The American Whigs: An Anthology

By Daniel Walker Howe | Go to book overview

1
THE EDUCATED PERSON IN AMERICA

Nicholas Biddle


PRINCETON COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS

Nicholas Biddle ( 1786- 1844) was the president of the Bank of the United States from 1822 to 1839, and as such became a major antagonist of Andrew Jackson. Biddle's conduct of his side of the "Bank War" still remains controversial. Before long he was operating his institution -- and thereby manipulating the national economy -- in close consultation with Clay and Webster as part of a determined effort to drive the Jacksonians out of power. But Biddle's financial and political strategies failed. The BUS lost its federal charter (in 1836) and, though it continued in existence for a few years under a Pennsylvania state charter, eventually went bankrupt.

In this selection we find Biddle playing a different role. The financier-politician was also a man of literary tastes. He had studied classics and French at the University of Pennsylvania during a precocious childhood and tried his hand at poetry and literary criticism as well as at diplomacy and law before turning to business. Here, he is addressing the graduating class at Princeton on the function of the "man of letters" in American society. Biddle's aspirations for a group who would offer the country guidance in cultural affairs seem somewhat analogous to his belief in centralized economic direction. His allusions to the historic dangers of demagogy have veiled, but unmistakable, implications for the politics of his own day. The reader may be interested in comparing Biddle's address with the famous "American Scholar" oration of Ralph Waldo Emerson, delivered two years later.

You have this day finished your education -- you must now begin your studies. This education will have been unavailing, if it has not taught that although much is done, much remains to be done. The taste for letters is yours, the capacity to acquire knowledge is yours -- and your minds, prepared by discipline and instruction, have received the seeds

____________________

SOURCE. Nicholas Biddle, An Address Delivered Before the Alumni Association of Nassau Hall, on the Day of the Annual Commencement of the College of New Jersey, September 30, 1835 ( Princeton, 1835).

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