Of Free Enquiry,
Considered as a Means
Of Obtaining Just Knowledge
1828-1829 — a series of lectures in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York
The subject we have to examine this evening, is that of free enquiry, considered as a means for the attainment of just knowledge.
At our last meeting, we endeavoured to investigate the nature and object of just knowledge, together with the means proper for its attainment. We discovered these means to be two; a judicious education, and a free spirit of enquiry.
From the first and best means, a judicious education, we of the present generation are unfortunately excluded. Wherever our lot may have been cast, or whatever may be our attainments, we must all be conscious that we are what we are in spite of many disadvantages; and that, however wise or good our vanity may pronounce us to be, we should have been much wiser, and, consequently, better and happier, had a judicious education more carefully developed our tender faculties, and brought order and accuracy to all our nascent ideas. But the forest is grown; and, straight or crooked, the trees have to stand pretty much as early circumstances have inclined them. Still, something may be done; nay! if we bring fearless and determined spirits to the work, much may be done — much for our selves, and every thing for our descendants. It rests with us to command, for the rising generation, that education, whose want we, in our own case, deplore. It rests with us to open, with a golden key, the gates of just knowledge for our children; and to marshal them in those smooth, broad, pleasant paths, which we ourselves have never trod. Equally true it is, that we cannot, for ourselves, command that first, best means for attaining the first, best good. Our opinions have, unfortunately, to be changed, not simply formed; our advance in knowledge must involve forgetting as well as acquiring. We have not, in our own minds, to till a virgin soil, but one surcharged with weeds, rank, entangled, and poisonous. Still it is ours to redeem the soil. We may set the edge of our ploughshares, apply them with a steady and nervous hand, and scatter the good seed in time to reap a harvest.
The second means for the attainment of knowledge is ours, if we choose to exercise it; that is, if we feel the importance of the object, and have courage to employ the means. The importance of the object we must feel, if we feel at all for ourselves or for our race; if we are not wholly indifferent to the rank we hold in the scale of being; not wholly indifferent to bur moral excellence, to our mental elevation; to our own peace, to our own utility; to the liberty and happiness of our species through all the ages of time to come. And, if such be the mighty consequences depending on the object, shall we lack the courage to employ the means? And what means? to open our eyes and our ears; to throw wide the gates of our understanding; to dare the exercise of our intellectual faculties, and to encourage in others, as in ourselves, a habit of accurate and dispassionate investigation.
We have seen, also, that it is not our own improvement merely that must be advanced or impeded according to our courage or timidity, but that of future generations, whose destiny it is ours to influence. Strongly, then, are we pledged to lay aside indolence and fear; and to en gage honestly in the task of weeding out our prejudices and establishing our opinions.
There is a common error that I feel myself called upon to notice; nor know I the country in which it is more prevalent than in this. Whatever indifference may gene rally prevail among men, still there are many eager for the acquisition of knowledge; willing to enquire, and anxious to base their opinions upon correct principles. In the curiosity which motives their exertions, however, the vital principle is but too often wanting. They come selfishly, and not generously, to the tree of knowledge. They eat, but care not to impart of the fruit to others. Nay, there are who, having leaped the briar fence of prejudice themselves, will heap new thorns in the way of those who would venture the same.
And have Americans yet to learn that the interests of all are compounded of the interests of each? and that he who, in pursuing his own advantage, immolates one interest of his fellow beings, fails in justice as a man, commits treason as a citizen? And oh! what interest so dear as that of mental improvement? Who is without that interest? or of whom is not that interest sacred? Man, woman, child — who has not a claim to the exercise of his reason? or what injustice may compare with that which says to one, ” thought is good for thee,” and to another, ” knowledge is to thee forbidden
But will this imputation startle my hearers? Will they say, America is the home of liberty, and Americans brethren in equality. Is it so? and may we not ask here, as elsewhere, how many are there, not anxious to monopolize, but to universalize knowledge? how many, that consider their own improvement in relation always with that of their fellow beings, and who feel the imparting of truth to be not a work of supererogation, but a duty; the with holding it, not a venial omission, but a treachery to the race. Which of us have not seen fathers of families pursuing investigations themselves, which they hide from their sons, and, more especially, from their wives and daughters? As if truth could be of less importance to the young than to the old; or as if the sex which in all ages has ruled the destinies of the world, could be less worth en lightening than that which only follows its lead!
The observation I have hazarded may require some explanation. Those who arrogate power usually think themselves superior de facto and de jure. Yet justly might it be made a question whether those who ostensibly govern are not always unconsciously led. Should we examine closely into the state of things, we might find that, in all countries, the governed decide the destinies of the governors, more than the governors those of the governed; even as the labouring classes influence more directly the fortunes of a nation than does the civil officer, the aspiring states man, the rich capitalist, or the speculative philosopher.
However novel it may appear, I shall venture the assertion, that, until women assume the place in society which good sense and good feeling alike assign to them, human improvement must advance but feebly. It is in vain that we would circumscribe the power of one half of our race, and that half by far the most important and influential. If they exert it not for good, they will for evil; if they advance not knowledge, they will perpetuate ignorance. Let women stand where they may in the scale of improvement, their position decides that of the race. Are they cultivated? — so is society polished and enlightened. Are they ignorant 1 — so is it gross and insipid. Are they wise? — so is the human condition prosperous. Are they foolish? — so is it unstable and unpromising. Are they free? – so is the human character. Are they enslaved? – so is the whole race degraded. Oh! that we could learn the advantage of just practice and consistent principles! that we could understand, that every departure from principle, how speciously soever it may appear to administer to our selfish interests, invariably saps their very foundation! that we could learn that what is ruinous to some is injurious to all; and that whenever we establish our own pretensions upon the sacrificed rights of others, we do in fact impeach our own liberties, and lower our selves in the scale of being!
But to return. It is my object to show, that, before we can engage successfully in the work of enquiry, we must engage in a body; we must engage collectively; as human beings desirous of attaining the highest excellence of which our nature is capable; as children of one family, anxious to discover the true and the useful for the common advantage of all. It is my farther object to show that no co-operation in this matter can be effective which does not embrace the two sexes on a footing of equality; and, again, that no co-operation in this matter can be effective, which does not embrace human beings on a footing of equality. Is this a republic — a country whose affairs are governed by the public voice — while the public mind is unequally enlightened? Is this a republic, where the interests of the many keep in check those of the few — while the few hold possession of the courts of knowledge, and the many stand as suitors at the door? Is this a republic. where the rights of all are equally respected, the interests of all equally secured, the ambitions of all equally regulated, the services of all equally rendered? Is this such a republic — while we see endowed colleges for the rich, and barely common schools for the poor; while but one drop of colored blood shall stamp a fellow creature for a slave, or, at the least, degrade him below sympathy; and while one half of the whole population is left in civil bondage, and, as it were, sentenced to mental imbecility?
Let us pause to enquire if this be consistent with the being of a republic. Without knowledge, could your fathers have conquered liberty? and without knowledge, can you retain it? Equality! where is it, if not in education? Equal rights! they cannot exist without equality of instruction. “All men are born free and equal!” they are indeed so born, but do they so live? Are they educated as equals? and, if not, can they be equal? and, if not equal, can they be free? Do not the rich command instruction? and they who have instruction, must they not possess the power? and when they have the power, will they not exert it in their own favor? I will ask more; I will ask, do they not exert it in their own favor? I will ask if two professions do not now rule the land and its in habitants? I will ask, whether your legislatures are not governed by lawyers and your households by priests? And I will farther ask, whether the deficient instruction of the mass of your population does not give to lawyers their political ascendency; and whether the ignorance of women be not the cause that your domestic hearths are invaded by priests? Are not these matters of popular interest? matters for popular enquiry? We shall examine tomorrow whether you have not now in your hands all the means necessary for equalizing instruction, not merely among your children but yourselves; so far, at least, as to place your liberties beyond risk of attainder.
This examination will involve all your interests, national and social. Your political institutions have taken equality for their basis; your declaration of rights, upon which your institutions rest, sets forth this principle as vital and inviolate. Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it — none that cannot be overthrown by the violence of ignorant anarchy, or sapped by the subtilty of professional craft. That this is the case your reasons will admit; that this is the case your feelings do admit — even those which are the least amiable and the least praise worthy. The jealousy betrayed by the uncultivated against those of more polished address and manners, has its source in the beneficial principle to which we advert, however, (in this, as in many other cases,) misconceived and perverted. Cultivation of mind will ever lighten the countenance and polish the exterior. This external superiority, which is but a faint emanation of the superiority within, vulgar eyes can see and ignorant jealousy will resent. This, in a republic, leads to brutality; and, in aristocracies, where this jealously is restrained by fear, to servility. Here it will lead the wagoner to dispute the road with a carriage; and, in Europe, will make the foot passenger doff his hat to the lordly equipage which spatters him with mud, while there he mutters curses only in his heart. The unreasoning observer will refer the conduct of the first to the republican institutions — the reflecting observer, to the anti-republican education. The instruction befitting free men is that which gives the sun of knowledge to shine on all; and which at once secures the liberties of each individual, and disposes each individual to make a proper use of them.
Equality, then, we have shown to have its seat in the mind. A proper cultivation of the faculties would ensure a sufficiency of that equality for all the ends of republican government, and for all the modes of social enjoyment. The diversity in the natural powers of different minds, as decided by physical organization, would be then only a source of interest and agreeable variety. All would be capable of appreciating the peculiar powers of each; and each would perceive that his interests, well understood, were in unison with the interests of all. Let us now examine whether liberty, properly interpreted, does not involve, among your unalienable rights as citizens and human beings, the right of equal means of instruction.
Have ye given a pledge, sealed with the blood of your fathers, for the equal rights of all human kind sheltered within your confines? What means the pledge? or what understand ye by human rights? But understand them as ye will, define them as ye will, how are men to be secured in any rights without instruction? how to be secured in the equal exercise of those rights without equality of instruction? By instruction understand me to mean, knowledge — just knowledge; not talent, not genius, not inventive mental powers. These will vary in every human being; but knowledge is the same for every mind, and every mind may and ought to be trained to receive it. If, then, ye have pledged, at each anniversary of your political independence, your lives, properties, and honor, to the securing your common liberties, ye have pledged your lives, properties, and honor, to the securing of your common instruction. Or will you secure the end without securing the means? ye shall do it, when ye reap the harvest without planting the seed.
Oh! were the principle of human liberty understood, how clear would be the principle of human conduct! It would light us unerringly to our duties as citizens. It would light us unerringly to our duties as men. It would lead us aright in every action of our lives; regulate justly every feeling and affection of our hearts, and be to us a rule more unerring than laws, more binding than oaths, more enforcing than penalties. Then would passion yield to reason, selfishness to justice, and the equal rights of others supply the sole, but the sure, immutable limits of our own.
As we have somewhat swerved from our leading subject to consider the nature of equality, let us again pause to consider that of liberty. We have seen that they are twin sisters; and so were they viewed b£ the effulgent mind of Jefferson, when from his fearless pen dropped the golden words, ” All men are born free and equal.” Those words his fellow citizens and descendants will have interpreted, when they shall have shed on the minds of the rising generation, and as far as possible on their own, the equal effulgence of just knowledge; before which every error in opinion and every vice in practice will fly as the noxious dews of night before the sun.
Let us, then, pause to consider these immortal words, graven by an immortal pen on the gates of time, ” All men are born free and equal.”
All men are born free and equal! That is: our moral feelings acknowledge it to be just and proper, that we respect those liberties in others, which we lay claim to for ourselves; and that we permit the free agency of every individual, to any extent which violates not the free agency of his fellow creatures.
There is but one honest limit to the rights of a sentient being; it is where they touch the rights of another sentient being. Do we exert our own liberties without injury to others — we exert them justly; do we exert them at the expense of others — unjustly. And, in thus doing, we step from the sure platform of liberty upon the uncertain threshold of tyranny. Small is the step; to the unreflecting so imperceptibly small, that they take it every hour of their lives as thoughtlessly as they do it unfeelingly. Whenever we slight, in word or deed, the feelings of a fellow creature; whenever, in pursuit of our own individual interests, we sacrifice the interest of others; whenever, through our vanity or our selfishness, we interpret our interests unfairly, sink the rights of others in our own, arrogate authority, presume upon advantages of wealth, strength, situation, talent, or instruction; whenever we indulge idle curiosity respecting the private affairs, opinions, and actions of our neighbours; whenever, in short, we forget what in justice is due to others, and, equally, what in justice is due to ourselves, we sin against liberty — we pass from the rank of freemen to that of tyrants or slaves. Easy it were to enumerate the many laws by which, as citizens, we violate our common liber ties; the many regulations, habits, practices, and opinions, by which, as human beings, we violate the same. Easy it were? Alas! and say I so 1 when to enumerate all these our sins against liberty, would be well nigh to enumerate all that we do, and feel, and think, and say! But let us confine ourselves within a familiar though most important example.
Who among us but has had occasion to remark the ill- judged, however well intentioned government of children by their teachers; and, yet more especially, by their parents? In what does this mismanagement originate 1 In a misconception of the relative position of the parent or guardian, and of the child; in a departure, by the parent, from the principle of liberty, in his assumption of rights destructive of those of the child; in his exercise of authority, as by right divine, over the judgment, actions, and person of the child; in his forgetfulness of the character of the child, as a human being, born “free and equal” among his compeers; that is, having equal claims to the exercise and development of all his senses, faculties, and powers, with those who brought him into existence, and with all sentient beings who tread the earth. Were a child thus viewed by his parent. we should not see him, by turns, made a plaything and a slave; we should not see him commanded to believe, but encouraged to reason; we should not see him trembling under the rod, nor shrinking from a frown, but reading the wishes of others in the eye, gathering knowledge wherever he threw his glance, rejoicing in the present hour, and treasuring up sources of enjoyment for future years. We should not then see the youth launching into life without compass or quadrant. We should not see him doubting at each emergency how to act, shifting his course with the shifting wind, and, at last, making shipwreck of mind and body on the sunken rocks of hazard and dishonest speculation, nor on the foul quicksands of debasing licentiousness.
What, then, has the parent to do, if he would conscientiously discharge that most sacred of all duties, that weightiest of all responsibilities, which ever did or ever will devolve on a human being ‘) What is he to do, who, having brought a creature into existence, endowed with varied faculties, with tender susceptibilities, capable of un told wretchedness or equally of unconceived enjoyment; what is he to do, that he may secure the happiness of that creature, and make the life he has given blessing and blessed, instead of cursing and cursed? What is he to do? — he is to encourage in his child a spirit of enquiry, and equally to encourage it in himself. He is never to advance an opinion without showing the facts upon which it is grounded; he is never to assert a fact, without proving it to be a fact. He is not to teach a code of morals, any more than a creed of doctrines; but he is to direct his young charge to observe the consequences of actions on himself and on others; and to judge of the propriety of those actions by their ascertained consequences. He is not to command his feelings any more than his opinions or Ids actions; but he is to assist him in the analysis of his feelings, in the examination of their nature, their tendencies, their effects. Let him do this, and have no anxiety for the result. In the free exercise of his senses, in the fair development of his faculties, in a course of simple and unrestrained enquiry, he will discover truth, for he will ascertain facts; he will seize upon virtue, for he will have distinguished beneficial from injurious actions; he will cultivate kind, generous, just, and honourable feelings, for he will have proved them to contribute to his own happiness and to shed happiness around him.
Who, then, shall say, enquiry is good for him and not good for his children 1 Who shall cast error from himself, and allow it to be grafted on the minds he has called into being? Who shall break the chains of his own ignorance, and fix them, through his descendants, on his race? But, there are some who, as parents, make one step in duty, and halt at the second. We see men who will aid the instruction of their sons, and condemn only their daughters to ignorance. ” Our sons,” they say, ” will have to exercise political rights. may aspire to public offices, may fill some learned profession, may struggle for wealth and ac quire it. It is well that we give them a helping hand; that we assist them to such knowledge as is going, and make them as sharp witted as their neighbors. But for our daughters,” they say — if indeed respecting them they say any thing — “or our daughters, little trouble or expense is necessary. They can never be any thing; in fact, they are nothing. We had best give them up to their mothers, who may take them to Sunday’s preaching; and, with the aid of a little music, a little dancing, and a few fine gowns, fit them out for the market of marriage.”
Am I severe? It is not my intention. I know that I am honest, and I fear that I am correct. Should I offend, however I may regret, I shall not repent it; satisfied to incur displeasure, so that I render service.
But to such parents I would observe, that with regard to their sons, as to their daughters, they are about equally mistaken. If it be their duty, as we have seen, to respect in their children the same natural liberties which they cherish for themselves — if it be their duty to aid as guides, not to dictate as teachers — to lend assistance to the reason, not to command its prostration, — then have they nothing to do with the blanks or the prizes in store for them, in the wheel of worldly fortune. Let possibilities be what they may in favor of their sons, they have no calculations to make on them. It is not for them to ordain their neither sons magistrates nor statesmen; nor yet even lawyers, physicians, or merchants. They have only to improve the one character which they receive at the birth. They have only to consider them as human beings, and to ensure them the fair and thorough development of all the faculties, physical, mental, and moral, which distinguish their nature. In like manner, as respects their daughters, they have nothing to do with the injustice of laws, nor the absurdities of society. Their duty is plain, evident, decided. In a daughter they have in charge a human being; in a son, the same. Let them train up these human beings, under the expanded wings of liberty. Let them seek for them and with them just knowledge; encouraging, from the cradle upwards, that useful curiosity which will lead them unbidden in the paths of free enquiry; and place them, safe and superior to the storms of life, in the security of well regulated, self-possessed minds, well grounded, well reasoned, conscientious opinions, and self-approved, consistent practice.
I have as yet, in this important matter, addressed myself only to the reason and moral feelings of my audience; I could speak also to their interests. Easy were it to show, that in proportion as your children are enlightened, will they prove blessings to society and ornaments to their race. But if this be true of all, it is more especially true of the now more neglected half of the species. Were it only in our power to enlighten part of the rising generation, and should the interests of the whole decide our choice of the portion, it were the females, and not the males, we should select.
When, now a twelvemonth since, the friends of liberty and science pointed out to me, in London, the walls of their rising university, I observed, with a smile, that they were beginning at the wrong end: ” Raise such an edifice for your young women, and ye have enlightened the nation.” It has already been observed, that women, wherever placed, however high or low in the scale of cultivation, hold the destinies of humankind. Men will ever rise or fall to the level of the other sex; and from some causes in their conformation, we find them, however armed with power or enlightened with knowledge, still held in leading strings even by the least cultivated female. Surely, then, if they knew their interests, they would desire the improvement of those who, if they do not advantage, will injure them; who, if they elevate not their minds and meliorate not their hearts, will debase the one and harden the other; and who, if they endear not existence, most assuredly will dash it with poison. How many, how omnipotent are the interests which engage men to break the mental chains of women! How many, how dear are the interests which engage them to exalt rather than lower their condition, to multiply their solid acquirements, to respect their liberties, to make them their equals, to wish them even their superiors! Let them enquire into these every refinement, every respect. Until power is annihilated on one side, fear and obedience on the other, and both restored to their birthright — equality. Let none think that affection can reign without it; or friendship, or esteem. Jealousies, envyings, suspicions, reserves, deceptions — these are the fruits of inequality. Go, then! and remove the evil first from the minds of women, then from their condition, and then from your laws. Think it no longer indifferent whether the mothers of the rising gene ration are wise or foolish. Think it not indifferent whether your own companions are ignorant or enlightened. Think it not indifferent whether those who are to form the opinions, sway the habits. decide the destinies, of the species — and that not through their children only, but through their lovers and husbands — are enlightened friends or capricious mistresses, efficient coadjutors or careless servants, reasoning beings or blind followers of superstition.
There is a vulgar persuasion, that the ignorance of women, by favoring their subordination, ensures their utility. ‘Tis the same argument employed by the ruling few against the subject many in aristocracies; by the rich against the poor in democracies; by the learned professions against the people in all countries. And let us observe, that if good in one case, it should be good in all; and that, unless you are prepared to admit that you are yourselves less industrious in proportion to your intelligence, you must abandon the position with respect to others. But, in fact, who is it among men that best struggle with difficulties? — the strong minded or the weak? Who meet with serenity adverse fortune? — the wise or the foolish? Who accommodate themselves to irremediable circumstances? or, when remediable, who control and mould them at will? — the intelligent or the ignorant? Let your answer in your own case, be your answer in that of women.
If the important enquiry which engaged our attention last evening was satisfactorily answered, is there one who can doubt the beneficial effects of knowledge upon every mind, upon every heart? Surely it must have been a misconception of the nature of knowledge which could alone bring it into suspicion. What is the danger of truth? Where is the danger of fact? Error and ignorance, in deed, are full of danger. They fill our imagination with terrors. They place us at the mercy of every external circumstance. They incapacitate us for our duties as members of the human family, for happiness as sentient beings, for improvement as reasoning beings. Let us awake from this illusion. Let us understand what knowledge is. Let us clearly perceive that accurate knowledge regards all equally; that truth, or fact, is the same thing for all human-kind; that there are not truths for the rich and truths for the poor, truths for men and truths for women; there are simply truths, that is, facts, which all who open their eyes and their ears and their understandings can perceive. There is no mystery in these facts. There is no witchcraft in knowledge. Science is not a trick; not a puzzle. The philosopher is not a conjuror. The observer of nature who envelopes his discoveries in mystery, either knows less than he pretends, or feels interested in withholding his knowledge. The teacher whose lessons are difficult of comprehension, is either clumsy or he is dishonest.
We observed, at our last meeting, that it was the evident interest of our appointed teachers to disguise the truth. We discovered this to be a matter of necessity, arising out of their dependence upon the public favor. We may observe yet another cause, now operating far and wide — universally, omnipotently — a cause pervading the whole mass of society, and springing out of the existing motive principle of human action — competition. Let us examine, and we shall discover it to be the object of each individual to obscure the first elements of the knowledge he professes — be that knowledge mechanical and operative, or intellectual and passive. It is thus that we see the simple manufacture of a pair of shoes magnified into an art, demanding a seven years apprenticeship, when all its intricacies might be mastered in as many months. It is thus that cutting out a coat after just proportions is made to involve more science, and to demand more study, than the anatomy of the body it is to cover. And it is thus, in like manner, that all the branches of knowledge, involved in what is called scholastic learning, are wrapped in the fogs of pompous pedantry; and that every truth, instead of being presented in naked innocence, is obscured under a weight of elaborate words, and lost and buried in a medley of irrelevant ideas, useless amplifications, and erroneous arguments. Would we unravel this confusion — would we distinguish the true from the false, the real from the un real, the useful from the useless — would we break our mental leading strings — would we know the uses of all our faculties — would we be virtuous, happy, and intelligent beings — would we be useful in our generation — would we possess our own minds in peace, be secure in our opinions, be just in our feelings, be consistent in our practice — would we command the respect of others, and — far better — would we secure our own — let us enquire.
Let us enquire! What mighty consequences, are involved in these little words! Whither have they not led? To what are they not yet destined to lead? Before them thrones have given way. Hierarchies have fallen, dungeons have disclosed their secrets. Iron bars, and iron laws, and more iron prejudices, have given way; the prison house of the mind hath burst its fetters; science dis closed her treasures; truth her moral beauties; and civil liberty, sheathing her conquering sword, hath prepared her to sit down in peace at the feet of knowledge.
Let us enquire! Oh, words fraught with good to man and terror to his oppressors! Oh words bearing glad tidings to the many and alarm only to the few! The monarch hears them and trembles on his throne! The priest hears them, and trembles in the sanctuary; the unjust judge — and trembles on the judgment seat. The nations pronounce them and arise in their strength. Let us enquire; and behold, ignorance becomes wise, vice forsakes its errors, wretchedness conceives of comfort, and despair is visited by hope. Let us enquire! — when all shall whisper these little words, and echo them in their hearts, truly the rough places shall be made smooth, and the crooked paths straight. Let us enquire; and behold, no evil but shall find its remedy, no error but shall be detected, and no truth but shall stand revealed! Let us enquire! These little words, which presume in nothing, but which promise all things, what ear shall they offend 1 what imagination shall they affright ‘I Not yours, sons of America! Not yours. What hold ye of good or great? what boast ye of rights, of privileges, of liberty, beyond the rest of the nations, that by enquiry hath not been won, by enquiry improved and protected? Let us enquire, said your ancestors, when kingly and priestly tyranny smote them on the banks of the Thames or the Seine. Let us enquire, said your fathers. when imperious princes and arrogant parliaments questioned their charters and trampled on their rights. Let us enquire, said Henry, said Jefferson, said Franklin, said the people and congress of ’76. Let us enquire; and behold, the enquiry gained to them and their descendants a country — lost to kings and their empires a world!
And shall the sons fear to pronounce, in peace, under the shadow of the olive and the laurel planted by their fathers — shall they, I say, fear to pronounce those little words which, by their ancestors, were uttered under ban and forfeiture, outlawry and excommunication, in prison and under scaffolds, before the bayonets of tyranny and the threatening thunders of leagued armies?
Or. is the race of human improvement ended, and the work of reform completed? Have we attained all truth, rectified all error, so that, sitting down in wisdom and perfection, we may say, ” our duty is achieved, our destiny fulfilled?” Alas for our nature, alas for our condition, alas for reason and common sense, if such should be the answer of our presumption, such the decision of our ignorance! Where is the mind so vast, the imagination so sublime, that hath conceived the farthest limits of human improvement, or the utmost height to which human virtue may attain? Or, say! where is the heart so insensible, the mind so debased, that, looking abroad on the face of society, as now disfigured with vice, rapine, and wretched ness, can seriously think and feel farther enquiry superfluous, farther reformation impossible?
Did the knowledge of each individual embrace all the discoveries made by science, all the truths extracted by philosophy from the combined experience of ages, still would enquiry be in its infancy, improvement in its dawn. Perfection for man is in no time, in no place. The law of his being, like that of the earth he inhabits, is to move always, to stop never. From the earliest annals of tradition, his movement has been in advance. The tide of his progress hath had ebbs and flows, but hath left a thousand marks by which to note its silent but tremendous influx.
The first observations of Indian and Egyptian astronomers; the first application of man to civil industry; the first associations of tribes and nations, for the purpose of mutual protection; the invention of an alphabet, the use of each ornamental, and, far better, of each useful art, — stand as so many tide marks in the flood of recorded time, until, applying a lever to his own genius, man invented the printing press, and opened a first highway to enquiry. From that hour, his progress has been accelerating and accelerated. His strides have been those of a giant, and are those of a giant growing in his strength. Mighty was the step he made, when, in Germany, he impeached the infallibility of Rome; mightier yet when. in England, he attacked the supremacy of king; mightier by far, when, appealing to his own natural rights, he planted in this new world the more new standard of equal liberty; and mightier still shall be his impulse in the onward career of end less improvement, when, rightly reading and justly executing his own decree, he shall extend to every son and daughter within the confines of these free states, liberty’s first and only security — virtue’s surest and only guide — national, rational, and equal education.
Something towards this has been done, and in no division of this promising republic more than in New-England and the commonwealth of New-York. But, as it may hereafter be my attempt to show, in the efforts yet made and making, the master spring hath not been touched, the republican principle hath not been hit, and, therefore, is the reform imperfect.
If this be so — and who that looks abroad shall gainsay the assertion? — if this be so — and who that looks to your jails, to your penitentiaries, to your houses of refuge, to your hospitals, to your asylums, to your hovels of wretchedness, to your haunts of intemperance, to your victims lost in vice and hardened in profligacy, to childhood with out protection, to youth without guidance, to the widow without sustenance, to the female destitute and female out cast, sentenced to shame and sold to degradation — who that looks to these shall say, that enquiry hath not a world to explore, and improvement yet a world to reform !
Let us enquire. Who, then, shall challenge the words? They are challenged. And by whom? By those who call themselves the guardians of morality, and who are the constituted guardians of religion. Enquiry, it seems, suits not them. They have drawn the line, beyond which human reason shall not pass — above which human virtue shall not aspire! All that is without their faith or above their rule, is immorality, is atheism, is — I know not what.
My friends, I will ask you, as I would ask them would they meet the question, what means we possess for settling the point now. at issue between the servants of faith and the advocates of knowledge, but what are supplied by enquiry?
Are we miserable creatures, innately and of necessity; placed on this earth by a being who should have made us for misery here and damnation hereafter; or are we born ductile as the gold and speckless as the mirror, capable of all inflection and impression which wise or unwise instruction may impart, or to which good or evil circumstance may incline? Are we helpless sinners, with nought but the anchor of faith to lean upon? Or are we creatures of noblest energies and sublimest capabilities, fitted for every deed of excellence, feeling of charity, and mode of enjoyment ‘? How may we settle this problem but by enquiry? How shall we know who hath the right and who hath the wrong but by enquiry 1 Surely the matter is not small, nor the stake at issue trifling. Every interest dearest to the heart, every prospect most exhilarating to the mind, is. involved in the question and trembles on the decision.
Oh! then, let us gird up our minds in courage, and compose them in peace. Let us cast aside fear and suspicion, suspend our jealousies and disputes, acknowledge the rights of others and assert our own. And oh ! let us understand that the first and noblest of these rights is, the cultivation of our reason. We have seen what just knowledge is ; we have ascertained its importance to our worldly prosperity, to our happiness, to our dignity. We have seen, that it regards us, not only individually, but relatively and collectively. We have seen that to obtain it, we have but to seek it, patiently and fearlessly, in the road of enquiry; and that to tread that road pleasantly, securely, profitably, we must throw it open to both sexes — to all ages — to the whole family of humankind.
It now remains for us to distinguish what are the most important subjects of human enquiry. The field of know ledge is wide and the term of our existence short. With many of us life is considerably spent and much charged with worldly and domestic occupation. Still have we leisure sufficient, if we be willing to employ it, for the acquisition of such truths as are most immediately associated with our interests and influential over our happiness.
At our next meeting we shall enquire what these truths of primary importance are, together with the means now in your hands for their general distribution and popular acquisition.
Source: Course of Popular Lectures by Frances Wright, (New York: Office of the Free Enquirer), 1829, pp. 41-62.