Title: "The Great Power of Literary Men," Speech of David M. Lees, [September 1828]: Electronic Edition.
Author: Lees, David McMichen, 1807-1872
Editor: Erika Lindemann
Funding from the State Library of North Carolina supported the electronic publication of this title.
Text transcribed by Erika Lindemann and Al Benthall
Images scanned by Mara E. Dabrishus
Text encoded by Brian Dietz
First Edition, 2005
Size of electronic edition: ca. 37K
Publisher: The University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
The electronic edition is a part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill digital library, Documenting the American South.
Languages used in the text: English Latin
Revision history:
2005-05-17, Brian Dietz finished TEI/XML encoding.
Part of a series:
This transcribed document is part of a digital collection, titled True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students in North Carolina
written by Lindemann, Erika
Title of collection: David McMichen Lees Papers (#3705), Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Title of document: "The Great Power of Literary Men," Speech of David M. Lees, [September 1828]
Author: David M. Lees
Description: 4 pages, 4 page images
Note: Call number 3705 (Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Topics covered:
Reading and Writing/Reading
Examples of Student Writing/Senior Speeches
Religion and Philosophy/Other Philosophies
War/Other Wars
Editorial practices
The text has been encoded using the recommendations for Level 5 of the TEI in Libraries Guidelines.
Transcript of the senior speech.Originals are in the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Original grammar, punctuation, and spelling have been preserved.
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For more information about transcription and other editorial decisions, see Dr. Erika Lindemann's explanation under the section Editorial Practices.

Document Summary

Lees' senior speech argues that literary men have the power to convey the wisdom of past ages and to make or break people's reputations; however, intelligent readers must examine these authorities carefully and compare them with those who hold opposing views.
"The Great Power of Literary Men," Speech of David M. Lees , [September 1828]1
Lees, David McMichen, 1807-1872

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The great power of literary men in determining the opinions of men with respect to characters and events.
To mankind in general, an exhibition of the power of literary men in determinig the opinons of men2 with respect to characters & events must be interesting & useful. Their curiosity must be excited, whilst they search out its boundaries, & contemplate the vast field they inclose; (as the result will be, that its extent is commensurate with civilization, & its duration coexistent3 with time.)4
Where-soever civilization opens the wilderness & clears away the (rubbish) wild gro growth of the untutored mind, literary works immediately migrate, &, establishing a fixed abode, assimilate the inhabitants to their predominant features, diffuse the knowledge of distant countries, & past events, & establish the characters of the actors in every great scene; & at the remotest period, when there will be more & greater marks of power & grandeur of generations which have vanished from the earth to heighten5 the curiosity & wonder, a knowledge of them can be obtained only through the medium of authors. The present would be all we could call day & the past an impenetrable night, were it not for History, which, dispelling the intervening darkness & unveiling past ages, serves as a bright avenue through which we can view their actions & movements. It renovates the mouldered bodies of ancient heroes, orators, & princes, & presents them before us, if not in their true original features, at least in such6 by which they can be as enable us easily distinguished them. Ancient battles, whose thunders have long since ceased to roar, &7 lightnings to glare,8 are for brought anew before the eyes of every reader, & the actors in the temendousus scene, are distinctly perceived engaged with all their former energy & activeness, though their mighty spirits have long since taken their flight into the invisible world, & bodies been devoured by fish beasts or worms.9 What would have been the condition of the present age, without the knowledge which has been transmitted to us, can be easily determined, by considering the state of the first inhabitants of our world. Like man, the world is progressive in improvement; but were

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there no means of collecting & preserving the wisdom of past times, it would remain forever in a state of infancy. The vast flood of knowledge, which we may reasonably suppose will exist in the later days, will only be little more than a collection of the streams issuing from prior ages. It is then of the utmost importance that the fountains whence they proceed should be unpolluted by error or prejudice, especially as streams seldom increase in purity, as they increase in length. A popular writer is final authority with the many. It is often sufficient for gaining belief to see a circumstance stated in a masterly manner, decorated with all the flowers of speech, though the source of the information may not be given. On the other hand as few take the trouble of referring to authorities, by a mere quotation of them an author, whose talents & learning prevent suspicion, forces on us things apparently demonstrable, but which on after a careful research would be found mere assertions. In this way an elegant writer has it in his power to blacken or blanch the characters of men who have taken a lead in past times, according as10 he feels disposed. The immortal & overpowering eloquence of Demosthenes has stamped eternal infamy on Philip of Macedon, representing him as a crafty tyrant & a dissolute buffoon; while he stands forth an unsullied patriot; but the historian Mitford11 remarkable for the carefullness of his research, would have us believe that Philip was a wise, humane, & virtuous prince, & Demosthenes a mere ambitious factionist, governed in his opposition to Philip by party spirit; that he boasted of some of his intrigues against Alexander, saying they would procure him a name in the memory of his cou party;—& that he was a coward, & suffered himself to be bribed. And for all this the historian produces his authority, yet may not he have imposed on his readers in the same manner, (in which Mr Brown 12 has shown) that Dr Reid 13 has in his supposed confutation of idealism, which he attacks as the written

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belief of certain Philosophers, but which they were as far from believing as he was himself? He has thus, by successfully combatting an opinion which he represented to be universal, but which nobody held, not only received but claimed the honour of being the "overthrower of a mighty system of metaphysical illusion."14
Augustus, celebrated by the Roman poets for every virtue, & honoured by the following lines—Micat inter omnes, Julium sidus, velat inter ignes Luna minores,15 shed the blood of 300 senators & 200 knights, & rewarded his soldiers with the lands of those many innocent, unoffending men who were cruelly proscribed. Who, that has ever read his gentle lines, would suppose that Virgil was a fit object for political rage, & revenge?—Yet he was one of the unfortunate sufferers. The great many virtues, & many great qualities, which the pen of adulation & gratitutde has attributed to Augustus, were no doubt never possessed by him. A poet, in order to give a name among posterity to one, whose favor it is important to obtain & secure, wants only a few bright spots in his character. These he will so spread by the magic of his art, as to present to the world a luminary perfectly bright.
So if we descend to modern times, we see Louis 14th of France shining with no little lustre, & standing on a summit of no smal elevation. But what gave him this lustre & eminence? Was it the revocation of the edict of Nantes?—& the horrid consequences which followed?—or was it the converting of the Palatinate into a desert, (after the citizens received notice to quit their dwellings in the midst of winter, as everything was to be destroyed by fire & sword, not through revenge, for there was no offence to revenge but) merely for the purpose of cutting off subsistence from the enemy, just (with as little hesitation)16 as a retreating army would destroy boats, bridges, & provisions to prevent the pursuers from being benefitted by them? No. These actions at the time they were performed chilled the surrounding nations with horror, & at every recollection of them posterity must be filled with indignation. His great virtues are only to be found in the well-sung praises of literary men whose inspiration at the thought of a patron of literation,17 has given him a name,18 which sober reason, & candid justice would have denied.

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As a mark of gratitude they were bound at least to support his character, who gave them support to gain theirs. Not only the literary, but every class of civilized society is ready to admit him to be virtuous who patronizes literature. Tell the peasant that Nero was a patron of literary men, & he will ascribe to him every other virtue,—read to him a panegyric on the same, & Nero will be his example for every excellence.
A single line of a popular poet [is] sufficient with many people to fix their opinions of men. Thus Bacon & Cromwell are condemned in the gross, merely because Pope has said, If parts allure thee, see how Bacon shined, The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind; Or ravished with a the whistle ing of a name, See Cromwell damned to everlasting fame.19 These men no doubt had their faults, & great ones too, but still publick indolence & credulity are apt to ascribe too much to such sweeping sentences if couched in striking language, & rest satisfied without searching any further20 into the matter. Were a deeper search to be made, it would be with the view to be more confirmed in the belief already formed, &, consequently, though virtuous actions might be presented to the eyes of the inquirer, his heart would be shut to their reception. Not only do we find characters not very remarkable for virtue, deprived of what little they possess, but even the most illustrious on the list of benefactors of mankind, ranked among the vilest of men. To this fate the Papists have assigned the character of Luther. But what less could befall the character, though as spotless as the newly fallen snow, which has been handled by the filthy21 hands of prejudice & enmity? It is impossible for a young man brought up in a catholic community to form anything like a correct opinion of Luther, for all the sources to which he resorts for information are completely poisoned by prejudice & bigotry. It is of the utmost importance [therefore]22 that in reading history, & other literary works, & in forming our opinions of persons, we should take into consideration the character, situation & opportunities of the writer, whether he was under the influence of prejudice, & what party he would be likely to favour. We should never fail also to examine his authorities, & compare them with others of oposite sentiments & & parties. How much depends on these circumstances may be judged from the state of feeling now present in this country. Whatever account should be written, respecting the present administration, in the present excited state of public feeling could not be safely received by posterity23 It would be almost certain to [be] eulogistic or defamatory.


1. David McMichen Lees Papers, SHC. Faculty minutes for April 3, 1828, note that Lees was one of the junior-class orators during commencement ceremonies on June 23, 1828 (3:94, UA), and Battle reports that, as a senior, Lees gave a commencement address on ethics (1:322).
Though the document is undated, it is probably a senior speech, not a class composition. Marks written over the accented syllables of boundaries, contemplate, assimilate, renovates, tremendous, demonstrable, buffoon, and catholic suggest that Lees prepared the text for oral delivery. In twelve instances a second hand has corrected words and phrases in pencil. Lees' corrector probably was William Hooper , professor of rhetoric and logic, whose responsibility it was to help students prepare their senior speeches and commencement addresses. Faculty meeting minutes for October 3, 1826, stipulate that seniors "hand in their speeches to the professor of Rhetorick, at least two weeks before the Commencement of the Senior speaking" (3:67, UA).
Students of this period gave two senior speeches, one each semester. In an October 29, 1828, letter to Capt. Stephen Manson, Lees' brother-in-law, Lees writes, "The senior class delivered their orations a few weeks since. We had according to report tolerably good speeches, but not many persons, especially of the female sex to hear them." By March 17, 1829, writing to his brother Hugh (see Letter), Lees is preparing for a second speech: "In about a week my class have to speak again our own compositions publickly." The speech printed here, then, is probably one of two senior speeches Lees gave in the 1828-29 academic year. The argument for assigning it a Fall 1828 date is based on a passage at the end of the speech, which I interpret as refering to the administration of President John Quincy Adams . Adams was no longer President in March 1829, by which time Andrew Jackson , exceedingly popular with North Carolinians, had been elected.
The David McMichen Lees Papers, SHC, also contain a draft of what is unquestionably a senior speech. Titled "Defence of the Colonization Society," it bears the endorsement "Oration/in Senior year" and shows corrections in pencil, presumably by William Hooper . Two Dialectic Society speeches also survive. One is an inaugural address Lees gave on becoming president of the Dialectic Society. The other is a debate identified as an "Oration/Delivered before the/ Dialectic Society on/night before Commence=/ment/on one side/ Smith & Alston/on the other/ Yancy & Lee ."Lees took the negative side in this debate, which addressed the question, "Is the extent of [our] Country unfavourable to the interests of the Nation?" The final drafts of both Society speeches have been preserved in the Dialectic Society Papers, UA. Though the drafts are undated, the final versions reveal that the commencement debate was "Composed for June 25th 1828" and the inaugural address, in September 1828.

2. A second hand has written "public opinion" in pencil above "the opinions of men," which has been underlined.

3. A second hand has written coextensive in pencil above coexistent.

4. Comparing drafts and final versions of Lees' other speeches explains his use of parentheses. They surround material that Lees intended to delete in the final version.

5. A second hand has written stimulate in pencil above heighten.

6. A second hand has written in pencil "with lineaments" above "in such," which has been underlined; "as enable us to easily distinguish" is pencilled in underneath "by which they can be." Both corrections subsequently were crossed out. The corrector appears to have wanted the phrase to read "at least with lineaments as enable us to easily distinguish them," whereas Lees' intention appears to have been "at least in such as enable us easily [to] distinguish them."

7. A second hand has written in pencil nor above &.

8. A second hand has inserted in pencil "have ceased to" above the line between lightnings and glare. Lees wrote to on top of this correction.

9. Lees crossed out the phrase following bodies, evidently accepting the words "mingled with their kindred dust" written in pencil in a second hand above the crossed out phrase.

10. Lees wrote as on top of to.

11. William Mitford, History of Greece, 5 vols. (London: J. Murray and J. Robson, 1784-1818).

12. A second hand has crossed out Mr in pencil. The reference is to Thomas Brown, Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: W. and C. Tait, 1820).

13. Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind (Dublin: A. Ewing, 1764).

14. "and, if he [some future philosopher] have the talents of Dr Reid, he may even form a series of admirable ratiocinations, in disproof of an opinion which nobody holds, and may consider himself, and perhaps, too, if he be as fortunate as the author of the Inquiry into the Human Mind, may be considered by others, as the overthrower of a mighty system of metaphysical illusion" (Brown 1:587).

15. Caius Octavius, Odes , I.xii.46: "He shines among all others, the star of Julian, as the Moon among the lesser lights."

16. Given Lees' customary revision practices, the parenthetical material in this sentence would have been omitted in the final version of the speech.

17. A second hand has underlined ration in pencil.

18. A second hand has inserted in pencil "and character" above name.

19. Alexander Pope, Essay on Man IV, vi (1734).

20. Lees wrote u on top of a.

21. A second hand has written foul in pencil above filthy.

22. Lees wrote the symbol used in logic for therefore, three dots arranged in a triangle.

23. While "the present administration in the present excited state of public feeling" helps to date the speech, the reference can be variously interpreted. I take it to refer to the heated campaigning for presidential electors that took place in Fall 1828 in North Carolina (Andrew Jackson did not take office as President until March 4, 1829). The presidential election of 1828 was especially contentious, as John Quincy Adams and the loose coalition of political groups known as National Republicans fought for a second term. National Republicans, led by Adams and Henry Clay , emphasized national unity and deplored the growing emphasis on North- South sectionalism that swept Jackson into office on November 29, 1828. Supporters of Jackson , known as Democratic Republicans, were a coalition of states' rights advocates and included most of the eastern planter class in North Carolina. Jackson had been a close friend of William Richardson Davie , for whom Jackson served as a courier during the Revolutionary War. In North Carolina, however, Jackson also was popular in the western part of the state because he had grown up in the Waxhaw region, supported improvements in transportation necessary for the state's economic development, and was lauded as a friend of the common people. North Carolinians voted overwhelmingly for Jackson in 1828; he carried all but nine counties. Lees' reference to "the present excited state of public feeling" probably does not refer to Jackson's election, which had considerable support in North Carolina, but rather to the efforts to unseat Adams , who was highly controversial.