Special sesquicentennial feature: The College and the Republic

Edmund Fairfield

Edmund FairfieldEdmund Fairfield was the President of Hillsdale College (1848-1869).

The following is adapted from a speech delivered at the dedication of a statue of George Washington on the Hillsdale College campus on May 9, 2003. The statue is the first in a series that will form the Hillsdale College Liberty Walk.

The law of custom imposes upon me the duty of saying a few things appropriate to the occasion. That duty I shall aim to discharge to the best of my ability…

There are many suitable topics that naturally suggest themselves; but, convened as we are, to lay the cornerstone of a College edifice on this anniversary of our national independence, none presents itself to my mind more naturally than this: the connection between our republican and our educational institutions. This, then, is my text for a few brief utterances.

The history of Liberty has been the history of Intelligence. “The fathers” brought with them to this goodly land the Common School and the College. These had prepared the way for rational civil and religious liberty, and they were ever to stand as its reliable fortifications. Ignorance is rightly deemed an essential prerequisite to slavery. The more the ignorance, the better the slave, and when the bondman becomes possessed of intelligence, his oppressor will tell you that the devil is in him. Too much intelligence is the worst devil that oppression knows. The process of education is continually cherishing an independence of thought that is in close alliance with civil liberty. Give freedom to mind and you will not easily put chains upon the body. Education gives to each man an individual personality that well enough prepares him to be a freeman, but sadly disqualifies him from being a slave. It is a continual process of self cultivation: introducing him into the hidden arena of his own intellectual nature, making him acquainted with his own powers and capacities.

Whatever else he may study—whether the heavens above him, or the earth beneath him, or the world around him—there is continually a reflection of himself, and he who knows himself, knows that he was not made to be a slave; and the next thing he knows, is that no human arm is strong enough to make him one. The victim of despotic oppression must as far as possible be stripped of all consciousness of personality: he must be hidden from himself; his noble nature must be unseen by his own eyes, that he may be content to be a thing—that he may be stupidly submissive when the tyrant oppressor despoils him of his rights and crushes out of him his soul.

Our educational institutions furnish a poor reparation for such a despotic rule. Intelligence, at the same time that it prepares a man for the enjoyment of his liberty, cultivates a sad distaste for the sweets of slavery. The man who knows not what he is or what he was made to be, may tacitly consent to be a mere appendage to another; but as the process of intellectual development goes on, he discovers in himself the equal of his lord; he has revealed to him the fundamental doctrine of human equality, and he can no longer consent to be but the fraction of a unit. He sees in himself awhole man, and in another he sees no more. He recognizes in himself a separate responsible agent; and as said Webster, “The greatest thought of my life is that of my individual responsibility to God.” So with every man.

And when once inspired with such a thought as this, he is forever above that level where the tyrant may find a facile subject. The self-respect which such a man feels, and cannot but feel, illy qualifies him for the place of a menial, or to do the bidding of a haughty lord: he respects other men as men, and himself as a man too, and he thinks too highly of his manhood to consent to lose it, or allow it to be absorbed in that of another.

But Educational Institutions are not only invaluable in preparing for the enjoyment of rational liberty, they are equally so in perpetuating it; they are the constant allies and the eternal bulwarks of all the institutions of Republicanism. No nation approaches the confines of civilization but deems it important to educate their princes. The heir of sovereignty must be qualified to meet the responsibilities of their kingly office. In a Republic, the people are the kings. I speak today to those who either are, or are to be, the sovereigns of the land. You are not merely law makers, but make those that are law makers. If you wear not the insignia of an aristocratic nobility—in the shape of ribbons, red and green and blue—you may remember that the inhabitants of Lilliput did and you are not over-anxious to imitate the little six-inch men of the far-famed land. The insights of nature’s nobility are the hand—hardened by toil—and the face radiant with intelligence and manly virtue.

You, fellow citizens, are not merely dukes and lords, and barons and knights; but kings, and sons of kings, and the fathers of kings. The crowns that come to you from the heads of those that lie low in the grave, will soon rest upon the heads of these princes of the blood whom I see before me. It is for the fathers to see that the sons are qualified for the responsibilities of American citizenship, and it is for the sons to see to it that they do not dishonor the crowns, the crowns that the Republic has placed upon their heads. The elements of power and stability in a nation of freemen are the intelligence and virtue of the people who bear rule.

What constitutes a State?
Not high-raised battlement, or labored mound.
Thick wall, or moated gate:
Not cities proud with spires and turrets crown’d,
Not bays and broad-armed ports,
Where laughing at the storm, rich navies ride:
Not starred and spangled court,
Where low-brow’d baseness wafts perfume to pride;
No: Men, high-minded men,
With powers as far above dull brutes endued,
In forest, brake or den;
As beasts excel cold rocks and bramble rude,
Men who their duties know,
But know their rights, and knowing dare maintain;
Prevent the long-aimed blow,
And crush the tyrant while they rend the chain,
these constitute a state.

If there is in a Republican government a power behind the throne, that power is to be found in public sentiment. And in the formation of public sentiment, our Educational Institutions exert an influence beyond the power of computation. Happily for the interests of liberty and Republicanism, Colleges have almost universally ranged themselves on the side of popular rights. In every contest between the prerogatives of the ruler and the rights of the ruled, they have defended the right against the might.

Again: the strength of a Republican government is to be found not so much in the rigid enforcement by arms of the laws of the Senate, as in the fact that these laws are self-imposed by the intelligent perception on the part of the people of their wisdom and of their necessity. Let the law be written not merely upon the statute book, but upon the hearts and minds of intelligent citizens, and the willing homage which they pay to its mandates is liberty itself in the highest form and truest type; while the constrained obedience rendered only at the point of the bayonet, even to wise and necessary laws, is little else than slavery. The one is Republicanism; the other is Despotism. The one is Liberty, regulated by intelligence; the other is the recklessness of ignorance and the restlessness of insubordination, restrained by force. Not long can a Republic maintain its existence as such without at least that measure of general intelligence that perceives and acknowledges the necessity of just laws, and that for the public good yields a cheerful and unconstrained obedience to them.

Unrestrained freedom is anarchy. Restrained only by force and arms, is despotism; self-restrained is Republicanism. Wherever there is wanting the intelligence and virtue requisite for the latter, Republicanism expires. The complicated machinery of free institutions must have an adequate regulator; and that is to be found in an enlightened public conscience. This our Educational Institutions—teaching as well the laws of social morality as of physical science—are omnipotent in forming. And as we cherish the heritage of civil and religious liberty which has come down to us, so it becomes us to cherish the College, the Academy and the Common School, permeated by Christian influence, which alone have secured us this inheritance, prepared us for enjoying and appreciating it, or can prove its efficient conservators.

But more than this: our Educational Institutions are eminently Republican in their very nature. Here are brought together the sons of wealth and of poverty, of patrician and plebian descent, to meet upon the same arena, to wrestle in the same intellectual gymnasium, run in the same race, and contend for the same honors, upon equal terms, and with equal chances of success, only as the gifts of nature, or the vigorous industry, the close application, or the determined perseverance of each individual candidate shall vary the equation; and this variation, justice requires us to say, is often in favor of the inheritor of poverty and toil, rather than of riches and titles. Within College walls aristocratic dignities, aristocratic pretensions, or aristocratic airs, avail their possessor but little. Woe to the luckless youth that puts them on. Here, if nowhere else, the mind is the measure of the man. Long genealogies and endless pedigrees are a sorry offset for short memories and shallow brains. Here is valued not so much the crown as the head that wears it. Lace, and ribbons, and purple and fine linens, are a poor compensation for a deficient cranium. Nor does a full purse make amends for an empty head. Gold is not legal tender for College honors. A soft hand is no passport for a soft head. The sun-burnt farmer’s boy, with his inheritance of poverty, hardships and toil, stands side by side with the fair-browed youth who is heir of millions, and who eats the bread of another’s sweat; only that like Saul among his fellows, he is not unfrequently higher than any of the sons of wealth and luxury, from his shoulders and upward. For an illustration of true Republicanism, give us such a community as is found at the Common School and the College. And the Republic owes it to itself to open wide to all its sons the doors of the Common School, the Academy, and the College. She has an interest in her children that a monarch can never have. Her life is identified with theirs. They constitute the essential parts of her own vital organism; and such and so many are the sympathies of this complicated and living machinery, that if one member suffer, all the members suffer with it. She may so rear her sons, that they shall be her honor and her ornament not only, but her strength and her support, too: on the other hand, she may, by a criminal recklessness, not only lose the strength and the glory which they might impart to her, but virtually train them to inflict upon her the bitterest curses, and in the end prove her remediless destruction.

No nation, but least of all a Republic, can afford to lose from her garden of beauty and her crown of glory, those of whom the Poet has so pensively sung:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its fragrance on the desert air;
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear.

Still less can she long survive the suicidal policy of so abandoning her children to ignorance and to vice that they shall not only be ciphers in the account, but positive factors, whose product is gangrene and death.

The College is the friend of the Republic, and the Republic should be the friend of the College. Our Educational establishments ever have been the faithful allies and firm supporters of all that is ennobling in our free institutions, and every layer of the Republic should see to it that they are nurtured and guarded with a sleepless vigilance.

Let it be deemed no sacrilege, therefore, that we are convened upon this day, sacred to liberty, to human rights, and to patriotism, to lay the cornerstone of this College edifice. I deem it an auspicious coincidence. May it prove a significant prophecy upon this anniversary of the day on which our fathers laid the foundations of the beautiful temple of our National Liberties, we come to lay the cornerstone of this spacious temple of Science. May the walls reared upon this foundation, stand for ages to come, sacred as well to freedom, humanity, philanthropy and true patriotism, as to sound science, pure morality, and true religion. The cornerstone will now be laid.