Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1830 Letter

Daniel Denison Whedon, Class of 1828

Delivered: June 1880

You are aware that when you informed me that I was not only elected but irrevocably printed, and for aught I knew stereotyped, as "Annalist" of Hamilton College, I was not a little alarmed. So long separated have I been, involuntarily, from the interiors of college life, that I did not know how much that awful title involved. My imagination was disturbed, and the frightful conception that arose before my mind's eye, of a biographic almanac of the whole life of my dear old alma mater, in folio, octavo, or duodecimo, by me to be elaborated, was truly debilitating. But when I received from your hand the jaunty performances in that line of my classmates, Dr. Wing and Judge Norton, in which the capital "I" is allowed to figure ad libitum without imputation of egotism, I was quite resuscitated. This is all the better; for autobiography of college days is to me far easier than history; for so well defined was my little circle, and so little knew I of the "not me" outside its circumference, that my reminiscences must be mainly personal. Grateful to my alma mater for this kindly recognition after years of mutual silence, and to my two classmates for the kindly mention of my name by both, I will try to skim my memories of the more than half century ago, and present as much of a dish of cream as I can gather from their surface.

My relation to Hamilton College though indirect was early. At about 10 years of age I was a lamb in the pastoral flock of Caleb Alexander, (in Salina, N.Y., now absorbed in Syracuse), to whom popular rumor attributed the honor of having been thought worthy to be elected Hamilton's first president. Tradition affirmed that he was efficient in the founding and chartering of the College. He was a pupil of Dr. Emmons, and a brief biographical notice of him I believe can be found in Professor Parks' interesting life of that eminent theologian. Dr. Alexander's sermons were models of the fine old orthodox preaching of the day. His square, solid frame, florid face, rheumatic limp, snowy crown of hair, and mild blue eyes, are so clear in my memory that I think I should know him if I met him, any summer's day, on Broadway. He was author of an English grammar, a Latin grammar, and a prose translation of Virgil. I never saw any of these books, but the late Alanson Bennett, Esq., of Rome, (with whom I briefly studied law), who had been his pupil, told me that he had read the last. Dr. Alexander established in his flock the then brand-new invention of a Sunday school, intended to make us all good boys and girls, to which end I think it greatly conduced. I remember that once when the congregation was passing out of the church he momentarily laid his hand upon my head and said: "Are you going to be a minister?" That laying on of hands seems to have proved a sort of "foreordination."

I well remember the sunny morning, when going from Rome to the Hamilton College Commencement previous to my admission, I first caught a glimpse of the College buildings crowning the summit of Clinton Hill. To my young ambitious eyes they were a vision of beauty, and the fresh memory of that young emotion is a joy to the brief  forever of my life. At Commencement I was impressed with the sublimity and range of President Davis' opening prayer, and also with the scholarship dignity with which, in antique tri-cocked hat, seated on the stage, he expanded his palms and pronounced the Pro auctoritate mihi commissa, wherewith he transformed the discipulus into a baccalaureus.

Vacation passed and I presented myself as a trembling candidate for the junior class. My preparation under Mr. Oliver C. Grosvenor at Rome had been slightly unique. I had in languages read through Virgil entire, from the first Tityre tu to the close of the Aineid; also Horace, Delphin edition, entire from Macecenas atavis to the closing syllable of the De Arte Poetica. In Greek I had read the entire New Testament and the first volume of the Grceca Majora by the aid of Schrevelius' Greek-Latin Lexicon, never having seen a Greek-English lexicon until after entering Hamilton.

Under examination in languages by the amiable Professor Monteith, I was triumphant and jubilant. But when Professor Strong, with his stocky frame, heavy brows, and black, brilliant eyes, began to probe me mathematically, it was a crisis. The fact was I had crammed my two years of mathematics into a little more than three months, and my cram was in a highly undigested state. In the midst of my trial the sympathetic Monteith interposed his intimation that enough was done. "O, I have just begun," responded the monster Strong, and let himself loose upon me again, with an onslaught which put me to the desperate top of my faculties and made me preternaturally successful.

Passing that ordeal I crossed the campus to Dr. Davis' residence, and ascending a flight of outside paintless stairs, entered the president's study. He of the tri-cocked hat stood before me, impressing me again as the natural scholastic dignitary. His tall and rather gracefully slender figure, his crown of mellow snow, his rich intonations, and kindly manner, all inspired me with a grateful reverence I have never lost. It is one of my pleasant recollections that two years afterwards, the parting address of sympathy presented to him by my graduating class was written by me. The single sermon from him, heard by my class, mentioned by Judge Norton, I well remember, and it has ever impressed me with the belief that had he delivered a sermon even once a term it would have given him a high advantage in the struggles through which he had to pass. His sonorous voice, though somewhat catarrhally affected, was often majestic, and often melted away into a semitone of deep solemnity and pathos. He uniformly officiated at evening prayers, and his prayers were often characterized by a certain Hebraic sublimity.

A number of visitors were in attendance one evening, and on our going out of the Chapel my classmate, Pease, said to me, "Whedon, Prex gave us a few new curlicues in his prayer tonight on account of those gentlemen present." A lady once said in my hearing, "I do not see how any one can hear Dr. Davis' prayers and not believe him to be a good man." As an inmate of his house and at his table for months, I can testify to the genuine dignity, courtesy, and piety of the man.

Three years after my graduation I was appointed to fill out the Commencement exercises by delivering a Master's oration, an honor which I shared with the Valedictorian of our class, Leicester A. Sawyer. After receiving my Master's degree, I was called upon the stage by the president with a touch above ascendat videlicet Norton; it was ascendat videlicet Dominus Whedon. That announced to the world that I was no longer a mere baccalaureus, but a dominus. After being delivered of my oration, I descended and locked arms with Pease for a walk, remarking, "I feel better now that it is over." "Yes," quoth Pease, "you have got the trash off." In my oration I had used the phrase, "a diploma from bedlam," considering it a pretty smart stroke. But unfortunately in the course of our walk we met a friend, who complimented my speech and predicted a future D.D. at the other end of my name, which gave Pease a chance to respond, "It must be a diploma from bedlam." The author of this bit of humor, Lorenzo W. Pease, sleeps the long slumber in the island of Crete, whither years gone he went as a Christian missionary. My fellow orator, Sawyer, I had known during our undergraduate days, as a fine scholar, a devoted Christian, a very fluent if not very original speaker, and should have without doubt predicted for him a distinguished career in the ranks of a correct and graceful orthodoxy. How little did I forecast that he could become a heroic iconoclast. As little could he have forecast my real career. Nor, in all my own daydreams or night-dreams of my own future, did the thought ever dawn upon me that it was written in the books that I was a predestinated commentator.

My destiny was next to be what Dr. Wing calls that "almost supernatural" thing, a Hamilton tutor, with Marcus Catlin for my associate. As he was an eminent mathematician, and I nothing if not linguistic, we easily divided labors by an agreement of opposites. Professor Catlin died before the fullness of his fame. He had a sterling worth that his genuine modesty failed to conceal. In his undergraduate days he was as concise and silent as Grant before his Presidency. Seeing things exactly as they were, he inclined to state them as he saw them. An amusing illustration of this trait is as follows: We boarded at a house opposite the college, and in crossing thereto one day a very sudden shower pounced upon us. All, however, had gathered at the table but Mr. Catlin, when he at last bounced in dripping with the big drops. He stood a moment and recognized that all were gazing at him in expectation of what he would say. With great emphasis he pronounced the words, "It rains"; and this axiomatic proposition was answered with a general burst of respectful good humor.

As I have run into a recounting of pleasantries (for little else is left me in the well-gleaned field) I will continue that line. We were playing at baseball, and one of the seniors above us by the name of P—, the tallest, slenderest, gentlest man in college, was standing among the outs to arrest the ball whenever it strayed in his direction. He performed this duty so languidly that the leader flung some sharp reproaches at his head. "Never mind," interposed a junior, "it takes so long for P— to send the intelligence from his head to his legs that the ball will escape."

The Theodore in the name of our eminent mathematical professor was, after the manner of college boys, familiarly abbreviated into "Tid." In the senior class above mentioned was a stalwart student, Jerome J. Briggs, who was in his sophomore or junior year called upon in class to show the equality of certain two triangles. One of his class whose name was Todd, was, like many others, more distinguished by other good qualities than by his mathematical success. Briggs so arranged diagram and letters as to demonstrate that "Tid" was equal to "Tod." "No playing upon names!" ejaculated the laughing professor.

I wonder if the annalist of his year did due honor to the memory of Dr. Thomas M. Foot. He graduated before I entered, but resided at home in Clinton, and his acquaintance and intercourse, both in my undergraduate and tutorial years, were a pleasure and a benefit. His reading was very choice and extensive. His conversation was upon a high literary level. His hearing was slightly shaded and his style of language was too bookish for the commonalty. As a true prophet may be without honor in his own country, so a well-read physician may be without patients in his own native town. Dr. Foot went to Buffalo, and in an interregnum in the editorial chair of the leading Whig paper he was called upon to write a few editorials. This he did with such ability as to render his office permanent. He was faithful to the fortunes of Millard Fillmore, and during that gentleman's occupancy of the Presidential chair he was appointed minister, to Bogota. Connected with his name is a tolerable Latin pun. He was walking one day up College Hill with my classmate Pease, and as they were at the steepest point they were passed by a fellow student. When a few yards ahead of them the student turned and spoke half a line of Virgil with its translation thus: "Pes tardus erat— Foot was tardy." The Latin was true of one, its translation of the other.

Very pleasant memories have I of classmate Hamilton Van Dyke. He was a typical Dutchman, preparing for the ministry in the Reformed church; solid figure, sallow face, scholarly, amiable, and if a little self-complacent, possessed of qualities to justify the foible. This last gentle trait prompted a pleasantry from a classmate. A senior, A.S. Colton, in his Chapel-piece, had quoted the old schoolmen's notion that the identity of Peter consisted in his Peterness, and the identity of John consisted in his Johnity. "And," said classmate, "Van, your identity consists in your vanity."

Some months ago the New York Tribune quoted an anecdote, attributing it "to a well-known professor," which truly belongs to a Hamilton boy of the Class of 1828. The said Hamiltonian was taking an evening stroll with a mate and encountered Mr. C—, a keeper of one of the College boarding-houses, engaged in grubbing certain woodchucks from under a stump. As he poked his hoe handle into their hole, such was the inborn depravity of the woodchucks that they snapped and bit at the intrusive poker. "There, there," he exclaimed, "see nater, see nater!" "At which end of the hoe handle?" inquired Hamiltonian. The New York Tribune adduced this semi-centennial anecdote to illustrate Senator Blaine's poking fun at the total depravity of the Democrats in Congress, with a spice of Adam at his own end of the handle.

Well, I have passed my three-score-and-ten years; and chronologically I am a senex, "an old man." I noticed the other day that an illustrious senator, who was scarcely able to suppress a rising boom for his nomination to the Presidency, was born the year my alma mater gave me to the world. Some of my juniors now and then dub me as "venerable"— a queer epithet for the rollicking Hamilton boy of 1828! But proudly do I belong to that choice minority, that aristocratic — nay, princely few, who have won in the race of life the silver septuagenarian crown. Fragile through these years as a reed in the wind, how many a stalwart oak have I seen prostrate his sky-sweeping top to the moldering earth! "A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee." The blooming juvenis of twenty, who pities the senex of seventy, pities what he doubtless hopes to become. The average probabilities are that he will never attain that coronal. If any of my young brethren, sons of the same alma mater, would inquire by what route he may hope to happily join that far future senatus, I must not answer; for coming from me, a Christian minister, the answer might forthwith be taken for preaching. But it may be that my classic brothers will listen to an eloquent pagan preacher. Enter then Rev. Dr. Cicero, author of a beautiful homily, De Senectute. And even he declines to preach it in his own person, but introduces the still more reverend Dr. Cato, to tell from his own experience the secret of a happy age. "The secret of serene age," says Cato, "is the practice of the virtues, which cultivated through every period of life, will, when long and much you have lived, bear most wondrous fruits, not only because they desert you not in extreme age, but because the consciousness of a life well spent, and the recollection of good deeds is a supreme enjoyment." And Cato introduces those still more reverend sages of Greece, Isocrates, who wrote his masterpiece, the Panathenaicus, in his four and ninetieth year, and even that illustrious teacher, Gorgias the Leontine, who, in his one hundred and seventh year, being asked why he desired so long a life, replied, "I have no charge to bring against old age." In presence of this Gorgias, I of course must bow a reverend head as being still a juvenis. But as a senex addressing my juniors, I may appropriate his words, "I have no charge to bring against old age." And here let my closing record be, that the guide to and through years of serenity, the remedy against pessimism of belief or feeling, is a firm, deep Christian faith. This, if my experience and trust are a test, renders life a eudemonia, its close a euthanasia, it is beyond an atbanasia.