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A Sermon Delivered in the Chapel, United States Military Academy, West Point, N. Y.,
June Nineteen, Nineteen Four.

By Herbert Shipman

No place: no publisher, 1904.

Text appears courtesy of Mr. Michael Seggie; Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2009

I mean this morning to speak especially to you who are standing now just within the threshold of the life which you have chosen, facing for the first time the duties, the opportunities, the responsibilities which are yours.

There is always, for the normal man, I believe, a sense of solemnity, if not regret, when he comes to the end of a chapter in his life, when he must make his last entry in it and lay it aside forever. And, too, when you look far enough and deep enough into its meaning, there is something as truly significant when, as now for you, there is opened before a man the first clean, unblotted pages of a chapter yet to be written, none of whose entries are yet made, and all yet within his power to say what they shall or shall not be. Once and once only does any man occupy that position. What he determines then is of supreme importance; from it all that comes after must take something of its tone and receive something of its coloring. That position is yours now; it cannot be yours for long, and once gone it can never be yours again. Therefore, I say to you, make the most and the best use of it while you can. 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 which a thing once done has to reach out and 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 man or that kind of man, and it will grow 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 and unsoldierly thing; and the very knowledge of that expectation will be strength to you, holding you up through many a weakness, and bearing you safely over many a temptation. Do the wrong thing now and just as surely 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. Though you may try at some future time to change and take a higher stand, it will be harder then than now [2/3] for what men expect of you will hold you down to the place you began by working 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.

There is a question about whose answer it may be you are already dreaming; a question which those who love you are surely asking in their hearts and praying that the answer may be what they hope; a question which the four years now before you will go far toward answering. It is this:--What am I, and what am I, and what am I--going to be? Young men, that question contains no riddle to which the future holds the only key; it is not a mystery at whose solution we cannot even hazard a guess to-day--we, who know ourselves! If you hold in your hand the seed of a particular plant, you may not know whether it will grow large or small, whether it will have many flowers or few, whether it will have much fruit or little; but you have no doubt as to what it is going to be when once you have put it in the ground. Because of what is in it, it is going to be one thing, one kind of plant, and no other. And, just as certainly, according to what is in you,--what you will and determine shall be in you--for you can decide that, as the seed cannot--according to that, you are going to be this kind of man, or that kind, and no other; a good man or a bad one, a strong man or a weak one, a man who does not know the feeling of shame, or one who lives in perpetual fear that others may see into his soul and find him out. What you will have or what you will get in the way of place and advancement, no man can say. But if you have in you principle and manly determination, courage and conscience, what you are going to be is not a thing about which there is any kind of doubt,--and, just as surely, there is no doubt what you are going to be if you have not these and do nothing to make them yours.

Start out in this new life of yours with a full and clear conviction, that what you are to be rests with yourself, with your own mind and will and conscience. It may be that some of you have till now been leaning, as most of us are inclined to lean when we can, on others for support. The time has come for you, as it comes surely for every man who wants to be a man full-grown, to assimilate outside props and supports, to find your strength within yourselves, to develope self-reliance. Sometime, sooner [3/4] or later, a man must accept and acknowledge responsibility for himself; else, no matter how many years he may have lived, he has not in character out-grown the age of the nursery or the kindergarten. If you have not met that responsibility before, I would have you look it squarely in the face to-day, for you and it must travel together from now on to the very end. You have passed the line which divides between boyhood and manhood and have left behind the right which the boy claims to appeal to his boyhood as an excuse for thoughtlessness or wrong-doing or failure to do right. You are not merely fitting to begin life in earnest; you have begun life in earnest here and now and are answerable for yourselves. I emphasize this, because I want you to take it as a conviction deep down into your hearts and minds and hold it there; for the want of it has before this brought sorrow and disappointment, if not reproach and shame, on men before whom the future seemed bright with every promise of success.

There is another thing which, too, I want to emphasize as strongly and clearly as I can. A few days ago you were called upon, as the condition of your entering here, to pledge with the most solemn of oaths, your loyalty and your obedience. You did this in the presence of the Corps, and of others to whom its honor, its traditions, and the service toward which it looks, are very dear; before you was placed the most sacred symbol of our national life--the flag; and you made your solemn promise, pledging each himself and his individual honor, in the name of God and calling on Him for help. Men, that was not an idle ceremony or an empty form; its meaning was intensely real and serious. It marked the beginning of a high and new relationship in your lives, a relationship closer and more intimate than the ordinary citizen enjoys, between you and the great conscious machinery of government. It was the sign and symbol of honor conferred on you and of honor required of you; it meant an opportunity given you to win a place among those whose life's business it is to stand between the nation and every danger; it opened for you the way to a share in the trust which the nation commits to those to whom she gives the care and training, the well being and lives of her soldiers and the guarding of her honor. It meant for you, if you are found fit, special and peculiar privileges, and, too, special and peculiar responsibilities. These are the things to which you look forward, and these are [4/5] the things which are guarded jealously, as they should be, that they may not fall into unworthy hands. It is this that the oath which you have taken means. It marks the beginning of the test of your fitness for a soldier's duties and responsibilities. By the way you keep it, not only in the letter but in the spirit, you will show yourselves worthy or unworthy.

Very often one hears a parallel drawn between West Point and the ordinary college or university. As a matter of fact, the parallel runs but a very little way. From the very day of his coming here, the West Point undergraduate stands on an entirely different footing from that of the college undergraduate. The man who enters West Point is not merely preparing for his chosen professions or for one which he may perhaps sometime choose; he has already entered his profession, and its laws are laid upon him from the start; from the first day, he is in the service to which he means to devote his life.

Unlike the ordinary college undergraduate, the man who enters West Point, so far from contributing to its exchequer, is himself recompensed for acquiring what it has to give. In learning, as afterwards in putting what he has learned to account, he is the servant of the government--of the country; bound not only to himself, but to it, here as hereafter, to render true and faithful service. Whatever excuses the college boy may find for wasting his time and opportunities, for ending his course more poorly fitted for work and usefulness than he might have been, these do not hold here; they must be meaningless to the man who feels himself not only in honor, but in common honesty bound to do the things which he receives pay for doing, and which his very presence is a promise that he will try to do. With all sympathy and respect for the man who tries and fails, I own to little of either for the man who fails here because he does not try. Such a man wrongs not only himself and those who, perhaps, have sacrificed much to give him his opportunity; he wrongs the government; he does what he can to lower the standard of this place; he wrongs the common conscience which demands that a man shall keep his contract; and he wrongs, too, the better, worthier man, who might have had his place, and for whom room is made, it may be, only when it is too late.

Again, the man who enters West Point, as he enters upon certain privileges, so he enters upon certain limitations, which do not obtain in an ordinary college or in the life of an ordinary [5/6] citizen. He does this voluntarily. He comes of his own free will, and if he find that he has chosen mistakenly, the door stands open for his going. But, so long as he is here, he must know and act as though he knew, what West Point means and for what it stands. Its purpose is not merely to give its students a general education and then, washing its hands of all responsibility, to turn them out to find their level in this calling or in that. Its object is to develope soldiers, fit in character and efficiency for their duties and responsibilities. It opens for its graduates a way to a profession which confers honor on all whom it receives; it holds itself responsible for them, for what they are and do, as no other institution holds itself, or is held responsible. And doing this, it has the right to demand that every man who passes through it and claims the honor of its name shall learn and prove that he has learned, the principle which is the very foundation of the soldier's calling--obedience. He must learn that he has laid aside some things which other men may claim as rights, as the price paid for a greater right--the right to be known as a son of West Point, the right to serve in the highest of earthly services. He must learn that hard thing for any of us to learn, to bend his will to the will of another, not because he understands, not because he agrees, not because he is convinced that that other is right, but because and only because, that other represents constituted authority and it is better that it be obeyed even when mistaken, than that you or I or any man should strike at the heart of discipline, though we were right a thousand times.

Men, I have brought these things before you because I would see every man of you acquit himself with honor, and win such a measure of success as lies in his power to win. No man can give more than he has to give, or do more than lies in his power to do. If doing his best he fails and goes from here, he will go with honor, and go a better, stronger man because, failed or not, he has at least tried. The impossible is asked of no man. Three things, however, lie within the power of every one of you to do, and are not only asked but required; and they cover practically all that is required of you.


Have these three things always before you, keep them uppermost [6/7] in your minds, put them into your lives, and you cannot go far wrong.

One word more.

It may seem to you that I have said very little, if anything, this morning which has to do with the subject of religion. It may be that I have not, at any rate directly. But I have been speaking of certain things which you must have, of certain things which you must do, if you are to be good soldiers and good men, and my faith is that none of us can be much of a christian who is not, at the same time, a good deal of a man. Christianity and manly duty doing are not two different things, but only different sides of the same thing, the silver and the golden, the earthward and the heavenward. If I have spoken only of your life and work now before you here, it is because I believe that practical christianity concerns itself and fulfils itself in doing well the duties--the week-day duties--which are given us to do. As we deal with these as men and christians should, the other side, the golden, heavenward side, becomes clearer and more real to us, and we are given strength because we are using strength, and God knows we need His help.

May He give you this as you go on into your work, and as you do it bravely and truly, may there grow in you, more and more, those qualities of heart and soul and mind, which ever underlie the character of the true soldier, the true christian, the true man. You are beginning to lay the foundation, not for to-day only, or to-morrow only, but for all your lives, and your lives will prove what those foundations are and how well or how poorly you have laid them. All that you do may, perhaps, never be discovered by any man; all that you leave undone may, perhaps, be known to you alone. Part of the foundations of every building are always hidden; but seen, or unseen, the building tests them, of what stuff they are and whether laid squarely and honestly or not. So the years to come, building upon these years, will test and prove what you are and what you do now. Here lies your responsibility and your opportunity; a responsibility which you cannot shirk, an opportunity to grow and become strong, an opportunity to do a man's work in the world and to count. May every best thing in you rise to greet it, to grasp it and to hold it; to make the most of it, that, as the years go by, it may make the most and the best of you.

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