A Graduation Oration

Delivered at the late Commencement in the University of Pennsylvania,  June, 1813 by John H. Gibbons

The following oration was printed by the Philadelphia Aurora, on August 9, 1813.  It has been since reprinted, but nothing can be harmed by reprinting it again.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Encouraged by the favorable patronage vouchsafed to such of my associates as have gone before me on this occasion, I venture upon your presence as another candidate for your indulgent attention.

[Mr. Gibbons then recounts how puzzled he was in trying to find a topic for his oration, how he consulted one of his professors.  On his third application, the professor gave him this answer “that he had really thought of nothing, as a suitable subject for my oration.”  After pondering this awhile, Mr. Gibbons concluded, “that his answer was no evasion, and that nothing was in reality, the subject he recommended.”  What follows is the heart of his oration.]

Under the first head, namely the mathematical properties of nothing, I would not be so unreasonable, young gentlemen and ladies, as to expect that you should fully understand all that I shall say.  To confess the truth, I shall scarcely understand it myself.–In the first place, it is well known that nought (or nothing) however insignificant in itself, has the power of adding, to any number with which it is joined, a nine-fold increase.  But, what may appear singular, this same nought has sometimes the power of diminishing its adjoining number by nine tenth-parts.

In the next place, if nought multiply any number, it will totally annihilate it, however great, and this, by the bye, would be a very simple process, and, indeed, the only practicable one, for Great Britain to get rid of her national debt.  On the contrary, if nought divide any quantity, however small, it increases it to infinity.

Again, I have often seen it demonstrated by our mathematical professor, on his black board, that the nothing power of any number whatever, was equal to unity, and to its nothing root equal to infinity; that nothing to the nothing power equals something, and that nothing divided by nothing equals any number at pleasure; that nothing is the logarithm of something, while the logarithm of nothing is infinitely less than nothing.

If we proceed to the higher parts of mathematics, we shall discover many important properties of this wonderful nullilty.

First, it is the foundation on which the whole fabric of geometry, or the science of magnitude, is erected.  Thus a line is greater by the motion of a point (that is nothing;) a superfices by the motion of a line; and a solid by the motion of a superfices.

In trigonometry, it constitutes several functions of arches–thus, it is the co-sine, the co-tangent, and co-versed sine of 90 degrees; as also the length of an arch, whose secant equals the radius of a circle,  the complement of an arch, whose sine equals the radius; and the supplement of an arch whose versed-sine equals the diameter.

And not to detain you any longer with the mathematical properties of nothing it is in the higher geometry, not only the fluxion all invariable quantities whether great or small; but of all maxima and minima, that is, under certain circumstances, of the greatest and least quantities possible.

On the moral and natural qualities of nothing, and of its kinsman nobody, I could detain you, though I fear not entertain you, some hours, without exhausting the subject; but I shall be very brief, as my ten minutes,  I find, are nearly expired, and nothing will be an apology for transgressing the prescribed limits.  Something of its mischievous qualities I have hinted at already.  My young friends here, can bear witness, that it subjected him, and I doubt not very justly, to the correction of his teachers; and if we will believe those who are best qualified to give it, if they would, nothing is almost the only fault for which correction is inflicted, either in families or seminaries of learning.

Nobody, the near relation of nothing, is also frequently found in mischief.  When a house or store is forced open and robbed, a public lamp broken, a watchman knocked down, a pocket picked, or any other secret crime committed, nobody is most frequently found to be the perpetrator, and accordingly brought to justice.  But these kindred personages have also many good qualities, which it would be injustice to pass over in silence.  Nothing is sweeter than honey and stronger than a lion.  Nothing is more delightful to the eye than the light of Heaven, and the variegated flowers and foliage of the field.–Nothing can charm the ear more than the songsters of the grove.  Nothing can supply the place of a good conscience.  Nobody can count the number of the stars, or calculate their distance.  Nothing can be an adequate substitute for lost virtue.  Nothing, (I ask your pardon, gentlemen of the medical faulty,) nothing is of more benefit to mankind, at least to practitioners, than the healing art.  And to add no more, I dare say you will all heartily agree, that nothing could please you more, than to hear nothing more on this subject.
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About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden