Founders’ Day

The Founders’ Day ceremonies of April 24, when Allegheny celebrated the 108th year of the coming of Timothy Alden, to Meadville to establish the college, were among the most impressive ever held. At eleven o’clock in the forenoon the students, the faculty in full academic dress, and a considerable number of visitors assembled in Ford Memorial Chapel.

The fact that Miss Ida M. Tarbell, ’80, the famous woman publicist and adjudged one of the twelve foremost women in the United States, a trustee, and loyal friend of the college was to give the address added greatly to the expectation of this always interesting ceremony. The program opened with a selection by the Men’s Glee Club. President Hixson read messages and greetings from a number of alumni and outlined some of the things that made Allegheny notable in its first years. He then introduced Miss Tarbell, who was met with prolonged applause. After an introduction in which she spoke of her pleasure in returning to the college and feeling a part of it, and of the flood of recollections that came over her when she returned to Allegheny, she delivered an address on “The Development of Abraham Lincoln,” that stands as a splendid example of her study and understanding of our great American. And the lessons drawn from the character and life of Lincoln were so impressed upon the minds of the large audience as never to be forgotten. Her address was filled with illustrative anecdotes and examples of what Lincoln made of his opportunities in a way that revealed the vast store of facts Miss Tarbell has recently discovered in her quest of Lincoln material in Kentucky. An outline of her speech follows:

One of our present day pragmatic philosophers has defined man as a time-binding animal. It is a pregnant definition, quickening our realization of what we all know, that a man starts his earthly life where previous generations drop it, that what he makes of life depends mainly on his appreciation of the values of his inheritance.

This conception links man with the future as definitely as it does with the past. It emphasizes freshly his tremendous responsibility to save the best that humanity has accumulated in past centuries, to send it on re-energized, purified of error and with power to serve better a greater number of men and women than ever before have been served. This concept of man as a time-binding animal gives profound meaning to an anniversary like Founders’ Day. We commemorate the landing of Timothy Alden on the banks of French creek on April 24, 1815, not only because of our gratitude to a brave and devoted gentleman who took on himself endless hardships and anxieties that, as he says, he might “found a college that should be a blessing to many yet unborn” but also – and chiefly – we commemorate it that we may remind ourselves anew of the group of related ideals on which this college was founded – review the sacrifices a succession of men and women have made since Timothy Alden’s day to keep them alive, extend their sway – that we may ask ourselves what we can do to interpret these ideals in a larger way than ever before.

What was in the minds of the founders of this college? What was it they wanted to pass on to us? May we not say that it was the same group of notions which drove men first to cross the sea to the sea to the shores of America, which led them to endless sacrifices and hardships in order to establish themselves here and to push their way across the continent. Men sought in the new world what the old world had failed to give them – economic freedom, self-government, a place where the mind might be free to think and express itself without the interference of traditional thought, where men might worship as their spirits dictated without fear of persecution.

No one can look with candor on the world today and say that the thoughts which were behind the founding of this college have come anywhere near to realization. Without belittling in any way the strides that they have made – and they are long – there is no concealing the fact that they are still despised by many men, only half accepted by others. There was certainly never in the lifetime of any one of us so much cynicism, so much despair about the capacity of men ever to make practical realities of these ideals.

It is worth noticing, however, that in the general alarm of our time as to what is before free civilization, nobody has offered nobler ideals. Ideals which appeal more strongly to the imagination or touch more deeply the spirit of man than those which were underneath the founding of this college. These are the things for which humanity still is striving, and its despair comes from the keen sense that their realization is so imperfect, not that they are unsatisfactory.

The question for us, time-builders that we are, is, What, if anything, we are going to be able to do towards helping the world to a more general, a more intelligent understanding and working out of these basic notions.

We belong to Timothy Alden’s great group of the unborn. We are those to whom he sacrificed to pass on blessings. In accepting these blessings, we are obligated not only to preserve them but send them on to the future, re-energized, enlarged. How are we going to do it? By what methods? What attack? Who shall help us? Who of all those men who have carried on Timothy Alden’s work in this land has most perfectly realized his conceptions, made the greatest individual contribution to the ends he sought? Who can show us best the manner of man that is needed to speed forward these ideals?

If it were possible to take a popular vote on that question, is there any doubt what the answer would be? Is it not true that by general acclaim Abraham Lincoln would be chosen as the one who has made the most substantial contribution in the last hundred years to that group of ideals which this college, and scores of others like it, were established to interpret and perpetuate?

Who in this period appeals to so great a group of common men and women, not only Americans but men and women of all lands, as he? Lincoln to this mass of common folk is the greatest of understanding human beings. And he wears. One doesn’t tire of him – one on acquaintance doesn’t come to have a sense that, after all his achievement was in essence selfish, its method opportunist.

No other man has made of democracy so much of a reality, has interpreted it so freshly, that the man of the street sees the meaning. In the Great War just ended the appeal to Lincoln’s ideas and expression of those ideas was constant. Read the English parliamentary debates from 1914 to 1918, and you will find that it was he who was taken as the great authority on the democratic tradition.

Lincoln is not only accepted as the wisest and most practical of democratic leaders; he is honored for spiritual leadership. In the great cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York city, there is a parapet made up of a procession of sculptured figures, each representing the supreme spiritual leader of the nineteen centuries of the Christian era. The last – the representative of the nineteenth century – is Abraham Lincoln.

The practical question for us, considering our obligation to carry on the principles basic to this college, is how to make Abraham Lincolns. Can we make another? How can we build up in men that large tolerance, that patience, humor, humility, understanding that was behind the achievement of this man? What made him? There must have been some deep hidden springs with many contributing streams. From what did he spring? Too generally those who study his life have accepted an old tradition, born of partisanship and fostered by ignorance, that he was what the students of heredity call a sport, an accident. But trace back the seven generations of Lincolns in this country, of which he was the last, and you find him a logical enough product. You find him coming out of nearly two hundred years’ struggle in his family for larger freedom.

He was born free but poor. To live at all in his environment he must labor – labor with his hands. He was twenty-three years old before he found a substitute for the ax and the plow and the flatboat. But do not pity him. Through labor he learned basic ideas without which he could never have carried on in the way that he did his great future work. He learned to realize, as few men realize, that the economic basis of man’s life is labor, that from labor of mind and hand comes capital – accumulated labor, he called capital. He sensed as few men ever have the dignity of labor, and idleness or unproductive toil are barren, mean in contrast. He learned through labor to be a gentleman, neither servile nor arrogant.

Without the hard experiences of his early years, it is very doubtful that he could have put into his profound argument against the extension of slavery that understanding, that sympathetic sense of the life of labor which so inspired humble people. It is certain that it was only because he had been a laborer – something more than an observer of labor, that he was able to express his argument in terms that everybody understood, in the language of the man that worked. When he told his hearers that every man, black or white, had a right to eat the bread that he earned by the sweat of his brow, they knew there was something more than words behind what he was saying – there was experience; that he could never have said it in that particular way if he had not known the sweat of the brow.

But this life of manual labor was only productive because there went with it a full mental life. His intense intellectual activity, his curiosity about men and things, was remarked by those who knew him from his earliest years. From childhood his was a prying mind; he had a passion to know about things, not only to see them but to understand them. As a child he walked the floor with the problems that life presented to him – problems of experience – problems inspired by what he had heard men and women saying – Why did they say this? What did this thing mean?

These problems he carried with him while he worked. He learned to think as his hands were busy; and all that he thought he tried to put into words. Lincoln very young in his struggle for understanding hit upon an important truth in the development of the intellect, that your thought is not complete until you can state it – state it not only so that it is clear to you but that it is clear to others, even to the ignorant, the unthinking. This laboring boy who always carried with him as he guided his plow some problem of the mind, took every opportunity to test what he had thought out on his fellows.

The information that he acquired in this time period was haphazard, unrelated. He picked up where he could – from a stranger who passed by, from the books that he sought with such avidity – everything was grist to his mill; but it was unclassified knowledge. Indeed, ha was twenty-three years old before he, with all his reading, had ever mastered the simplest form of science. We would pity ourselves if we had had that experience, but I am inclined to think that many of us who have all those things about us which we pity him for not having, are the ones to be commiserated. A boy so eager for books, so warmed and inspired by what is in them that he will walk twenty miles to satisfy his hunger is much less to be pitied than those of us who with a library full of books rarely take one from the shelves of our own accord, only as we must to satisfy the requirements of instructors.

By twenty-five he was a strong man intellectually; but out of intellectual strength alone would not come the man whose figure has been placed in the parapet of St. John the Divine as the spiritual representative of the nineteenth century. Lincoln was getting in these early years something more than intellectual grip, he was building up moral grip. I believe myself that the basis of his spiritual strength came from the Bible which from childhood had been practically the only book in the life of his family. Lincoln knew his Bible. From childhood he had pondered it, assimilated it. He got more out of it than a conventional creed. It aroused in him a profound reverence for the ways of God. He had his struggles, terrific ones, but in essence he was deeply religious. He worked out, too, practically and very definitely the kind of man that the Bible aims to make – the only kind of man which the Book believes to have the capacity to serve and build up the society of men of good will at which it aims. His life and conduct as a young man shows that he had a certain idea of character – you may call it the Biblical character – a man must be tolerant, truthful – he must prefer God to mammon – he must be cooperative and merciful. There is no doubt that he came early to understand that the most important thing for any man in the world was to achieve this form of character; that whatever the practical sacrifices, this he must do. Very early you see in him a struggle to square up his practical life with his notions of Christian character. He staid with his father, abandoning a dream of being a pilot on the Mississippi, out of his sense of obligation, duty. He made a lawyer of himself, and again and again sacrificed professional advantage rather than violate the moral code which he had adopted. His defeats in political life, of which there were several, were mainly due to his effort to be both a politician and a good man. And thwarted again and again in ambition he did not give up his hold on his code.

Withdrawing from political life, he buried himself in his law, and it was his code which drew him out. When he came back into politics in 1854, it was because he was stirred, as he had never been before in his life by what he believed to be an attempt to persuade the nation to do a wrong thing, to violate solemn promises, to extend the institution of slavery which in essence he believed to be a wrong institution. His moral nature was violated by the attempt to repeal the Missouri Compromise.

The solidity of the intellectual and spiritual training which he had so struggled to give himself comes out brilliantly in the fight he made from 1854 to 1858 to prevent the extension of slavery. The distinguishing feature of the great debates with Douglas in this period is the almost perfect team work that you find between his character and his intellect.

Lincoln’s struggle against the extension of slavery is one of the greatest feats in the intellectual history of America. The methods he followed in the struggle are most illuminating to those of us who are ambitious to master our subject. He had learned to saturate himself, never to be satisfied with what he knew, to understand that there are always fresh angles on any topic if you are willing to work incessantly over it. The result of this was that his argument was always taking on new color, freshness.

His moral training came out splendidly in his controlled temper, his sustained seriousness, his unwillingness ever to allow the work to degenerate into partisanship or personality, and in the steady way in which, in spite of the extraordinary skill of his great opponent, he was able to drive the argument finally down on to the solid basis of right and wrong.

We are accustomed to say that the Lincoln and Douglas debates made Lincoln. What they did was to develop enormously the kind of man he already was, the kind of man he had made himself in his previous early years of struggle.

It was when the attempt to break up the Union rather than to accept the segregation of slavery came that something more, still fuller displays of the training he had given himself are revealed. That attempt changed the issue. It became to Lincoln a question not of slavery primarily but of the preservation of the Union. As he saw it, the hope of freedom not only in this country but in the world, hung at the moment on whether or not groups of States who had done as we had done, bound ourselves to work out larger liberty, should break that combination when a portion of them were dissatisfied. As he saw it, the hope of democracy lay in union, the hope of freedom for all men lay in union, therefore the Union became the object of his efforts.

His argument for unionism is not the less strong intellectually, it is not less powerful spiritually than his argument against the extension of slavery has been. Here, too, as in the case of the great debate on the extension of slavery, you have steady growth in moral and spiritual qualities. This growth indeed was amazing – no greater expressions of the idea of mercy and charity exist than in the closing words of his second inaugural, – no greater expression of human recognition of the justness of the dealings of Almighty God exists than in this same document. Lincoln came out of the war not only the recognized apostle of freedom, but the recognized spiritual leader of his time.

His achievement was the logical result of the steady, consistent cultivation of the ideals of mind and of spirit which he worked out with infinite pains in his youth. These ideals were basic in the men that founded this college. They are our chief inheritance. They are the best things that the past has so far given us. The most solemn task that any of us has in life is to extend and interpret them in our day as Abraham Lincoln did in his.

—by Ida M. Tarbell