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My predecessor, whom I am so happy as to be able to call my friend, declared from this place last year, in language which well became him, that he would not have come forward to displace so eminent a statesman as Lord John Russell. I can with equal truth affirm that I would not have come forward to displace so estimable a gentleman and so accomplished a scholar as Colonel Mure. But Colonel Mure felt last year that it was not for him, and I now feel that it is not for me, to question the propriety of your decision on a point of which, by the constitution of your body, you are the judges. I therefore gratefully accept the office to which I have been called, fully purposing to use whatever powers belong to it with a single view to the welfare and credit of your society. I am not using a mere phrase of course, when I say that the feelings with which I bear a part in the ceremony of this day are such as I find it difficult to utter in words. I do not think it strange that, when that great master of eloquence, Edmund Burke, stood where I now stand, he faltered and remained mute. Doubtless the multitude of thoughts which rushed into his mind was such as even he could not easily arrange or express. In truth there are few spectacles more striking or affecting than that which a great historical place of education presents on a solemn public day. There is something strangely interesting in the contrast between the venerable antiquity of the body and the fresh and ardent youth of the great majority of the members. Recollections and hopes crowd upon us together. The past and the future are at once brought close to us. Our thoughts wander back to the time when the foundations of this ancient building were laid, and forward to the time when those whom it is our office to guide and to teach will be the guides and teachers of our posterity. On the present occasion we may, with peculiar propriety, give such thoughts their course. For it has chanced that my magistracy has fallen on a great secular epoch. This is the four hundredth year of the existence of your University. At such jubilees, jubilees of which no individual sees more than one, it is natural, and it is good, that a society like this, a society which survives all the transitory parts of which it is composed, a society which has a corporate existence and a perpetual succession, should review its annals, should retrace the stages of its growth from infancy to maturity, and should try to find, in the experience of generations which have passed away, lessons which may be profitable to generations yet unborn.
The retrospect is full of interest and instruction. Perhaps it may be doubted whether, since the Christian era, there has been any point of time more important to the highest interests of mankind than that at which the existence of your University commenced. It was at the moment of a great destruction and of a great creation. Your society was instituted just before the empire of the East perished; that strange empire which, dragging on a languid life through the great age of darkness, connected together the two great ages of light; that empire which, adding nothing to our stores of knowledge, and producing not one man great in letters, in science, or in art, yet preserved, in the midst of barbarism, those masterpieces of Attic genius which the highest minds still contemplate, and long will contemplate, with admiring despair. And at that very time, while the fanatical Moslems were plundering the churches and palaces of Constantinople, breaking in pieces Grecian sculptures, and giving to the flames piles of Grecian eloquence, a few humble German artisans, who little knew that they were calling into existence a power far mightier than that of the victorious Sultan, were busied in cutting and setting the first types. The University came into existence just in time to witness the disappearance of the last trace of the Roman empire, and to witness the publication of the earliest printed book.
At this conjuncture, a conjuncture of unrivaled interest in the history of letters, a man, never to be mentioned without reverence by every lover of letters, held the highest place in Europe. Our just attachment to that Protestant faith to which our country owes so much must not prevent us from paying the tribute which, on this occasion, and in this place, justice and gratitude demand, to the founder of the University of Glasgow, the greatest of the restorers of learning, Pope Nicholas the Fifth. He had sprung from the common people; but his abilities and his erudition had early attracted the notice of the great. He had studied much and traveled far. He had visited Britain, which, in wealth and refinement, was to his native Tuscany what the back settlements of America now are to Britain. He had lived with the merchant princes of Florence, those men who first ennobled trade by making trade the ally of philosophy, of eloquence, and of taste. It was he who, under the protection of the munificent and discerning Cosmo, arranged the first public library that modern Europe possessed. From privacy your founder rose to a throne; but on the throne he never forgot the studies which had been his delight in privacy. He was the center of an illustrious group, composed partly of the last great scholars of Greece, and partly of the first great scholars of Italy, Theodore Gaza and George of Trebizond, Bessarion and Filelfo, Marsilio Ficino and Poggio Bracciolini. By him was founded the Vatican library, then and long after the most precious and the most extensive collection of books in the world. By him were carefully preserved the most valuable intellectual treasures which had been snatched from the wreck of the Byzantine empire. His agents were to be found everywhere, in the bazaars of the farthest East, in the monasteries of the farthest West, purchasing or copying worm-eaten parchments, on which were traced words worthy of immortality. Under his patronage were prepared accurate Latin versions of many precious remains of Greek poets and philosophers. But no department of literature owes so much to him as history. By him were introduced to the knowledge of Western Europe two great and unrivaled models of historical composition, the work of Herodotus and the work of Thucydides. By him, too, our ancestors were first made acquainted with the graceful and lucid simplicity of Xenophon and with the manly good sense of Polybius. It was while he was occupied with cares like these that his attention was called to the intellectual wants of this region, a region now swarming with population, rich with culture, and resounding with the clang of machinery, a region which now sends forth fleets laden with its admirable fabrics to the lands of which in his days no geographer had ever heard, then a wild, a poor, a half barbarous tract, lying on the utmost verge of the known world. He gave his sanction to the plan of establishing a University at Glasgow, and bestowed on the new seat of learning all the privileges which belonged to the University of Bologna. I can conceive that a pitying smile passed over his face as he named Bologna and Glasgow together. At Bologna he had long studied. No spot in the world had been more favored by nature or by art. The surrounding country was a fruitful and sunny country, a country of cornfields and vineyards. In the city, the house of Bentivoglio bore rule, a house which vied with the house of Medici in taste and magnificence, which has left to posterity noble palaces and temples, and which gave a splendid patronage to arts and letters. Glasgow, your founder just knew to be a poor, a small, a rude town, a town, as he would have thought, not likely ever to be great and opulent; for the soil, compared with rich country at the foot of the Apennines, was barren, and the climate was such that an Italian shuddered at the thought of it. But it is not on the fertility of the soil, it is not on the mildness of the atmosphere, that the prosperity of nations chiefly depends. Slavery and superstition can make Campania a land of beggars, and can change the plain of Enna into a desert. Nor is it beyond the power of human intelligence and energy, developed by civil and spiritual freedom, to turn sterile rocks and pestilential marshes into cities and gardens. Enlightened as your founder was, he little knew that he was himself a chief agent in a great revolution, physical and moral, political and religious, in a revolution, destined to make the last first and the first last, in a revolution destined to invert the relative positions of Glasgow and Bologna. We cannot, I think, better employ a few minutes than in reviewing the stages of this great change in human affairs. The review shall be short. Indeed I cannot do better than pass rapidly from century to century. Look at the world, then, a hundred years after the seal of Nicholas had been affixed to the instrument which called your college into existence. We find Europe, we find Scotland especially, in the agonies of that great revolution which we emphatically call the Reformation. The liberal patronage which Nicholas, and men like Nicholas, had given to learning, and of which the establishment of this seat of learning is not the least remarkable instance, had produced an effect which they had never contemplated. Ignorance was the talisman on which their power depended; and that talisman they had themselves broken. They had called in Knowledge as a handmaid to decorate Superstition, and their error produced its natural effect. I need not tell you what a part the votaries of classical learning, and especially the votaries of Greek learning, the Humanists, as they were then called, bore in the great movement against spiritual tyranny. They formed, in fact, the vanguard of that movement. Every one of the chief Reformers—I do not at this moment remember a single exception—was a Humanist. Almost every eminent Humanist in the north of Europe was, according to the measure of his uprightness and courage, a Reformer. In a Scottish University I need hardly mention the names of Knox, of Buchanan, of Melville, of Secretary Maitland. In truth, minds daily nourished with the best literature of Greece and Rome necessarily grew too strong to be trammeled by the cobwebs of the scholastic divinity; and the influence of such minds was now rapidly felt by the whole community; for the invention of printing had brought books within the reach even of yeomen and of artisans. From the Mediterranean to the Frozen Sea, therefore, the public mind was everywhere in a ferment; and nowhere was the ferment greater than in Scotland. It was in the midst of martyrdoms and proscriptions, in the midst of a war between power and truth, that the first century of the existence of your University closed. Pass another hundred years; and we are in the midst of another revolution. The war between Popery and Protestantism had, in this island, been terminated by the victory of Protestantism. But from that war another war had sprung, the war between Prelacy and Puritanism. The hostile religious sects were allied, intermingled, confounded with hostile political parties. The monarchical element of the constitution was an object of almost exclusive devotion to the Prelatist. The popular element of the constitution was especially dear to the Puritan. At length an appeal was made to the sword. Puritanism triumphed; but Puritanism was already divided against itself. Independency and Republicanism were on one side, Presbyterianism and limited Monarchy on the other. It was in the very darkest part of that dark time, it was in the midst of battles, sieges, and executions, it was when