January 23, 1851
THE NATIONAL ERA
Vol. V. No. 212 p. 13
BOSTON, January 14, 1851.
To the Editor of the National Era:
The best thing by all odds which we have had this winter, by way of public lectures, was one delivered last Wednesday evening before the Mercantile Library Association, by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, of Brooklyn, New York. His theme was "Character," and a better subject could hardly have been selected to develop the intellectual resources of the speaker, and his intimate acquaintance with the human heart as seen in the various walks of life.
Mr. Beecher commenced by drawing a distinctive line between character and reputation. The former he compared to staple stocks, possessing an intrinsic value, subject to but little variation. The latter was a sort of fancy stock, with no intrinsic worth, but rising and falling from day to day with the fluctuations of the market.
Character, according to Mr. B., might be divided into three classes. The first of these classes comprised those in which one dominant faculty of the mind held all others in subjection. The man whose ruling passion was the selfish love of approbation furnished an example of this class. Every feeling of such a man's soul would be subservient to this one; to gratify this passion he would be and do anything - with the religious, he would be devout - with reformers, a reformer - with conservatives, an ardent admirer of stability - and his religion, like a seaman's dress, would vary with the latitude, from the equator to the pole, apparently changeable as the wind, but really as fixed as nature's laws to his own controlling end. A miser is another form of a one-idea man. A thorough miser he considers as the victim of monomania, and fit only for the lunatic asylum and the care of physicians; but there are a class of men, whose every idea hinged on gain, not misers, but the stuff of which misers were made. Such a man might be a lover of art, and have his walls hung with Guidos, but the pleasure with which he would point to them would arise from his having purchased them at a quarter of their real value. If engaged in politics, he calculates revolutions by their probable effects on stocks; and as for religion, he would hardly consent to go to heaven at all, unless he could enter its gates for half the usual price of admission.
The second division of character included those in which a group of faculties control the mind. If the animal passions predominate, the result will be a sensualist and a glutton. If the intellectual group maintain the sway, we find the man whose greatest enjoyment is to do, to act; these are the men who are full of energy and action, and dash through the world under full headway, filled with fuel, and with the steam hissing at every rivet.
When the moral faculties hold the sceptre, the mind longs after the noble, just, and good, and instinctively shrinks from evil, because they loathe it, rather than because it is evil.
The third class comprises the multiplex or manifold character. This description of character has been so often satirized that its existence might be doubted; but such is psychologically the fact, for all have recognised it; the world always feels a truth before philosophy betrays it. People who are governed by this sort of character act under different impulses at different times, and in some positions employ a standard by which they judge of things wholly different from what they are in others. The merchant goes to church on the Sabbath; and when he hears the injunction, "look not every one on his own things, but also on those of neighbors," he devoutly responds, "Amen!" When he goes to his store on the following day, and the voice of Commerce exclaims, "Every one for himself," to that, too, he responds, "Amen!" Are you in trouble, in pecuniary embarrassment, go to such a man as your neighbor, your friend, and he will relieve you in all friendliness, and aid you to the extent of his ability. But go to him at his counting-room, and as a business matter state to him your wants and your straitened condition, and you will find him the cool man of business, ready to shave your note at the largest discount, and perhaps he will calculate how he may take the greatest advantage of your necessities, and map you out with all the nicety that the ox is divided up in our cooking books, to indicate where the choice pieces are to be found!
The varied trickery of trade, and the absence of sincerity of politics, are but forms in which this manifold character appears, framing, as it does, one conscience for public, and another for private use. Men's hearts, like houses, have various entrances; and articles which would be spurned from the front door, simply because they were brought to the wrong entrance, will find a ready admission at the kitchen door, and a hearty welcome in the cellar.
The Christian, Mr. Beecher remarked, was he who carried his honest convictions of duty into all his designs. Can the rule of Individual Right be carried out into all the affairs of the world? He (Mr. B.) believed that it could. "Christianity," said he, "must be bankrupted, or Liberty become universal!" The greatest work of the two greatest nations of the earth, Britain and America, in developing this character, lies with the peasant and the slave!
Individual welfare is bound up in the general welfare. The general welfare rests on obedience to the rectitude of the law, and the rectitude of the law on the rectitude of conscience; and every one is bound to obey the law, because it is the exponent of all that is just, right, and true. Let those beware, then, who bring these two elements, rectitude of law and rectitude of conscience, in positions antagonistic to each other.
Such is a brief and meager sketch of this masterly essay, which was listened to with breathless interest of nearly an hour and a half, by an audience crowded to the utmost capacity of the Tremont Temple.
At the close of the lecture, a gentleman was overheard to ask a friend who had been present, what he thought of Mr. Beecher. The striking reply attested how well his friend had been pleased - "Strike off ten extra copies of that man, and you would reform the world!"
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