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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1841 Letter

Edward North

Delivered: June 1891

When George Bristol, of the Class of 1815, presented the first half-century letter, 26 years ago, it was the beginning of a book of autochthonous literature that had no counterpart in any American college. If our Society of Hamilton Alumni has no other original feature, peculiar to the soil of Clinton, it can at least make good its claim to have introduced the half-century letter. The reading of George Bristol's picturesque letter revealed to the annalist of today what seemed to be a wide, fathomless gulf between 1865 and 1891. The busy gliding years have built a Brooklyn bridge over that wide gulf, and today they call for another half-century letter.

The position of a half-century annalist holds out no summons to loud merriment. It is more in the nature of an invitation for one who "lags superfluous on the stage," to make his farewell deliverance, to detail his personal reminiscence, and say his cheerful good wishes to the younger graduates before he takes his final sleep.

To one riding up junior Hill at sunset a student crossing the street from Silliman Hall to Professor Root's, forms a moving silhouette on the background of a golden sky. It is a familiar sight, yet it never loses its interest. Even so, to one whose thoughts travel back for half a century or more, there are picturesque figures and characters in the idyllic life of College Hill, whose coming and going from day to day are silhouettes that give their own movement and peculiar charm to the golden memories of1841.

It would be useless to attempt an improvement on the sketches of the faculty of 1837-1841, as they were made by the Rev. Dr. Parsons C. Hastings, Class of 1838, of Brooklyn, in his half-century letter.

The Class of 1841 had the handling of two new professors and two new tutors, in which they fully recognized a provision in the unwritten common law of American colleges that a new instructor is to be thoroughly tested as to his scholarship, ability, aptness to teach, patience, pluck, and intellectual tout-ensemble.

In 1839 the vacancy in the chair of Latin and Greek was filled by the promotion of Tutor John Finley Smith, of the Class of 1834. He was the only son of Rev. John Smith, of Cooperstown, and had been graduated from Auburn Seminary in 1838. He gave instruction for a single term in French. We often met him in a social way, and in religious meetings, and were captivated, as all others were, by his generous and brilliant qualities. His joyous nature found an easy, natural expression in song and instrumental music. To human prophecy a bright and enviable future was before him. But his marriage in April 1840, to the only daughter of Deacon Orrin Gridley, of Clinton, was followed by her death early in 1842, and his own death, October 4, 1843.

There was a wide difference between Professor John H. Lathrop and his successor, Rev. Dr. Henry Mandeville, whose habits as a preacher were not altogether suited to the atmosphere of the recitation room. But Dr. Mandeville quickly adjusted himself to his new surroundings, and soon became an attractive power in the College faculty. His admirable system of elocution gave the College a prestige with candidates for public speaking which it retains at the present day.

Tutor Thomas T. Bradford was a capable and zealous instructor, with a sincere conviction of the truths of the Bible; always unselfish and sympathizing.

Tutor Benjamin W. Dwight introduced the study of German, and his enthusiasm for a language not then fully acclimated in American colleges, created a demand which has gained in force from year to year until the German is now a required feature of the regular course under Professor H. C. G. Brandt.

Fifty years ago the chief glory of this College, as students measured its attractiveness, was to be found in its two literary societies, the Union and Phoenix. Naming the Union first, in spite of its alphabetical insequence, is the confession of an indelible personal prejudice, which ought not to give offense to surviving Phoenicians, now that both societies have closed their records, and adjourned without day. All the students belonged to one or the other of these two societies, and the first week of each college year was largely devoted to a vigorous canvassing for new members. They were organized, like the Clio and Whig societies of Princeton, as aids to intellectual discipline in all its practical and popular branches. Parliamentary rules were strictly enforced at the weekly meetings, each Wednesday evening. The presiding officer was chosen from the senior class, and his elaborate decision, at the close of a heated debate, would sometimes foreshadow a statesman's career. The debates themselves, when political questions were discussed by such ready debaters as Erastus Clark, James W. TayLor, Glenni W. Scofield, and Ashbel P. Willard, are recalled today as rare examples of forensic talent. Careful preparation was made for a variety of exercises in oratory, criticism and belles-lettres writing. Whenever a graduated Unionist or Phoenician returned to College Hill, he was greeted with a fraternal welcome that rekindled dormant enthusiasm "on the hearthstone of the heart."

The favorite novelists, 50 years ago, were Walter Scott, Bulwer, George P. R. James, and Fenimore Cooper. Dickens and Thackeray had just harvested their first laurels, with Pickwick Club and Yellowplush Papers. The poets most read were Shakespeare and Milton, Byron, Goldsmith and Wordsworth. The Thanatopsis of Bryant had given him his first sure glimpse of immortality, and Longfellow's Psalm of Life had appeared as a prelude to yet grander rhythms. Holmes and Whittier stood on the lower rungs of the lofty ladder of renown, from which they are now waiting a call to the stars. N. P. WILLIS was giddy with a transient, schoolgirl applause, of which only a feeble echo now survives. The Essays of Elia and Talfourd's Biography of Charles Lamb were most delightful and suggestive reading. Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales had given a sudden boom to the Democratic Review; but there was in them, with all their brightness, no legible prophecy of the inimitable Scarlet Letter and the Marble Faun. Horace Greeley's New Yorker and Clark's Knickerbocker were glad to publish contributions from such brilliant student writers as Gurdon Huntington and James W. Taylor. George Bancroft had been at work for 10 years, or longer, on his History of the United States, and the first volume was already published. Mrs. Caroline M. Kirkland's New Home in the West — Who'll Follow? had opened a rich vein of genre literature, which has since been profitably worked by such writers as Bret Harte and Edward Eggleston. Mrs. Kirkland's first book was welcomed with special enthusiasm in Clinton, where she had passed her early youth as Miss Stansbury, in the home afterwards occupied for 40 years by Professor Avery.

The sermons of Elder Jacob Knapp, as preached in the Baptist Church in Clinton, will be remembered by the undergraduates of 1838 so long as they remember anything. In Biblical interpretation Elder Knapp was a literalist of the John Bunyan School. In his Biblical exegesis a spade was a spade, and the undying worm was a venomous centipede, just that and nothing less. Allegory and figures of speech had no place in his stern theology. The lost sinner was pictured to his hearers Dantesquely as swimming to and fro in a vast lake of liquid fire.

In spite of Elder Knapp's reckless massacre of syntax and rhetoric, there was a searching power in his earnestness and his fearless denunciation of the hardened sinner that was well-nigh irresistible. Students who went down to the Baptist church "just for the fun of the thing," remained to occupy the anxious seat and ask to be prayed for. There were many conversions at Hamilton; many in the village; and the number was much larger in Utica, where 800 new converts sat together in the First Presbyterian church, with Hon. Joshua A. Spencer among them, at the close of Elder Knapp's labors in March, 1838.

One of the unlooked for fruits of the revival of 1838, was what was described by its advocates as the expurgation of the Union society library. Down to this period the members of the Union society had zealously agreed in claiming and proclaiming that their library had the best collection of books in central New York, and was vastly superior to its Phoenix rival. But Elder Knapp's converts had conscientiously formed a new estimate of books, and reached a different conclusion. Soon after the opening of the summer term, at a regular meeting of the Union society, it was proposed that a committee be appointed to cull out the unwholesome books, and sell them to the highest bidder. The mover of this resolution must have taken counsel beforehand, and been assured of support. To many of his fellow Unionists the proposition was startling and most unwelcome. A special meeting was called, and after a passionate debate lasting until midnight, the expurgating resolution was carried by a small majority. A committee was appointed with full power to select the bad books and sell them at auction. A popish bull would have condemned the bad books to be cremated; but Unionists had no respect for popish precedents. Besides, there was a leanness in the exchequer. When the day of sale came, Sophomore William E. Knox appeared in the vestibule of the Chapel with a bushel basket heaped full of condemned literature, in which the novels of Fielding and Smollett were included. Unionists gathered about the basket in a circle, and Phoenicians formed an outer Saturnian ring, to enjoy the show. Sophomore Knox was a breezy, versatile auctioneer, but Unionists were the only bidders, and the prices were exceedingly small. At the opening of the next term, many of the condemned books were quietly returned to the shelves of the Union library, and 20 years later they were transferred to the keeping of the college library, where they now are.

Two-and-a-half years ago the people of Auburn consecrated a bronze statue of heroic size to the immortal memory of William H. Seward, their most distinguished fellow citizen, one of the nation's wisest guides in its hours of bloody peril. This statue perpetuates the eloquent attitude of Seward, as he stood in the Senate of the United States, March 11, 1850, when with his right hand lifted heavenward, he solemnly reiterated what Sophocles, through the martyr Antigone, had avowed some 2300 years before, that "there is a law higher than the Constitution." Senator Seward's higher-law declaration was a condensed summary of the argument against slavery which had led to threats of disunion and nullification. As early as 1838 the thunder of antislavery eloquence had aroused the conscience of the free states against the sin of human servitude. In central New York the antislavery orators were Alvan Stewart, Gerrit Smith, Beriah Green, and Samuel J. May. Their addresses were followed by angry debate and mob violence. College quiet was invaded. There was disturbance in "the still air of delightful studies." Live questions were debated in the literary societies. In what is now Colgate University, 14 students were suspended for forming an antislavery society. In the winter of 1838 Beriah Green, of the Oneida Institute, was invited to address the Society of Christian Research in the College Chapel. President Penney presided, although he was known to be strongly opposed to antislavery agitation. The address was a ferocious attack on the churches as disloyal to the Higher Law and the Declaration of Independence. When President Penney arose to make the concluding prayer, all ears were alert. To the students he seemed to carry water on either shoulder, when he prayed with non-committal courtesy that the speaker of the evening might "have a hearty enjoyment of whatever of truth there might be in the words he had spoken."

Amid the ruin wrought by wasting years, a few of the stately, historic trees of Clinton still remain, each of them decorated with jewels of precious memory. A few of the trees that gladdened freshman eyes 54 years ago are still a gladness and glory to this academic village. The returning graduate, forgetful that he is but a relic of his own youth, sees strange faces on the streets, strange modern dwellings where he looked for grass-grown vacancies. He hears strange voices in places that would know him no longer were it not for the remembered trees that give him a familiar welcome with their winking leaves. There are favorite veteran trees, standing as memorials of a sturdy, pioneer generation, that seem to offer a special greeting. Among these favorite veterans—some of them with a hundred inside rings — are the elms that droop so hospitably and caressingly over the village walks, the towering Clark-Wood sycamore, self-planted 80 years ago, with its white elbows warning the sophomore to beware the Oriskany's "bridge of sighs"; the Kirkland elms whispering a benison on the Hillward way; the Hopkins linden, that makes a graceful bend in Bristol Road, under which Mark Hopkins rehearsed his Latin and Greek paradigms 75 years ago; the spreading Farmington chestnut which the good Dr. Norton planted on his broad lawn 85 years ago ; the buttressed poplars, shivering in their old age, and still pining for the softer airs of Lombardy ; the Harding hemlock, looking down serenely from its Mount Pizgah summit; forever thrive the blessed historic trees of Clinton, and eternal suspension to the wicked axe that would harm them!

About 70 feet west of Kirkland Cottage stands the Class Tree of 1841, a round-headed, thrifty chestnut, raised from the seed by this half-century annalist, and about 41 years old. The choice of a chestnut tree to stand for the Class of 1841 was determined by various considerations. It is a beautiful tree; it is hardy, long-lived, and brings forth fruit in old age. It has bookish associations and a place in literature. It is the only tree of its kind on the College campus. The Class of 1841 cheerfully submit in advance to the anachronism of being called "a chestnut," a word whose latest meaning was invented 30 years after this class tree was adopted. This particular tree is well-descended — the seed-chestnut from which it had its beginning was found under the large chestnut still standing on the lawn of the Norton homestead, where it was placed by the late Dr. Asahel Strong Norton, first pastor of what is now the Presbyterian Church in Clinton. In 1793, when Dr. Norton was installed, it was the Congregational Church.  The Hon. Henry P. Norton, Class of 1827, of Brockport, writes:

That chestnut tree is older than my 84 years. The house must have been built and the seed planted prior to my birth. I know I saw the sapling in my early years, and I have a memory of it as standing but a few feet high. I heard my father speak of planting the seed, and well remember his careful protection of the youngster against possible injury. The whole family had a respect for the growing tree, and watched it closely. I have no recollection of a time when the chestnut was not there.

In the innocence of those far-off freshman days, to be a senior was to sit high up on a throne of awful majesty. The senior was a portentous and imposing reality, "the rapt one of the godlike forehead." The senior had an easy, graceful way of manipulating his hair that was just splendid. When he was excited and shook his curls, it was the Olympian stamp of fate. The senior had a way of leaving the Chapel after morning prayers, that thrilled the nerves of a freshman with admiration. The senior knew all the mysterious ropes of College life, including the bell rope, with which he had rung off the freshman rust, and emerged into the brilliant hues of the sophomore. The senior knew all the books in the three libraries, and he could tell you just where to find any needed information. The senior could tell you who would be the next prize speakers, and who would capture the prizes, if they only chose the right men to do the drilling. The senior knew all the moldy traditions of the College and no end of choice anecdotes about Dominie Kirkland, Schenandoa, Prex Backus, Gerrit Smith, Albert Barnes, and "the cannon explosion." The senior knew the faculty like a book, every man of them, and could tell just how to organize a committee or frame a memorial that would gain its end. The senior was such an essential fact that the freshman couldn't understand how the College could hold on to its life after the senior's graduation. Fortunately the College has had a new supply of seniors each new year.

To one who has been closely connected with this seat of learning for nearly half a century it costs something of an effort to push aside the intervening obstructions, and bring the College of today, with all its accumulated advantages and improvements, into sharp contrast with that of the distant past. The one word that serves to epitomize the immense gains of the half-century is organization. While the departments of study have been doubled in number, each department, under the inspiration of a generous rivalry, is pushing its allotted work in more definite lines of instruction, research and special achievement. "Divide and Conquer" is a maxim worth as much in science and letters as in strategy.

Scholarship in this way reaches farther towards the cradle of civilization and recorded thought. Special science is more aggressive, and puts a more hopeful shoulder to the wheels of progress in all practical arts and industries. By the increase of organized and endowed competitions, students are now invited to work for more definite and profitable ends. It makes a beautiful, bewildering style of eloquence to say that students should study for the love of truth; that knowledge should be sought for its own preciousness; that emulation is a perilous passion, leading to envies, heart-burnings and a ruinous waste of midnight kerosene. It so happens that the preachers and teachers who theorize in this celestial way are apt to be salaried men who work for specified dollars, and such other pay as may come in the shape of honors, influence and grateful recognition. Turn the argument against one of these theorists; make him a martyr to his own doctrine; take from him his salary, his titles, his social satisfactions; tell him that truth is too sublime a thing to be imparted for any smaller consideration than its own exceeding great reward, and perhaps he will suddenly hear something like a wolf howling at his door. This he may interpret as a call to engage in some other occupation, the running of a farm, a gristmill or a hotel.

A college is the world in miniature. The student is intensely human, and likely to be influenced by motives that dominate with his elders, out in the world.  If it is right and honorable that the preacher be paid for serving the church, and the statesman for serving the state, if it is right and honorable that the physician be paid for saving life, and the soldier paid for saving his country, why should the motives of the student be condemned if he asks for the unmercenary satisfaction of a College honor, or some distinct recognition of difficult work faithfully accomplished?

Life in college should be made as real and earnest as that of any subsequent period. By whatsoever test they are measured, college honors are worth as much as any honors to be won in a career of statesmanship or letters. If the satisfaction they bring to the winner and his friends is any true test of their value, college honors are worth more than decorations that come after the sensibilities are blunted, and the heart indurated by worldly maxims and motives. Had Macaulay been asked which gave him the greater joy, an election to Parliament or a college prize, he would have said, "The college prize, ten times as much."

It belongs to the sum total of recent improvements in college economy that students are more closely and wisely organized in classes, fraternities, competitions, and all plans for mutual comfort and improvement. Both religion and recreation, health of soul and vigor of body, have the benefit of organized agencies that survive the test of experience.

No element of complete manhood is left uncared for, and the sacred amenities of home life are not neglected. Different colleges no longer abhor each other. Brought to a better knowledge of each other by organized inter-rivalries, they work together for the common good. College journalism, almost an unknown factor—certainly a much neglected factor 50 years ago — is now a highly organized power, that brings the student, the teacher, and the graduate into closer relations, binding together hundreds of scattered colleges, and thousands of widely scattered alumni into a living brotherhood of earnest thinkers and thoughtful, scholarly workers.

There is something of significance in the fact that every member of the Class of 1841 spent his early years on a farm or in village surroundings; yet fully one-half of the class were called to do their professional work in our cities. It is a fact worth stating and worth thinking about, that with the tides of population setting strongly towards our cities, three-fourths of the students of Hamilton College still come from the country, only one-fourth from the cities. It is another fact worth thinking about, that after graduation three-fourths of our students find their work in the cities. It might be four-fifths, if Dr. Kendall did not send so many to the West as home missionaries. Perhaps it is a part of the mission of Hamilton College to gather in the choice young men of the surrounding farms and villages, and prepare them for the decisive battles for church and state that must be fought in crowded cities. Perhaps that is the best return the College can make for the generous endowments and gifts that come to it from the cities, and aid it in preparing young men for high positions of Christian usefulness.

This rambling letter closes with a pair of extracts from the farewell words spoken to the Class of 1841, from Commencement 50 years ago:

Classmates, they tell us that we have reached the end of our college course. For one I can hardly believe it. It seems but the day before yesterday that we assembled for the first time in the freshman recitation room, a green cluster in the vineyard of letters, when our faces were new and strange to each other, and when college life, with all its peculiar reality of romance, was a curtained mystery, which we were eager to penetrate. . . Four years we have lingered by the same fountain of learning; henceforth our paths are divergent. Heaven knows when and where we shall meet again. But whenever and wherever we meet, and under whatever circumstances, God grant the time may never come that we cannot take each other by the hand, and look each other in the eye, and say that we have been honest men, and lived for a generous purpose. . .

How far this farewell aspiration has been fulfilled will be partly revealed in the personal sketches that follow. The gathering of these statistics has cost an amount of correspondence that would seem incredible to one not familiar with such undertakings. While this labor has been cheerfully given, the regret lingers that in several cases, no very definite success has been reached.