“…Never take a course that will silence you…”
John Jay Chapman’s commencement address to Hobart College, New York, in 1900, has been a huge influence on my libertarian philosophy. I share it here, that perhaps it might influence you too.
When I was asked to make this address I wondered what I had to say to you boys who are graduating. And I think I have one thing to say. If you wish to be useful, never take a course that will silence you.
Refuse to learn anything that implies collusion, whether it be a clerkship or a curacy, a legal fee or a post in a university. Retain the power of speech no matter what other power you may lose. If you can take this course, and in so far as you take it, you will bless this country.
In so far as you depart from this course, you become dampers, mutes, and hooded executioners. As a practical matter, a mere failure to speak out upon occasions where no statement is asked or expect from you, and when the utterance of an uncalled for suspicion is odious, will often hold you to a concurrence in palpable iniquity.
Try to raise a voice that will be heard from here to Albany and watch what comes forward to shut off the sound.
It is not a German sergeant, nor a Russian officer of the precinct.
It is a note from a friend of your father’s, offering you a place at his office. This is your warning from the secret police.
Why, if you any of young gentleman have a mind to make himself heard a mile off, you must make a bonfire of your reputations, and a close enemy of most men who would wish you well.
I have seen ten years of young men who rush out into the world with their messages, and when they find how deaf the world is, they think they must save their strength and wait.
They believe that after a while they will be able to get up on some little eminence from which they can make themselves heard.
“In a few years,” reasons one of them, “I shall have gained a standing, and then I shall use my powers for good.”
Next year comes and with it a strange discovery. The man has lost his horizon of thought, his ambition has evaporated; he has nothing to say.
I give you this one rule of conduct. Do what you will, but speak out always.
Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don’t be gagged.
The time of trial is always. Now is the appointed time.
(“The Unity of Human Nature,” address delivered before the Hobart Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Hobart College, Geneva, New York, on commencement day (June 20, 1900); republished in Chapman, Learning and Other Essays (1910, reprinted 1968), p. 185.)