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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1824 Letter

David McMaster

Delivered: 1874

Hearsay and tradition warrant the statement that your annalist passed four years of his life, from 1820 to 1824, an inmate of these College walls. Not, indeed, a close prisoner, for even at that early period the college liberties or limits, as we sometimes apply the term to another institution, extended as far as the post office in Clinton; and by special permit from the president, one could pass to Paris Hill, to Vernon, Whitesboro and Utica.

In citing the authority of hearsay and tradition, I have reference to the length of time, and not to the fact of my residence here. If I were to live 100 years, no other fact or act of my life could ever be more indelibly impressed in mind and memory than this. But in looking back over the line of half a century, so broad a space as four years, and at so impressible a period of one's life as that from 16 to 20 years of age, though still sharply defined, seems very much narrowed. Like looking at a material object, as the distance increases the angle of vision grows less.

College life, too, I think, was more monotonous 50 years ago than now. There were fewer incidents calculated to fix one's attention and mark the lapse of time. There were, of course, the little every-day excitements that always occur, and which help to keep the blood in circulation, where a hundred young men are assembled, but which soon pass out of mind and are forgotten. The lectures, the competitions for prizes, the athletic games, society, and other celebrations, which make college life attractive now, were mostly unknown to us. Whether these and other like stimulants, common to social life as well, and which accord with the spirit of the times, tend to the best development of the moral and intellectual character, we may leave to be decided when the life's work of the graduate of today can be compared with that of men of our first decade.

If, as seems to your annalist, College laws and customs were more conservative 50 years ago than now, he must also admit that College life, like the old College bell, was somewhat monotonous arid dull. Speaking of the old College bell—although the object of many gibes and practical jokes, I respect its memory. It was a great promoter of discipline. The habits of promptness, punctuality, and industry it induced have helped many a man in the journey and struggle of life. There are memories associated with it that linger with one during a lifetime. The emotions of a timid freshman at the first call to recitation, or to his first appearance on the stage for declamation, can never be forgotten or be reproduced.

In revisiting the haunts of College days, I have half expected to encounter its once familiar tones. And now, if on a cold and stormy winter's night, a graduate of the olden time should chance to be lodged in one of those ancient dormitories, redolent with the perfume of seasoning stove wood and with other odors, and at five o'clock in the morning should fail to hear the old College bell calling to Chapel, I should set him down as one of those profound and conscientious sleepers of 50 years ago, whose absence at morning prayers having been noted by the monitor, and who at the next Monday morning's recitation, having been called up for his excuse, touching his forehead and reflecting a moment, was accustomed to answer, "Didn't hear the bell."

The administration of President Davis will ever constitute an interesting chapter in the history of Hamilton College. During the period of my acquaintance here, Dr. Davis was mainly occupied with matters pertaining to government and discipline, and in looking after the material interests of the college. He had a reputation for learning and eloquence, but I was never so fortunate as to hear him deliver a formal discourse; and he never heard our class at recitation. He used often to officiate at prayers, and to preside at rhetorical exercises in the chapel, and usually attended the public examinations of the classes. His manners were courteous and dignified, and to students, personally, he was kind and friendly.

It was the custom (I do not know whether the custom prevails now) for members of the faculty to make daily calls at our rooms in study hours, to see that we were in and that everything was proceeding orderly. We always knew when the president was on his tour from the loud raps that could be heard through the hall. His manner was to rap with his cane, and without waiting an answer, to swing the door wide open, and bow himself in and out again almost before one could rise to return the salutation; unless he stopped a moment to enquire after our roommate, when, as was sometimes the case, that gentleman happened to have "just stepped out."

Dr. Davis' style, when out in three-cornered hat and other regalia, on Commencement day, was magnificent. No one who received his diploma at the hand of Dr. Davis, will ever forget his manner on the occasion, and the peculiar emphasis with which he pronounced the Latin formula, Pro auctoritate tniht commissa.

Time will admit but brief notice of the Class of 1824. In some respects the Class of 1824 was unfortunate. During our course there were serious disorders in College, leading to controversies in which the president became involved, and to the temporary decline of the College. Several members of the Class of 1824 withdrew toward the close of senior year, and took their degrees at Union. Among these were Lewis H. Sandford, the late distinguished vice chancellor of the city of New York, Geo. H. Mumford, late of Rochester, and Addison Porter, late of New York, all deceased. The class, during the period of four years, had comprised nearly 40 different members, at Commencement numbered but 16. Of these less than half survive.

This is not the time, nor is it for me to speak our own praise. But when the time shall come, not long hence, I trust Professor North will be able to make this record concerning us, "They led the lives of honest, industrious citizens, and but two of them ever went to Congress."

I suppose it is not the province of the annalist to speak of the present, or to anticipate the future. I cannot, however, withhold the expression of my gratification at the contrast presented by the present and 50 years ago, in whatever pertains to the interest of the college. Everything indicates prosperity and growth. After many years of absence, I recognize but few of the old landmarks. I remember a single line of a little poem read by Charles Hall, as a class composition, more than 50 years ago, in which in poetic vision he beheld the future glory of College Hill, when the rubbish that then occupied the college grounds should give place to objects of taste and beauty such as we see now:

And other spires flash back the blaze of Morn.

But men as well as things have changed. The old faculty members that we knew are gone. Classmates and friends have passed away. Shadows of cherished memories fail on every side. The future of this noble institution rests largely with the alumni. To erect and give names to college halls, to endow professorships and scholarships, to found libraries and prize funds, must ever be the privilege of the few. But there are other ways in which to patronize a college. Brothers, if you have sons to educate, instead of sending them down to Cornell, or down to Union, or down elsewhere, send them up to Hamilton.

Mr. President, in behalf of the Class of 1824, I thank the association for having afforded us this opportunity to revive pleasant memories. Juvat meminisse.