Oratorical Exchanges

On the fourth day of a celebration of Harvard's two hundred and fiftieth birthday, on November 5 through 8, 1886, Professor James Russell...

On the fourth day of a celebration of Harvard's two hundred and fiftieth birthday, on November 5 through 8, 1886, Professor James Russell Lowell, man of letters, charming and of deep learning, later to be ambassador to Great Britain, gave an immensely long oration in Sanders Theatre. Were he speaking in America during the upcoming Commencement season, he might wish to deliver the same speech again.


"Your wooden arm you hold outstretched to shake with passers-by."

"It is good for us to commemorate this homespun past of ours; good, in these days of a reckless and swaggering prosperity....Wealth may be an excellent thing, for it means power, it means leisure, it means liberty. But these, divorced from culture--that is, from intelligent purpose --become the very mockery of their own essence; not goods, but evils fatal to their possessor, and bring with them, like the Nibelungen Hoard, a doom instead of a blessing. A man rich only for himself has a life as barren and cheerless as that of the serpent set to guard a buried treasure. I am saddened when I see our success as a nation measured by the number of acres under tillage, or of bushels of wheat exported, for the real value of a country must be weighed in scales more delicate than the 'balance of trade.' The garners of Sicily are empty now, but the bees from all climes still fetch honey from the tiny garden-plot of Theocritus. On a map of the world you may hide Judea with your thumb, Athens with a fingertip, and neither of them figures in the 'prices current,' but they still lord it in the thought and action of every civilized man....The measure of a nation's true success is the amount it has contributed to the thought, the moral energy, the intellectual happiness, the spiritual hope and consolation, of mankind. There is no other, let our candidates flatter us as they may. We still make a confusion between huge and great."

Lowell ended by acknowledging an honored guest at the event, President Grover Cleveland, employing a snatch of Horace. Lowell's use of Latin occasioned a satirical report in the New York Semi-Weekly Tribune of November 19. For calling the coverage to his attention, Primus is indebted to former Representative David Bowen '54, of Jackson, Mississippi, who learned of it from Ed Polk Douglas of Lyons, New York. The report went like this:

"'Daniel,' said the President last night, as they sat in the smoking-room of their car, pulling away at a couple of bean leaf cigars.

"'Yes, sire,' responded Daniel, shoving the cuspidor from under the seat with his foot.

"'Did you hear Lowell's speech today?'

"'Yes, sire.'

"'Did you get on to his racket about me, Daniel?'

"'As to how, sire?'

"'Why, Daniel, in that part where he said: "We have no politics here; but the sons of Harvard all belong to a party which admires courage, strength of purpose, and fidelity to duty, and which respects, wherever he may be found, the 'Justum et tenacem propositi virum,' who knows how to withstand the 'Civum ardor prava jubentium.'"'

"'I noticed that, sire.'

"'Are you on to it, Daniel?'

"'No, sire, I am not.'

"'Neither am I, Daniel, and as soon as I get home I'm going to issue an order that foreign ministers, when they come back to this country, must speak United States when addressing the President, and not crowd their foreign lingo on him, when he is not in a position to defend himself. I'm a Dutchman, Daniel, if I know now whether Lowell was striking at the Mugwumps, or the Civil Service Reform Republicans, or the pure, old style Democrats, and when I bowed my acknowledgments to him, just as not I was giving myself dead away. Darn this Boston French, anyhow, Daniel,' and the President relapsed into silence and smoke, and Daniel sat thoughtfully in the corner."

Cleveland made a speech himself at Harvard. "I find myself today in company to which I am much unused," he said, and "the reflection that for me there exists no alma mater gives rise to a feeling of regret, which is only kindly tempered by the cordiality of your welcome and your reassuring friendliness." Then the president told his audience their duty. "Surely the splendid destiny which awaits patriotic effort in behalf of our country will be sooner reached," said the president, "if the best of our thinkers and educated men shall deem it a solemn duty of citizenship actively and practically to engage in political affairs...."  


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