I Can Paddle My Own Canoe
July 16, 1855 — Graduation ceremony, Cleveland High School, Cleveland OH
We are formed dependent yet independent. If only a single person had ever been created, how miserable must have been his existence, and how joyfully must he have welcomed the summons to depart. Beautiful indeed was the garden of Eden. All its beauty of grove and sapphire fount of fruit, and incense-breathing flowers, conspired to produce the happiness of our first parent; but still it was not complete. He wandered through all this paradise of pleasure, yet longed fore more than songs of birds, or “vernal airs” or “cool recess.” His happiness depended on something more than Eden yet possessed. It was not meant for man to be alone, so in the garden two were placed, lords overall yet each on the other to depend.
We are emphatically creatures of dependence. The measure of happiness or woe comprised in a life time depends largely upon our fellow beings – and sometimes it seems as though our destinies are entirely in their hands.
We come into the world. Our early years are utter helplessness — entire dependence. As suns roll on and Reason sheds her maturer light around us, we seem in a measure to lose a portion of our former dependence, yet much is still retained.
We cannot even at manhood go forth into the world independent of the advice, counsel, and assistance of others. As well might the engine speed upon its message without tail to guide or engineer to direct.
When clouds lower about our pathway, each hour growing more dense and terrible, and threatening to dash at any moment all their wild fury upon us; then do we fly to firm and well-tried friends, and obtain from them the balm which shall bind up, heal, and restore anew.
Thus how often have the faint-hearted been made strong, and the despairing to see by eye of faith that brighter days will dawn. Isolation in this world of ours is unknown.
But man is not alone dependent upon his fellow-man, but also upon the material world which furnishes substance to both body and mind. From the vegetable and animal kingdoms are the procured food for the support and nourishment of our bodies; and from nature our first ideas — the first food for the mind.
Thus upon our fellow beings for guidance, and the material world for the support of our existence, we are dependent. In these respects none “can paddle his own canoe.”
But we are not wholly and always dependent. Man has an individual self — a personal identity. The independence he may possess, though seemingly unimportant, it the noblest of his attributes. Independence of character is one of these attributes — universally desired — frequently feigned and rarely possessed.
We can be independent in having our chief sources of happiness within ourselves. By cultivating our mental powers and our feelings, we may find great pleasure in communing with them, and not be obliged to repair to the external world to search for that jewel which can never there be found.
Biaz, one of the seven wise men of Greece, furnishes a good example of independence in this respect. When his native city was taken by the enemy, and all the other inhabitants were endeavoring to hide their most valuable treasures, Biaz alone gave himself no trouble, “for,” said he, “riches are but playthings; my only real treasures are my own thoughts.”
But man’s crowning glory is independence of thought and action. We may be easily deceived. Stupid blunders and ignorance are often labeled independence. Although original and independent thinkers are seldom met with, yet the world has produced some of whom she may well be proud. Of such are Newton, Leibnitz, and Locke. Not satisfied with a mere superficial view of everything, they have dug deep into the mind, bringing out into the clear light of noonday some of those great truths whose existence before was enveloped in mist and shrouded in darkness.
But if we are not original we may nevertheless be independent thinkers. We may not tamely submit, and suffer ourselves to be led by any person or party — but have a mind of our own, and having once formed a decision ever abide by it.
In order to have a mind of our own we may not take certain things for granted and jump at that conclusion, but first obtain the views of those eminent for talent and learning, and carefully weigh all the circumstances of the case, and then form a decision.
In the everyday, common-place affairs of life we should stand alone. If we are seeking knowledge, we should receive assistance from no one; but though the waters are deep and sometimes threaten to overwhelm us, still we “can paddle our own canoe.”
Independence of action is perhaps rather more difficult than of thought. Many who have had great and glorious thoughts have lacked sufficient courage to act accordingly, and consequently have not acted at all. But if the purposes of some minds had been fully executed, many and perhaps all of the great and crying evils of our land would long ere this have been trodden under foot and forgotten of men.
The independence of women in thought, deed or will is one of the problems of the age. That she has hitherto exhibited much is not claimed — that she possesses any is doubted — that she might and will possess it is yet to be granted. While the field is being disputed she gains possession and plants the vineyard. Already her voice is heard. The reason she has so long remained silent is she has been regarded incapable of being or doing anything, and consequently all her attempts have been ridiculed and discouraged.
Says an able writer, “Women has so long been called an angel that it may be deemed profanation to intimate she is a human being; she has so long been addressed in baby-phrase and softened tone that to speak to her in the language of common sense may be to forfeit her esteem and fall under the condemnation of those who profess to adore the sex.”
From time immemorial almost without exception she has never been allowed to act, or even think for herself except on subjects well marked out. As thought always leads to action, and the idea of a lady being anything but the most inactive and dependent creature in the world, having always been wholly discarded, ignorance and “angelic silliness” has been and is her beau ideal.
All systems under which she has been educated have proved very defective. Anyone having a smattering of French, a slight knowledge of music, waltzing, painting, and drawing, who can talk fluently about the stars and has her due amount of affectation is pronounced by the world a perfect lady.
But those branches of study are not to be omitted, for added to a sound intellect and a mind well stored with substantial knowledge, they are as beautifying and improving as the arbor or fountain to the garden.
The temple of science has hitherto been guarded against her approach. She “has been told with great condescension that she might pluck the flowers which begist the borders of the fields of literature, and play the harp or thread the organ, for the man worshippers in natures ‘temple,” but she many not aspire to the position of being their competitor. What wonder, than, that she has so long remained imbecile and powerless? But give woman culture — let her thread the many paths of science — allow mathematic and exact thought on all subjects to exert their influence on her mind and conventions need not trouble about her “proper sphere.”
And why forbid women culture? Has she in any way forfeited it? Is not her mental capacity sufficient? True she has never made such brilliant attainments in any branch of science as man, but she has always been kept as a “twinkling star” on the edge of the horizon. But education and the “redeeming spirit of the age” will soon bear her up into mid-heaven, where she will shine “with as rich a luster as any of the hundred orbs that spangle the literary firmament.”
The cultivation of one faculty, however, woman has never been denied — one right has not been questioned — the power and right to suffer. Man often complains of the manifold cause of his suffering, but woman is not excelled. She alone is conscious of the unnumbered wrongs for which she is continually, silently suffering.
And what is more interesting than to see a frail, delicate woman bear up bravely through all reverses of fortune and come forth from the deepest trials and darkest hours of adversity only better fitted to acquit herself nobly in life’s great battle.
Surely whatever others may think, it is our opinion that women, even as man, “can paddle her own canoe.”
Source: Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow NY