Delivered: June 1890
The Class of 1840 consisted of 33 members; 19 stood together to receive the degree of A.B. at the Commencement day for the Class of 1840; one, who had been with us but a part of the course, afterwards received the degree, and has since been enrolled with the regular graduates, making our number 20. The 13 who completed only a part of the course left our college mostly for reasons satisfactory to themselves and to the faculty.
It may be mentioned as a fact creditable to those of the class, and also to the College, that those who completed their course sent back to the mother college seven sons, six of whom finished their undergraduate course, and received the diploma. Their names are as follows: Miller, Nelson, Knox, of 1868, Kendall 1871, Knox 1874, Knox 1880, Nelson 1881. This list of second graduation of alumni is unique, no other annalist having presented such a creditable record. The Class of 1852 is the only one that can equal ours in this particular.
John Quincy Adams once said that this country is always in a crisis. We have had political, national and financial crises. The condition of the country 50 years ago was in a financial crisis.
Accompanying and succeeding this state of things, religious matters were very much disturbed in this part of the country. In fact all these matters may have sprung largely from the same cause. When one is harassed in his business, suffering from or threatened with bankruptcy, or other business complications, it is not strange that his temper should
be ruffled, and he should find it difficult to live at peace with his fellow men.
In May of 1837, the Presbyterian Church, which was largely represented in New York and northern Ohio, was ruptured by the act of its General Assembly in Philadelphia, and three synods in New York and one in Ohio were formally exscinded from the main body. This scattered the brands of discord far and wide. As a consequence, smaller bodies of the same great denomination were divided; presbyteries and churches were rent asunder; even the old and venerable Presbytery of Utica was divided. Men took names for themselves, and gave names to their brethren. Some were called "Old School," and others "New School." Some were known as favoring measures called "old," and others favoring those called "new." The discussion on the slavery question waxed warm in those days. The Antislavery Convention of the State of New York was called to meet in the staid and conservative city of Utica, whereupon its people got up a riot of considerable dimensions, which might have proved formidable or disastrous had not Gerrit Smith, an alumnus of Hamilton, invited the convention to adjourn to his own house at Peterboro in Madison County; whereupon its members, in stage-coaches, private carriages, and on foot, took up their line of march for Peterboro, where they closed their sessions and discussions in peace.
The strife on that subject seemed to have invaded the College itself. For a succession of years it had been receiving a grant annually from the state by a vote of the legislature. That legislation was assailed by the Antislavery party, notwithstanding the friends of the College interposed, and Professor Lathrop wrote a pamphlet on the subject — the grant terminated at that time, and has never been renewed.
Oneida Institute had been located at Whitesboro as a manual-labor institution. It gathered to itself largely the sympathies of the Antislavery men, who were thus led to bitterly antagonize Hamilton College. The friends of the exscinding acts mostly antagonized the College because it was largely under the control of exscinded men. On account of the stringency of the times, the first party, under the plea that young men could support themselves by manual labor at Oneida Institute or at Oberlin, while obtaining a good collegiate education, turned their attention away from the College to these institutions, or as a last resort to eastern colleges, while the other party sought their own purposes proposing the advantages of Princeton with a similar result.
There were other discouragements incident to the times. Through lack of means to complete their course, students left college to teach for a season, or engage in other pursuits that would furnish the means to return and help them through; some of whom were never able to return. The same causes hindered the incoming of other students; parents and guardians were unable to offer them the help necessary to enter college, or discouragements were so numerous and formidable that many candidates for college were turned aside to other pursuits for life. And many who were determined to press their way through were compelled to encounter hardship and poverty.
Two young men I knew, who had laid their plans for life, which involved the necessity for a collegiate education. By much self-denial they had prepared for college in one of the academies in western New York. They had no adequate means, and no rich friends to carry them through the course. But they were determined to move along that line until they could go no further. When the time came they started for college. They stopped over Sunday on the way at Camden, Oneida County. Monday following they walked on to Clinton. Tuesday they were examined and admitted to the sophomore class of the Class of 1840. Wednesday was Commencement day as usual. Thursday they turned their faces homeward. After spending a few hours at the Oneida Institute, night found them at a little red tavern on the borders of Rome swamp. The room assigned them for the night seemed to have been already occupied by all the mosquitoes of that famous locality, all of whom seemed bound to revel through the night on human gore. When morning came, these young men went on their way, but it soon appeared that they were not apt pedestrians. The sun beat on them unmercifully, and their feet were swollen and badly blistered. At length they were compelled to remove both boots and stockings, and trudged on with bare feet. At length, one overcome by heat and weariness gave out and fainted away, and fell to the ground. His companion gathered him up and laid him on the turf by the side of the roadway. When he was able to rise and move on, he soon came to a farmhouse where a good Samaritan woman furnished him with her best room, her best bed, a good cup of tea, and a good hour's sleep. Thus refreshed, the journey was renewed, but the weather now changed and rain began to fall, and these ambitious students quietly crept into a little village on the borders of Oneida Lake in a pouring rain, when they bathed their sore and blistered feet, and soon retired for the night. The next day brought them to the end of their journey with the pleasing consciousness that they had entered college.
In nothing is the difference more marked than in the use made of Commencement day 50 years ago and now. At that time no railroads reached Clinton. In the morning of Commencement day well-filled coaches came rolling in from Utica, and the leading families from all parts of the county and from neighboring counties in private conveyances gathered here. It was a most pleasant and periodical outing which many of the best families gave themselves. I know a lady who is old enough to remember those days, who awoke one summer's morning in her father's house in an adjoining county and found herself entirely alone there. On enquiring of the neighbors what it meant, she learned that the older members of the family had gone an hour or two before on their way to Clinton and Commencement, nor did she see them till the shadows of evening had gathered about her home.
Commencement day was a great day. In the morning coaches heavily laden with passengers came in from Utica; the leading men of the county, lawyers, judges, clergymen, merchants, farmers, and politicians made it an occasion to meet and greet each other; to make enquiries about business and political affairs. The ladies, too, met their friends, and discussed very briefly the matters that interested them; the dignitaries on the back of the stage, and the young men that came to the front; the gratification of the thoughtful portion of the crowd to whom as usual an oration from such men as Albert Barnes or Dr. Leonard Bacon, or others equally able and distinguished, was a great treat; the music that could not easily be surpassed, the glitter and the beauty of a well-pleased multitude made commencement day spectacular, educative, and attractive. But it cannot be so now to the same extent. Railroads have changed all this. Scarcely a week passes now in the proper season that concerts cannot be attended, and eminent orators can not be heard on the topics of the time in Utica and Syracuse; and such are railroad facilities that there is scarcely a home within 50 miles of these places that the people cannot avail themselves of these entertainments, and be home again before midnight; or if it becomes a question of necessary purchases or shopping, the people can visit these large towns and return in a day, and spend all the money that is necessary, or that they can conveniently get. But if their purses are longer, and their wants are more clamorous and imperative, if it be a question of rugs or carpets, or furniture, or a new bonnet, or new gown, every lady knows how easy it is to slip down to New York and avail herself of all the variety and fullness of the great metropolis, as I heard one of them say a few days ago: "I have had a splendid week here. I have been in the dry goods stores every day and at the theatre every night." What could a modern Commencement day, or any other, do for such a one?
The same is true of all Eastern colleges. The common expression of Commencement day is that its glory has departed. The teachers of our day have all passed away ; the last two in the past year.
As to the general demeanor in college 50 years ago, it cannot be denied that there was an unruly element in it in our day. Perhaps, at first, we had more than our share. Mischief was not always harmless. When the students, returning from breakfast, saw the janitor's cow peacefully feeding on the campus, it was easy for someone to suggest to put that cow through College; no sooner said than done. The cow was immediately surrounded and skillfully guided up the steps into the hall. Meanwhile, someone had run around and closed the back door, and then by a little well-managed urgency, the cow was guided up a flight of stairs, and soon found herself the sole occupant of the tutor's room. The students had disappeared. There was no time wasted in planning such an act, and no concealment in putting it in execution. And though it took much more time for the tutor and the janitor to reduce that cow to her proper level, the report of the transaction, 60 miles away, did not sound well.
It may be called harmless mischief. But when one evening we were roused by the ringing of the bell at an unusual hour, and a bright light overspread the Hill, and as we looked out of our windows, we saw a haystack on fire, standing near where the Alpha Delta Phi Hall now stands, it was easy to see that the limit of harmless mischief had been passed; malicious mischief had begun. Soon after this a noteworthy event transpired. A church, or the churches of Clinton, invited Elder Knapp, one of the noted evangelists of those days, to come to Clinton and conduct religious services for several days in succession. He accepted the invitation, and in connection with his labors many were converted and united with the church, and some of the ringleaders in mischief were of the number, and by confession of their misdeeds, and remuneration for the damage done to their fellow men, and by well-ordered lives and godly conversation evinced their sincerity for many subsequent years. Almost immediately the unruly students began to disappear. One by one they quietly left Hamilton, some to take up their previous pursuits and some to go to other colleges.
The revival, the religious interest among the students, the great change in the conduct of their fellows, were scarcely ever assigned as the reason why they left us. But from that time forth to the end of our course, nearly or quite two years, the Class of 1840 had almost uninterrupted peace with the faculty and one another.
A great contrast between the facilities for a good education furnished 50 years ago and at the present time is apparent. The private residences furnished by the professors for themselves by increasing their comfort, have also increased their facilities for service. But the president's house, the observatory, the completion of the North College, the library and the Young Men's Christian Association rooms, have added largely to the course of study, and the number of teachers connected with the institution. The literary societies of 50 years ago, the Union and the Phoenix societies, reached their popularity and influence about 50 years ago. They were in their glory in our time. But they began to wane soon after, and finally gave way entirely to the secret societies, which have seemed to serve a better purpose than the societies they superseded, and have added largely to the material prosperity of the institution by the numerous chapter houses they have provided for themselves.
The number of students that graduated in1837-1840 was 76, and the number graduating in 1887-1890 was 141, or nearly twice as many. The whole number of alumni is 2,443.
The College has sent out 34 foreign missionaries; of these, 14 are now in active service. Of the 704 Hamilton graduates who have entered the ministry, 228 are now enrolled among the living clergymen of the Presbyterian Church, and 143 of these belong to the Synod of New York.
The material improvements made during the last 50 years have been the president's house, the observatory, the library, and during President Darling's connection with the institution, Knox Hall was rebuilt at a cost of $10,000. The gymnasium was rebuilt at an expense of about $2,000. North College, now Skinner Hall, was built at a cost of $16,000; Silliman Hall, $37,000. Athletic and lawn tennis grounds, refitting chapel, gymnasium, and recitation-rooms, etc., between $5,000 and $6,000. Library arranged, catalogued, and from 9,000 to 10,000 volumes added. Scholarship fund of about $27,000. Two or three new professorships have been added, one of French and German. An assistant professor of Greek and an assistant professor of rhetoric. All this speaks of advancement and growth. Notwithstanding difficulties and dark days, we can say, "Destroy it not; a blessing is in it."
"Mischief was not always harmless. When the students, returning from breakfast, saw the janitor's cow peacefully feeding on the campus, it was easy for someone to suggest to put that cow through College; no sooner said than done. The cow was immediately surrounded and skillfully guided up the steps into the hall. Meanwhile, someone had run around and closed the back door, and then by a little well-managed urgency, the cow was guided up a flight of stairs, and soon found herself the sole occupant of the tutor's room. The students had disappeared."