William Wirt: Address at Rutgers College—Education

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.

But, both the acquisition of solid learning, and the sagacious observation of life, demand a clear and sound judgment. This is, indeed, an indispensable ingredient in that strength of character, which is certainly to fix your grade in society. Hence, gentlemen, it is to the cultivation of a sound judgment that you must direct your chief mental efforts.

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


IV. Education.


OUR knowledge is a compound of what we derive from books, and what we extract, by our own observation, from the living world around us. Both of these are necessary to a well-informed man: and, of the two, the last is, by far, the most useful for the practical purposes of life. You all know that the mere cloistered scholar is one of the most impotent and helpless of beings, when called to actual scenes of business. The worms, that feed on his books, are scarcely more imbecile. Whereas, on the other hand, the man who is wholly unlettered, but who has been from his childhood a keen and vigilant observer of what is passing around him, will acquire a sagacity and a tact that will make him a shrewd and dexterous manager of his own affairs, and often, a useful adviser to his neighbors. But, he will be exceedingly apt to be a cunning man, rather than a wise one; and he will be a prodigy, indeed, if he possess much of that liberality and elevation which literature is so eminently fitted to give. It is only the man who combines the teaching of books, with the strong and close observation of life, that deserves the name of a well-informed man, and presents a model worthy of your imitation. Such were Oxenstiern of Sweden, Ximenes of Spain, Sully of France, and Cecil, Lord Burleigh, of England. Such have been the most distinguished men of your own country; and such is every man who is at once the scholar and the man of business.


But, both the acquisition of solid learning, and the sagacious observation of life, demand a clear and sound judgment. This is, indeed, an indispensable ingredient in that strength of character, which is certainly to fix your grade in society. Hence, gentlemen, it is to the cultivation of a sound judgment that you must direct your chief mental efforts. Young men are exceedingly apt to make a sad mistake on this subject. Haud inexpertus loquor. There is a pleasure in the indulgence of the lighter faculties, fancy, imagination, wit—and there is an admiration which follows their successful display, which youthful vanity can, with difficulty, resist. But, throw this brilliant youth into the same arena with an antagonist who has gone for strength of mind, and whose reason and judgment have been the chief objects of discipline, and you will soon see the sparkling diamond reduced to carbon and pounded to dust. The genius, himself, if he possess any stamina, will speedily discover that, if he does not mean to be “set down an ass,” or, at the best, a splendid trifler, of but little account, he must change his battery, and learn to load with ball, instead of blank cartridge. I give you this warning, that you may not waste your time in this marching and countermarching of your minds, but, that you may take the true direction at once, and hold it with undeviating constancy. I do not mean that, if you possess wit and fancy, you should seek to extinguish them; because they are often useful auxiliaries to the strongest reasoner. But I do mean that you should not mistake the auxiliary for the principal; ornamental qualities for business qualities; and waste on their culture that precious time, which should be given to the discipline of higher faculties.

My advice to you, then, is, to make your reason and judgment the primary objects of your attention. All the studies that will be offered to you here, will have a bearing, more or less, on these faculties, because they will all go to increase your general stock of knowledge, the materials on which reason and judgment work, and the armour with which they fight; and, because, in the acquisition of any one of them, reason and judgment must be, in some degree, exerted. Even in Belles Lettres, the lightest and most dangerous, because the most fascinating of them all, you are compelled at every step to compare and to prefer; which is, at once, the exercise both of reason and judgment. Besides, throughout the whole empire of human knowledge, there are certain curious analogies, which are of great use, not only to the writer and speaker, but to the thinker, with a mere view to private judgment; and, consequently, the more you enlarge your stock of knowledge, the more do you increase those stores of analogy and illustration, which constitute an essential part of your strength. Old-fashioned economists will tell you never to pass an old nail, or an old horse-shoe, or buckle, or even a pin, without taking it up; because, although you may not want it now, you will find a use for it, some time or other. I say the same thing to you with regard to knowledge. However useless it may appear to you at the moment, seize upon all that is fairly within your reach. For there is not a fact within the whole circle of human observation, nor even a fugitive anecdote that you read in a newspaper, or hear in conversation, that will not come into play some time or other; and occasions will arise when they will, involuntarily, present their dim shadows in the train of your thinking and reasoning, as belonging to that train, and you will regret that you cannot recall them more distinctly.

But, while this is true of knowledge in general, there are certain branches of education which are better fitted than others to strengthen your reason and clear your judgment; and, among the initiatory studies in use in our grammar schools, the best of them, in my opinion, is that on which we are commonly first put, the study of the Latin language. It is a superficial error to consider it as a mere exercise of memory. It is one of the best exercises of youthful reason and judgment. I speak of it as it used to be taught, not being familiar with any modern innovations which may have taken place. The application of the rules of syntax, in parsing this language, is a continual exertion of reason and judgment. The fundamental rules are, indeed, not very numerous; but the qualifications and exceptions to them are almost infinite, and, to apply them promptly and correctly, in every case, demands an acuteness of discrimination, which compels the pupil to become a strict and severe reasoner, and a sound judge.

Again: the disentanglement of an involved sentence, under the guidance of those rules of concord and government, so as to render the sense neatly and clearly, is another beautiful exercise of reason and judgment. And, from the mass of synonymes which belong to both languages, the selection of the English word, which hits, with precision, the exact shade of the Latin, is another fine exercise, not only of reason and judgment, but of that subtile modification of them, which constitutes taste.

I am speaking of this language, merely, as a discipline of reason and judgment. I may add, that it is eminently instructive, also, as to the best dress in which reason can appear. For there is a delicate and felicitous precision in this language, which gives out the idea with unrivalled clearness and beauty. The man who has acquired a decided taste for this language, and reads it, con amore, in its best authors, will, imperceptibly, imbibe from it a spirit of accuracy and elegance combined, that will render it difficult for him to express himself either coarsely or obscurely. He will be contented with no form of expression which will not enucleate the thought neatly, distinctly, and beautifully. The Greek is still more simple, and severely chaste, and has an energy and majesty better fitted for the sublime. But we are now on the discipline, merely, of reason and judgment; and, although I am aware that some distinguished men have spoken lightly of the dead languages, as of little or no use, yet, I must be permitted to speak of the market as my own fares and that of my neighbors have gone in it; and, thus speaking, I have no hesitation in advancing the opinion, that the radical acquisition of the dead languages is one of the finest intellectual gymnasiums, in which the reason and judgment of a young person can be trained.

Passing to later studies, mathematics claims the precedence. It is in this severe science that reason and judgment find their most masculine employment. It is in this that we learn to look through a series of naked and connected propositions, to a certain conclusion. It is in this that we learn to perceive, with accuracy, the strict dependence of proposition upon proposition, to combine them with strength, and to walk, on a right line, to the unerring result. Every man perceives, therefore, and admits at once, the inestimable value of this science, as a discipline of reason and judgment.

But, I must warn you of the danger of becoming so enamoured of your mathematics, as to carry them on every occasion into the business of life. For moral truth does not admit of mathematical demonstration, and, to attempt it, would be to torture and lop truth on the bed of Procrustes. I knew once an astronomer, who was also a legislator, a learned and amiable gentleman, and, for many years, the chairman of the committee of finance in the General Assembly of the state. It was the constant effort of that gentleman’s mind, to bring his favorite science of mathematics to bear on his legislative duties, and to make Euclidian demonstrations in political economy. But, he met with the fate of the traveling tutor, in one of Smollett’s novels, who attempted to reclaim a libertine pupil by demonstrating to him, on the principles of plane trigonometry, the existence of a future state of rewards and punishment; he produced only a laugh, when, in the simplicity of his heart, he looked confidently for conviction.

The business of life is conversant with moral truth, which admits no nearer approach than that of high probability, and cannot be subjected to rigorous demonstration. You must learn, therefore, to reason well for the business of life. To accomplish this, I know of no better method of discipline, than to read critically the works, and listen to the arguments of those who are most distinguished for the power of reasoning. As, for example, among the writers, Bacon, Hooker, Sidney, Locke, and a host of others, to whom their fame will, by and by, direct you. Mr. Locke recommends Chilling worth as a master teacher in the art of moral reasoning; but Mr. Locke himself is, in my opinion, greatly the superior of the two; and I beg leave to recommend to you, in an especial manner, as immediately connected with this subject, and as supplying the imperfections of this sketch, his masterly treatise “On the Conduct of the Understanding.” Among other golden rules, which he gives us in that work, for the guidance of our reason, there is one to which I cannot forbear calling your attention; because I have observed that the neglect of it, is one of the most frequent causes of failure in our reasonings. Man, he observes, is a being of limited faculties, and from the indolence and impatience which are natural to him, he is very apt to take short views of subjects, and to rest his conclusions on the few facts which lie immediately within his reach, regardless of those that are farther off, but which must be taken into the account, if he would avoid error. This rule is, never to precipitate your conclusion by an indolent or hasty view, but to look far and wide around you, with a scrutinizing inspection, and to be sure that nothing has escaped you which belongs to the just consideration of your subject. You are not to look at one side only of the case, on which, perhaps, your prepossessions lie; but to dismiss all prepossessions, and to examine both sides with equal candor and fullness; and, in order that you may do so, you are to imagine yourself the advocate first of one side, and then of the other. It is only by thus stating the account, fully and fairly, on both sides, without the omission of a single unit that belongs to either, that you will be able to ascertain on which side the balance stands. This is what Mr. Jefferson calls “seeing the whole ground;” and what Mr. Locke himself has called, “large, sound, round-about sense:“ the only kind of sense worth the possession, either for the great or smaller concerns of life.

This comprehensiveness of mind is to be acquired by discipline; and, if nature has not altogether denied the germ, it is inconceivable to what an extent it may be expanded by culture. With this view, one of the best exercises is to study, with ardent and intense curiosity, the operations of other minds, particularly of those which have been distinguished for extent and power. By observing the strength with which they grasp their subject, the vigor with which they traverse the whole field of inquiry, and the energy and skill with which they winnow the chaff from the grain, your own mind will take the impulse from theirs, until the momentum becomes habitually established. You can no longer trifle with any subject that you take in hand. You will go to work with the determination “to think it out“ if I may borrow a phrase from a living giant; and, delenda est Carthago, will be your war-cry in every assault.

In this discipline, the rival theories of eminent metaphysicians is a good study. I speak of it as a mere exercise of reason. One can feel no great confidence in the theories of these gentlemen, which are continually supplanting each other, without giving us any new foothold that promises greater security than the last. They have reduced their battle-field to a perfect Golgotha, a place of skulls; and the last victor of the moment can only stand till another champion shall make his entry, to send him after his predecessors, and then to follow in his turn. Their works, nevertheless, present a good study. They will teach you the valuable habit of self-observation; and show you how the mind can turn in upon itself, and expatiate among its own powers. Their adversary discussions will impress you with the importance of taking into the account all the facts which belong to any disquisition; and they will instruct and discipline you, by the vigor and address with which they push their arguments.

But this science, too, is not without danger as applied to the practical business of life. In this case, the danger is a propensity to over-refinement and subtilty. The man who has imbibed too much of the spirit of metaphysics, is seldom a prompt and able tactician, either in public or private affairs. In thinking, speaking, or acting, we must move forward with strong and bold steps. But the metaphysician hangs upon his point, until he has refined it to death, and his adversary has gained the goal, before he has fairly started.

Again: I have already suggested it as the duty of you all, as American citizens, whatever may be your destination in life, to understand well the Constitution of the United States: and it happens that in connection with this study, and in exposition of the instrument, there are, within your reach, several works which are among the finest models of comprehensiveness and cogency of argument, that any country, in any age, has presented to the admiration and respect of the world. I allude to the justly-celebrated essays of the Federalist, and to the constitutional opinions of Chief Justice Marshall, of the Supreme Court of the United States. These are the works of giant minds, and it is impossible to peruse them without being filled with wonder at the force of the human understanding, and touched with a generous desire to emulate these achievements.

These works have another great advantage for those who aspire to the study and practice of eloquence. They give you the finest models of the nervous and the manly, and will teach you to despise the worthless tinsel with which young minds are apt to be caught and dazzled. They will teach you to think strongly, which should be your first object: and to express your thoughts clearly and forcibly, which completes the crown of intellectual greatness. Some of the numbers of the Federalist are illumined with the finest touches of beauty. But the flowers are never sought for; they spring up, fresh and spontaneous, in the track of thought, never encumbering, but always relieving and illustrating the course of the argument, and manifestly, starting, in the chasteness of their beauty, from a mind heated by its action on the principal theme.

Gentlemen, you must not despair of reacting the eminence on which these great men stand, because you cannot gain it by a single step. They gained it, as you must do, by toiling up the steep, gradatims, and with efforts that were frequently foiled, before their success became complete. Omnia vincit labor. Exert yourselves now, in proportion to your strength, and you will find your strength to increase by every new exertion. Feret taurum qui tulit vitttlum. Lift the calf every day, and you will, by and by, be able, like Milo, to shoulder him when grown to an ox.

Gentlemen, the subject of education is inexhaustible. As long as I have detained you, I have yet done little more than to touch a few of its more prominent heads. These hints (for they deserve no better name) are not intended to be limited to the time you will employ here. They look farther. They look to the time after you shall have left college; and their chief design is to recommend the tone and complexion of character which you should labor to acquire, and support, with dignified consistency, through life. You do not, I hope, suppose that what you are to gain here is to constitute the whole of your education. If you do, you have taken a most erroneous view of the subject. This is the mere cradle, at best, the nursery of education. You learn to walk here; but it is not until you shall have taken your place in the ranks of life, that you will learn to march, with the firm and well-measured step of the soldier. You will lay the foundation and acquire the rudiments of education here; you will acquire, too, I hope, those habits of systematic application, which are to operate through life; and you will, here, give that just direction to your moral and intellectual character, which it will be your passion to sustain till the hour of your deaths. But if your ambition be not that of an ephemeron, your whole life will be one of arduous study, and of progressive improvement, and enlargement. Your first step from the walls of the college will usher you on the stage of the world, where you will have it in your power to correct the theories of your books, by the close and constant inspection of actual life. It is on that theatre that we are to learn the use which you will have made of your time here. It will be in vain to show us your diplomas. We shall require higher evidence. Show us pure and steady habits; high-souled principles, and solid learning. Show us strength of character, as displayed in firmness of decision, and vigor of action, under the constant guidance of virtue and of sound judgment. Give to your country great and bright examples of genuine patriots and honest men. Teach your children, and your children’s children, how to live and how to die.

Gentlemen, I am about to take my leave of you, and, perhaps, shall never see you more. Indulge me, then, in a word at parting, without uttering which I cannot leave you with a tranquil conscience. I have endeavored to show you the road to worldly eminence. But I should be false to the trust which I have assumed, of communing with you freely on the subject of your happiness, if I did not tell you farther, that my own humble experience, so far as it has gone, accords with that of all men in all ages, that there is no worldly eminence nor any other good that this world can bestow, that will not leave you disappointed and unsatisfied. Pope has described our condition in a single line, with melancholy truth:

“Man never is, but always to be bless’d.”

Our happiness is never present, but always in prospect. We are constantly reaching forward to some object ahead of us, which we flatter ourselves will fill

“The craving void now aching in the breast.”

Thus, Hope cheats us on, from point to point; and, at the close of a long life, however successful it may have been, we find that we have been chasing meteors which have dissolved at the touch. We have, it is true, passing amusements, temporary gratifications, which satisfy us for the moment. This day, for example, is one of them. The society, the love, the applause of our friends is sweet. The admiration of the world is thrilling. But we soon collapse, and the same fearful void returns to haunt us. We strive to forget it, by plunging anew into business. We endeavor to fill our minds with new occupations, either serious or frivolous. We start new meteors, that we may run away from ourselves in the chase. We seize them, and they burst—and the same fearful phantom of desolation stands again before us. And so it must ever be, until we find some object that can fill an immortal spirit with its immensity, and satisfy those vast desires with which it is continually burning. Gentlemen, all experience confirms the truth of revelation, in this: that Religion is the only pure and overflowing fountain that can quench the thirst of our spirits, and give us ease and contentment, even in this world. Every thing else leaves us feverish, and restless, and fretful; irritated with trifles; harassed with a thousand real or imaginary evils; vexed with our disappointments, and mourning, like Alexander, even over our victories.

Lift up your eyes, then, to the Hills from whence cometh all our help; and may the Being, who fills the Heavens and the Earth with His Immensity, bless you with that Peace, which this world can neither give nor take away.


Contributed by Democratic Thinker