William Wirt: Address at Rutgers College—Private Character

Democratic Thinker, American Thought

In 1830, William Wirt—late retired as U.S. Attorney General—delivers a speech before a group of students at Rutgers College. The address, widely reprinted—his opening statement particularly—, inspired generations of students.

Whether you are destined for either of the learned professions, or prefer the pursuits of agriculture, commerce, or manufactures, you will find that you can make no distinguished progress in either, without this bold and manly quality. The man who is perpetually hesitating which of two things he will do first, will do neither.

An Address Delivered Before the Peithessophian and Philoclean Societies Of Rutgers College.
(July 20, 1830)


III. Private Character.


GENTLEMEN, I have hitherto urged this quality upon you with reference, only, to your public or political duties. Give me leave, now, to add, that decision of character is as indispensable in private as in public life; and that there can be no success, in any walk, without it. Whether you are destined for either of the learned professions, or prefer the pursuits of agriculture, commerce, or manufactures, you will find that you can make no distinguished progress in either, without this bold and manly quality. The man who is perpetually hesitating which of two things he will do first, will do neither. The man who resolves, but suffers his resolution to be changed by the first counter suggestion of a friend, who fluctuates from opinion to opinion, from plan to plan, and veers, like a weathercock, to every point of the compass, with every breeze of caprice that blows, can never accomplish anything great or useful. Instead of being progressive in anything, he will be at best stationary, and, more probably, retrograde in all. It is only the man who carries into his pursuits that great quality which Lucan ascribes to Cæsar—the nescia virtus stare loco—who first consults wisely, then resolves firmly, and then executes his purpose with inflexible perseverance, undismayed by those petty difficulties which daunt a weaker spirit, that can advance to eminence on any line. Let us take, by way of illustration, the case of a student. He commences the study of the dead languages: presently comes a friend, who tells him that he is wasting his time, and that, instead of learning obsolete words, he had much better employ himself in acquiring new ideas. He changes his plan, and sets to work at the mathematics. Then comes another friend, who asks him, with a grave and sapient face, whether he intends to become a professor in a college, because if he does not, he is misemploying his time; and that for the business of life, common arithmetic is quite enough of the mathematics. He throws up his Euclid and addresses himself to some other study, which, in its turn, is again relinquished on some equally wise suggestion; and thus his life is spent in changing his plans. You cannot but perceive the folly of this course; and the worst effect of it is, the fixing on a young mind a habit of indecision, sufficient of itself, to blast the fairest prospects. No, gentlemen, take your course wisely, but firmly; and having taken it, hold upon it with heroic resolution, and the Alps and Pyrenees will sink before you. The whole empire of learning will lie at your feet, while those who set out with you, but stopped to change their plans, are yet employed in the very profitable business of changing their plans. Let your motto be, Perseverando vinces. Practise upon it, and you will become convinced of its value, by the distinguished eminence to which it will conduct you.

Success in life depends far more upon this quality, than on the possession of what is called genius. For decision of character is, by no means, a necessary attendant upon genius. On the contrary, there is frequently allied with it, a tender, and even morbid sensibility, which is very apt to generate indecision, and to plunge its victim into melancholy, despondency, and lethargy. You will meet with frequent instances in life, in which this bold and hardy quality will give to an inferior mind the command over the superior. Nay, you will see it among boys, and even among girls, at school. The leader of their amusements, and all of their little enterprises—the individual, to whom all the rest instinctively look to give the word of command, is frequently the inferior in point of genius to many of those who willingly obey that word. This phenomenon results entirely from superior decision of character. And you may gather from the fact this useful lesson, that if you wish, hereafter, to have influence among your neighbors, you must acquire, now, this commanding decision of character, to which weaker spirits willingly bow, and find even a relief in bowing to it, and obeying it.

Gentlemen, this same quality will be one of the best guardians of your virtues. Why is it that young men are so often drawn off from their studies and tempted to dissipation, which their consciences condemn? It proceeds from indecision of character. They have not the firmness to say “No” to an improper proposal. They yield to the tempter, and they call it good nature and good fellowship. And they soon acquire such a habit of yielding, that temptation has only to show herself, in any form, to he followed, though she beckon them over a precipice. What is the remedy for this ruinous facility of temper? Decision of character: that bracing and vigorous decision, which, having once taken the correct course, is deaf to the syren voice of the tempter, and blind to her beauties.

Thus, both in public and in private life; in the learned and the unlearned professions; in scenes of business, or in the domestic circle, the master quality of man is decision of character.

But you will not confound this decision, of which I speak, either with obstinacy, or with rudeness of manners. Not with obstinacy, because it is the character of obstinacy to persist in conscious error: whereas, it is the character of decision to renounce an error the moment it becomes manifest, and to renounce it with equal promptitude and firmness. But it is not often that a decided character is put to this humiliating change. Because the first step has not been rashly, but wisely and deliberately taken; because having been thus taken, it is not the mere difficulty of the execution that will induce a change; for all difficulties yield to a decided character; and, because it is only the development of after circumstances, which could not be taken into the first calculation, that demonstrates the error, and demands the change. Indecision is the mere creature of caprice, “a feather for every wind that blows,” and is seen continually tossing, in different and opposite currents. Obstinacy resolves ignorantly, or rashly, and (to borrow a word from Doct. Johnson) persists doggedly in error, against the light of its own understanding. Decision holds the middle course, and is the best earthly ally of wisdom and virtue. It is, indeed, the chief executive officer of their high decrees.

Nor will you confound decision with rudeness of manners. There is not the slightest connection between them. Decision is calm and steady as the polar star. She must be cool and dispassionate; for any perturbation would disturb her course. Satisfied with the correctness of that course, she is no less serene than she is intense; and can smile at suggestions that would ruffle into rudeness a character less firm. We are apt to consider rough, abrupt and arrogant manners as the natural indications of a firm and decided character. Nothing is more fallacious. These manners are frequently the mere cover for pusillanimity.

Gentlemen, be assured, that there is nothing graceful, or courteous, or fascinating, in address that is not perfectly compatible with the most manly firmness, and even the best evidence of its existence. Nay, you find this quality, frequently, in its highest perfection in the softer sex. It is this that carries them through their arduous, and, frequently, painful duties, with such undeviating steadiness, and enables them to persist in the lofty course of virtue, with a constancy and dignity which put us often to the blush. Yet this quality does not make them rude. On the contrary, you find it in company with meekness, patience, gentleness, kindness, and frequently with all that innocent gayety of heart, and spirited gracefulness of manner, which diffuse enchantment around them, wherever they go. With such bright and attractive examples before us, let it never be said, that rudeness is the necessary concomitant of decision of character.

Gentlemen, I think that you are, by this time, ready to admit the great value of this quality, and that you wish to understand whether it be an innate quality, which depends entirely on peculiar organization; or, whether it be one of those qualities that may be acquired by discipline? Let us attend for a moment to these questions.

If it be a quality which depends entirely on organization, it must have been born with us, or we can never possess it; and, on this hypothesis, I might have spared both you and myself the trouble of this address. But this is not the opinion which I entertain. I admit that there is a difference in our organization, and that, so far as it depends on this circumstance, we do bring with us into the world different degrees of this quality. Some men are born with firmer texture of muscle, with tougher sinews and stronger nerves, and, may be said to be, constitutionally, decided characters. But what, at last, is this decision but a modification of courage? and if courage itself may be acquired, it would seem to follow, by necessary consequence, that decision, which is an emanation from it, may, also, be acquired. Now, as to courage, nature has also made a difference among men. Some men are constitutionally brave, others timid. But we know that this natural timidity may be overcome by moral considerations, and that courage may be gained and established by habit. Frederick the Great of Prussia, is said to have fled with precipitation from his first battle, and not to have taken the rowels from his horse’s sides until he had placed many leagues between his enemy and himself. Yet this man became the wonder of Europe, not more by the depth and combinations of his policy, than coolness and firmness of his personal valor. To descend from great things to small: we are told of an inferior officer, in our Revolutionary War, who was nicknamed Captain Death, and who, in that portion of the army to which he belonged, was always singled out for the most desperate enterprizes. If a forlorn hope was to be sent out, a strong battery to be stormed, or any other peril that demanded nerves of steel, this man was always selected to head the adventure; and yet, it was remarked of him, that he was never called up to receive a proposal of this sort, that he did not turn as pale as his namesake, and tremble from head to foot. He never failed, however, to accomplish the purpose, and, I believe, that he went safe and unhurt through the war. But apart from particular examples, which might be easily multiplied; which of us, that has ever looked long, with an observant eye, on the dawning character of childhood, has not seen that a boy, naturally shy, and even cowardly, may be trained by erroneous education to become a bully, and to delight in battle? A better discipline would have given him all the firmness of a gentleman, without the ferocity of the ruffian.–Veteran legions are composed of men, some of whom will confess that in their first engagement, they were far more disposed to fly than to fight, and that nothing kept them in their ranks but shame and the fear of punishment. Yet, by degrees, they became brave, and were, at length, as calm, and even cheerful, amid showers of bullets, as when enjoying the festivities of their tents. In short, although nature may have denied this stability and stubbornness of nerve, yet I entertain no doubt of the power, I had nearly called it the omnipotence, of education to overcome this infirmity, and, that both courage and decision may be acquired by well-directed discipline. I am farther of the opinion, that that which we do so acquire, is of a far higher order than the brute material which organization gives, since, instead of being directed to the perpetration of crimes, as is most frequently the case where it is the mere effect of native temperament, it will be always guided by wisdom and virtue to the accomplishment of good.

Assuming it now that decision of character may be acquired by discipline, what is the best course to gain it? I answer, the firm resolve of mind to do, always what is right, at every peril: and the knowledge which is necessary to direct our choice.

With regard to the first: the man who is so conscious of the rectitude of his intentions, as to be willing to open his bosom to the inspection of the world, is already in possession of one of the strongest pillars of a decided character. The course of such a man will be firm and steady, because he has nothing to fear from the world, and is sure of the approbation and support of Heaven; while the man, who is conscious of secret and dark designs, which, if known, would blast him, is perpetually shrinking and dodging from public observation, and is afraid of all around, and much more of all above him. Such a man may, indeed, pursue his iniquitous plans steadily; he may waste himself to a skeleton in the guilty pursuit; but it is impossible that he can pursue them with the same health-inspiring confidence, and exulting alacrity, with him who feels, at every step, that he is in the pursuit of honest ends by honest means. The clear, unclouded brow, the open countenance, the brilliant eye which can look an honest man steadfastly yet courteously in the face, the healthfully beating heart, and the firm elastic step, belong to him whose bosom is free from guile, and who knows that all his motives and purposes are pure and right. Why should such a man falter in his course? He may be slandered; he may be deserted by the world: but he has that within which will keep him erect, and enable him to move onward in his course with his eyes fixed on Heaven, which he knows will not desert him.

Let your first step, then, in that discipline which is to give you decision of character, be the heroic determination to be honest men, and to preserve this character through every vicissitude of fortune, and in every relation which connects you with society. I do not use this phrase, “honest men,” in the narrow sense, merely, of meeting your pecuniary engagements, and paying your debts; for this the common pride of gentlemen will constrain you to do. I use it in its largest sense of discharging all your duties, both public and private, both open and secret, with the most scrupulous, Heaven-attesting integrity: in that sense, farther, which drives from the bosom all little, dark, crooked, sordid, debasing considerations of self, and substitutes in their place a bolder, loftier, and nobler spirit: one that will dispose you to consider yourselves as born, not so much for yourselves as for your country and your fellow-creatures, and which will lead you to act on every occasion sincerely, justly, generously, magnanimously. There is a morality on a larger scale, perfectly consistent with a just attention to your own affairs, which it would be the height of folly to neglect: a generous expansion, a proud elevation, and conscious greatness of character, which is the best preparation for a decided course in every situation into which you can be thrown; and, it is to this high and noble tone of character, that I would have you to aspire. I would not have you to resemble those weak and meagre streamlets, which lose their direction at every petty impediment that presents itself, and stop, and turn back, and creep around, and search out every little channel through which they may wind their feeble and sickly course. Nor yet would I have you to resemble the headlong torrent that carries havoc in its mad career. But I would have you like the ocean, that noblest emblem of majestic Decision, which, in the calmest hour, still heaves its restless might of waters to the shore, filling the Heavens, day and night, with the echoes of its sublime Declaration of Independence, and tossing and sporting, on its bed, with an imperial consciousness of strength that laughs at opposition. It is this depth, and weight, and power, and purity of character, that I would have you to resemble; and I would have you, like the waters of the ocean, to become the purer by your own action.

Let me illustrate this character, by supposing it in a given situation, and contrasting it, with its opposite, in the same situation.

Some of you may be, hereafter, disposed to embark in a public life: if so, and you belong to this high order of character, you will feel that it would be unjust, and therefore dishonest, to propose yourselves, or permit yourselves to be proposed for any office, to whose duties you do not feel that you are competent; for you would know that the assumption of any office, is an engagement to the public, to whom the office belongs, to fulfill its duties, and, you would undertake nothing that you could not perform. You will, therefore, not consider what office is most desirable in itself; but what is most desirable with reference to your capacity to discharge its duties. You will compare, not superficially and conceitedly, but modestly and severely, your talents and attainments with the whole range of duties that belong to the office; and you will take care to qualify yourselves, eminently, for the discharge of those duties, before you seek it or accept it. You will make yourselves masters of all the facts, historical and political, which stand connected with it. You will invigorate, by exercise, those faculties of mind which must be called into exertion in the discharge of its duties. And, above all, you will raise yourselves to the high resolve to go for your country, and to devote yourselves, oh every occasion, fearlessly and exclusively, to her honor, her happiness, her glory. Your ambition will be to enrol your names among those over whose histories our hearts swell, and our eyes overflow with admiration, delight and sympathy, from infancy to old age; and the story of whose virtues, exploits, and sufferings, will continue to produce the same effect, throughout the world, at whatever distance of time they may be read. It is needless, and it were endless to name them. On the darker firmanent of history, ancient and modern, they form a galaxy resplendent with their lustre. To go no farther back, look for your model to the signers of our Declaration of Independence. You see revived in those men, the spirit of Ancient Rome in Rome’s best day; for they were willing, with Curtius, to leap into the flaming gulf, which the oracle of their own wisdom had assured them could be closed in no other way. There was one, however, whose name is not among those signers, but who must not, nay, cannot be forgotten; for, when a great and decided patriot is the theme, his name is not far off. Gentlemen, you need not go to past ages, nor to distant countries. You need not turn your eyes to ancient Greece, or Rome, or to modern Europe. You have in your own Washington, a recent model, whom you have only to imitate to become immortal. Nor, must you suppose that he owed his greatness to the peculiar crisis which called out his virtues; and despair of such another crisis for the display of your own. His more than Roman virtues, his consummate prudence, his powerful intellect, and his dauntless decision and dignity of character, would have made him illustrious in any age. The crisis would have done nothing for him, had not his character stood ready to match it. Acquire his character, and fear not the recurrence of a crisis to show forth its glory. Look at the elements of commotion that are already at work in this vast republic, and threatening us with a moral earthquake that will convulse it to its foundation. Look at the political degeneracy which pervades the country, and which has already borne us so far away from the golden age of the revolution; look at all “the signs of the times,” and you will see but little cause to indulge the hope that no crisis is likely to recur to give full scope for the exertion of the most heroic virtues. Hence it is, that I so anxiously hold up to you the model of Washington. Form yourselves on that noble model. Strive to acquire his modesty, his disinterestedness, his singleness of heart, his determined devotion to his country, his candor in deliberation, his accuracy of judgment, his invincible firmness of resolve, and then may you hope to be in your own age what he was in his, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the heart’s of your countrymen.” Commencing your career with this high strain of character, your course will be as steady as the needle to the pole. Your end will be always virtuous, your means always noble. You will adorn as well as bless your country. You will exalt and illustrate the age in which you live. Your example will shake, like a tempest, that pestilential pool, in which the virtues of our people are already beginning to stagnate, and restore the waters and the atmosphere to their revolutionary purity. The young will take you for their bright exemplar and their guide: the old will hail you as the resurrection of their patriot hopes; and virgins and matrons will bless you, for the benign influences you will shed on the happiness of society.

Now reverse the picture. Suppose you take for your model those little men, who sometimes gain, by their cunning, a momentary ascendency. You will learn from them, that real virtue, and patriotism, are the mere creations of a Utopian brain: and that, although it may be very well to have the words often on your lips, it would be folly and madness, in the extreme of Quixotism, to have the things in your hearts. That your business is to act, always coolly from the head, never from the heart. That you must take care to steel your nerves against the approach of sensibility, and keep the hearts in your bosoms as cold and as hard as adamant, lest you should be surprised into some genuine touch of sympathy, or some compunctious visiting of conscience, which may throw you off your guard, and unhinge all your plans. These men will teach you, by their example, whatever they may profess to the contrary, that every man is born for himself, and for himself only, and that, with regard to your country, you are to think of it, as Shakspeare’s Pistol did of the world— “this world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” In pursuance of this selfish philosophy, they will teach you that the summum bonum of life is your own political advancement, and that this holy end will sanctify all the means you may think proper to adopt for its accomplishment. They will instruct you that all other men were made for your use, and will tell you, with Jugurtha, and Sir Robert Walpole, that all men may he bribed, in some form or other: either in the form of money, or office, or promise; that, by skillful management, you may form and discipline around yourselves, such a band of devoted adherents, and give them such a location throughout the community, that by touching the spring nearest to you, you may set the whole machine, at once, into motion, and work it to your ends. That you must create as many alliances of interest as you can, throughout the community, and spread your web for rapid and extensive effect. That in forming these alliances, you are not to consider the respectability of the individual, but his fitness for your purposes. That ambition, like misfortune, must make us acquainted with strange bed-fellows: and, that, as your whole life is perfidy and treason against society, it would be foolishly nice and fastidious to object, either to the company or the services of a Judas Iscariot.

O, gentlemen, there is that inordinate ambition that makes the soul of an honest man sick but to contemplate it! You may talk of the corrupting power of avarice; but there is no such deadly and desolating corrupter as ill-governed ambition. How often do we see those whom the Almighty had, in his mercy, formed to bless and honor their race, leap from this noble eminence to plunge and wallow in the mire of ambition! Who can look upon such a wreck without a sinking heart? Who can look upon that eye, in which the fire of every generous virtue once burned strong and bright: on that proud brow, on which Heaven had written only deeds of high emprise, and behold the one, blenched with conscious shame; the other, fallen, and furrowed, and haggard with guilt, without being disposed to utter curses on that ambition which had wrought this work of horror? Gentlemen, beware of ambition; or rather beware of that virulent ambition, which begins and ends in self, and consumes, like a cancer, all the virtues of the heart. If popularity have charms for you, cultivate a taste for that popularity only which follows virtuous deeds, and whose laurels will flourish in immortal green; and despise that poor ephemeral notoriety, (for it deserves no better name,) which is gained by base compliances with a vicious age; which is run after, and fished for, by cunning appeals to the prejudices of the moment; by the affected adoption and flattery of vulgar errors, which, in your hearts, you despise, by diffusing error and corruption among the people themselves, and thus poisoning the whole republic, in its fountain-head. Despising all parties for men, with the whole tissue of their depraved and despicable works, be it your ambition to be purely and greatly useful, and to live for your country. In a word, let your ambition be that of Washington; the only kind of ambition that can benefit the public, or find a welcome in an honest heart.

But let us pass from this agitating view of the subject, to one more tranquil. Many of you will, probably, devote yourselves to professional, or still more, private pursuits. In all of them you will find the necessity of that masculine quality which is the chief subject of my address; and in all you will find that the firmest basis of this quality, is that pure good faith which I distinguish by the name of honesty. Do good to all men. Do harm to none. Cultivate peace and charity with all around you, so far as it can be done without giving countenance to their vices. Repress vice, both public and private, by your precept and example. Show the world, in your own lives, the beauty of virtue. Pursue your own calling, whatever it may be, kindly and fraternally towards your competitors; justly and honorably towards all men: but with inflexible decision, with invincible perseverance. Throw indolence behind you with one hand, and dissipation with the other; press forward steadily, calmly, vigorously, always tasking your powers to their utmost strength, and resolved, so far as depends on yourselves, to reach the highest point of which you are capable. The ancients have told, you that if you wish to live after death, you must die while you live. You must die, at least, to the world of sensual indulgence and voluptuous idleness. You must dedicate your hours, whether solitary or social, to the development and invigoration of your intellectual faculties, and to the industrious cultivation and expansion of those moral qualities, which may enthrone you justly in the hearts of your countrymen, and enable you, by and by, to read your history in a nation’s eyes. Pursue this course, and your success in life is almost certain. You will become useful citizens, and, so far as may be compatible with this state of things, you will become happy men. But, by the way of final warning on this head, take no short cuts either to wealth or fame. Ne festinas locupletari; ne festinas ghrificari. Beware of avarice, whose bosom friend is knavery; and of that

“Vaulting ambition that o’erleaps itself. And falls on the other side.”

Gentlemen, I have said that the discipline, which is to give you decision of character, is to be directed, first, to the firm resolve to do, always, what is right, at every peril; and, secondly, to the knowledge which is necessary to direct your choice. Of the first I have spoken; permit me, now, to call your attention to the last.


Contributed by Democratic Thinker

Your comments