Skip to main content
Digitized Resources

Selected Inaugural Speeches of Penn Provosts and Presidents Rev. John Ewing, Provost, University of the State of Pennsylvania 1770-1792, University of Pennsylvania 1792-1802

Address given at Commencement on July 4, 1780


The Charge to the Students of the University graduated,
the 4th of July, 1780, at Philadelphia.



ALTHOUGH I have not had the pleasure of conducting that source of study, and of superintending that education, which has entitled you to receive the first honors of the University of Pennsylvania; yet I trust, that your future conduct in life, will give me reason to reflect upon it with peculiar satisfaction, that the patrons of science in this State, have made me the instrument of conveying to you those marks of distinction and approbation, which your literary accomplishments have deserved.

I cannot but congratulate you on this auspicious day, when amidst the confusions and desolutions of war, beholds learning to revive, and animates us with the pleasing prospect of being the sacred lamp of science burning with a full brighter flame, and scattering its invigorating rays, over the unexplored deserts of this extensive continent; until the whole world be involved in the united blaze of knowledge, liberty and religion.

When I stretch my views forward, and survey the rising glories of America, the enriching consequences of our determined struggle for liberty, the extensive fields of intellectual improvement, and useful invention, in science and arts, in agriculture and commerce, in religious and government, through which the unlettered mind will range, with increasing delight, in quest of the undiscovered treasures, which yet lie concealed in the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms of this new world; or in the other fertile sources of knowledge, with which abounds; my heart swells with the pleasing prospect, that the sons of this Institution will distinguish themselves in the different walks of life, by their literary contributions to the embellishment and increase of human happiness.

And I cannot but flatter myself, that the ardent thirst for useful knowledge, which you have discovered, the happy foundation for its gratification, which is laid in your academic instruction, added to the natural abilities of your professors, will spur you on to still higher improvements in science, place you amongst the most distinguished sons of this Institution, and give your country reason to look up to you as the future supporters and guardians of her liberties.

Your academic studies being finished, you are now about to launch into life, the business of which is furious and infinitely important. The dangers arising from the precipitancy of youth, the allurements of pleasure, the envy of little minds; and the unbridled licentiousness of passion, are truly alarming; at the same time, that the expectations which your superior opportunities of improvement have raised in the breath of all who know you, loudly call for a proportionable dignity of conduct and extensive usefulness. No order of rational beings was brought into existence, wholly for pleasure and amusement, but to fill some useful place, and answer some important end in the extensive scheme of the beneficent Creator. It is therefore evidently the interest, wisdom, that he perform the study of his appointed station with diligence and fidelity. Much, very much, my young gentlemen, will be expected of you.

The honor of this institution, which now attracts the attention of the public, and commands the warmest wishes of every friend of learning and liberty in this age and the neighbouring States, is intimately concerned in the figure you will make in life, and it will travel with anxiety until it see you formed into men of respectable characters and extensive usefulness. You are stepping into life in the age of knowledge and inquiry, and at a period the most important of the annals of America, when every principle of virtue, every sacred tie of honor, interest, and gratitude, and every exalted sentiment of love to God and man, conspire to demand of you the utmost exertions of application, diligence and activity. Shall the free born sons of America, in the field, sustain, almost without a complaint, the unrelenting rigors of summer’s and winter’s campaigns; and animated with an inextinguishable love of liberty and their country, oppose the arbitrary demands, and the unequalled brutalities of British tyranny and shall the silken sons of science bury their distinguished talents, and lock up their active powers in the scandalous inaction, fondly imagining that they are excluded from taking any share in the glorious struggles?  Shall they tamely look on with unfeeling hearts, when America is engaged in a cause of such magnitude, as has roused the attention of all Europe, and has excited one of its Most Illustrious Monarchs, with unequalled magnanimity, to take these infant States by the hand, to support us against the rage of disappointed ambition, and to share in our dangers and expenses ambitious of the honor of an early appear in the defence of the injured liberties of America, and the inalienable rights of human nature?  I know that your youthful hearts, would swell with an honest indignation at the ungenerous thought. I know, that you esteem it the highest honor the heart of man can aspire to, (on this side of Heaven) to be improved by an overruling Providence, as instruments either in procuring or supporting the freedom and happiness of your country.

When your country therefore calls so loudly, for every vigorous exertion, in support of her violated rights and liberties; when you see the restless spirit of domination at work, either plotting in its dark cabals, against the sacred interests of liberty, or openly invading, with lawless force, the essential rights of human nature; when you see the hideous forms of tyranny and oppression stalking through the ranks of war, and marking its steps with every species of the most wanton devastation and murder, while the crouching spirit of slavery and sordid attachment to private interest, is either tamely submitting to the ignominious yoke, or with an unnatural hand, employed against the freedom and independence of fellow citizens, is industriously riveting the shackles of despotism on the free born sons of America; you cannot but nobly roused. You cannot be all eye, all ear, all heart and all hand, in a cause so glorious. You will cry aloud and spare not, fearless of personal danger, undaunted by disaffected opposition, and equally regardless of the frowns of lawless power, and the machinations of secret villainy! Let the world know, that with the first rudiments of your education, you have imbibed the unconquerable spirit of liberty, an irreconcilable aversion to slavery of every kind, and an inviolable attachment to your country. While she is struggling for her liberty, with a spirit unbroken by her misfortunes, and gradually rising superior to the sickning  power of her adversary. I trust that you will never disgrace, by a supine indifference, the sublime lectures of morality, you have received in this place, from one of the ablest instructors that America has ever known, and one of the brightest luminaries that ever shewn upon this western world. He is now gone to rest, but has left behind him the most encouraging example of undiviating rectitude of indisputable application to study, of unremitting fidelity in the laborious business of instruction, of unshaken zeal for the welfare of his country, and of an heart glowing with an ardent desire to promote the interests of religion and learning over this once uncultivated Continent. While his memory shall continue dear to you, which I trust will be till your latest breath, you will be animated by so bright an example, to a life of virtuous activity, and of vigorous exertion, to diffuse the salutary influence of your liberal education, in the promotion of human happiness, through the different spheres in which you will move in life.

And O! Let it be your ambition to have this sphere of usefulness continually widen as your pass through life; while you are employed in relieving the distressed, protecting the innocent, discouraging vice, promoting the interests of virtue of religion, and thereby diffusing joy and happiness to all around you: Until, like the resplendent source of day, you set, without a cloud, to rise in a brighter world; where you will be employed in more exalted stations, and more extensive services. And never let this thought slip out of your minds; that you are made for an eternal duration; for glory, honor, and immortality; for which you are now to be trained up, during your minority, by a course of virtuous activity and religion; that you are accountable immortals; and that the day will certainly come, when you must appear before the infallible Judge of moral worth, and give an account for all the privileges of your education, all your opportunities of intellectual improvement, and all your capacities of private or public usefulness. And O! Let the conscious satisfaction of meriting the esteem of the wise and good in the world, the joyful expectation of meeting with the plaudit of approving Angels; and what is of infinitely more importance, the allured hope of the Divine approbation, animate you to the most determined abhorrence of the intoxicating charms of indolence and pleasure, and the most vigorous exertions of all your active powers in the service of your God and your generation. If there is aught on earth, that is suited to the native greatness of the human mind, or the dignity of an Heaven born spirit, it must be, in imitation of the benevolent author of our divine religion, to go about doing good, filling up life with a series of the most beneficent conduct.

Would you then aspire after this exalted honor; and certainly a more Godlike principle never actuated the human heart; permit me to remind you, that the foundation is only laid, the superstructure must be committed to your own future study and diligence, to expand and improve the principles you have imbibed in your education, until your careful cultivation of them render them the source of a conduct, distinguished for its extensive usefulness and beneficence. Having had the advantage of an early introduction into the fundamental principles of a great variety of useful knowledge, thro’ the whole circle of the sciences; it is now your business, to take care that you be so far from losing the flock that you have acquired, that you be constantly adding to the treasure, until you gain in faculty and readiness in employing your fund of knowledge to the entertainment and instruction of others, as well as for the enriching and aggrandizing of your own minds. Remember, that young gentlemen having just finished their academic education, are apt to run into the egregious error of imaging, that they have mastered the whole circle of science, merely from their ignorance of its vast extent, and their having no conceptions of what unbounded taste of knowledge lie far beyond all that they have already learned, nay, possibly beyond the reach of human sagacity; and hence, by neglecting their future studies, they continue insufferable smatterers thro’ life, knowing nothing to any valuable purpose. The design of a collegiate education was not to make you masters of any one branch of science, but rather to open the mind to receive the first principles of various knowledge; to furnish it with the instrumental sciences; and to habitat it to application, and a ready exertion in all kinds of future researches; but especially in that profession which the student uses for life, with which he ought to be compleatly acquainted, and in which every principle of honor, virtue, interest and duty, should engage him to excell.

But if you are ambitious, that the world should recognize you as blessing to mankind, and transmit your names with honor of posterity; you must remember that there is another qualification essentially necessary, and infinitely more important than all the learning of schools; I mean an unbounded and extensive benevolence of heart and temper, which excludes none from your regards, on account of their difference of sentiment, age, condition, character or nation; and to which it is a sufficient recommendation, that it is a fellow creature that needs your assistance, a rational being, the workmanship of the fame Almighty hand, that created yourselves and who, for aught you know, may be your inseparable companion, through all the variety of untried being, in a secure state. This will make you good Angels to mankind, and derive upon you the blessing of them that are ready to persist. This will make you valuable and useful members of society, endear you to the affections of all the wise and good among mankind, and render you more illustrious and honorable than a Cæsar or an Alexander, when adorned with the spoils of conquered nations.

I have only another sense to add, in behalf of the University of Pennsylvania. While she is looking forward to the day, when you rise into importance, to supply the places of these exalted characters, who have borne the burden and heat of the day, and have distinguished themselves by an unshaken attachment to the interests of learning and their country; she hopes to find in you a continued affection to your Alma Mater, whose free spirit does not permit her to bind you, with unnecessary ties of oaths and promises; but rather trusts to the generosity of your nature and the force of those principles, in which you have been instructed; not doubting but, that while the sons of freedom in America, shall celebrate, in every revolving year, the glorious Anniversary of their Independence and emancipation from British tyranny, you will recognize, with gratitude, your obligations to her, who has, on that auspicious day, distinguished you with her first and her freshest laurels. Our warmest wishes for your future prosperity and eminence follow you; and with the sincerest affection we commend you to the grace of God, who is able to preserve you from falling, and reward your fidelity in his service, with a crowd of unfading glory.


Source: The Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, July 8, 1780.