Title: Holy Cross College
Date: June 25, 1919
Location: Worcester, MA
Context: A commencement address to the class of 1919
To come from the press of public affairs, where the practical side of life is at its flood, into these calm and classic surroundings, where ideals are cherished for their own sake, is an intense relief and satisfaction. Even in the full flow of Commencement exercises it is apparent that here abide the truth and the servants of the truth. Here appears the fulfillment of the past in the grand company of alumni, recalling a history already so thick with laurels. Here is the hope of the future, brighter yet in the young men to-day sent forth.
“The unarmed youth of heaven. But o’er their heads Celestial armory, shield, helm and spear, Hung bright, with diamond flaming and with gold.”
In them the dead past lives. They represent the college. They are the college. It is not in the campus with its imposing halls and temples, nor in the silent lore of the vast library or the scientific instruments of well-equipped laboratories, but in the men who are the incarnation of all these, that your college lives. It is not enough that there be knowledge, history and poetry, eloquence and art, science and mathematics, philosophy and ethics, ideas and ideals. They must be vitalized. They must be fashioned into life. To send forth men who live all these is to be a college. This temple of learning must be translated into human form if it is to exercise any influence over the affairs of mankind, or if its alumni are to wield the power of education.
A great thinker and master of the expression of thought has told us:
“It was before Deity, embodied in a human form, walking among men, partaking of their infirmities, leaning on their bosoms, weeping over their graves, slumbering in the manger, bleeding on the cross, that the prejudices of the Synagogue, and the doubts of the Academy, and the pride of the Portico, and the fasces of the Lictor, and the swords of thirty Legions, were humbled in the dust.”
If college-bred men are to exercise the influence over the progress of the world which ought to be their portion, they must exhibit in their lives a knowledge and a learning which is marked with candor, humility, and the honest mind.
The present is ever influenced mightily by the past. Patrick Henry spoke with great wisdom when he declared to the Continental Congress, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided and that is the lamp of experience.” Mankind is finite. It has the limits of all things finite. The processes of government are subject to the same limitations, and, lacking imperfections, would be something more than human. It is always easy to discover flaws, and, pointing them out, to criticize. It is not so easy to suggest substantial remedies or propose constructive policies. It is characteristic of the unlearned that they are forever proposing something which is old, and, because it has recently come to their own attention, supposing it to be new. Into this error men of liberal education ought not to fall. The forms and processes of government are not new. They have been known, discussed, and tried in all their varieties through the past ages. That which America exemplifies in her Constitution and system of representative government is the most modern, and of any yet devised gives promise of being the most substantial and enduring.
It is not unusual to hear arguments against our institutions and our Government, addressed particularly to recent arrivals and the sons of recent arrivals to our shores. They sometimes take the form of a claim that our institutions were founded long ago; that changed conditions require that they now be changed. Especially is it claimed by those seeking such changes that these new arrivals and men of their race and ideas had no hand in the making of our country, and that it was formed by those who were hostile to them and therefore they owe it no support. Whatever may be the condition in relation to others, and whatever ignorance and bigotry may imagine, such arguments do not apply to those of the race and blood so prominent in this assemblage. To establish this it were but necessary to cite eleven of the fifty-five signers of the Declaration of Independence and recall that on the roll of Washington’s generals were Sullivan, Knox, Wayne, and the gallant son of Trinity College, Dublin, who fell at Quebec at the head of his troops, – Richard Montgomery. But scholarship has answered ignorance. The learned and patriotic research of men of the education of Dr. James J. Walsh and Michael J. O’Brien, the historian of the Irish American Society, has demonstrated that a generous portion of the rank and file of the men who fought in the Revolution and supported those who framed our institutions was not alien to those who are represented here. It is no wonder that from among such that which is American has drawn some of its most steadfast defenders.
In these days of violent agitation scholarly men should reflect that the progress of the past has been accomplished not by the total overthrow of institutions so much as by discarding that which was bad and preserving that which was good; not by revolution but by evolution has man worked out his destiny. We shall miss the central feature of all progress unless we hold to that process now. It is not a question of whether our institutions are perfect. The most beneficent of our institutions had their beginnings in forms which would be particularly odious to us now. Civilization began with war and slavery; government began in absolute despotism; and religion itself grew out of superstition which was oftentimes marked with human sacrifices. So out of our present imperfections we shall develop that which is more perfect. But the candid mind of the scholar will admit and seek to remedy all wrongs with the same zeal with which it defends all rights.
From the knowledge and the learning of the scholar there ought to be developed an abiding faith. What is the teaching of all history? That which is necessary for the welfare and progress of the human race has never been destroyed. The discoverers of truth, the teachers of science, the makers of inventions, have passed to their last rewards, but their works have survived. The Phoenician galleys and the civilization which was born of their commerce have perished, but the alphabet which that people perfected remains. The shepherd kings of Israel, the temple and empire of Solomon, have gone the way of all the earth, but the Old Testament has been preserved for the inspiration of mankind. The ark of the covenant and the seven-pronged candle- stick have passed from human view; the inhabitants of Judea have been dispersed to the ends of the earth, but the New Testament has survived and increased in its influence among men. The glory of Athens and Sparta, the grandeur of the Imperial City, are a long-lost memory, but the poetry of Homer and Virgil, the oratory of Demosthenes and Cicero, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, abide with us forevermore. Whatever America holds that may be of value to posterity will not pass away.
The long and toilsome processes which have marked the progress of the past cannot be shunned by the present generation to our advantage. We have no right to expect as our portion something substantially different from human experience in the past. The constitution of the universe does not change. Human nature remains constant. That service and sacrifice which have been the price of past progress are the price of progress now.
This is not a gospel of despair, but of hope and high expectation. Out of many tribulations mankind has pressed steadily onward. The opportunity for a rational existence was never before so great. Blessings were never so bountiful. But the evidence was never so overwhelming as now that men and nations must live rationally or perish.
The defenses of our Commonwealth are not material but mental and spiritual. Her fortifications, her castles, are her institutions of learning. Those who are admitted to the college campus tread the ramparts of the State. The classic halls are the armories from which are furnished forth the knights in armor to defend and support our liberty. For such high purpose has Holy Cross been called into being. A firm foundation of the Commonwealth. A defender of righteousness. A teacher of holy men. Let her turrets continue to rise, showing forth “the way, the truth and the light” –
“In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars, And with their mild persistence urge man’s arch To vaster issues.”
Citation: Have Faith in Massachusetts
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Robert Manchester, who prepared this document for digital publication.