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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1832 Letter

Ferdinand DeWitt Ward

Delivered: June 1882

It was a pleasant autumn morning in the year 1827. A stagecoach of the olden style drew up before a modest mansion on St. Paul Street, Rochester. Here was the dwelling of a family whose youngest son was about to leave for four years in college, preparative to taking his place and acting his part upon the theatre of public life. It was an eventful day to him and to the home group. The boy was very young, but a fair amount of native pluck enabled him to choke back his tears as he bade adieu to fond parents and an endeared circle who offered in his behalf the fervent prayer and uttered the heart benediction. The distance to travel was less than two hundred miles, but there were no railroads and the canal was but just completed. That lad of fifteen will, at your polite request, present reminiscences of college life as they came under his personal observation and experience 54 years ago.

Although my father was a student of Yale College, he preferred that I should obtain my education in my native state. There resided at that time in Rochester the Hon. Harvey Humphrey, a graduate of Hamilton in the Class of 1820. His favorable representations had much to do with my father's decision respecting where to send me. And here let me say that whether as a teacher, essayist, poet, orator, or judge, the Hon. Harvey Humphrey was a son whom his alma mater may well hold in lasting honor. His death occurred in 1877. My father gratefully accepted this gentleman's offer to be my escort to Clinton and see me matriculated. After two days and nights of slow and wearisome wheeling we reached this, at that time, very scantily-peopled village and were set down at the hotel kept by Mr. Foote. A brief rest and welcome meal over, we ascended a long, steep hill (seemingly much longer now than then) where I was introduced to Professor O. L. Kirtland, who after examination allowed me, when next writing home, to annex to my name the proud appellative of "member of the freshman class of Hamilton College."

The next requisite was a boardinghouse. "I know," said Professor Kirtland, "just the place, but I must go with you, for the landlady will at first declare that she will not take any more students." And so she did, but acquiescence followed to my great satisfaction. And here I must pause for a brief tribute to a husband and wife of exceptional excellence. Mr. G. B. was quiet in manners, gentle in voice, amiable in disposition, not over active, but truly pious. Mrs. G. B. was quick, impulsive, having a will of her own, which she asserted in no timid language or deed. Their mutual attachment was tender and strong. Both have long since gone to their heavenly home, but leaving a record of piety and usefulness denied to many of greater wealth and higher social status. What room I occupied has passed from recollection, but this I remember, that it was on the second floor, looked out upon the campus, and had three apartments — for study, for bed, and for wood — all attended to by my own hands. How often the rooms were swept and the bed neatly made had better be left for a Yankee guess. Of all this the less said the better. Tempora mutantur, which when freely translated means, I subsequently married a wife who cheerfully relieves me of all these domestic concerns.

At that time this institution had as President Henry Davis, D.D., whose supremacy in the realm of letters was recognized the land over. He graduated at Yale, was tutor at Williams, tutor and professor of divinity in his alma mater, professor of mathematics at Union, president of Middlebury College, invited to succeed Dr. Dwight in Yale and Dr. Backus in Hamilton, which last "call" he accepted and was inaugurated in 1817, resigning in 1833, after an administration of 16 years.

Dr. Davis was the peer of any American of his day in thought, scholarship, and pulpit eloquence. That his administration did not realize all the results anticipated from one of his national reputation is not attributed to lack of intellectual ability and power, but to too great fondness for the retirement of his study and too little outgoing sympathy. He almost never appeared in the pulpit or on the platform of city or town, and he could not "stoop to conquer" a place in the heart of his pupils. We all bowed before the majesty of his intellect but could not accord him our love. He failed in those respects in which Presidents Nott, Backus, Dwight, and Hopkins did, and Presidents Anderson, Cattell, Mccosh, etc., do excel.

The chair of higher mathematics was occupied by Theodore Strong, LL.D., who was called to Rutgers College in the year 1829, where he passed a long-honored useful life. His departure was a great loss to the institution.

The professor of natural philosophy was O.L. Kirtland, skillful in the classroom and so devoted to the College that when limited funds diminished his salary he made trunks for a firm in Utica, and thus kept the wolf from the door. He subsequently entered the ministry, and died in 1874. He was my father's friend and mine. It is pleasant to recall his name and record his excellence of mind and heart. Doctor Noyes, the "chemical professor," was well read in his science, dexterous in manipulation, full of good humor, the life of the social circle.

E.D. Maltbie, teacher of rhetoric and oratory, was a model of courtesy, his character very beautiful to behold and healthful for youth to have before them. He married the president's daughter, and died in the ministry.

Rev. John Monteith was professor of the Latin and Greek languages, to which was added instruction upon the Sabbath in the sacred volume. One of the students was George Guiteau, of Trenton Falls, educated at home in Socinian theology, who was fond of puzzling this good man with questions of a character not easy for any one to answer at the moment.

The faculty of Hamilton was at this time equal to the necessities of all in attendance. It was not from any fault in the teachers that a descensus occurred, threatening an end to the institution. The number of students was not large, but some among them made during their life career, and others are still making, a notable record for excellence and usefulness near and far. My earliest formed, most intimate, and still living and loved associates are David Rinaldo Bacon and John Cochrane.

My classmate Bacon, of LeRoy, writes to me thus: "But for the small numbers that remained to witness the dying glories of the college there was no institution of the land that could present in proportion a larger number of worthy names or who have made a more commendable record. I say 'dying glories,' for did not the last catalogue of our day bear on its broad sheet, bordered in deep black, the leaded motto, Sic transit gloria mundi." Yes, I remember that catalogue well. A sad college eclipse! The sun again arose and is moving onward and upward, to exceed, we trust, all that the institution was in its brightest days.

The year was drawing to a close, with Commencement near at hand. At that time there was to be an evening contest for the freshman prize for oratory. Days were spent by each of us in looking up a piece; one was rejected, and a second, and a third; but finally I chose an extract from a speech of Griffin, of New York, against Cheetham, for libel. Weeks were required to commit it to memory, but it was finally engraven so deep upon the tablet that 50 years have failed to erase it. It started off thus, "The heart of a deliberate libeler is blacker than that of a highway robber or of him that commits the crime of midnight arson." I got along quite well till I came to this exclamation, "He may look, like Anaxagoras, to the heavens," and there I stopped, for one thing troubled me — Who was the person thus eloquently invoked? I had heard of Alexander the blacksmith, who did Paul so much harm, and Alexander The Great, son of Philip of Macedon, and Agamemnon, commander of the Grecian forces against Troy, and Artaxerxes of Persia, and Archimedes who wanted a fulcrum, and Aristotle the philosopher, and Achilles one of Homer's heroes, and Aeneas one of Virgil's heroes, and Esopus the fabulist, and Ajax who "strove some huge, vast rocks to throw," and Anacreon the songster, and Aristides the just, and Atlas supporter of the universe, and Athanasius the bishop, but Anaxagoras—who was he? Yes, who was Anaxagoras? I was all in a fog till I went to Professor Maltbie, who, with characteristic kindness, enlightened my ignorance.

And then we trio used to go to the neighboring ravine and while two stood upon one bank to hear and criticize, the other from the opposite bank held forth with the lungs of a Stentor and the eloquence of — well, Demosthenes or Cicero. At length the program, printed at Utica, came to hand, and — lo! — my name had for some unaccountable reason been omitted. (Of course no one was to blame, as the papers say when there is a railroad collision and 50 persons killed.) I was somewhat provoked, but said to my companions: "Boys, perhaps he whose name is not there is the very one to carry off the prize." And so he did. The rest were for a little time piqued, quite naturally, but in less than two hours they came, and taking my hand, congratulated me on my success, which they added was well deserved. Noble boys! I was proud of their companionship and was grateful for their kind words, the last I ever heard from any but two of them. As I did not return to College the prize never came into my possession. I have been repeatedly told that when I next came to the Hill it should be given me. Well, here I am after an absence of half a century, to pay charges for storage and take it away!

Referring to this Commencement day, a recent annalist says: "I climbed by a ladder through a north window of the old church on the green, sat in the corner square pew occupied as a waiting room, until summoned by the sonorous voice of President Davis crying out, Primus ascendat videlicet Norton, and in very limping Latin I saluted the president and faculty and trustees and class and general audience."

Here let me say parenthetically, that this is Hon. Henry P. Norton —a longtime resident at Brockport, esteemed in private life and honored with many public trusts. The valedictorian was L.A. Sawyer, subsequently a college president and author of a translation of the New Testament Scriptures, though D.D. Whedon, or Sylvester Cowles, or C.P. Wing might have disputed the honor.  My classmate, Bacon, calls to my recollection this memorable day in these graphic sentences:

"For a circuit of twenty miles around, the 'beauty and the chivalry,' and all else beside, were gathered within the walls of the venerable two-story meeting-house on the green, to receive a great supply of wisdom from that perennial fountain on the hill. An unusually large number was assembled because of an address expected from Hon. Lewis Cass, then en route as minister to France by appointment of President Jackson. Curiosity was on the tiptoe to see a living governor from the distant territory of Michigan, and the small frontier town of Detroit, on the border of Western civilization; all else beyond was, according to geographers, the habitat of the Indian and the buffalo, with here and there a fort (as in the then Chicago). And there we sat for two hours, patient but weary listeners. The address, as read, was scholarly and faultless in sentiment and style, but the orator's low, slow, heavy delivery was quite in keeping with his massive face and features. Following the general was Mr. William J. Bacon, of the Class of 1822, who addressed the alumni. Conspicuous above all others upon the stage, was the erect and manly form and noble face of Hon. Gerrit Smith, a lifelong friend and liberal benefactor of this institution, and of whatever tended to advance truth, virtue, and human happiness."

The speech of General Cass I had quite forgotten, but not that before the alumni. I well remember Mr. Bacon's voice and manner, and the topic of conversation between the president and himself in the former's parlor. Thanks to my friend for refreshing my memory, showing how lightly age sits upon him. He, Cochrane, and the writer are boys still, though each has reached the period allotted to humanity. Innate cheerfulness, temperate habits, and industrious pursuits have, with the divine blessing, kept us vigorous in body and mind.

The history of Hamilton has furnished the usual record of college tricks, most of which were but ebullitions of boyhood hilarity, more wearisome than injurious to others. The firing of a cannon before a tutor's door, which burst and sent its fragments from garret to cellar, was far more harmful than the perpetrators anticipated. Here is one that came under my personal observation. My roommate for a time was the son of the pastor in New Hartford, who was also a College trustee. He was innately wild, and a great grief to his fond and too indulgent parents. This youngster (not hinting to me what he was about to do) went to the village, purchased a lot of bed-cord, cut it into pieces of the requisite length, tied closely (at midnight) every room in each building, went to the Chapel, awoke the bell ringer, compelled him by threat of death to give up the keys, ascended the belfry, cut off the bell rope, descending, locked each door behind him, hid the keys behind the fence, and came to bed. As the result there was no morning bell rung — no Chapel prayers, no morning recitation. Montes parturient!  Poor boy! After posting himself in Western life to infatuation, he ran away from home, and was, I am told, heard of no more. The report was that he went among the Indians and was killed. A sad end of what might have been an honored and useful life. His face is now before me, bright, pleasant, but with a will untamed and impulses rudderless! My participation in these hilarities went no further than helping to bereave a neighboring barnyard of a fat fowl and making of it a midnight meal. But in this case "stolen waters were (not) sweet," as what with constant fear of discovery, sweeping away all the feathers and bones, cleaning and returning borrowed plates, knives and forks there was no repetition of this foul (fowl) deed or any like it. It was enough to talk about to the gaping boys at home. In no direction is greater wisdom demanded by a college faculty than in the treatment of these boyish tricksters. Planned, persistent, and harmful acts cannot be passed by with impunity. Injury to person or property must be punished. Direct and known disobedience of laws should not be allowed. Hazing, as is too common in some institutions, must be "put down," come what may. But puerile frivolities are at most but slightly annoying, no harm intended, are to be treated accordingly. In his admirable address at the inauguration of the present distinguished incumbent of the presidential chair, his honor, Judge Bacon makes this remark, "I may err in judgment but I believe that in college government, as in some other institutions, there are some things that may not either be seen, or if seen may be judiciously overlooked."

Here, allow me to say, lay the power of that prince of college presidents, Dr. Nott, of Union College. He could see, and not appear to see, know and be silent. But one trick occurred while I was at Union, which was the burning of a haystack in a neighboring field. At next chapel worship, the president treated us to a most eloquent description of the conflagration, of which he was himself a spectator, adding that what most attracted his attention was to see the delight with which his "black boy Sam" ran round and round the burning pile. Had it transpired who applied the torch he would have been styled thenceforth "Sam the arson." It was understood that the perpetrator early paid a reluctant though healthful visit, by invitation, to the president's study.

This address must not be closed without a view, cursory though it may be, of what Hamilton College has been in its teachers, and of what it has done and is doing through its many graduates for truth in nature and higher truth in revelation, for humanity and for God! Its presidents have been Doctors Azel Backus, of "large culture, keen wit, and deep religious convictions"; Henry Davis, of national reputation; Sereno E. Dwight, the gifted son of President Dwight of Yale; Joseph Penney, a distinguished alumnus of Dublin and Glasgow universities; Simeon North, during whose presidency of 18 years "decided advances were made in all that contributes to the substantial worth, vitality, and usefulness of the institution"; Samuel W. Fisher, eminent in pulpit oratory; Samuel G. Brown, of broad culture, great dignity, a vigorous thinker and polished writer; and Henry Darling who is equal, it is believed, to any of his illustrious predecessors. With difference of intellectual strength and scholastic attainments and administrative success, there is not a mediocre man as to mind or scholarship among them all. When a vacancy occurred, time and care have always been taken in selecting a successor. Whatever failure may have in the least degree occurred has arisen from the two facts, that the only true test of fitness is trial, and that all qualifications do not unite in one person. A master in scholarship may fail as a teacher to others; an orator in the pulpit may be unskillful as tutor in the classroom, and he who can hold in rapt admiration a gathered thousand, may not succeed in controlling one self-willed lad in his teens. For success in presiding officers, Hamilton College, however, is second to none in the land.

Among occupants of the professorial chairs, several have achieved such a reputation as not to forbid the propriety of their special mention. Dr. Hadley, the chemist; Dr. Strong, the mathematician; Dr. Upson, the logician, rhetorician, and elocutionist; Dr. Peters, the astronomer; Dr. Dwight, the jurist. These, while standing out with exceptional prominence, are not alone among the dead or living who have attested by success an ability to meet the duties of their respective chairs.

Hamilton points with just pride to its 2,246 alumni, many of whom are doing noble work for human welfare and the divine glory. Rev. Dr. Henry Kendall, in his admirable address of last year, well says: "The time has come to make Hamilton College for central and western New York what the best colleges in New England are to New England, and what it ought to be for the salvation of the entire country."

Such are the hopes and expectations of him who recalls his freshman year at Hamilton as one among the most delightful in a long, laborious, and eventful life; of one whose great pleasure it is to be again in this classic town, the favored guest of your distinguished president (preclarum nomen in the church and land); to live over events that have occurred during the last 50 years, and to evoke for this venerable institution the benediction of Him to whose divine spirit it owes existence, and whose it is to continue it in being with still greater prosperity and more enlarged benefit to the nation and the world.