Prejudice: Williams’ first thesis

The text below is a reproduction of the oldest thesis written by a Williams student that is still on record in the school archives. It represents the beginning of the intellectual tradition and history of Williams College. Martin Ingham Townsend, Phi Beta Kappa class of 1833, wrote the original handwritten copy in 1836 for his masters thesis. Townsend presented his thesis as an oration to an assembly of students and professors.

After receiving his masters degree, Townsend went on to a career of high repute. As a lawyer in Troy, N. Y. he defended fugitive slaves who had fled to the north in search of freedom. He was also the first lawyer in history, acting in defense, to plead for a mitigating condition of insanity. In 1842, he was elected District Attorney of Rensselaer County. In 1874, he was elected to the House of Representatives where he served two terms. In 1879, at the age of 69, Townsend was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York. Townsend remained active in the political life of New York until his death in 1903.

Every person conversant with the operations of his own mind is conscious that he holds opinions in reference to some subjects which he adopted without evidence and without even an attempt at investigation. Whether these opinions were adopted through the caprice of some wayward fancy or out of respect to some master mind which has received and taught them, or whether they were first instilled in the nursery and we were taught to utter them with the first lispings of infancy; they are all properly described “prejudices.”

The influences which such opinions exert in controlling our judgements in references to the conduct, opinions or motives of others is a matter of common observation and furnishes food for reflection to every observer of mankind. But this is not the form in which this influence is most baneful. It is when prejudice presents herself in some sacred garb and with a fading frown struts up the pathway of our own reflections or investigations that her power is most to be dreaded. Her influence is felt by those minds whose Heaven is most pure, and whose upward progress has left far behind most of the abstractions in the pathway of the botanies of truth. But in the dark minds of the unenlightened her sway is uncontrolled. Indeed beyond the common occurrences of life mankind in general have until a very recent day known nothing or next to nothing correctly.

The bad, bewildered by the workings of an unrestrained fancy as he swept the sounding Lyre with a master’s hand, peopled the floating cloud with aerial inhabitants. Upon the far off mountain-top where the summer thunder rolled and the forked lightning played, he placed the father of the gods, ruling the destinies of men and swaying the scepter of the universe. Mankind listened in wonder, and, yielding to genius that faith which is due only to inspiration, adopted the wild ravings of a disordered imagination as truths too sacred to be doubted or examined. Such was the origin of the opinions of the early Greeks upon the subject of religion. Nor had their moral principles a better foundation, for there too the Bard, the genius resort and the ideal love with all his defacing characteristics, was made the model of morality. Opinions thus adopted were transmitted from generation to generation. The teachings of the nursery rendered permanent and universal those wild chimeras, which just sprung from a maddened brain. Nor were these opinions prevalent only in a barbarous age. The wisest and best man the heathens would boast was the victim of the same prejudices. Though Socrates could meet death undaunted, he could not free his own mind from his early belief in all his nation’s gods.

In physical science too the paths of investigation and, consequently, of all true knowledge, were no less effectually closed. Indeed no man dared to think but as his father or model thought. For would he innovate in morals? He set at naught the example of the gods themselves. Did he seek to purify the system of his nation’s religion? He trampled upon the inspired wisdom of the great and good whose deeds and whose maxims were his nation’s pride, nay the world’s ornament and mankind’s glory. Who can wonder that, under systems thus absurd and guarded by sanctions thus sacred and appalling, new human intellect should become debased! And that in so circumscribed a sphere, instead of genius soaring higher and higher in each succeeding flight, her wind should become palsied! Such was the influence of prejudice upon the wisest and most enlightened of the heathen world.

Fortunately, for the dignity of human nature, fortunately for the mental improvement of mankind, an era was at hand when nothing should be permitted to stand that could not abide the strictest scrutiny, where a system should prevail whose leading maxim should be proof of all things. For the Christian religion has not exerted a more renovating influence upon the moral then upon the intellectual world. Indeed it was not so much the province of revelation to impart new moral or intellectual truths to mankind, as to clear from the mental vision those dark mists with which the ignorance and prejudices of age had surrounded it, and to enable mankind to contemplate nature clearly in her own sight. Revelation explains that which had mankind been free from the Influence of Prejudices would have been clearly seen. Revelation is the interpretation of nature.

But although revelation ushered in the dawn of freedom to the human intellect that freedom hath not yet attained its perfect day. There are yet many geniuses fitted to soar, many great minds designed of heaven to wrestle with the mightiest thought that a clankless chain hath bound. There is a spell resting upon them more dread than the fabled spells of the enchanter. That spell is prejudice. Revelation itself was for centuries perverted and became a cloud darker than had ever before overspread the world of mind. So much so that the infidel moor unshackled penetrated far into the arcane of nature. The blinded believer in revelation deemed him that pursued those hidden mysteries as a reprobate follower of the spirit of evil and the same fate was decreed him that was meted out to the bald religionist that dared to think in violation of his nation’s prejudices. Never was there a darker period in mankind’s history. Never was there a time when tyranny of every sort reveled more uncontrolled. Religion was pressed into the service of the despot and man was taught that monarchs reigned by a might too divine to be doubted or examined and that political truth itself was the basis of liberal institutions, that power can only be lawfully wielded for the benefit of the governed was for centuries unknown to the mass of mankind.

The difficulties with which those master spirits who sought the reformation of mankind at that dark period had to struggle were chiefly in their own minds. And Luther himself had far less to encounter in German diets and in the thunders of the Vatican than in those prejudices in which he had been educated, and when he had come to have all things but the world of thought his own reformation at last was overcome.

In reexamining the life of that great reformer we are led to wonder not so much at a courage that dared to teach in a dark age truths which men would not willingly believe, as at that daring that led him to seek out paths which his own prejudices had closed and which he must at first have deemed it sacrilege to write.

The increased frequency with which new truths are discovered at the present day is owing to the increased number of those who deem that m
en’s minds, as well as ladies’, should be free, free not only from foreign influences but from those secret biases which are the result of presumption of passion and of education. Indeed it is the distinguishing feature of the age in which we live that those abuses of philosophy, religion or politics, which have so long prevailed and exerted their baneful influence over mankind, are beginning to loose their controlling power over men’s minds, and truth herself to be worshipped only when the most careful scrutiny has assured the devotee of her identity. Still, prejudice has been entirely banished from her dominions in but few minds. In some branch of enquiry, in some department of knowledge, she still exerts over most minds who profess to reason and think for themselves a most controlling power. That man who dares to examine all things in politics is a bigot in religion and adopts as his own the most illiberal prejudices of ignorance.

He that would stand up to the dignity of his nature, he that would be truly free, must throw off every shackle and come boldly to the examination of every subject of enquiry regardless of consequences. And if in his search after truth he is forced to yield up notions cherished from infancy, the dogmas of his model in philosophy or in politics, or even the religion he had deemed divine, he must make that sacrifice. His search must be not after what himself or others have believed or would believe but after what is true. For may he trust to the deductions of others, however respectable for age or for the station which they occupy in the world’s estimation? He must investigate for himself and wherever and in whatever garb he discovers truth, recognize in her the goddess of His worship.