Oration on Ambition
October 6, 1800

Ambition is, what? the grand nerve of human exertion; the producer of every thing excellent; excellent in virtue, and excellent {excessive?} in vice. It is the very poison of society, more pernicious than the dregs of perdition. It is the main spring in mental improvement; the characteristic of intelligent man, the ennobler of his nature. It is a game engrafted into every principle of human action; a thread interwoven with every ligament of the soul. Yet is an airy fantom, a aclusive shade.

Who ever would irradicate it from his breast must tear it from the inmost fibres of his soul; whoever would confine it there, must lock it in a [periardium] of adimant and guard his fortress with vigils as [soakeful] as the vestal virgins. It is this, which promips a Cromwel to sheathe his sword in the liberties of millions; it is this, which exertes a Cobham to bleed in the cause of humanity, and, with his last expiring breath, sigh Heaven save my country! What then is ambition? is it any thing, or is it nothing? To talk of the subject more coherently, ambition is an inflection of the will, by which men are inclined to seek for eminence, in some direction or other. It is distinguished from emulation, by being generally predicated of those characters, whose only object is the empty tinklings of a name, without the solid merit of virtuous intention. Ambition in Ceasar, and in Washington is radically the same; in each it is the wish of excelling. But there is an essential difference in its direction. Ceasar's ambition was not subordinate to his virtue. It took the lead in his affections; it electrified his frame, and breathed in every action. He chose rather to be damned to everlasting fame, than quietly to recline on virtue, and rest in oblivion. Had there been other conquest for Ceasar to achieve; had not the Roman empire touched the two extremes of the then known world; he had never borne arms against his country. But he aimed at conquest, and no conquest remained but that of the Roman state. He would undoubtedly have chosen to fight in a more plausible cause; it would have been highly pleasing to him, to have the laurel of virtue entwined in the wreaths of his greatness. But, says addison, his great forefathers had left him nought to conquer but his country! Liberty therefore must bleed that the pride of a Ceaser may be gratified!

In Washington, ambition was a secondary principle. It was subservient to his integrity, "and rose and feel by virtue's nicest rules." An incitement to exertion, a spring to his patriotism, it added brilliancy to his merit, and the force of intuition to his genius.

He united his own glory with the good of his country and every other stroke of his aim, that added a laurel to his brow, erected a new pillar in the temple of freedom.

Thus various are the effects of ambition. It can enslave a nation, or it can burst the manacles of despotism, and make the oppressed rejoice; it can infuse the soul of a [hyance] into the breast of a Ceasar, or breathe the spirit of a celestial into the bosom of Washington.

Dan. Webster

Dartm. College Oct. 6th 1800


Return to Daniel Webster Index