1838 Speech by John Wall Leak

John Wall Leak

Born March 16, 1816, died May 6, 1876

Born 33 years after the end of the American Revolution (1783)

Born one year after the end of the War of 1812 (1815)

At the same time, the Napoleanoic Wars in Europe had raged on from 1803 to 1815.

Sent to Bingham School, (Hillsborough Academy) in 1830 at age 14. Graduated in 1834.

Went to Randolph-Macon College in Boydton, Virginia in 1834.

Graduated with “high distinction” in June 1838 at age 22.

That time was 26 years after the end of the War of 1812 – the Second American Revolution with Great Britain.

That time was under the administration of United States President Martin Van Buren, 8th president.


On June 20, 1838, John Wall Leak delivered the following speech in the Chapel of Randolph-Macon College:


(We can surmise that he was given the privilege because of his high class standing at the time of his graduation. It was written in longhand script. The original is now protected by the Richmond County Historical Society as donated by Mary Sweaney Andersen, his great-great-granddaughter. )



“The claims of our country on youngmen” (sic)

It is a postulate that none will deny me, that our country has claims on all of her citizens. She holds them by virtue of the protection she offers and the privileges and immunities she affords.

Her laws whilst they guaranty to all the rights of freemen, protect our lives and our property against the vicious at home, and the ambitious demagogue from abroad; and under the mild and peaceful reign of her constitution, we enjoy an amount of blefsings (blessings) unparalleled in the history of nations.

(Leak used the old English spelling of “blefsings” with the first “s” of double “s” as an “f” throughout his writing as was common in his day.)

The philanthropist acknowledges her high claims and makes it businefs (business) of his life to meet them; and feeling the force of the truth that to be useful in the great end of human existence, he is ready to make any sacrifice or forgo any gratification to advance her interest and to secure her prosperity.

At her command the merchant leaves his desk, the lawyer his study and the farmer his field, to repel her enemy and to sustain her flag; and prepared to lay their all upon their country’s altar, they go forth to the field of battle breathing these their highest aspirations, “for her to live and for her to die.”

If then the great end of human existence be usefulnefs (usefulness) and our country have claims on all her citizens, what must be those that she holds on youngmen (sic)?

Those who are now administering the affairs of government and who by their individual exertions, are promoting the welfare and best interests of society, will in the course of nature be called off the theatre of action, and the present generation of youngmen (sic) will have to supply their places and preside over our country’s destiny.

It has been remarked by an eminent writer of antiquity, with equal force and beauty, that “a state without youth would be like a year without the Spring.” But what avails the Spring it its bloom and its beauty are lost and it produce no fruit? Or of what avail is Youth if the bud of early promises be destroyed and it sprout for awhile on the ocean of existence to disappoint the hopes its first appearance excited?

The flower when it blofsoms (blossoms) for a time to throw forth its fragrance, on the ambient “desert air,” and then withers and dies and is no more, obeys the law of its ephemeral existence. But man was formed for nobler ends – a higher destiny.

He was born not for himself alone but for his country and the whole human race; and as youth is the season of preparation for manhood and as our country has claims on all of her citizens, it will be interesting to inquire how shall we be best able to discharge those high obligations and prepare ourselves for extensive usefulness?

To be useful we must be intelligent, and this is her first claim.

The force of this proposition cannot fail to carry with it conviction to every bosom. In a monarchy or aristocracy where the power resides in a few, the few only need to be educated; but in a country like ours, where not the few but the many govern and where all, however humble be the sphere in which they move, may have many public duties to perform, its perpetuity must depend on the general intelligence which pervades the map of society.

Here public opinion is omnipotent. It makes our laws and elects of magistrates; so that whatever controls public opinion, controls the whole machinery of government. If unenlightened, it seeks not for reason and argument to direct it in its determinations, but is hurried along by the impulse of feeling or the whims and caprices of a blinded infatuation.

The misguided populace as they view all things through the mist of ignorance which magnifies whilst it obscures the object of desire, are deluded by the prospect of some apparent good presented to their view by the skilful and designing demagogue whose motives they are unable to scrutinize and whose sophistry they are unable to detect; and thus blinded the wily politician leads them whithersoever he wills; and the exercise of the elective franchise, the greatest and dearest prerogative of freemen, is thus brought under the immediate control of those who seek its aid.

What pledge then could we have of wise rulers and a just and impartial administration of our laws? If the head be unable to direct, how uncertain must be the movement of the body!

The prosperity of our country and the welfare of society then demand that we who are shortly to mingle in the bustle and businefs (business) of the world, should lose no opportunity in cultivating and enriching our intellectual powers.

We here prosfefs (possess) facilities of which many of the youths of our land are entirely destitute, and according to the number and greatnefs (greatness) of these, so is the weight of responsibility resting on us. Convened from the several states (26 in 1838) in the Union, we have here afsembled (assembled) for the cultivation of letters and the improvement of our moral and intellectual natures; here, where every means is afforded us for the accomplishment of our object.

But we must not forget that facilities however great will fail to make us accomplished scholars without our exertion; nor should we forget that we are each the architect of his own fortune. The treasure so valuable as that of a liberal education is not obtained merely by a few years residence within the walls of college, nor is it like the palace of Alladin, the result of the labour of a brief watch of the single night!

He who would succeed here as well as in any other pursuit of life must labour with persevering and untireing (sic) industry. It is the price which man pays for all that he acquires, and he who fails to pay this price finds too late that he has sustained a heavy lofs (loss). Without labour (labor) where has there ever been anything valuable obtained?

All of the comforts, conveniences and necefsaries (necessaries) of life; nay, all that we behold in the world of riches and of honours (honors), of splendour (splendor)  and of wealth, of magnificence and grandeur; all this is the result of the union of skill and industry.

The declaration of  one of the greatest men proves how little the proudest intellects can accomplish without it: “Whatever of learning,” said he, “I may have superior to the  rest of the world, I owe it entirely to patient thought and close application.”


Of the necefsity (necessity) of industry to succefs (success) we must all be convinced; though it would seem that some of us entertain quite an opposite sentiment if words and actions bear any affinity to the operations of the mind for there are many indeed who would not relish it so kindly were they called “hard students.”


They seem to afsociate (associate) hard study with dullnefs (dullness) and idlenefs (idleness) and vivacity with genius; and not unfrequently (infrequently) use them synonymously. So that to apply to them the appellation of hard students is equivalent to calling them “thick-headed”; and as anything can be better borne than a reflection on their mental capacities it is not wonderful that their ire should sometimes be a little excited.


Whilst on the contrary, to be called a “lazy fellow” is no small compliment, as it implies some supernatural gift, which releases him from the common drudgery of application and confinement; for how often when this appellation has been applied to the student, have we seen his countenance light-up with the glowing smile of complacency as he seemed to expand within with a conscious dignity of his own self-sufficiency!


Such a sentiment has long obtained among us, and must I think have originated in the proud conceits of some vain fellow who wished to stand among his afsociates (associates) proudly eminent, a natural anomaly perfect in every part; whilst his humble imitators, scrupulously endeavoring to carry out the principles “so gloriously begun given by their illustrious predecefsor (predecessor)” have shared the common fate of all imitators in copying the faults only of their model.


But why this pride, this morbid sensibility? Should we be lefs (less) diligent in attaining an education that the man is who is in pursuit of wealth or of honour (honor)? Behold the merchant at his desk, the mechanic at his bench and the statesman at his study; and observe with what diligence and ardour (ardor) they each prosecute the businefs (business) of their several avocations.
And is the attainment of their objects more desirable than those of the student? Are riches, honour (honor), power more worthy the ambition of an intelligent being than the riches and furniture of a well-cultivated and enlightened mind? The one is perishable; the other “blooms with perennial freshnefs (freshness)”.


The hard-earned honours (honors) of the successful hero, jurist or statesman are liable to be lost; “for their food is the ever varying opinion of men, and they are as fickle as their food.” Riches with all their boasted splendour (splendor) may “take to themselves wings and fly away”; but the treasures of knowledge are from “everlasting to everlasting.”


No floods can destroy, no flames difsolve (dissolve), no winds sweep them away; but in adversity’s darkest hour, when fortune fails and friends desert and the world divides, they are the ever-enduring riches of their pofsefsor (possessor); they then come up to him as the forgotten gift of a beloved friend, borrowing light from the intensity of the darknefs (darkness) that surrounds him.


Then it is that he can rightly appreciate their value and feel the force of the truth, that they are “more to be desired than gold, yea than fine gold.”  And whilst they prepare him to discharge with honour (honor) and dignity the claims of his country upon him, they open up within his bosom new and living sources of contemplation and delight to beguile the cares and anxieties of life.


But our country not only claims it of youngmen (sic) to be intelligent but likewise to be virtuous. Though the whole nature of man be the subject upon which education should be brought to operate and the perfection of his whole nature the end, yet it is unfortunately true that virtue and intelligence are too seldom blended in the same character.


Of this, numerous and melancholy instances crowd upon our minds. Even in our own country we find many of this character at our seats of learning. How many are there of those who having finished their collegiate course, and have perhaps received the honours (honors) of the institution, have cultivated and enriched their intellectual to the entire exclusion of their moral natures?


How many who go forth from those institutions which should be the nurseries of useful and efficient men, disappoint the expectations of their parents, their friends and their country?


But how could it be otherwise? A youngman (sic) who has thus been educated and enters on the stage of action with all the vicious propensities of fallen human nature is but a legalized maniac, armed for the destruction of the peace and good order of society.


Though his mind be of the finest mould (mold) and wrought for immortality; and though it might under proper control have shed it blefsings (blessings) on the age that gave him birth, yet it is the grandest scourge that can afflict a nation; for his mental endowments are but a two-edged sword, cutting and dividing asunder the ties of unanimity and  affection.


But independent of the injuries in the infliction of which he is the immediate agent, consider for a moment the influence wielded by men of talents and learning, Whether it be for good or evil; whether it be to raise our country to the zenith of glory and prosperity or whether it be to sink her to the Nadir of poverty and (missing), their influence like the circlet on the summer’s lake, to widen and extend till it embraces all visible objects in the range of one vast circumference.


And if this influence be for evil and our people become vicious what will be the fate of our laws and our laws and liberty? If the executive and judiciary become corrupt, if the fountain head be polluted; if the heart of our country be diseased, with what unerring certainty must it diffuse its malady through every vein and artery of our extended country?


It is the sure tendency of vice to induce strife, anarchy and misrule; and by its infusing into the map of society its worse than Colchian poisons, eventually to cut off our national existence. If then this be true, whoever lives in habitual violation of any law of the moral code is an enemy to his country; because he is thus lending his aid and influence to produce her disgrace and downfall.


What, can that man love his country who lives in daily violation of those laws which were framed to promote and perpetuate her welfare? Call him a friend, who in the feigned act of conferring a favour (favor) thrusts the pointed dagger to his neighbour’s (neighbor’s) breast. Neither is he a patriot be his pretensions what they may, whose vicious course and influence are scattering poison and destruction, firebrands and death into the elements of our social and political compact.


He may call himself by what name he pleases, he may boast of his patriotism and endeavor to cloak his motives of ambition and self interest in an ostensible zeal for the public good; but the love of country is a stranger to his heart; he’s pretension all and is as “sounding brafs (brass) and tinkling symbol.”


And is there an American who does not love his country; and who does not exclaim in the pride and fulnefs (fullness) of his heart, as he looks abroad into the world, “this is my own, my native land”? Who does not wish to see her national existence perpetuated? And who would not have her still “going on in her course rejoicing” dispensing light and warmth and life, till finally the cause of human rights and human liberty shall triumph over the powers of tyranny and despotism?


If so, we can contribute our aid in no other way so beneficially as by cooperating with her in giving efficacy to her laws, in the discovering and supprefsion (suppression) of vice and the encouragement of (good), for the experience of the world clearly establishes the truth, that wherever the morals of the people are corrupt and their manners repugnant to the execution of any law, the Legislative arm is too feeble to enforce it; and if our laws are not enforced, our government will cease to exist, or exist only in name!


But here I would remark that our interest and duty are identical. In whatever enterprise a youngman (sic) may embark the only safeguard to his actions and the only surety to succefs (success) is a rigid adherence to virtuous fixed principles.


If his object be literary acquiesements, and he be destitute of these, how much time due to study would be squandered on the passions that agitate his bosom? Nothing, it has been truly said, is so hurried and distracted, so contradictory to itself as a bad heart; and amid these agitations and distractions what time is left for the cultivation of letters, or the prosecution of any honorable pursuit?


In … , let him propose whatever laudable object he will, without virtuous principles, the brightest visions of youthful enthusiasm will fail to be realized; and the buoyant hopes of “life’s early morn of romance” will be wrecked on the waves lashed into fury, by the turbulence of unbridled pafsion (passion); for in the man without principle, there is a perpetual conflict between his animal and intellectual faculties. He is the … creature of impulse and you cannot for your life predict today what will be his course tomorrow.


And in such an (a) one what confidence can be reposed that will not be betrayed; what power confided that will not be abused? If not lost to all that is noble, honorable and virtuous; if not entirely abandoned to every principle that dignifies human nature, yet mark his inconsistency and learn wisdom from his errors.


Today he is loud in the condemnation of this very things in others, which on the morrow he tolerates in himself; today you hear him declaim against vice  and pass the highest (test) on virtue and religion; but on the morrow, under different circumstances, he sneers at both.


Such a character commands neither the respect nor confidence of anyone; the companion of his … and the consorts of his vices detest his character. Though virtue may still pofsef (possess) for him some charms, yet the accumulated strength of indulged passion makes him her most abject slave.


In an hour of cool reflection, he marks the fatal consequences of a vicious course and resolves to abandon it; but alas for the force of habit; alas, for his firmnefs (firmness) of character of character; at an unguarded hour the treacherous voice of the (siren) is heard, and without the timely precaution of an Ulyfses (Ulysses) he is taken captive and led at will.


But not only the good of our country, but likewise our own happiness, demands that our pafsions (passions) should be subjected to the control of our understandings. They were given us for valuable purposes, but in order to accomplish these ends the intellect must guide and direct them.


When acting in concert, they produce the greatest harmony and the most happy results; but when pafsion (passion) predominates; when judgment is is borne along at the chariot wheels of stubborn will, the greatest discord and misery follow in the train. Blinded by pafsion (passion) the unthinking victim is carried from one degree of crime to another, till his hardened conscience does not shudder at the commifsion (commission) of the foulest deed.


His first deflection from the path of virtue was but the prelude to sins of the deepest dye; and now reason dethroned, his mental energies paralyzed, all of his thoughts and cares are bounded by the narrow precinct of self! And the gratification of his animal appetites is the sole God of his idolatry!


Behold him, as he joins in the bacchanalian shouts of the sordid devotees of pleasure; behold him, as he mingles with the throng of his giddy companions, indulging in all the vices and excesses of a corrupted and corrupting age; and when this tumult shall have dwindled to a calm; when the goblet shall have ceased to overflow with its intoxicating potions; and the hubbub shall have died away in the distance, then follow him in the silent watches of the midnight hour to the place where he seeks his repose, and ask yourself, “What is the enjoyment of a splendid wretch like this?”


He is exhausted  by vicious indulgence; his troubled conscience haunted with specters, and his disordered imagination spreading out before him the whole panorama of his crimes, “driving slumber from his eyes and sleep from his eyelids” answer your interrogatory that he is in the depth of misery.


But turn from the contemplation of this sad picture to him that has lived up to the true dignity of his nature. How striking and how glorious the contrast. Whilst he enjoys the confidence and esteem of his fellowmen, and promotes the great interests of his country, he feels within a


“Peace above all earthly dignities

A still approving conscience.”


How different are his pursuits, how refined are his enjoyments. The one form of pleasure satiates and disgusts; the other is ever increasing in quality and intensity of enjoyment. One is perishable, the other is eternal.


Honour (honor), power, riches, friends, may all that this world contains of spleadour (splendor) and of pomp must fail; but virtue never faileth. In the adversities of life, she is superior to the tempest, more powerful than the whirlwind and above the storms, for she has thrown her anchor in the skies “sure and steadfast.”


Upon the two anchors of virtue and intelligence we may safely rest; and whilst intelligence shall enable us to discharge the high duties that await us, virtue … will make smooth the rugged pathway of life;  for in “her right hand is length of days and in her left, treasure evermore.” Her ways are ways of pleasantry and all her paths are paths of peace.”


J. W. Leak. Richmond N.C.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.