Before he went to Oxford for the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, John W. Draper delivered an address at the opening of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York in 1859. Most of the lecture was published in the New York Herald (Nov 3, 1859). In this lecture Draper’s background as a Methodist and his training at the University of London (esp. the influence of Henry Brougham and the Utilitarians) are clear. His focus is education and the advancement of civilization, and here we find hints of ideas and themes that will be expanded in his later work. The following is taken directly as it was printed in the Herald.
There are two different means by which a community may assert superiority over its contemporaries—by brute force and by intellect. In the old times nations attached supremacy by a successful exercise of physical force. Successful wars were the basis of their authority, disastrous battles often their end. But the affairs of men have gradually taken such a form that power must rest on intelligence. He who seeks the improvement of his fellow men, the ennobling of the community among whom he lives, or the true glory of the nation to which he belongs, can only accomplish his purpose by spreading forth the light of knowledge, and strengthening and developing the public understanding. In his letter to the trustees of the Cooper Union, the founder of this institution, whose princely magnificence we here enjoy, has said “that it is his wish that we should see, feel, understand and know that there are immutable laws designed in infinite wisdom, constantly operating for our good—so governing the destiny of worlds and of men, that it is our highest wisdom to live in conformity to them.” So, in truth, it has pleased God to place the government of this world, in its onward progress, under the same laws as the development of man. And what does it signify if the one completes his career in a few months whilst the other demands for its majestic progress scores of centuries? In these affairs, to Him who has eternity to work in, time is nothing—a day is with him as a thousand years, a thousand years are only as a day.
Ask the historian what is the impressive, the final conclusions to which he has come from his examinations of the life of nations, he has still the same story to tell. Nations, like individuals, are born, run through an unavoidable career, and then die, some earlier, some more maturely, some at a still later date. In their infancy some are cut off by mere feebleness, some are destroyed by civil diseases, some commit suicide, some perish of old age. But for every one there is an orderly way of progress—the same pursued by the individual and assigned to the globe. Empires are only sand hills in the hour glass of time; they crumble away of themselves, or are totally obliterated when he turns over his glass. Read, if you choose, the history of the race from which we are sprung—the white, the European race. Not long ago our forefathers were wild savages in the woods; finding refuge in caves, delighting in the adornment of ochre, and wore the red and blue daubed over their skins; some, the dwellers in the southeast of the continent, tattooed themselves; some, still worse, were accused by common fame of cannibalism. A few years elapsed; the social disposition emerges; villages and towns appear; there is an instinctive but not an intellectual life. Still a little time more, and the rudiments of religious perceptions are distinguishable; these, from mere fetish adorations, unfold in a definite way, and better and better ideas appear, until finally the age of truth and reason in which we live has come. We look back—the opinions that were entertained perhaps only a century ago strike us with the utmost surprise, and we are fain to deny that our grandfathers could ever have really believed such things: it matter not whether they are ideas in philosophy or maxims in politics. We turn to ourselves inquiringly, to see in what consists the difference between us and them, and forth comes the same grand truth that we have recognised in the individual and on the globe.
There has been an intellectual advance, and we can no more adopt the habits, the sentiments, the opinions that guided them, than the adult man can be swayed by the trivialities which have governed the conduct of the boy. So thus I approach the great truth that I wish to inculcate here tonight—that the life of the nation is meant for intellectual development. Intellectual development overrides all other things. I do not exclude even morals. Morality without intellect is superstition. Whoever designs to improve the people among whom he lives must do so by influencing their intellect. The voice of history proclaims that all other schemes are abortive. Our European ancestors for a thousand years tried other means, and the result was a total failure. Where did the fifteenth century find them? The only ruling powers were the military and the monastic. They had carried their influence to its full extent. Had they endured for a thousand years longer, they could have done no more. They had stood by while society rose from the abyss of barbarism; to a certain extent they had assisted it; but now their work was done. The appearance of the continent and the condition of human life show what their uses and what their failures had been. There were great forests extending over vast districts, fens reeking with miasm and fever; some, even in England, forty or fifty miles in length, though round and walls of the abbey there might be beautiful gardens, green lawns, shady walks and many murmuring streams. Over trackless woods where men should have been, herds of deer were straying; the sandy hills were alive with conies, the downs with focks of bustard. The peasants’s cabin was made of reeds, or sticks plastered over with mud, with a chimneyless fire, or perhaps of peal [?] in the object and manner of his life was but a remove from the industrious beaver, who was building his solitary dam in the adjacent stream. There were highwaymen on the roads, pirates in the rivers, vermin in abundance in the clothing and beds. The common food was peas, vetches, fern roots, and even the bark of trees: there was no commerce to put off the extremity of famines. Man was altogether at the mercy of the seasons; the population, sparse as it was, was perpetually thinned off by pestilence and want. Nor was the state of the townsman better than that of the rustic. His bed a was a bag of straw, with a fair round log for a pillow; if he was in easier circumstances his clothing was of leather—perennial in duration, but not conducive to personal cleanliness; if poor, a wisp of straw wrapped round his limbs kept off the cold. It was a social condition, sad to the last degree, where nothing intervened between the cabins built of reed in the fen, the miserable wigwams of villages and the conspicuous walls of the castle and monastery. Well might they who lived near those times bewail the lost of the age-stricken peasant, and point, not without indignation, to the troops of “pilgrims, mendicants, pardoners and ecclesiastics” of every grade, who hung round the monastery and the church; to the might wassail and rioting drunkenness in the castle hall, secure in its moats, its battlements and its warders. The local pivots round which society revolved were the redhanded baron, familiar with scenes of outrage and deeds of blood, and the abbot, indulging in the last extreme of luxury, magnificent in dress, exalting in his ambling palfrey, his hawk and hounds. Rural life had but little improved since the time of Caesar; in its physical aspect it was altogether neglected. As to the mechanic, how was it possible that he should exist where there were no windows of glass, no, not of oiled paper, no workshop warmed by a fire? There was no physician for the dying rustic, but, merciful as ever, the good monk was there with his crucifix. The aim was to smooth the sufferer’s passage to the next world—not to save him for this. In the cities the pestilence walked unstayed—its triumphs numbered by the sounds of the death cryer in the streets, or the knell for the soul that was passing away. No such thing as over population was heard of: it was considered to be singularly successful statesmanship if the number of the population was kept up to its average sparse amount.
Europe thus woke up at the end of the fifteenth century, and found, so far as the domestic comforts and family life of its common people were concerned, that since the days of Caesar absolutely nothing had been accomplished. It is commonly said that this was owing to the extinction of civilization by the barbarian overwhelming Italy and Greece. But that is not the truth. In those countries the sacred fire of learning was fast dying out. It would have spontaneously become extinct had no barbarian touched it. As when you add fresh coal to a fire that is burning low you may for a time still further diminish it, perhaps risk its entire putting out, but in due season, if all goes well, the new material will join in the contagious blaze. The countless savage barbarians of Europe thrown into the foci of Greek and Roman light perhaps did reduce for a time the general heat, but by degrees it spread throughout their mass, and the bright flame of modern civilization was the result. Such was the result of a thousand years. The really influential agent, the ecclesiastic, was a man animated by intentions just as good, by perseverance just as unwearied, by an energy just as vigorous as our own. The defect lay not in him, but in the system, which vainly tried to accomplish improvement through the morals, whilst it abased or ignored the intellect. The time came at last when a different principle prevailed, and men sought to improve the social state through intellectual development. We are witnessing the wonderful result. Though scarcely three hundred years have elapsed, how many of the powers of nature have been brought into servitude to us! Nor has the apprehension which many good men in the old times entertained—that if you instruct the mind you may injure the morals—been at all verified; indeed, we find that men are better in proportion as they were wiser. In whatever direction we look we see how vast is the improvement. The physical man is more powerful, the intellectual man more perfect, the moral man more pure. For the poor, in the midst of all this social activity, this business energy, is charity any the less overflowing? For him who is eager for knowledge is there not certain to be a helper?
What is it that the very building we are sitting in and the occasion that brings us together loudly proclaim? Benevolence, a love for our race and a desire for its amelioration are as strong as ever. For the enterprising is there not an open career to wealth and consideration? The system under which it is our lot to live mingles together all climates, and tends to bind together in the bonds of commerce men of all nations and of all opinions. Under the stormy Atlantic the old and the new world will soon be whispering to one another. Whoever, therefore, I repeat, desires to better his fellow man, must take care that there shall be no ignorant man. Ignorance is not as in the old times they used to say—and it was a double blasphemy against God and man—the mother of devotion; she is the mother of superstition and misery. Brute force holds communities together just as a nail binds pieces of wood by the compression it makes—a compression depending on the force with which it has been hammered in; it also hold more tenaciously if it is rusted with age. But intelligence holds like a screw; the things it has to unit must be carefully suited to its thread; it must be gently turned, not driven, and so binds the connecting parts firmly and well together. If we want to know how we may best clear from this continent the superabundant forests that encumber it, how we may best lay the iron rail and put the locomotive upon it, how we may most profitably dig the abounding metals from the veins, how we may instantaneously communicate with our most distant towns, how we may cover the ocean with our ships, we must provide for all classes of our population improved means for scientific and practical instruction—for every man and for every woman, too, we must provide occupation.
The morality of a nation is the aggregate of the morality of individuals; a lazy man is necessarily a bad man, an idle is necessarily a demoralized population. It was doubtless such reflections which led Mr. Cooper, the founder of this institution, to establish it as a seat of practical science and art, to devote it to the pursuit of philosophy and letters, to make it a depository for historical collections, physical apparatus, mechanical models, books, drawings, pictures; to give it essentially a practical direction, not forgetting , however, that theory in the short way to successful practice, and to bestow its privileges on all the inhabitant of the United States, but especially on the working classes and on women.
It is emphatically to these that the Cooper Union offers its privileges. For them indeed is it especially intended. It engages to provide for them when their daily duty is over nightly instruction, without charge, in the various sciences and in their application to the arts, and to the useful occupations of life. Here my be learned mathematics, chemistry, natural philosophy, the various branches of physics—sciences at the basis of all those pursuits which increase the manufactures, the trade, the riches of our country. Not only those does the Cooper Union manifestly offer to every one willing to avail himself of it a knowledge of the truths of science: it also furnishes the light and perhaps more pleasant information of what is going on in the world around us—contemporary events. In its free reading room, open to all, abundant provision is made in the way of newspapers, journals, magazines. I have said that this institution, beside providing for the mental improvement of the artisan, has likewise, so far as possible, devoted itself to the interests of a class too often overlooked, too often neglected—women. On many occasions our social requirements press with a melancholy severity on great numbers of the female sex. They cannot engage in the rough conflicts of life—God never intended them for it. Few are the occupations to which they can with propriety turn, and even in these few—to the disgrace of men be it said—they are jostled and crushed and crowded out. Yet often the friendless woman has duties to perform for herself and these dependent on her of the highest kind. Society inexorably binds her with all its rules and usages, yet society too often yields her but a feeble help. She asks no more than freedom for her hands, no more than opportunity; yet how often is that freedom, that opportunity, denied? How countless, also, is the number of women whom in like manner we compel to a profitless inaction? How many of the fearful evils of the great cities of America and Europe may be directly traced to this source! There is nothing which more solemnity, more imperiously, appeals to the philanthropist than to find suitable, and honourable, and remunerative occupation for females. By the establishment of a school of design for women, the Cooper Union has marked out one of the means by which this great evil may be abated. Yet, after all, it can only be regarded as worthily showing us the way. At this time a complete cure is far beyond the power of any man or of any institution. For our own city doubtless what is done in these walls will be of excellent use, but what is that when we consider our widespread country?