It has been my custom since my coming to West Point to speak a word of welcome and advice to those who are entering as a new class among us when, as now, they take their places for the first time here in Chapel. This custom I propose to follow to-day.
The graduation of a class after four years of work and discipline, with the stamp of the Academy not only upon their diplomas, but on their characters, with its word pledged that, so far as human tests can prove it, they are fit in body, in mind and in the qualities which form character to do the work and sustain the honor of officers in the Army, is naturally and rightly regarded as an occasion of importance.
It is a time of importance, too, when for the first time those new lives which have been drawn to us from every section of the country and which as a body, represent more perfectly than any other, the composite of American young manhood, become a class and fall in line for their life's campaign behind the classes which have gone before.
It is of importance to West Point and the Academy, because you now become part of that raw material of manhood--each of you with his own will trained or untrained, his own strength and his own weakness--which must be moulded and developed into the character and efficiency which alone deserve or receive the honor of a graduate's diploma. It is important, too, because each one of you now entering is in a real sense a new force among us, one that has never been here before and never can be here again, and as you are influenced by your presence here, so your presence here is bound to influence--in a small way or in greater way, one man or, it may be, many men, for good or for evil; and it is important because on you now rests the responsibility, first of learning till they become woven into the very fibre of your lives, and then, of teaching and living, those high principles of honor, of truth, of obedience and of courage--moral not less than physical--which make, as they have always made, connection with the Corps a thing of pride.
It is, of course, a time of supreme importance to you. It is not an easy thing nor a little thing for any of us, when the time comes, to loosen, if not to break, the old home ties, to lay aside the old routine of life which custom has made dear, and take up one that is new and strange and of necessity hard, because the honor to which it leads is high; it is not a little thing to take the first deliberate step in the direction of your chosen life work, [2/3] to leave behind you the supports which have hitherto held you up and kept you pure and true and to stand, as it may seem, alone, relying on your own strength of will and purpose, on your own moral backbone, on the courage and the principles which have been built into your character. This is not an easy thing, nor a little thing, but it is a thing which, sooner or later, every man of us must face if he is ever to be a man in fact. It marks--this assuming of responsibility on our own account--the dividing line between boyhood and manhood, and with it begins the test which never quite ends till life ends, the test of what we are, of what we can do and endure, of what we can make of ourselves and of the life and opportunities God has given us.
To offer advice has proved a somewhat thankless task from the days of Rehoboam to those of Lord Chesterfield, and I do not forget the fate of the New Zealand convert of whom his chief told the missionary that "he gave us so much advice that at last we put him to death." Yet it remains a fact that, in the words of Lilly, "Those who will not accept counsel at first hand cheap, will buy repentance at second hand dear."
You stand now in a position which so long as you are here you will never occupy again. So far as your work here and your place among us is concerned, you have no past. What you are in yourselves, we have yet to learn; what you can do and will do, no one of us can prophesy. You are freer now than you ever will be again to choose what you will do and what stand you will take; freer because the power of what men expect you to do, the power of habit, the power of a thing once done reaching out to direct the doing of it in the same way again, has as yet, had no opportunity to form and assert itself. Take your stand now, and more and more other men will see that it is your stand and will hold you to it; you will become known as this kind of a man or that kind of a man and it will grow harder and harder to become any other kind of a man. Do the right thing now, and men will expect the right thing of you, will expect you to be clean mouthed and straight eyed and against every low and unmanly thing; and the very knowledge of that expectation will be strength to you and will hold you up through many a weakness and bear you safely over many a temptation. Do the wrong thing now, and just the opposite will happen; the wrong will be expected of you, you will be counted in as a recruit for such evil as there is among us, and evil in some form or other is everywhere. You will forfeit the opportunity for friendship with the very men whose friendship [3/4] and influence you need most, and more and more your associations will be with those to whom you do no good and who do no good to you. Though you may try at some future time to change and to take a higher stand, it will be harder then than now, for what men expect of you will hold you down in the place you have already made for yourself. It will be possible of course, to change, but it will be hard. And so I say, start right from the very first; as in many a race on the cinder-track, so in this, half the victory lies in a good start.
Another thing; have before you some higher purpose, some finer ideal than merely to "get through" some how and any how, paying as cheaply as you can with work and loyalty and obedience for your place in the high profession you have chosen. Surely that is not soldierly, that is not manly. The man who so begins his life's work cheats himself and his own future, and my experience is, that the man whose aim is merely to "get through" in this way, is usually the man who does not get through at all. With the first day of your entrance here you put away childish things and become a man, assuming a man's responsibilities, and fitting for a man's work which will justify the gift of life and opportunity, or show you a failure in their use. Your life here is not merely an ante-room to the wider life beyond, an ante-room in which you must perforce stay your four years, doing more or less unpleasant tasks until the doors are thrown open at graduation for you to begin life in earnest. You have begun life in earnest now and here. In all your life there will be, there can be, no other four years to compare with these in formative power and in their influence on all the other years. The most important period for a rifle barrel is when it is being forged and tempered and rifled and sighted--being made strong and true for its destined work. Let the work of that period be carelessly done, and it matters little how brave the man may be who carries it or into what splendid engagements it is borne, the rifle is worthless; and the more important the service required of it, the more will its worthlessness be shown and emphasized. Very much the same is true of the relation which these four years bear to all your after life. You are here to be tempered and tried and tested; in every way that human means can accomplish it, proved and fitted for your work, that in the supreme hour of need you may not fail. Then, in that hour, the work done now, the lessons learned now, the obedience and discipline acquired now, will count; and then, too, though you may have succeeded in [4/5] "getting through," if you have not learned these things and made them part of your very selves, then the weakness and the lack will show and declare themselves for all to see. Do honest work now, from the start, and day by day. There is a dream that most of us have dreamed and still are dreaming, of a far-off splendid day when we shall do some great, good thing and achieve a name known among men. Men, that day is one of those tomorrows which never come except it be as the tomorrow of a hundred and a thousand yesterdays filled with the doing, not of uncommon things, but of common things uncommonly well. The great things we will do some time remain for ever in some other time than that which alone is ours, unless we draw down and see and work toward them through the small, the ordinary, the commonplace, the often tiresome and wearisome things of to-day and of so many to-days to come, that the courage of the weak man fails before them, and only the strong endures and at last wins his opportunity and the success which follows.
There is another matter about which I want to say a word to you as you are starting out. A man's future, what he will make of himself and of his life, depends with almost mathematical certainty upon the character of his associates and friends. He may have good principles, his bible may be often open in his hand, remembered love may follow him with unceasing prayers, but he will almost surely do well or ill, as he falls among good or bad companions. Education, ingrained principle, ambition and conscience--all these will do much for him, but they will not stand against this later influence. There are many turning points where the question of success or failure is decided again and again. The most important of them all is friendship; if one wins the victory here, the reward of a strong manhood is almost surely within his reach. I am urging no Pharisaic spirit upon you when I say, if a man is tricky, if he is mean or brutal or underhanded, if he is low in his talk and his thoughts run easily to baseness, put a wide space between yourself and him. For his sake as well as your own, stand away from him while so long as he is deliberately living and acting below his standards, and refuse to be a party to his self degradation by lending it the countenance of your friendship or companionship. You do not help him--you hurt him by so much as your influence counts--by descending to his level; you can only help him and save yourself by withholding your friendship until it can be upon a plane of moral equality. Social or intellectual equality matter comparatively [5/6] little, but in friendship there must be moral equality; and if it be not gained by the lower rising to the level of the higher, it comes about by the higher sinking inevitably to the level of the lower.
Stand by your principles and the thing your conscience tells you is right. There is no place here for any man who is physically a coward; and surely there should be as little place for one who is a moral coward. If there be one thing above all others in which we may take honest pride, it is that in the Corps a man who has genuine convictions and stands honestly by them, is the man who is respected. It is the man whose principles are not genuine, who does not believe but only makes believe, or the man who has not the courage and sand to hold to the principles he really has--it is only these who are not respected because they deserve no respect.
Often it has been said that West Point is a hard place in which to lead a Christian life. If I were asked whether that is true or not, I would answer that it is true. It is a hard place in which to lead a Christian life--and if any man can point me to any place on this earth made by God to develope men in, and not pulpy, boneless, muscleless nonentities, where it is not hard to lead a Christian life, I shall know at last a place which has somehow been forgotten in the Great Designer's plan. It is hard to be a Christian here--as hard as it is everywhere, and not one iota harder. The man who wants to be a Christian here--and, thank God, I believe that there are more every year who do want that--can be one, and one of the highest and strongest type. Let there be no shadow of doubt as to this in the minds of any one of you. At his own door lies the fault for the failure of the man who fails in this--at his own door and nowhere else. Everywhere when men are tested, as tested here they most surely are, there is a revelation of character--of its strength or weakness, before perhaps unknown. According to what there is in a man, he rises or sinks to his own proper level.
Young men, there is before you such an opportunity to do, such an opportunity to grow and to become strong, such an opportunity to do a man's work and to count, that every best thing in you should rise to greet, to grasp it and to hold it, to make the most of it that it may make the most of you. God grant that you may do this bravely and truly, that there may grow in you more and more those qualities of character, of heart and of soul, which ever make the true solider, the true Christian, and the true man.