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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1837 Letter

William Washington Farwell

Delivered: June 1887

It is a good thing to have graduated at some respectable institution of learning. It is true, one may be well educated and learned even, although he has never completed a collegiate course or received the degree constituting him an alumnus. Knowledge and ability do not depend upon the honors or titles that a college can bestow. In some cases college honors and college degrees prove an injury rather than an advantage. Those upon whom they are bestowed may attach undue importance to them, and may, when they enter upon the business of life, rely upon them as capital, instead of regarding them as mere signs and advertisements.

Still, there is a substantial advantage in having satisfactorily completed the usual collegiate course and received the usual degree. It raises a presumption in one's favor. The diploma is a letter of introduction from persons of the highest standing, as the instructors and guides of youth in learning and in morals. It is to the effect that the recipient is a good scholar and a good man, and that his capacity, character, and learning are such as to fairly entitle him to enter the ranks of those who are aiming at excellence in the higher walks of life. Such a diploma is like the stamp of government upon the gold and silver of the currency. Such stamp adds nothing to the intrinsic value of the precious metal, but it shows how much there is of it and what it is worth, and renders it universally receivable.

There is another advantage in being a graduate. Thereby one is admitted to a large and respectable society, the Society of the Alumni. They are all brethren, for they have a common alma mater. It is a good thing to be born, but it is very much to be desired that if one is born at all he should be born legitimate. We are not waifs or strays, having no parentage worth mentioning and no home to revisit. We can gather annually around the sacred hearthstone, and, forgetting intervening years, grow young again, as we recall college life and college friends. Not only so, but the scattered children can meet annually in groups at points far distant from their College home, and far distant from each other, and revive and kindle to a glow the memories and affections of those early days — days never to be forgotten, but alas, days never to return.

When I was in Hamilton College, 50 years ago, the college buildings were not hidden by trees as they are now, but were conspicuous objects, and could be seen many miles away. Frequently the valley of the Oriskany would be shrouded in mist or fog, leaving the hills bright in the sunshine. At such times the Chapel and other buildings could be plainly seen from the distant highlands, although the intervening country was hidden. In like manner, as I look back over the 50 years which separate me from College life, and live that life over again in memory, the scenes and sounds of half a century are forgotten or lost sight of, and I see and hear only what I saw and heard during the four years I was in College.

I see each member of the faculty, and I touch my hat as of old, with unfeigned respect. I see my classmates and companions, and recall the looks, the language, and the laugh of many of them. I hear the morning bell calling to ante-lucan prayers and recitation, and with an incomplete toilet I start for the Chapel on a run. College friends and acquaintances are never forgotten in after life. And this includes not only such of the faculty and students as may be well known to us, but also a large company of superior beings, who become known to us through their writings.

At Hamilton I was formally introduced to Homer and Horace, to Thucydides and Tacitus, and to many other eminent authors of old Greece and Rome. I became somewhat acquainted with them, and formed a very high opinion of them, but I soon found that I had no peculiar aptitude for acquiring a knowledge of any dead or foreign language, and that I could not hope to ever become so familiar with those authors as to be able to fully understand their meaning or to appreciate their literary excellence. I therefore never got on such intimate terms with any of them as would admit of my claiming acquaintance when meeting afterward.

There I came acquainted with Shakespeare and Byron, and Coleridge and Keats, with Milton and Cowper, with Gray and Bryant. I became intimate with Lamb and Hazlitt, and they are still my companions and friends. For a time I had a voracious appetite for the novels of Cooper, Marryat, James and Bulwer, but after awhile it got cloyed, and I am not sure that I should now relish any of them.

I found Addison and Irving charming company, and I still turn to them when I wish to see "apples of gold in pictures of silver." The Wizard of the North introduced me to the Crusaders, and I still like to read Ivanhoe and The Talisman. And last but not least in the list comes Charles Dickens. My acquaintance with him dates back to my senior year. He had just begun to introduce to the English-speaking world his children — the creations of his genius — and to show that world what miracles could be wrought by means of its language, and to demonstrate that there is no art that can compare with the art of using words.

And here I may say a word as to college sports and amusements. Our tastes were simple. Our wants were few. In the winter we snowballed on the college grounds or from the college roofs, skated, slid on the ice, slid down hill, and sometimes took a sleighride to Utica or to some neighboring village.

In the summer, on the half-holidays and during examination weeks, we took long walks across the fields and through the woods, and frequently visited the well-known bathing-pool in the Oriskany, southeast of College Hill, and if I remember rightly, some of us had, as Shakespeare says, "a kind of alacrity in sinking." We pitched quoits and played ball, but our balls were not the deadly missiles now known by that name, but were made from old stockings and were covered by the village cobbler. We had no boat club or baseball club or gymnasium. We had no umpire to decide our disputes. We needed no surgeon or chaplain to be in attendance for fear of accidents. Accident policies were not known in those days.

As regards to College discipline, it is but just to say that the students were, as a body, well behaved and orderly. Occasionally some effervescing or mischief-making character would give vent to his surplus animal spirits by some disagreeable demonstration, but such instances were not frequent, nor were the consequences often serious. Such persons would soon sober down, or if any of them proved to be irrepressible or intractable they were invited to withdraw, and did so. Hazing was not studied as a science, nor was it practiced as a fine art. Sometimes some of the "sophs" would "smoke out" an unsophisticated freshman, but the whole proceeding took on a social and friendly aspect, and no great harm was done or intended. Occasionally some laughable affair would come off. I recollect that some of the students attempted one night to serenade the president by giving him a tinhorn concert, but some one suddenly appeared among them with a horsewhip, and their tune was changed.

And this reminds me of what may be called the era of whitewash. President Penney had unbounded faith in whitewash. He regarded it with great favor, whether viewing it from a hygienic or an aesthetic standpoint. He whitewashed the fences and outhouses. He caused all the College buildings to be whitewashed from top to bottom on the outside, and he then commenced to go through the rooms, ordering down all pictures and whatever might be upon the walls for use or ornament, and applying the inevitable whitewash-brush, "without fear, favor or affection." Matters began to look serious. Nobody seemed to know when or where the thing would stop. The inquiry was, "What next? When the rooms are finished will he suddenly turn upon the students and, instead of debtor marks and warnings apply whitewash? Or in case of absence or default on account of sickness will he prescribe and administer whitewash?" Here was indeed a crisis. A gloom settled down upon us. An ominous silence prevailed.

It has often been remarked that when wants exist or great dangers threaten, it may, as a general rule, be confidently expected that sooner or later some way will be found out of the difficulty, and that some one will come to the front who will prove himself equal to the emergency. Many persons regard such signal deliverance as a special providence, while others, of a philosophical turn of mind, look upon it as a striking instance of the operation of the general economic law that governs supply and demand. Without pretending to decide which view is the correct one, it is sufficient to say that in the case before us, the event confirmed the correctness of the general rule. Somebody — I never knew or heard who — suggested and applied a remedy at once simple and effective. It would seem, from its character, to have originated with someone skilled in the healing art. It was eclectic, partaking of the heroic treatment of the "regulars" and the Similia similibus curantur principle of the disciples of Hahnemann.

The President had a sorrel horse and a red calf at pasture near the College. It was announced one morning that both had been whitewashed the night before. Fortunately a hard rain had washed off much of the lime, but as it wai "old sorrel" lost most of his hair, and it was a long time before he was status quo. The remedy operated like a charm. The arms of the workmen seemed paralyzed. They at once folded their white overalls and caps, and silently stole away, taking their pails and brushes, and we saw no more of them.

I am not aware that any efforts were ever made on the part of the faculty to discover who were the amateur artists who thus wielded the decorative brush by moonlight, or to punish them if known. I am inclined to think,' on general principles, that the faculty rather enjoyed it, and laughed over it when so situated that laughter was allowable. President Penney was an excellent and good-natured man, and being an Irishman he could appreciate a good thing of this kind, even if it was at his expense.

A word may be allowed as to college societies. When I entered Hamilton there were two literary societies — the Phoenix and the Phi Gamma Alpha, to one or the other of which all of the students belonged. Each of these societies had a good library, and held weekly meetings for improvement in declamation, composition, and debate. A third society, the Irving, was founded not long afterward by members who withdrew from the other two, but finally that and the Phi Gamma Alpha united, forming a new society called the Union, and from that time we had but two, the Phoenix and the Union. There were also two secret societies — the Sigma Phi and the Alpha Delta Phi. Soon after entering College I joined the Phoenix society, and always availed myself of its privileges and facilities for making improvement, and was greatly benefitted thereby.

And now permit me to advert to what were the principal subjects of interest to us in those days, in politics, morals, and religion. The students were not indifferent as to any of these matters. The admirers of Webster gave us on declamation day extracts from his Bunker-Hill oration and from his reply to Hayne. Clay's friends studied the tariff question and were full of statistics. The Jackson men described the battle of New Orleans, and cried, "Hurrah for Jackson!" The abolitionists took their stand on the Golden Rule and on the equal-rights doctrine contained in the Declaration of Independence, and were always ready to sign antislavery petitions and to attend antislavery meetings.

A large number of the students attended the convention that met in Utica in October 1835, for the purpose of forming a state antislavery society. It was broken up by a mob headed by prominent politicians, and on the invitation of Gerrit Smith, withdrew to Peterboro to complete its business. Smith had previously been an earnest and liberal colonizationist, but the demonstration of that day converted him to abolitionism.

Spencer Kellogg was at that time mayor of Utica, and endeavored to preserve the peace and prevent the mob from interfering with the convention, but his authority was disregarded and he was rudely treated. I happened to be on the sidewalk in front of Kellogg's store on Genesee Street as he returned from the scene of the disturbance. His coat was partly torn off from him and his whole appearance indicated rough treatment. Gerrit Smith had him by the arm and was inquiring of him if he was seriously injured.
These are some of my recollections of College life and times. I might say much more, but have already said enough. The half-century letter of 1833 faithfully describes the College buildings and their surroundings as I remember them. I attended that Commencement of 1833, of which Mr. Seward speaks, having been examined for admission to college the day before by Professor Simeon North.

Junior exhibitions and commencements were important events in those days, and were largely attended. I recall, as though it were but of yesterday, the Commencement of 1837, when I "spoke my piece" and received my diploma. I see the long procession headed by the Utica brass band, marshaled by General Comstock. I see the stage occupied by the trustees and faculty and distinguished friends of the College. I see the audience filling the church to overflowing, and composed of the best of people. The programs are distributed, prayer is offered, the band plays, and at length the audience, amid a great rustling of silks and fluttering of fans and display of bright colors, becomes composed, and the spectacled eyes of the old and the bright eyes of the young look at the program and at the stage to see what comes next.

It seems to me that I could again step forward and, after bowing to the stage and to the audience, repeat that "piece" word for word, as I repeated it 50 years ago. But alas the same audience would not be there. All of the faculty and all but one of the trustees have joined the "silent majority." If any of the friendly faces should have a familiar look, it would be because men and women and boys and girls sometimes look as their fathers and mothers, or grandfathers and grandmothers looked at the same age. Of my own class of 16, at least 11 would be missing, and the speaker, instead of being a smooth-faced youth of 20, would be a gray-haired man of 70.

In conclusion I may remark that our interest in and affection for our alma mater do not depend upon her age or her possessions or the number of her graduates. She may have rivals who surpass her in one or more of these particulars. Still she, and she alone is our "nourishing mother." "Honor thy parents," is an old commandment. No new discoveries or changing fashions can make it obsolete. We delight to honor our alma mater. We "rise up and call her blessed." There she stands on College Hill, fair to look upon, beautiful as the morning, stretching forth her arms and proffering assistance to such as have a thirst for knowledge, or a taste for learning, or a desire to become eminently useful, or an ambition to rise above their fellows.

She is constantly gathering in from the farms and villages and cities of central and western New York, many worthy and promising young men, who would not be able or might not be inclined to go elsewhere for a liberal education. As for myself, I owe her a debt of gratitude for the opportunities she afforded me, which I can never repay; for I have no reason to suppose that if I had not entered Hamilton College I should have entered any other. She introduced me to a world which I otherwise might have never known, extended my horizon, taught me to be liberal in my views and charitable in my judgments, devolved in me new tastes, and disclosed to me new sources of enjoyment.
Our natural parents leave us. The old homestead may pass into other hands and be cut up by railroads or disfigured smokestacks or derricks. We ourselves may be buried by strangers or by those who will soon forget us. The headstone that shall mark our grave may at length disappear, and no one may be able to point out our last resting place; but we know that our alma mater will remain on the homestead and that she will not forget any of her children. She will be slow to observe, and unwilling to hear of our weaknesses or failures, but she will be quick to perceive and pleased to hear of anything to our credit. She will take pride in whatever we may say or do indicating that her degrees are worthily conferred. And when at last "life's fitful fever " is over, she will give us an obituary notice in the records of the necrologist, and will place our names among the stars in the triennial catalogue, there to remain forever.