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Course of Popular Lectures
Digital History ID 3597

Author:   Frances Wright

Annotation: Frances Wright a well known feminist displays her progressive ideas in “Course of Popular Lectures”. Originally Wright was born in Scotland and emigrated to the United States when she was in her twenties and became friends with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. She began delivering her lectures when she lived in New York City. A few ideas she believed included an education based on scientific inquiry free from religious superstition, and an America that lives up to its ideals of equality and justice for all.

Document: However novel it may appear, I shall venture the assertion, that, until women assume the place in society which good sense and good feeling alike, assign to them, human improvement must advance but feebly. It is in vain that we would circumscribe the power of one half of our race, and that half by far the most important and influential. If they exert it not for good, they will for evil; if they advance not knowledge, they will perpetuate ignorance. Let women stand where they may in the scale of improvement, their position decides that of the race. Are they cultivated? - so is society polished and enlightened. Are they ignorant? - so is it gross and insipid. Are they wise? - so is the human condition prosperous. Are they foolish? - so is it unstable and unpromising. Are they free? - so is the human character elevated. Are they enslaved? - so is the whole race degraded. Oh! that we could learn the advantage of just practice and consistent principles!

Your political institutions have taken equality for their basis; your declaration of rights, upon which your institutions rest, sets forth this principle as vital and inviolate. Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it.

How are men to be secured in any rights without instruction; how to be secured in the equal exercise of those rights without equality of instruction? By instruction understand me to mean knowledge - just knowledge; not talent, not genius, not inventive mental powers. These will vary in every human being; but knowledge is the same for every mind, and every mind may and ought to be trained to receive it. If then, ye have pledged, at each anniversary of your political independence, your lives, properties, and honor, to the securing of your common liberties, ye have pledged your lives, properties, and honor, to the securing of your common instruction.

All men are born free and equal! That is: our moral feelings acknowledge it to be just and proper, that we respect those liberties in others, which we lay claim to for ourselves; and that we permit the free agency of every individual, to any extent which violates not the free agency of his fellow creatures.

There is but one honest limit to the rights of a sentient being; it is where they touch the rights of another sentient being. Do we exert our own liberties without injury to others - we exert them justly; do we exert them at the expense of others - unjustly. And, in thus doing, we step from the sure platform of liberty upon the uncertain threshold of tyranny.

Who among us but has had occasion to remark the ill-judged, however well-intentioned government of children by their teachers; and, yet more especially, by their parents? In what does this mismanagement originate? In a misconception of the relative position of the parent or guardian, and of the child; in a departure, by the parent from the principle of liberty, in his assumption of rights destructive of those of the child; in his exercise of authority, as by right divine, over the judgment, actions, and person of the child; in his forgetfulness of the character of the child, as a human being, born "free and equal" among his compeers; that is, having equal claims to the exercise and development of all his senses, faculties, and powers, with those who brought him into existence, and with all sentient beings who tread the earth. Were a child thus viewed by his parent, we should not see him, by turns, made a plaything and a slave; we should not see him commanded to believe, but encouraged to reason; we should not see him trembling under the rod, nor shrinking from a frown, but reading the wishes of others in the eye, gathering knowledge wherever he threw his glance, rejoicing in the present hour, and treasuring up sources of enjoyment for future years.

What, then, has the parent to do, if he would conscientiously discharge that most sacred of all duties, that, weightiest of all responsibilities, which ever did or ever will devolve on a human being? He is to encourage in his child a spirit of inquiry, and equally to encourage it in himself. He is never to advance an opinion without showing the facts upon which it is grounded; he is never to assert a fact, without proving it to be a fact. He is not to teach a code of morals, any more than a creed of doctrines; but he is to direct his young charge to observe the consequences of actions on himself and on others; and to judge of the propriety of those actions by their ascertained consequences. He is not to command his feelings any more than his opinions or his actions; but he is to assist him in the analysis of his feelings, in the examination of their nature, their tendencies, their effects. Let him do this, and have no anxiety for the result.

Who, then, shall say, inquiry is good for him and not good for his children? Who shall cast error from himself, and allow it to be grafted on the minds he has called into being? We see men who will aid the instruction of their sons and condemn only their daughters to ignorance. "Our sons", they say, "will have to exercise political rights, may aspire to public offices, may fill some learned profession, may struggle for wealth and acquire it. It is well that we give them a helping hand; that we assist them to such knowledge as is going, and make them as sharp witted as their neighbours. But for our daughters," they say - if indeed respecting them they say any thing - "for our daughters, little trouble or expense is necessary. They can never be any thing; in fact, they are nothing. We had best give them up to their mothers, who may take them to Sunday's preaching; and with the aid of a little music, a little dancing, and a few fine gowns, and fit them out for the market of marriage."

Source: Frances Wright, Course of Popular Lectures

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