come strictly within the purview of the institution, shall be comprised in the language of unvarnished truth, and shall be directed with an exclusive view to advance the interests of literature. I shall not step aside to embellish or to dazzle, to cull a flower or to collect a gem. Truth, like beauty, needs not the aid of ornament, and the cause of knowledge requires no factitious assistance, for it stands on its own merits, supporting and supported by the primary interests of society, and deriving its effulgent light from the radiations of heaven.
Man without cultivation differs but little from the animals which resemble him in form. His ideas would
be few and glimmering, and his meaning would be conveyed by signs or by confused sounds. His food would be the acorn or locust-his habitation, the cave-his pillow, the rock-his bed, the leaves of the forest-his clothes, the skins of wild beasts. Destitute of accommodations he would roam at large seeking for food, and evincing in all his actions, that the state of untutored nature is a state of war. If we cast our eyes over the pages of history, or view the existing state of the world, we will find that this description is not exaggerated or overcharged. Many nations are in a condition still more deplorable and debased, sunk to the level of brutes, and neither in the appearance of their bodies or in the character of their minds, bearing a resemblance to civilized humanity. Others are somewhat more advanced, and begin to feel the day-spring from on high-while those that have been acclimated to virtue and naturalized to intelligence, have passed through a severe course of experiments and a long ordeal of sufferings.
Almost all the calamities of man, except the physical evils which are inherent in his nature, are in a great measure to be imputed to erroneous views of religion or bad systems of government; and these cannot be co-existent for any considerable time with an extensive diffusion of knowledge. Either the predominance of intelligence will destroy the government, or the government will destroy it. Either it will extirpate superstition and enthusiasm, or they will contaminate its purity and prostrate its usefulness. Knowledge is the cause as well as the effect of good government. No system of government can answer the benign purposes of the social combinations of man, which is not predicated on liberty, and no creed of religion can sustain unsullied purity or support its high destination, which is mingled with the corruptions of human government. Christianity is in its essence, its doctrines and its forms, republican. It teaches our descent from a common parent: it inculcates the natural equality of mankind; and it points to our origin and our end; to our nativity and our graves, and to our immortal des
tinies, as illustrations of this impressive truth. But at an early period it was pressed into the service of the potentates of the earth; the unnatural union of church and state was consummated; and the sceptre of Constantine was supported by the cross of Jesus. The light of knowledge was shut out from the general mass and confined to the selected organs of tyranny; and man was for ages enveloped in the thickest gloom of intellectual and moral darkness. At the present crisis in human affairs, we perceive a great and portentous contest between power and liberty-between the monarchical and the representative systems. The agonies and convulsions of resuscitating nature have agitated the nations, and before they are restored to their rights and the world to its repose, the hand of famine, the scythe of pestilence, and the sword of depopulation, will fill up the measure of human calamity.
The present state of the world exhibits an extraordinary aspect. In former times, it was the policy of the sovereign to encourage eminent merit in literature, science and the arts. The glory that was radiated on intellectual excellence was reflected back on the government; but these dispensations of munificence were confined to the Aristotles, the Virgils and the Plinies of the age. The body of the people were kept in a state of profound ignorance, and considered as the profanum vulgus, to be employed as hewers of wood and drawers of water, and to be used as beasts of burden or of prey as the policy or the caprice of the despot should prescribe.
The revolution, effected by the invention of printing, has created a corps of literary men in the cities, the universities, the academies, the lyceums, and the philosophical societies of the most arbitrary governments of Europe, which have exercised an influence over public opinion almost irresistible. Man is the creature of imitation and sympathy: and however callous the sovereign might be to public opinion, yet it predominated over his ministers, who in reality wielded the sceptre. The consequence was, that a more extensive diffusion of knowledge was promoted, and the blessings of instruction visited the cottage as well as
the palace. Monitorial schools and religious societies were generally established, and the sunshine of mental and moral illumination penetrated the darkness which covered the nations. To know our rights is to assert them. The principles of the American revolution became the text-book of liberty, and its practical commentaries are to be read in the events now occurring in various parts of the globe. Greece has unfurled the holy standard of liberty, and waves it in defiance over the crescent of Mahomet. Spanish America is breaking the chains of tyranny: Spain and Portugal have drawn the sword in vindication of the rights of man. Public opinion is operating with magic influence in Great Britain in favor of the oppressed nations; and the result will show, that the physical strength of Europe must follow the train of its moral power. It is in vain to say, that the people now in commotion are unfit for free government. Conceding the fact, it avails nothing in the argument. The human character is principally moulded by knowledge, religion, freedom and government. The free states of Greece exhibited different aspects of mind, of manners, and of morals. But we no longer remark, as a distinguishing characteristic, the ethereal spirit of the Athenian, the pastoral simplicity of the Arcadian, the stupidity of the Baotian, or the laconic brevity of the Spartan.* The sweeping hand of despotism has confounded in one mass all the delicate coloring, the lights and shades of the picture. In revolutionary times, great talents and great virtues, as well as great vices and great follies, spring into being. The energies of our nature are put into requisition, and during the whirlwind and the tempest, innumerable evils will be perpetrated. But all the transient mischiefs of revolutions are mild, when compared with the permanent calamities of arbitrary power. The one is a sweeping deluge, an awful tornado, which quickly passes away; but the other is a volcano, continually ejecting rivers of lava-an earthquake, burying whole
* Hughes' Travels in Greece.
countries in ruin. The alleged inaptitude of man for liberty, is the effect of the oppressions which he has suffered; and until a free government can shed its propitious influence over time-until, perhaps, a new generation has risen up under the new order of things, with new habits and new principles, society will be in a state of agitation and mutation, faction will be lord of the ascendant, and frenzy and fury, denunciation and proscription, will be the order of the day. The dilemma is inevitable. Either the happiness of the many, or the predominance of the few, must be sacrificed. The flame of liberty and the light of knowledge, emanate from the same sacred fire, and subsist on the same aliment: and the seeds of instruction, widely disseminated, will, like the serpent's teeth in the Pagan mythology that were sown into the earth, rise up against oppression in the shape of the iron men of Cadmus. In such a cause, who can hesitate to make an election? The factions and convulsions of free governments, are not so sanguinary in character, or terrific in effects, as the animosities and intestine wars of monarchies, about the succession-the insurrections of the military-the proscriptions of the priesthood, and the cruelties of the administration. The spirit of a republic is the friend, and the genius of a monarchy is the enemy, of peace. The potentates of the earth have, for centuries back, maintained large standing armies, and on the most frivolous pretexts, have created havoc and desolation. And when we compare the world, as it is under arbitrary power, with the world as it was under free republics, what an awful contrast does it exhibit! What a solemn lesson does it inculcate! The ministers of famine and pestilence, of death and destruction, have formed the van, and brought up the rear, of despotic authority. The monuments of the arts-the fabrics of genius and skill, and the sublime erections of piety and science, have been prostrated in the dust; and the places where Demosthenes and Cicero spoke, where Homer and Virgil sang, and where Plato and Aristotle taught, are now exhibited as mementos of the