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Address to Young Mechanics

June 13, 1830 — Wright’s Hall of Science, New York City

 

In addressing myself this evening to the young mechanics of our city, I would not be understood as considering their interests distinct from those of other classes of the community.

The interests of the whole human family, in nature and in reason, are ever present to my mind as one and the same. But the ill directed efforts of successive generations have placed us in an artificial state of society. The bond of union originating in the common instincts, wants, and desires of all our species, has been severed instead of strengthened by miscalculating ingenuity or fortuitous circumstances. Occupants of the same earth, citizens of the same country, creatures of the same form and nature, we are partitioned off into classes, and arrayed against each other, in despite even of our own will, by the habits of our youth, and the contrasted and conflicting interests of our after years. In such a state of things, they who are desirous of aiding in the cementing the shattered fractions of society into one whole, have to select first the largest and the soundest fraction — they have to address themselves to the more numerous, as well to the more moral of the classes, which, happily, is also that whose immediate interests are most in unison with those real and natural interests which it is desirable that all should be induced to distinguish and consult.

If therefore I have addressed myself, at all times, more especially to the industrious classes, it has been for two reasons — First; that they comprise the only large mass among the heterogeneous fragments of society; and, secondly, that their interest at the time being are more nearly approached to the great natural interests of man, and incline, therefore, more immediately to wholesome reforms and general union.
While addressing myself however, to this largest and soundest body in the state, it has been my endeavour to excite it to action rather than to opposition; and, if ever my words have provoked a feeling of hostility in man towards man, or in class towards class, I have sinned against my intention, which has been ever, singly and purely, so far as I can read my own heart, to arm men collectively against abuses, and to fraternize their feelings towards each other.

In calling you together at the present time, my young friends, it is not therefore with the view of addressing your peculiar interests as a class, but your interests as citizens, and my only motives for selecting you from your fellow citizens are—that your habits of industry must enlist you on the side of reform, and that your age admits of such cultivation of talent and improvement of feeling as may fit you to become effective reformers.

To the title of working men as the distinctive epithet of reformers, I object. All men and all women ought to be workers, but, at the present time, when operative and intellectual labour is unhappily separated, the title sounds unfairly exclusive, and, our object being union, exclusion, even in sound, should be avoided. As a man is not necessarily honest because he labours with his hands, so neither is he necessarily dishonest because he knows only to labour with his head. In both cases there has been error in education, and there is error in habit, but the fault is in the arrangements of society, not in individuals; and in all our efforts to amend those defective arrangements for the next generation, we should bear in mind that we of the present are all more or less imperfect beings; always half trained, and almost always ill trained. Indulgence, therefore, on the part of one class towards another, is imperiously called for; every expression calculated to excite jealousy should be carefully shunned, and every watchword of the hour should insinuate union, and breathe of national fellowship, liberality, and harmony.

But while I object to the title of working men, as distinctive of reformers, and, yet more, to that of a “working man’sparty,” as distinctive of the great national cause of reform. I do look to the industrious classes, generally and especially, though by no means exclusively, for the salvation of the country, and expect the youth of those classes to supply to sound reason and sound measures their most ardent, and also their most skillful champions.

Whatever may be the conceived advantages of college education, it is but rarely that a bold intellect or a sound judgment issues from the walls of privileged, and but too often useless and superannuated learning; while, on the other hand, what are the real disadvantages of the neglected child of labour, he is saved from the conceit of pedantry, and the jargon of sophistry, and thus remains free to profit by whatever lessons experience may bring, and to distinguish simple truth whenever it may meet his ears.

I have made human kind my study, from my youth up; the American community I have considered with most especial attention; and I can truly say that, wherever the same are not absolutely pressed down by labour and want, I have invariably found, not only the best feelings, but the soundest sense among the operative classes of society. I am satisfied, and that by extensive observation, that, with few exceptions, the whole sterling talent of the American community lies (latent indeed, and requiring the stimulus of circumstance for its development,) among that large body who draw their sustenance from the labour of their hands.

The intellectual and moral inefficiencies of our professional classes is but too apparent in our governmental arrangements, and, generally, in all our institutions civil and religious. Legislation, in their hands has been turned from its true intent, and applied to the perplexing, instead of the simplifying of all human affairs. Industry has been sacrificed to trade; honest trade, or the fair exchange of commodities, to speculation; statutes have been multiplied; justice embarrassed; onerous, expensive, tedious, and incomprehensible systems of law and theology, encouraged, to give false occupation to individuals and bodies of men, at expense of the peace, and the reason, and the labour of the mass; and erroneous and imperfect education given to all — to the few in what are called colleges, and to the many in common schools, charity Sunday schools, or no schools at all, whereby aristocratical distinctions are entailed upon the community—some raised unwisely to submit, and others unwisely to govern.

That this is a fair statement will, I think, be admitted by all who inspect, closely and impartially, the frame of existing society; and, I think, such will be disposed also to admit that, so far as reform may be practicable during existing generations, it is more likely to be effectually promoted by the classes who directly suffer, than by those who immediately live by the errors and abuses it is proposed to rectify.
We do indeed know that honest men may be found among dishonest professions; and, when found, as the lustre of their integrity is greatest, so ought it to be most respected and rewarded. But, generally speaking, the people must look to their own ranks for their own servants, and to prepare themselves for that service, is at once their interest and duty.

It was in the view of aiding the people in such preparation that this building was purchased, and that the teachers herein have laboured. I must observe that the exertions of the friends of popular improvement have been made under every disadvantage. They have had to mediate at odd moments and over hours, snatched from regular avocations, wholesome recreation, or necessary rest, those lessons which a course of regular and undisturbed study should supply. Suitable apparatus and all other conveniences have also been wanting ¾  without funds, and without leisure, they have brought nothing save zeal and perseverance to their voluntary task; and if, under such circumstances, advantage has accrued to the public, we can but distinguish how easy would be the full communication of all useful truth, were but half the pains, and one twentieth of the treasure expended for its development, that is now applied to the propagation of error.

Hitherto the current expenses of this building have been chiefly defrayed by the receipts taken at my lectures. I announced, a short while since, my desire to resign the personal responsibility I had hitherto borne, upon which a subscription was opened for filling up the sum of 600 dollars, to meet the main expenses for the current year. The receipts of this evening will, it is thought, close the accounts of the past season.
In resigning the responsibility, of course I resign all share in the management of this Hall; and and the trustess, hitherto appointed by myself, will withdraw to be succeeded by such as shall be elected by the subscribers. If the sum required be made up this evening, it is proposed to nominate the new trustees, and to consider how, in the frequent deficiency of suitable lecturers, the building may be occupied to the greatest possible advantage.

In conversing on this subject with some of our subscribers, I have understood it to be the general impression that public debates would tend, more than any other exercise, to the development of the popular mind, and the eliciting of popular talent. Such is decidedly my own individual opinion; and if, at the first opening of this Hall, I entertained and ex-power of influencing the public measures, it is your bounden pressed some apprehensions of an exercise I now venture to advocate, it was simply because I doubted our then moral fitness to engage in the sifting out of each other’s errors. I feared lest, gathered as we were, from all the various sects and schools of religion and philosophy, we should rather dispute than reason, and judged that before we ventured to try the strength of our wit, we had better make sure of that of our temper. We have now had a twelvemonth’s practice and experience; we know something more of each other, and, I believe, of ourselves. The popular mind, awakened to practical inquiry, begins to distinguish the importance of reciprocating indulgence for every variety of human opinion. Faith, of whatever colour, or no faith at all, claims, and is likely soon to be allowed, equal liberty of expression. Free inquiry can encounter orthodoxy with tolerable good humour, and even orthodoxy herself, begins to understand that the air and light of heaven are not her exclusive possessions; and that, after all, there is room enough, and to spare, in this world for those who doubt as for those who believe. But it is, above all, the sounder and more practical views that are now rapidly spreading through the community, which will enable men of all creeds, or no creeds, to meet on common ground; to discuss topics of real importance with a sincere desire of eliciting truth, and even, occasionally, to sport with their speculative fancies without seeing a pit of sulphur opening at their feet, or feeling disposed to pitch thereinto an obstinate opponent.

To you, my young friends, more especially, I conceive the proposed exercise will prove of the highest utility. I have already stated why I regard you as destined to supply the best props to the reformed political edifice of your country. But it is not rashly, nor presumptuously, that you should reach forth your hand to steady that sacred structure. No unrighteous ambition ¾ no petty vanity ¾ no thirst of worldly gain, or worldly influence should lead you to lift your eyes to that¾in principle the most honorable, in fact, alas! but too often the most dishonoured  ¾  the state’s service.

As members of the human family, it is your bounden interest and duty to make human nature your study, with a view to the detection of all the causes of existing evil, and, equally, to the discovery of all the sources of possible good. As citizens of a free state, holding not only the right but the interest and duty, to investigate — first, the principles laid down by the organizers of this republic; to weigh those principles in your reason and to test them by those acknowledged by your own inner minds. Secondly: To study the political institutions established as in conformity with those principles, and to judge how far that conformity has been preserved. Thirdly: To consider the statutes enacted, and the laws and practices countenanced and upheld by those legislative bodies, charged (under the guidance and restriction of those principles and institutions,) with the administration of the res publicæ, or common interests of the whole community. It is, in fine, your bounden interest and duty to make both man and men your serious study; or, in other words, to consider attentively society as it now exists, and society as it ought to exist.

Connected with these great moral and constitutional exercises of the mind, (which each and all may follow out in private, with the aid of the more liberal publications of the day,) the careful exercise of the faculty of speech will be found, not merely to promote your public usefulness, but your own individual improvement. A ready command of language assists even the process of thought itself, and is absolutely indispensable to render our thoughts useful to others.

True it is, that no art has been more abused than that of oratory. It has been employed to disguise the hideousness of error, instead of to enhance the loveliness of truth. It has been turned to the confounding the human mind with sophistry, instead of enlightening it by reason. It has been pressed, even openly, into the service of injustice, falsehood, hypocrisy, superstition, and corruption; and when, in degraded and falling Athens, Demosthenes gave successfully, for the three requisites of an orator, “manner,” “manner,” “manner,” he satirized not only the ignorance of his own age and nation, but that of all others.

We know full well how lamentably up to the present day, the truth of the ancient satire has been preserved. The bar and the pulpit, and, alas! the senate, of modern times, have equally substituted sound for sense, and art for argument, with the rhetoricians, pleaders, and soothsayers of antiquity; albeit, and here there is cause for thankfulness, our sophists have more generally succeeded in imitating the false matter, than the winning manner of Grecian eloquence; even as our modern mythology has preserved the delusions and immoralities of the ancient, despoiled of its grace, its passion, and it’s poetry.

But, as even the abuses of speech bear evidence to its power, so does it regard us as rational creatures to wrest that power from evil, and turn it to our good. And oh! far, far other is the music of the voice, and the elegance of the period, when truth speaks in the harmony, and the love of human kind inspires the fervour of the language. Nor, indeed, is this any longer the age, still less is this the country, in which sound will pass current for sense, as it did with our forefathers. Whosoever in these days, would be listened to, must address himself to the reason; but in so doing he will be most injudicious who neglects the conciliation of the feelings, or even who despises the pleasing of the ear. A harsh and ungoverned voice, a forced and imperfect articulation, unseemly expressions, unsightly gestures, tedious repetitions, a hurried, a violent, or, worse than all, a studied and affected delivery. (betraying that the speaker is more occupied with himself than his hearers,) might suffice to stop the ears of an audience to the wisdom of a Franklin, supposing it possible for wisdom so to sin against good taste and propriety.

But all these and other defects will soon disappear wherever there exist two requisites¾an ardent desire of improving ourselves, combined with that of rendering service to others. We read that the greatest orator of antiquity was, in the opening of his career, a stammerer; and I myself once saw an eloquent pulpit enthusiast move, by his tones and energy, a whole audience to tears, who, one your previous, I had known afflicted with a stutter so excessive as to impede not merely his utterance of a phrase, but even of a word.

The art of good public speaking is rare at the present time, only because it is neglected by the mass, who have considered it to be no business of theirs, and studied by individuals and bodies of men who have considered it the business of their peculiar professions ¾ which professions have required not its use, but its perversion.

Now it will appear evident, upon reflection, that public speaking ought to be the peculiar study of all Americans, even as public affairs ought to be their peculiar business. I know not, therefore, how the leisure evenings of the week could be more beneficially employed by the citizens than in public debating, and to that purpose it has been proposed to devote this building, on all the first evenings of the week, unless a suitable lecturer should be obtained and preferred.

Under the impression that this proposal, as made at a former meeting, may be acceded to now or hereafter by the body of the subscribers, I feel tempted to venture a few more observations respecting the frame of mind which, not only here, but elsewhere, and through life, it is the duty of every member of the human family to engage in argument. To preserve the order of a meeting, strict regulations and good moderators may suffice, but to impart to it a tone of harmony, there must be the spirit of moderation reigning in each breast. There must be a love of truth, and a desire to prove ourselves worthy disciples, as well as skillful advocates, of truth, before we can come prepared to convince or to be convinced.

It is a high compliment made to the more liberal in opinion, that their enemies are ever extreme to mark what they do amiss. If the orthodox christian sentence his brother to public scorn in this world, and perdition in another, his wrath is styled holy zeal, and counted to him for righteousness; but if the sceptic in things unseen and unearthly, forget the equanimity befitting all human beings, but which, alas! too much at present conspires to disturb, no epithet is accounted too harsh by which to stigmatize his self-forgetfulness. Let us not complain, my young friends, of this severity. Let us rather learn to be equally severe with ourselves. Let us take the gibe whenever it is merited, but let it be our ambition to merit it as seldom as possible. Youth is accounted hasty, and is so, for it is inexperienced. Yet do I believe it far more capable of self-correction and self-government, at the present time, than maturer age. To the young, then, do I look for most zeal in the cause of reform, and most tenderness of its honour. From them do I venture to hope the readiest compliance with every useful regulation, and the readiest censure of every departure from propriety, of every rudeness, self-forgetfulness, and unseemly personality. Nor is it only in this building I feel encouraged to see in them the jealous guardians of the honour of free inquiry and practical reform. In the walks of life, I trust, their bearing will be such as to win respect for the principles they advocate; and, on every occasion, when their opinion may be called for, or their influence may be exercised, may it be found, not only on the side of honesty, but also on that of good manners, forbearance, and moderation. With such reliance on the good sense and good temper of the frequenters of this Hall, I leave them for the season.

 

 

Source: Life, Letters, and Lectures, 1834-1844, Frances Wright D’Arusment (New York: Arno Press), 1972.

 

Also: Course of Popular Lectures, With Three Addresses, or Various Public Occasions, and a Reply to the Charges Against the French Reformers of 1789, by Frances Wright (London: Watson, Printer) c. 1828, pp. 198-205.

 

Also: The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition, ed. Timothy Patrick McCarthy, John McMillan (New York: The New Press) 2003, pp. 221-222.