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SPEECH AT A PUBLIC DINNER, AT NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, JUNE
PRONOUNCED AT CAMBRIDGE, BEFORE THE SOCIETY OF PHI BETA
KAPPA, AUGUST 26, 1824.
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN,
In discharging the honorable trust of being the public organ of your sentiments on this occasion, I am anxious that the hour, which we here pass together, should be occupied by those reflections exclusively, which belong to us as scholars. Our association in this fraternity is academical; we engaged in it before our Alma Mater dismissed us from her venerable roof, to wander in the various paths of life; and we have now come together in the academical holidays, from every variety of pursuit, from almost every part of our country, to meet on common ground, as the brethren of one literary household. The professional cares of life, like the conflicting tribes of Greece, have proclaimed to us a short armistice, that we may come up in peace to our Olympia.
But from the wide field of literary speculation, and the innumerable subjects of meditation which arise in it, a selection must be made. It has seemed to me proper that we should direct our thoughts, not merely to a subject of interest to scholars, but to one, which may recommend itself as peculiarly appropriate to us. If that old man eloquent, whom the dishonest victory of Cheronæa killed with report,' could devote fifteen years to the composition of his Panegyric on Athens, I shall need no excuse to a society of American scholars, in choosing for the theme of my address on an occasion like this, the peculiar motives to intellectual exertion in America. In this subject, that curiosity, which every scholar feels în tracing and comparing the springs of mental activity, is height
ened and dignified, by the important connexion of the inquiry with the condition and prospects of our native land.
In the full comprehension of the terms, the motives to intellectual exertion in a country embrace the most important springs of national character. Pursued into its details, the study of these springs of national character is often little better than fanciful speculation. The question, why Asia has almost always been the abode of despotism, and Europe more propitious to liberty ; why the Egyptians were abject and melancholy; the Greeks inventive, elegant, and versatile; the Romans stern, saturnine, and, in matters of literature, for the most part servile imitators of a people, whom they conquered, despised, and never equalled; why tribe of barbarians from the north and east, not known to differ essentially from each other at the time of their settlement in Europe, should have laid the foundation of national characters so dissimilar, as those of the Spanish, French, German, and English nations ;these are questions to which a few general answers may be attempted, that will probably be just and safe, only in proportion as they are vague and comprehensive. Difficult as it is, even in the individual man, to point out precisely the causes, under the influence of which members of the same community and of the same family, placed apparently in the same circumstances, grow up with characters the most diverse; it is infinitely more difficult to perform the same analysis on a subject so vast as a Nation ; where it is oftentimes first to be settled, what the precise character is, before you touch the inquiry into the circumstances by which it was formed.
But as, in the case of individual character, there are certain causes of undisputed and powerful operation ; there are also in national character causes equally undisputed of improvement and excellence, on the one hand, and of degeneracy, on the other. The philosophical student of history may often fix on circumstances, which in their operation on the minds of the people, in furnishing the motives and giving the direction to intellectual exertion, have had the chief agency in making them what they were or are.
It is in the highest degree curious to trace physical and historical facts into their political, intellectual, and moral consequences; and to show how the climate, the geographical position, and even the
particular topography of a region connect themselves, by evident association, with the state of society, its leading pursuits, and characteristic institutions.
In the case of other nations, particularly of those, which in the great drama of the world, have long since passed from the stage, these speculations, however, are often only curious. The operation of a tropical climate in enervating and fitting a people for despotism; the influence of a broad river or a lofty chain of mountains, in arresting the march of conquest or of emigration, and thus becoming the boundary not merely of governments, but of languages, literature, institutions, and character; the effect of a quarry of fine marble on the progress of the liberal arts; the agency of popular institutions in promoting popular eloquence, and the tremendous reaction of popular eloquence on the fortunes of a state ; the comparative destiny of colonial settlements, of insular states, of tribes fortified in nature's Alpine battlements, or scattered over a smiling region of olive gardens and vineyards ; these are all topics indeed of rational curiosity and liberal speculation, but important only as they may illustrate the
of our own country. It is, therefore, when we turn the inquiry to our country, when we survey its features, search its history, and contemplate its institutions, to see what the motives are, which are to excite and guide the minds of the people; when we dwell not on a distant, an uncertain, an almost forgotten past; but on an impending future, teeming with life and action, toward which we are rapidly and daily swept forward, and with which we stand in the dearest connexion, which can bind the generations of man together; a future, which our own characters, our own actions, our own principles, will do soinething to stamp with glory or shame; it is then that the inquiry becomes practical, momentous, and worthy the attention of every patriotic scholar. We then strive, as far as it is in the power of philosophical investigation to do it, to unfold our country's reverend auspices, to cast its great horoscope in the national sky, where many stars are waning, and many have set; to ascertain whether the soil which we love, as that where our fathers are laid, and we shall presently be laid with them, will be trod in times to come by a virtuous, enlightened, and free people.