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An essay by George William Curtis

Wendell Phillips At Harvard - 1881

Title:     Wendell Phillips At Harvard - 1881
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The great Commencement event of the Summer was Wendell Phillips's oration at the centennial anniversary of the venerable Phi Beta Kappa at Cambridge. It was also the semi-centenary of the orator's graduation at Harvard, and there was great anticipation, not only because Mr. Phillips is now in many ways the first orator of his time, but because his _alma mater_ has not sympathized with his career. On the day before, which was Commencement-day, there was general wonder among the Harvard men of all years whether the orator would regard the amenities of the occasion, and pour out his music and his wit upon some purely literary theme, or seize his venerable mother by the hair, and gracefully twist it out with a smile.

"I hope," uneasily said a distinguished alumnus of Harvard to the Easy Chair, "I hope he will not forget that he is a gentleman."

"He has never yet forgotten it," replied the Easy Chair.

The morning was beautiful--a sweet, fresh, brilliant June morning--and there was a great assembly in the grounds of the university. The usual Phi Beta Kappa attendance is not large. The celebration occurs on the last day of prolonged college festivities, and the number of members of the society is limited; nor, in fact, has it a real existence except on the day of its oration and poem and dinner. This year, however, the centenary of Harvard, from which all the other chapters, except the parent chapter at William and Mary, have proceeded, had drawn delegations from seventeen other colleges. The pink and blue ribbon, which has replaced the square gold watch-key of other days, fluttered at every button-hole, and with pealing music leading the way, the long, long procession--a Phi Beta Kappa procession such as perhaps Harvard never saw before--wound under the imposing buildings towards the beautiful college hall, the Sanders Theatre.

A great college day is always a feast of memory. As the music swelled and the procession moved, the air was full of visions of forms long vanished, of voices forever silent. To the Phi Beta Kappa memory in Cambridge, however, three of the society's famous days returned. First, that 26th of August, 1824, when Edward Everett delivered the oration, which closed with the apostrophe to Lafayette, sitting upon the platform in the old meetinghouse, which stood, we believe, where Gore Hall now stands. It is the college tradition that the audience rose in enthusiasm with the last words of the orator: "Welcome, thrice welcome, to our shores, and whithersoever throughout the limits of the continent your course shall take you, the ear that hears you shall bless you, the eye that sees you shall bear witness to you, and every tongue exclaim with heart-felt joy, Welcome, welcome, Lafayette!" and that Lafayette himself, not clearly apprehending the drift of the peroration, and swept on by sympathy, eagerly applauded with the excited throng. Second, that 31st of August, 1837, when Ralph Waldo Emerson read the remarkable discourse to whose calm, wise, and thrilling words the hearts of men who were young then still vibrate, and to which their lives have responded; and third, the day in 1836 when Oliver Wendell Holmes read his poem, "A Metrical Essay," which is the traditional Phi Beta Kappa poem, as Everett's and Emerson's are the traditional orations. Richard H. Dana, Jr., calls Everett's discourse the first of a kind of which since then there have been brilliant illustrations, the rhetorical, literary, historical, and political essay blended in one, and made captivating by every charm of oratory.

But the procession has reached the theatre, in which already there are ladies seated, and in a few moments the building is filled with an audience to which any orator would be proud to speak. There is music as the audience rustles and murmurs into its place with eager expectation. Then there is a prayer. Then Mr. Choate, the president of the day, with his customary felicity and sparkling banter, speaks of the origin of the ancient and mysterious brotherhood. "And now," he says, in ending, "I introduce to you him who, whenever and wherever he speaks, is the orator of the day." Mr. Phillips rises, and buttons his frock-coat across his white waistcoat as he moves to the front of the platform. Seen from the theatre, his hair is gray, and his face looks older, but there is the same patrician air; and with the familiar tranquillity and colloquial ease he begins to speak.

He spoke perhaps for two hours, perhaps for half an hour. But there was no sense of the lapse of time. His voice was somewhat less strong, but it had all the old force and the old music. He was in constant action, but never vehement, never declamatory in tone, walking often to and fro, every gesture expressive, art perfectly concealing art. It was all melody and grace and magic, all wit and paradox and power. The apt quotation, the fine metaphor, the careful accumulation of intensive epithet to point an audacious and startling assertion, the pathos, the humor. But why try to describe beauty? It was consummate art, and as noble a display of high oratory as any hearer or spectator had known.

It is usually thought that there must be a great occasion for great oratory. Burke and Chatham upon the floor of Parliament plead for America against coercion; Adams and Otis and Patrick Henry in vast popular assemblies fire the colonial heart to resist aggression; Webster lays the corner-stone on Bunker Hill, or in the Senate unmasks secession in the guise of political abstraction; Everett must have the living Lafayette by his side. But here is an orator without an antagonist, with no measure to urge or oppose, whose simple theme upon a literary occasion is the public duty of the scholar. Yet he touches and stirs and inspires every listener; and as he quietly ends his discourse with a stanza of Lowell's that he has quoted a hundred times before, every hearer feels that it is a historic day, and that what he has seen and heard will be one of the traditions of Harvard and of Phi Beta Kappa.

It does not follow, because the audience was charmed, and overflowed with expressions of delight, that it therefore agreed. When an orator calls the French Revolution "the greatest, the most un-mixed, the most unstained and wholly perfect blessing Europe has had in modern times, unless, perhaps, we may possibly except the Reformation," there will be those who differ--who will grant the beneficent results of revolutions, as of wild storms of nature, but who will hesitate to call a movement of which the September days, the noyades, and the bloody fury of a brutal mob were incidents, the most unmixed and the most unstained of blessings. No American would lament the agitation for emancipation, to which the life of the orator has been devoted. It was a great blessing to the country and to humanity; but from the blood of Lovejoy to that of the last victim of the war on either side, it was not an unstained and unmixed blessing. There is, indeed, a sense in which "to gar kings know" that they have a joint in their necks may in itself be called an unstained political gain. But since historically the lesson is taught only by the cruel suffering of the innocent and the guilty together, it is, in fact, indelibly stained. "Ah!" said the most benignant of men, "it was a delightful discourse, but preposterous from beginning to end."

Yet its central idea, that it is the duty of educated men actively to lead the progress of their time, is incontestable. The orator, indeed, virtually arraigned his _alma mater_ for moral hesitation and timidity. But a university lives in its children, and is judged by them; and surely the history of civil and religious liberty in this country from Samuel Adams, James Otis, and Joseph Warren down to Channing and Parker, to Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips, and the brave boys of whom Memorial Hall is the monument, all of whom were sons of Harvard, does not show that the old university has not contributed her share of leadership.

Such answers, striking and trenchant and admirable, were perhaps made at the delightful dinner which followed the oration. Perhaps President Eliot promptly took up and threw back with eloquent energy the gage which had been thrown in the very face of the venerable mother by one of her eminent children, so illustrating that ample resource and sagacious firmness which have made his administration most efficient and memorable. Perhaps Dr. Holmes, whose felicitous genius overflowing in wit and music has long put the sparkling bead upon the Phi Beta Kappa goblet, recited the lines whose response was the gay laughter that rang through a pelting shower of rain far over the college grounds. Perhaps as "Auld Lang Syne" was sung with locked hands at the end of the dinner, if "Auld Lang Syne" is ever sung at Phi Beta Kappa dinners, there was a general feeling that the day had been a red-letter day for the university, and a white day in the recollection of all who had heard one of the most charming discourses that were ever delivered in the country, and had beheld a display of oratorical art which in this time, at least, cannot be surpassed.

But of all this nothing can ever be known, because the feasts of Phi Beta Kappa are sealed with secrecy.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Wendell Phillips At Harvard - 1881