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Valedictory Oration

Ann Negus

December 18, 1794 — Commencement, Young-Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia, Philadelphia PA


In conformity to the rules of this institution, and address is annually required from those of its Pupils, who have continued under its care, during the length of time fixed for their acquiring the necessary elements of education, and who, anticipating soon to be called upon to fill their various domestic stations in society, will, it is probable, never more be required, or never more have an opportunity of delivering their sentiments in public.

Being one of those, to whom it has fallen, to address the Assembly at this time, I shall just previously observe, that however dangerous it may appear, to deviate from the usual custom on these occasions, or however near, my temerity may make me liable to the charge of ostentation, still I cannot consider a lengthy apology for my present attempt necessary, and I feel confident that it will not be required.

Modesty has with propriety been always considered one of the most distinguished traits in the female character, to which never fails to give peculiar lustre to our sex. To appear regardless of any conduct that might tend to forfeit a character so essentially necessary and so truly amicable, would shew a degree of temerity and confidence highly unbecoming.

For my part, I can with sincerity affirm, that were I, voluntarily to offer myself a candidate for the purpose of addressing so respectable an audience, through any other motive than that of complying with the rules of this Institution, I should consider the most elaborate apology, insufficient to extenuate such a violation of female delicacy.

The indulgence from your candor, and the complacency so visible in the countenance of all around me, I anticipate with satisfaction and confidence. I shall therefore take the liberty of soliciting your patience, whilst I make a few observations, on the utility of this Institution, established amongst us for the purpose of advancing female education — to me indeed nothing appears more worthy of Eulogium, than that attention hitherto paid to the establishment and support of this Academy.

And though conscious, that the subject has been extensively discussed by those, whole acknowledged superiority might justly preclude the necessity of my attempt, still it may be observed, that whatever we conceive to be of most extensive utility, will naturally appear the fittest subject for our Panegyric. To me no public Institution of the kind appears to have been so extensively useful, and consequently no subject so fit to draw forth my feeble efforts in tits praise.

On a retrospective view it will be found that at no period of our history, could this Institution have been founded with so much propriety, as at the present — for there is reason to believe that the establishment much earlier, would have been forced and premature.

It is certain that society, during its gradual progress to wealth and refinement, will in its different stages require different modes of education, in a country, young and unimproved, like that of ours, for many years after its settlement, when the inhabitants had to struggle with all those difficulties unavoidable, in settling a new country when nothing but danger and difficulties presented themselves to view, there was nothing alluring to people of affluence and ease.

None would venture to these new Regions, but those who were driven by necessity, or persecution; by a people thus subsistence would be attended to; thus detached from the rest of the world, a long time after the settlement of the provinces, the only employment of the citizens, was that of improving their farms, forming new and distant settlements, introducing some of the most useful trades and manufactures, and carrying on the necessary commercial exchange with the mother countries by assiduous labor, unremitting industry, habits of frugality, and simplicity of manners, together with a state of peace, continued for a length of time, unexampled in the annals of any other country. The more early inhabitants of this colony, soon brought the country to a state of improvement, with a rapidity as desirable as unlooked for; by flow, but successful and lucrative commerce.

Wealth the never failing effect of industry, found tis way by degrees to the bosom of American, large fortunes were gradually accumulated, and our commercial Towns began to be crowded with wealthy Merchants. This influx of wealth considering the previous state of the country, and the time in which it was produced, was, notwithstanding, still gradual and progressive, and not being aided by foreign contagion, made no visible alteration in the manners of the people. The same simplicity of appearance, the same frugality, and the same steady attention to industry continued still to be their most distinguished characteristic.

Such being the state of society among our ancestors, the mode of conducting education of women was such, as was peculiarly fitted for them in a life thus early destined to assiduous care, and unremitting industry . Time could not be spared for the acquisition of that kind of knowledge, which, however desirable, was rather more ornamental than useful, and which, if cultivated to any advantage could not fail of diverting their attention, from those domestic qualifications and pursuits, less brilliant indeed, but to them of more absolute necessity. Accordingly we find that the most unaffected simplicity, propriety of conduct, and many useful virtues conspicuous in the females of Pennsylvania, have often drawn forth the philosophic pen in their praise. But those days of happiness, prosperity and peace, were not destined to continue always uninterrupted. The tumultuous din of war, that had hitherto only sounded at a distance, was destined suddenly to invade, with all its accumulated horrors, this peaceful region. It is certain that no propensity of the human mind is of such universal influence, or so constant in its operation, as the design of employment: It is observable of those, who do not follow any serious business, that unless they have been by a previous education diverted to some literary study, which combines at the same time, both instruction and utility, that they run restless from one amusement to another, just as folly allures, or as caprice dictates — among the numbers who are liable to fall into this predicament; the female sex bear a very considerable proportion — prevented by their situation from supplying the deficiencies of education, by the acquisition of that experience , which men by their frequency mixing with the world, have the opportunity of acquiring; doomed, during their youth to be kept from the knowledge of themselves, by a continued series of flattery and fondness, it could not be expected that beings thus situated, or the whims of fancy, by any other method than that of a regular and classical education.

And to you worthy Sirs, we acknowledge ourselves indebted for the circumspection, vigilance and paternal solicitude, which in our presence you have so frequently exhibited, — Who not seeking the praise of men, bu by your noble and disinterested example, have acquired the laurels of honor.

It is thus, the real patriot shews his regard for his country, instead of aiming, by boisterous declamation, and party malevolence to torture the mind of his fellow-citizens, with false alarms of danger, he perceives with clearness and endeavours to execute with promptness, those measures which he conceives really conducive to the welfare of mankind; hitherto  your efforts have not been without success. This seminary in particular, has furnished society with some of its brightest ornaments. —

And here I should consider myself deficient in gratitude, if I attempted to withhold my tribute of praise, due to you, Sir, my worthy Tutor. To you, we are indebted for the establishment of this seminary, intended only for the purpose of forwarding so desirable an end. You well knew of what importance, the proper direction of the female mind, was to the community. You well knew the kind of education our state of society required. And you also knew the influence, the example of those, to whom in every community, belongs the exclusive privilege of giving the fashion of the day. You were perfectly aware that it was of the utmost importance to our country, that this privilege should be directed with propriety. For this purpose you seized the critical moment, that our manners should not be contaminated by the contagion of foreign example, introduced by some of our citizens, and aided by all the glare of wealth and dignity of station, to appear or at least to regulate this fascinating torrent, you laid the plan of this useful institution.

It has been remarked by those to whom the instruction of youth has been committed, that in the execution of their authority, they are but too frequently influenced by caprice and passion. But, Sir, I have always observed it to be your particular care, to soften authority by the milder arts of persuasion; and I congratulate my friends, who are for some time yet to continue under your guidance.

Be assured, dear Sir, that your precepts shall not readily be effaced from my memory — fearing your patience is nearly exhausted, I shall only detail you a few moments, — just to bid my dear class-mates and fellow-students, an affectionate farewell.

With some of you, I may still continue to spend many happy hours; and some of you, from the many vicissitudes wo which human life is exposed, I may never have an opportunity of seeing again. To us, who are hardly past the morning of life, who have together trodden the flowery paths of science, and who have continued to participate in each other’s joys, and amusements: such a sudden parting must be particularly affecting to those, indeed, whose hearts are not rendered callous by misfortune: many incidents, less important than the parting of friends, may be the occasion of the most poignant sorrow.

But alas! my young friends, afflictions of this kind, are but little in comparison to those, which some of us may yet be doomed to suffer. There are evils to which we ourselves are liable, which no degree of patience or fortitude, can enable the mind to support: to men, many opportunities occur, of extricating themselves from misfortunes, or at least, of eluding the recollection of them, by amusements and company, they are enabled to support themselves through the fatigue of a camp the danger of battle, and set wounds and death at defiance, by the certainty of receiving the applause of their fellow-citizens; and though the remainder of their lives, should be a prey to excruciating disease, they still feel a pleasure from the remembrance of their former actions, and when they die, their grateful country raises a monument to their praise. But such is the nature of our misfortunes, that we have none of their endowments to support these with fortitude, nothing so soon sinks the mind into hopeless despondence, as contemptuous neglect.

Even those of us, who are most favoured by fortune, and most carefully secluded from danger, have our happiness established on a very precarious foundation; few of our sex are destined to continue long in possession of the power of regulating our own conduct, and those to whom we resign our liberty, too frequently confer in return, hatred and contempt; and many, who to the world, appear in an enviable situation, surrounded by every thing that can administer pleasure, and yet in secret, a prey to gloomy discontent, and hopeless sorrow, — from whom the cheerful rays of hope are excluded, and who have no other prospect in this world, than to suffer accumulated wretchedness, till at length disease, the usual concomitant of silent and excessive grief, comes to their aid, and by degrees terminates their existence.

That I have given no exaggerated picture of what many suffer, will appear to those who attentively survey, what daily occurs on the stage of life. That you, my dear girls, may continue to be far removed from every species of distress, — that you may glide down the stream of life, unruffled by disappointment, and unclouded by care, — and that the many ills to which human life is liable, may be known to you only in idea, shall be my constant wish. —  May you long continue to receive the esteem of your acquaintance and friends, — and may your felicity in this world, only be bounded by your removal into that state, where misery and pain shall be forgotten, and pleasure triumphantly reign.  



Source: An essay on the education and genius of the female sex. To which is added, an account, of the commencement of the Young-Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia, held the 18th of December, 1794; under the direction of Mr. John Poor, A.M. Principal., ed. James A. Neal (Philadelphia: Jacob Johnson & Co., 1795), pp. 29-36.