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Commencement Oratory

December 2023
1min read

Reading about Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa address (“The Time Machine,” July/August) reminded me of my great-greatgrandfather’s commencement address when he graduated from Columbia University in 1816. This ancestor, Isaac Ferris, became chancellor of New York University in 1852, and NYU has a collection of his papers in their archive that I discovered a couple of years ago. Among them is this commencement address in his handwriting. I find the speech absolutely charming. It opened up for me a whole new view of what it was like to be an American in those early years. To quote a little of it:

“May she [America] be ever emulous to stand foremost in the ranks of Intellectual Refinement! She has indeed acquired a proud & enviable station for her military virtues, but let her remember that the wreath of the muses shall long survive green and fresh when the diadem of martial glory shall have fallen from her head. The splendor of arms may crown a nation with a temporary renown, the monuments of art may be an honorable record of the greatness, wealth & genius of a people. But unstable & transitory would be the column of fame erected on either of these bases were there no poet enraptured by the sacred wine,—no orator to thunder forth on the rostrum or in the senate, no historian to perpetuate greatness & worth by his impartial pen.”

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