Washington University’s First Commencement Address: From the Desk of William Greenleaf Eliot
In June of 1862, William Greenleaf Eliot delivered the commencement address for Washington University’s first graduating class, whose numbers included his son Thomas.
The address, an early draft of which is included below, covered philosophical subjects such as the evolution of human reason, the advent of metaphysics as a branch of philosophy, and the achievement of immortality through study.
Although the Civil War still raged on, Eliot made no direct mention of war, an interesting choice considering that many of the young men in the audience, including his son, would soon enlist as Confederate or Union soldiers, and stood the risk of relinquishing their lives for their chosen cause.
Why then, in this time of destruction, violence, and war, did Eliot decide to give a speech about metaphysics? What was he trying to achieve by settling on such a lofty topic?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but it might help to contextualize the speech itself. St. Louis’s population did not completely side with the Union cause, and there remained a majority of Southern sympathizers, especially from the city’s upper classes. Skirmishes broke out between the two sides, and soon families of Confederate supporters would be exiled down river to Tennessee. In light of this contentious environment, Eliot did well to avoid discussing his favorite topics of unity and loyalty, and instead attempt to lift up the souls of young men at a crossroads.
“…If these great ^results and vital truths are rightly claimed, ^as the results, following upon a systematic investigation of the phenomena of mind, we may well afford to overlook the wanderings of men, who have been led away into the bogs and quicksands of a false philosophy, by the fancied light of Truth. Even their work has not been in vain. The constant striving, if it brought to view no worthy object, at least extended ^for others the vision to farther fields, disclosing truths unsought. Strength of intellect, maintained through ages of skepticism and transcendental thought, has been perhaps, the instrument of revolution, and the fruitful source of mischief. Even This we might count as gain, if the free spirit of Inquiry has out-lived the error, ^which was conceived in the spirit of truth. But since we are able to discern, beneath the service, the evidences of steady progress towards the wished-for results; when difficulties are triumphantly overcome, on a single problem completely solved, though it be at the cost of much which seems precious, we may take courage in the work. The end cannot be reached in one generation or by a single mind. The search for Truth is the heritage of a fast, transmitted through the present, to future ages.
In a world of beauty, where the book of Knowledge is open wide to allure and instruct the passer-by, let us not forget that study, which ^most alone ennobles the student, and holds forth a promise whose fulfillment is beyond all doubt the surest and the dearest hope as immortal beings….”
This is the twelfth and concluding post in series that aims to contextualize the rich documentary collection of William Greenleaf Eliot, located at University Archives.
The series, From the Desk of William Greenleaf Eliot, has attempted to provide an inside look at Civil War-era St. Louis and showcase the daily challenges of living in the city during the 1860s. Being a St. Louisan at that time required much spiritual fortitude, social support, and luck. Rather than fleeing north like some Union-sympathizers, Eliot remained at home with his family, and gave his entire self to raising funds and morale to keep the city united. He also brought this attitude to running Washington University in St. Louis, where what may seem like a typical philosophy lecture gained new meaning to the ears of young men about the join the front. Through their time spent studying the great philosophers and scientists, they achieved a sort of immortality available only those who improved human civilization through advancement of knowledge.
To find out more about Eliot, please consult the William Greenleaf Eliot Personal Papers located at the Archives and this research guide.
- William C. Winter, The Civil War in St. Louis: A Guided Tour;
- Candace O’Connor, Beginning a Great Work: Washington University in St. Louis, 1853-2003.