Exists there a more unterrified democrat than a Steam Engine?

Samuel Bulkley Ruggles
Samuel B. Ruggles, NYS Assemblyman and Canal Commissioner

19th century prose can be tough to get through, and exhortative speeches even more so. But sometimes if you can wade through the effusiveness you can find (perhaps to your dismay) that some things today are very much the same as they were 160 years ago. As an example, we present this impassioned plea of former Assemblyman and Canal Commissioner Samuel B. Ruggles, arguing for the establishment of an institution of higher education in Albany in 1852.

As there never yet was a War that did not end in Peace at last, so the Internal Improvement struggle in this State has found its end, and Peace prevails. In the language of a distinguished personage on another occasion, “the era of good feeling has arrived.” Anti-improvement men have disappeared and cease to exist. We are all improvement men – all determined and desirous, however differing as to the mode or degree, to do all we lawfully can for the physical, and, as I trust it will be found, for the intellectual improvement of the State.

People would put up with a lot in their speechifying back then. They had no DVRs to get home to, no phones to fiddle with. This was it for the evening’s entertainment. He went on:

For, what was the theory in regard to public works? Was it not that they would lessen not only natural but commercial and social inequalities; that they would place the poor by the side of the rich – inferior districts by the side of the superior; the agricultural by the side of the trading communities; and, so far as Nature’s laws would permit, would equalize the condition of all?

Then he compared education to a steam engine. As one does.

The steam engine, concentrating within itself the strength of hundreds of animals and thousands of men, furnishes a single power by which we traverse earth and ocean. It does more. It breaks down and obliterates, not only commercial, but social distinctions; for, does it not place in the same vessel, and seat side by side in the same vehicle, the high and the low – the lofty and the humble – the lender and the borrower – Dives and Lazarus? Does there, can there, exist in nature or art, a truer, an honester, a more unterrified democrat, than a Steam Engine? From the moment Steam entered the world, aristocracy was doomed, and the final enfranchisement of society from artificial distinctions, absolutely and most effectually secured. And what is the whole magnificent series and chain of railways, spreading throughout our land and binding every part in harmony and union, but one vast democratic machine for equalizing the condition of the people?

Which was true as far as it went. Unfortunately, old Ruggles didn’t foresee the gasoline engine, which would get the aristocracy back into their own carriages well away from those pesky borrowers, and consign the low to public transit while the high curse its very existence. But we digress.

But here, just at this very point, we suddenly encounter a school of political philosophers, not very numerous – for God be praised, the race is nearly extinct – whose great delight it is to proclaim aloud that “the world is governed too much” and that government has no right to do more than “protect every man in his life, liberty and property, AND THERE TO STOP.” They, therefore, hold broadly and boldly, not only that it is not wise, but that it is not lawful for a State to educate its people – that it has no right to found public schools, build public works, endow public charities, guard the public health, or in fact to exercise any one of the beneficent functions, which have so much exalted the character and promoted the happiness of our people –but that all these objects, no matter how large or how important – no matter what amount of concentrated means or power they may require – may be safely left to the liberality of individuals.

Oh, well, thank goodness that breed of philosopher is extinct. Ruggles points out that if only to protect property ample and extended education would be necessary. He called that whole doctrine mischievous, cruel and destructive, “the diseased offspring of feeble heads and cankered hearts.” No less true today.

Why could we, the people of this great State of New-York … merely to gratify a dreary and barren political abstraction, depopulate our ten thousand school houses, and all our seats of learning, – turn out into the field and forest our eight hundred thousand children – empty into the streets all our orphans, all our aged, all our helpless – cast forth into outer darkness all our sick, all our insane, and fill our whole land with lamentation and wailing? Would we, could we, in the face of all our swelling commerce, dry up all our noble channels of intercourse, tear up all our railways, root out all our aqueducts, and throw down all the monuments of energy and perseverance, which have made our favored commonwealth the admiration of the civilized world? If it were for a moment possible that a State like ours … could consent to be thus vilely mutilated, thus shorn of all its manhood and all its creative energy – that cold blooded theorists could thus be permitted, like unclean birds, to pick off all its flesh and features, leaving only the naked skeleton of a State behind, – better were it blotted out forever ….

Ruggles was on to something. But what was he on about?

Not being in any sense a man of science myself, and knowing little else than my duty to hold it in the highest respect, it is with unaffected diffidence that I venture to speak on such a subject and in the presence of men like those around me … The question, then, for an intelligent community like ours, willing, at least, to benefit its material condition is this – Shall science, so exalting and yet so useful – so sublime, yet so humble, be monopolized by the learned few who chance to be the first to seize it, or shall it belong to all the people and be distributed in the largest and most liberal measure among all alike? We think they can give but one answer. We think they will claim, as they may lawfully claim, the same inherent, primary, fundamental right to knowledge, which they claim to liberty itself; and will take due care that nothing shall stand in the way of their acquiring this, their greatest treasure.

Ruggles was speaking (we needn’t add, passionately) on behalf of the creation of the University of Albany. This was in 1852. This proposed university was also described as the National University (more on that here). The State Normal School had been established in 1844, but its focus was on the preparation of teachers; it was not an institution of general knowledge as such. Ruggles and others were arguing for something much broader in scope. Unfortunately, the University of Albany came to naught. Albany had another chance when Leland Stanford, born in Watervliet, married to a well-to-do Lathrop, was seeking to create an institution of higher learning in honor of his deceased son. If stories are to be believed, a little touch of greed on the part of the Rural Cemetery Association scotched that deal. It wouldn’t be until 1962 that the NYS College for Teachers, successor to the Normal School, would be transformed into the State University of New York at Albany.

It’s sad that today, the types of voices Ruggles thought to soon be extinct are actually predominant.

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