Have Men of Action Been More Beneficial to the World Than...

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Have Men of Action Been More Beneficial to the World Than...

Postby admin » Fri Feb 27, 2015 11:08 pm

Debate Speech of Hugh T. Brown for the Dialectic Society



June 2, 1857 [1]

Mr. President and Fellow Members,

We do not come to startle you with the usual cant of young debaters, that our question is one of so great importance, that the destiny of empires and nations hang on its decision. Neither is it one, which has been discussed and decided by great statesmen and master politicians in time gone by, and which shook empires and governments to their foundation. For us to attempt to produce new ideas on such a theme would seem presumptious, and if we attempted to follow the footsteps of those great men, who have discussed it before, with so many books as our libraries afford; the discussion would be too apt to degenerate into a mere declamation or rehearsal.

We have some reason therefore to flatter ourselves that our query is something new, and though it may have been handled by able men, yet their productions are so scattered among old reviews, that after diligent search we have not been able to avail ourselves of any collateral aids; so whatever our success may be it cannot be ascribed to dead men's brains.

I do not wish to be understood as laying down principles by which others are to be guided in this discussion; but it seems to me that this should not be discussed, as queries ordinarily are in this hall, where terms of denunciation and anathmatical thunder are showered on one side, and sonorous eulogies, with misrepresented arguments and facts are lavished on the other. Before such an audience as this we need not hope for success by any such hackneyed expedients. In the first place we all must admit that the question is so equally balanced, and the opposite points so nearly run together, that arguments and facts which in ordinary queries would be regarded of little importance, are here to be received as conclusive evidence and remembered with the greatest care; not that I consider the question as at all barren or limited by a narrow field of discussion, but it is this very delicacy of distinction that makes it more interesting.

Then how are we to determine on a plan of discussion? to sweep history as it were with a glance, and group together all those illustrious characters, who shine from its pages, and compare the men of action with those of thought; in order to decide this question, would require space far beyond our present limits. In fact a difficulty presents itself even here, for in some illustrious
men, action and thought are so equally balanced, that it would be difficult to determine to which class they belong. Now it seems to me we should endeavor to discuss the questions on general principles, and by looking into the organization of society to see which is its most useful member, the man of thought [2 ] or action, and we may cite examples from history to illustrate these principles, and in this limited as we are to so short a time, it will be necessary to jump from premise to conclusion with such rapidity, that it will require your strict attention to keep up the thread of argument. I will however leave it to every mans own judgement to determine how it should be discussed and proceed to the debate.

In the first place, the very physical anatomy of man, the structure of his hand, and all the other parts of his body proclaim, that he was made for action. For what is his animal strength, his erect posture, his nervous system, his noble impulses, patriotic feelings, his commanding voice, noble mein? and why is he capable of so much physical endurance? and why does this splendid machinery grow weak, decay, and speedily end in dissolution, when not kept in vigorous exercise; if man was not mad for an action rather than a meditative being. It is well known, that young men of our time of life are often solicitous, as to what avocation they will pursue, and each one endeavours, by looking into his own mind, and analyzing his own inclinations, to discover for what he is best suited; and happy is he indeed, who has foresight and sagacity enough to discover for what he was intended by his maker. Now where, it is not only suggested by every impulse of the mind, but even stamped on the form of the body, that man was made for action, I think he is not only more likely to be a benefactor of his race, but I will endeavour to prove that he has been by pursuing the course so evidently proscribed.

It is true that meditation is a jewel, yet a dangerous thing; for there is something in [3] a life of exclusive thought, which has a tendency to lead the mind from the beaten track of precedent into wild dreams and dangerous speculations, when it yields itself entirely to a depraved imagination, and there is no phantasm to extravagant for its adoption. In fact the life of men of thought might be compared to a narrow pathway through a forest and at every step the traveller is beset by as many pitfalls and snares as surrounded the palace of Louis the eleventh, when visited by Quentine Derward. [4] I am aware that thought when directed in proper channels, in searching out the hidden truths of Nature, in contemplating the motions and laws of the planets, or speculating on those twinkling gems of night, the fixed stars, and in the cultivation of poetry and the fine arts, has accomplished some of the most beneficial discoveries for mankind as well as cheered the hearts of millions of wretched mortals. But when man turns from the beauties and truths of Nature into his own dark soul, and has no better companion than his own gloomy reflections; then he leaves this narrow path, this slender stream and wanders into the dark forest of misanthropy and despair, then he plunges desperately into the great ocean of Atheism, Skepticism and Infidelity, and when he has taken this last step he endeavours to justify his course before his fellow beings, and make it as attractive as possible; either because he desires to appear plausible in the opinion of other men; or he so far partakes of the nature of his great and sagacious enemy, that he becomes a malignant being, and although he sees whither his doctrines and creeds tend yet he endeavours to pull as many after him as possible. He ransacks history, studies philosophy, tortures his own brain, appeals to all the passions to prove his course right and principles true. Alas! for humanity some of the stars of Genius, the giants of the race have been found in this catalogue.

"They were gigantic minds, and their steep aim
Thoughts, which should call down thunder and the flame
Of heaven, again assailed, if heaven the while
On man and man's research would deign do more than smile". [5]

What an illustrious example of misdirected thought, and misguided ambition does the French revolution and its prime movers afford? and how clearly are the dangerous excesses into which men of thought liable to run portrayed, by this memorable crisis. Those so called philosophers, those free thinkers, were the prime movers of the Revolution, not only of the political, but the social, moral, and domestic. These your boasted men of thought were not satisfied with overturning the established form of government, but they invaded every branch of society and corrupted its very fountains; they demolished sacred and time honored institutions, with the ruthlessness of brigands, and walked into the domestic circle, with the head of Orgres and the leer of Satyrs, and poisoned all the nation had been taught for centuries to hold most dear. It was these that laughed marriage to scorn, and sneered at all human virtue. The event might not have been so disastrous had they been men of ordinary capacity, but, as I have said, these philosophers were among the first talents in the nation. They were blind giants, who madly threw their hundred arms around the pillars of the nation, and brought the whole fabric toppling to the dust. Had Voltaire, Rousseau, and Fénalon been men of Action, and taken prominent places in the cabinet and field, France might now be the pride of her countrymen, the glory of patriots, and blessed with free institutions. It is true that Robespierre, Danton, and Murat [possibly Jean Paul Marat], those leaders of the reign of terror spilt some of the best blood of France, and glutted the guillotine with thousands of innocent victims; but they could only destroy their lives, while the while the philosophy [6] of Voltaire consigned their souls to everlasting destruction, nor does it stop here; but like the opening of Pandora's box, its baneful influence is felt wherever civilization has extended its wide arms, and will be felt wherever his books are read. What a title has he left behind him? "the assassin of nations."

It may however be said, by those on the other side of this question, that those ambitious warriors, and conquerors, who have swept some of the fairest climes of Earth with devastating armies, have done more serious injury to the human race, than the skeptical French philosophy, and they will no doubt parade this before you, as one of their strongest arguments. But it seems to me, that we have no right to decide on the motives of men in the abstract, but we are to look at a man's acts, and his life summed up together, apart from their moral quality, and see whether they were detrimental or beneficial to the human race. Now there have been many ambitious heroes, whose aspirations were only for dominion and conquest, and who cared not how many widows and orphans were made in the accomplishment of their purpose; yet when we come to look at the ultimate result of their careers, they were, we find, decidedly beneficial to the world. It is a fact that all history sacred and profane teaches that the great Author of our being in the working of his mysterious providence, does not always choose his own—as instruments for working good to mankind.

Is there any man of the present age, who has any reputation as a philosopher or historian, who will attempt to decide whether the career of Napoleon was a benefit or injury to the human family at large. His influence was, and is even now felt in every court in Europe, and will turn the tide of human affairs for at least a century to come, and for a man now to presume to say what will be the terminus of his influence, would be both speculative and idle.—

Who have always been the apostles and advocates of that greatest boon of nations, civil and religious liberty? have they not always been eminently men of action, who have devoted their lives, talents, and some even their life's blood to the achievement of it. It gives impulse to every branch of society, calls forth dormant talents, cultivates emulation; and by that means encourages the arts, and all other improvements social moral and intellectual.

In fact, without its privileges and blessings, no man, or people can arrive at any very great degree of excellence in any thing; and so we see, without its blessings, even men of thought cannot flourish. They are persecuted for their discoveries by ignorance and prejudice, as visionary projectors and wild speculators. Civil liberty disarms prejudice by taking from it the sanction of law and authority. See how Columbus was compelled to wander so long from court to court, and how Galileo was tortured for his opinions and at length made to abjure his own discoveries.

I suppose then there is no one, who will deny that freedom of thought and action and that greatest of boon of nations, palladium of our liberties, freedom of the press, are indispensable requisites to any great degree of eminence in any department of exertion. To prove this we need but look at our race, (the Anglo Saxon), who now enjoy more of the benefits of that than any other people on the Globe, and who are now the only nations, that have preserved man in his true dignity, and maintained him in the sphere in which he was formed to move. All others are degraded by superstition, or perverted by vice.

Now I admit, that on looking back on human records, the eye settles on writers as the main landmarks of the past, and I admire the age of Pericles, of Augustus, of Elizabeth, of [7] Louis the XIV and of Anne, and as among the greatest eras of the world. But while you pause with mute admiration before the splendid works of art in the age of Pericles, I would have you remember that we are indebted to the excellent government and democratic principles of Pericles, a man of action.

The aged Cicero had long since perished by the instigation of impious tyrants, and the light of learning and the cultivation of letters had almost disappeared, or been extinguished by that cruel civil war, which had its termination on the plains Phillipi, when the Young Augustus came to the throne, and calming the turbulent elements around him, and by his splendid talents fixing his dynasty firmly in the hearts of the Roman People, he commenced the encouragement of learning in his Kingdoms, and by his kind patronage called forth the Genius of a Virgil and Horace, and age to the world that renowned period of literature.

But for the free principles, which the expulsion of the Stuarts, and the ascension of the Hanoverans, restored to the British constitution, and the noble patronage of Marlborough, the placid wisdom of Joseph Addison, and admirable humour of Goldsmith, may it never pass—the most loved of English authors, might never have passed beyond the limits of the clubs, or the carousing guests of a fleet street coffee house. Not only have men of thought been indebted to men of action for their patronage, but even some for the themes of those works for which they have obtained most fame. To prove this we have but to look into the contents of the most popular works which our libraries afford, and we will see the heroes of most of them to have been men of action.

Coming down to our own times and our own country, who have been to us the greatest benefactors of the steam boat and magnetic telegraph, or the framers of the federal Constitution. Of what advantage, would the wonderful celerity of travelling and the almost instantaneous passage of news, be to us, if deprived of our liberties, and subject to foreign oppression; instead of being the inestimable advantage that they now are, they would then become the means of binding and knotting our chains more effectually upon us.

Suppose now at the present time our country was in great danger, that the national union of these states was threatened, and the time was approaching when our country would be apt to need all the clear heads, warm hearts, and perhaps strong arms of her sons, in a crisis like this would the people look at the eminent men of thought such as Irving, Bancroft, or Pres. Pierce, for comfort and deliverance? or would they not turn with confidence to some of the great statesmen of the age? and now suppose one of our statesmen to be a candidate for the chief magistracy, opposed by one of these men of thought, would not the almost unanimous voice of the nation proclaim this question in our favor.—



1. Dialectic Society Addresses, UA. The speech, which was once bound and subsequently unbound, consists of a cover sheet and thirteen numbered pages of text. The cover sheet contains the following information: "Speech Delivered by/ Hugh T. Brown June the 2nd 1857/On the Question—/Have men of Action been more beneficial to the World than men of Thought?" Below the question are two columns headed "Affirmative" and "Negative" and identifying H. T. Brown and L. M. McAfee as debaters taking the affirmative and H. C. Jones and Wm. M. Coleman as debaters taking the negative. A second hand has written "Brown" at the top of the cover sheet. The debate, held on the Tuesday of commencement week, was decided in the negative (Dialectic Society Minutes, Vol. S-12, UA).

2. o has been written on top of an unrecovered character.

3. i has been written on top of a.

4. Quentin Durward (1823), a novel by Sir Walter Scott, takes place in France during the reign of Louis XI (1461-83).

5. George Noel Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 3 (1816).

6. y was erased between i and l.

7. Inserted above the line is (X5); 5 appears to have been written over 3 or vice versa.
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