The Independent Man
Talk by David Kilgour to Boarders
St George’s School
April 25, 1967
(At the age of 26, David gave this talk at a boys boarding school in Vancouver. It turned up recently in a drawer. Any comments most welcome. Please forgive the sexist language.)
I’ll be brief, but I’m grateful to David
Collins for this chance to throw out some ideas. My simple thesis here is that
it is exactly to the degree that you and I are independent in our actions and
words; that we will be esteemed and followed by those around us, whether they be
dorm (or prison) mates, fraternity brothers, or countrymen
To some, this theory is so basic as to be
nothing more than a not very penetrating glimpse into the obvious. To others the
theory is wrong in that its adherents will make too many enemies and keep too
few friends. For others, the theory is fine but the personal sacrifices required
to practise it are excessive.
Let me try to illustrate what I’m talking about: President John Q. Adams, a strong president, was, prepared to make enemies on all sides when matters of principle were at stake. Yet Chancellor Conrad Adenauer insisted that before one can be effective as a leader you must be popular. The point I’m trying to make is that we will never be popular in a meaningful sense, unless we opt for Adams’ approach. Adenauer certainly took it. For instance, after Hitler, as Chancellor, caused the Nazi Swastika to be flown from all public buildings in Germany, Adenauer, as Mayor of Cologne, had them removed from all public buildings in his jurisdiction. People remembered that.
Riseman contends, in effect, that the community today tries hard to smooth the bumps, preferring a uniform product. Eric Fromm, in his book “The Same Society” describes the product thus:
“…today we come across a person who acts and fells like an automaton; who never experiences anything which is really his; who experiences himself entirely as the person he thinks he is supposed to be; whose artificial smile has replaced genuine laughter; whose meaningless chatter has replaced communicative speech; whose dulled despair has taken the place of genuine pain”
The chief earmark of our villain is his overwhelming desire
to please. President Warren Harding may be cited. His biographer, Andrew
Sinclair, in The Available Man, states that history has little affection
for him; and he is generally regarded as one of the worst U.S Presidents,
chiefly because, in his desire to please everyone with a peace-at-any-price
attitude, he pleased no one.
Let me offer a few examples:
John A. Macdonald was first noticed as a future leader by the people in
Kingston when as a young lawyer he undertook, in the interest of fair play, to
defend a man accused of murder;
John Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential Election took an unequivocal stand
on civil rights when it might have cost him the crucial Southern electoral votes
and thereby added a post-publication chapter to profiles in Courage;
Governor General Roland Michener was sufficiently independent and
impartial speaker of the house between 1958 and 1962 that upon losing his seat
in the 1962 election he was not appointed to the Senate by Mr. Diefenbaker
before his government was defeated in 1963. Such was his stature that a party
against whom Mr Michener had fought most of his political life was compelled by
circumstances to appoint him to the highest appointive position in the nation;
John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1930 at the bottom of the worst depression the
world has seen had the courage to continue work on the 14 buildings of the
Rockefeller Centre. This provided jobs for an estimated 250,000 men; and was a
financial success almost from the day of its completion:
President Teddy Roosevelt was independent and courageous almost to the
point of fault. When his party refused to renominate him for Presidency in 1912,
he formed a new party and won 700,000 more votes than the incumbent President
William Howard Taft in the following election
I suggest that all these men had something in common - they put principle first, safety second; individuality first, adjustment second; courage first, cost second.
I venture to predict that not one of you will pass
many years before you will answer some very difficult questions. Your answers
will, I believe, begin to determine whether your family, this school, and you
have produced a common or uncommon human being.
You appreciate, I’m sure, that the “uncommon
man” is not a crank, refusing to conform to anything. He is wise enough to
recognize those upon which agreement and compromise are necessary, and bold
enough to take a stand on those issues on which he feels disagreement and
differences are not only possible but necessary.
When you chose to speak your mind you will acquire
enemies, but you will develop the reputation of being outspoken, sometimes
uncooperative, but always honest in supporting what you believe to be right.
A favourite quote of President Kennedy’s on this was from Dante and goes:
“The hottest places in hell are reserved for
those who in times of moral crisis, preserved their neutrality.”
To conclude, permit me to change the traditional “Make no little plans” to “Make no little enemies” – people with whom you avoid for petty or personal reasons. Rather, cultivate fundamental convictions. In short, on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.