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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1845 Letter

Charles Talbot Porter

Delivered: June 1895

Among the features that distinguish college life in the Hamilton of today from that of 50 years ago we find this notable one, that it is interested in the college past. I do not recollect that in my time anyone among the students indicated that he ever thought of such a thing as the history of the College. We found it here, the buildings were here, the president and the professors were here, including the venerable professor of dust and ashes, old Agamemnon, long ago dust and ashes himself, the course of study was here, and was naturally concluded that they had always been here; a conclusion quite as logical as are some of the so-called scientific conclusions that we read of now-a-days, including all of the conclusions of importance in Mr. Darwin’s Origin of Species. Everything seemed to us a part of the eternal constitution of things, and we ask no questions of the silent past.

This indifference was, I confess no credit to us. The remarkable circumstances that attended the planting of the seed, out of which this College sprang, vivified by the consecrated, self-sacrificing spirit of the missionary, Kirkland, present a picturesque and inspiring theme; while the widespread interest and liberal donations by which the College was so early established afford subjects of proud and grateful remembrance. Thus it is fit that lovers of Hamilton, lovers of our early history, and all who are interested in tracing the deep spiritual foundations on which our institutions have been built, should cherish and preserve.

Now, I am happy to know, this indifference is gone. There is nothing connected with the past four alma mater in which you are not interested. You want to know what was done here long ago. You would see some “Flemish pictures of old days.” You ask me to unroll the scroll of 50 years, and find something that has the genuine musty flavor of age.

If you will not be too critical about my getting my metaphors mixed, but will let me drop pictures and scrolls for a little while, I will remind you that it is a long way back to 50 years ago. Reckoned by human discoveries and progress, whether in science, in which I do not include the hallucination that now struts in its garb, or in material respects or in humanity, and this, I take it, is the only way in which to estimate distances or intervals in the life of our race, it is an immeasurable distance back to 50 years ago.

As we attempt the interminable journey, we find almost everything in our way. We have to climb over railroads, the abolition of slavery, sewing machines, anesthetics, the conservation of energy, international arbitration, steamships, the dark continent, telegraphs, the spectrum analysis, universal expositions, bicycles, Japan, photography, screw propellers, bacteriology, typewriters, socialism, agricultural machinery, higher criticism, electric lights and motors, a new Europe, nitroglycerine, sanitation, iron and steel vessels, and telephones, besides other greater or lesser obstructions without number, all of which have had their development, and all but two or three of which have actually come into being, since 50 years ago.

It is evident that we shall never get back there, unless we take a shortcut. Luckily, some power has given us the gift, not that impossible one, to see ourselves as others see us, but, within certain limits, to transport ourselves freely in time and space. We have only to will ourselves to be anywhere, and at any point of time, where we have even been before, and lo! We are there.

I cannot, however, take you with me on this “quick transit,” without stopping to dwell for a moment, not the venerable sic transit, not on the departing, but on the enduring and the coming things. While I would have you, graduates of today, realize the priceless additions which have been made for you to the patrimony on which we of 50 years ago were permitted to enter, still, far be it from me to undervalue that inheritance, or to forget what it had cost. It was far greater, in its most important feature it was infinitely greater, than we have yet been able to comprehend. The scholar’s inheritance, the philosopher’s inheritance, the freeman’s inheritance, and above all, and underlying all and embracing all, the Christian’s inheritance — O, let me never speak of these but with hushed and reverent thankfulness.

But all that we had, and so much more, has descended to you; and with it all the struggle, the widening and deepening struggle, ever changing but still the same, and which cannot cease till the lion shall lie down with the lamb. Young men of today, before whose opening vision the future, all unknown, appears so inviting, so full of opportunity, in this struggle for truth and humanity, some part awaits each one of you. Who among you shall do the most to illumine the understandings, to elevate the aims, and to sweeten the dispositions of your fellowmen? Verily, he whose own understanding has been most divinely illumined, whose own aims have received most spiritual exaltation, whose own disposition has been changed into most heavenly sweetness, and who thus become the most meek and lowly of all.

The region to which, by my magic, I now transport you must, I fancy, appear to College men of today a somewhat strange, and on a superficial view rather a barren one. Let us look around us. We observe, first of all, that there are no “College men”; even the seniors we meet are “College boys.” We see no “College campus”; that happy term even has yet to be invented, as well as the reality itself to be created. We find no College glee club. We hear no College songs. We hear no College cheer. We see no College colors. We are welcomed by no Literary Magazine. We hear of no College athletics. The telescopic eye, which in coming years is here to pierce and search the heavens, “while all the world wonders,” is yet uncreated. Our library building as yet exists only in the dreams of one of our classmates. We witness but the laying of the foundation, on which in succeeding years there is to arise the noble structure of Hamilton College oratory. We find no enlarged curriculum or elective courses of study. What we do find us, thorough drill in that which is fundamental to true scholarship, which fits the mind to receive and assimilate all knowledge, and disciplines it to the full command of its powers.

We are timid freshmen. We are surprised at the attention and kindness shown us by the active electioneering members of the Phoenix and the Union literary society, and are all unconscious that these new friends are probably at the same time taking our measure, for consideration in the councils of the Sigma Phi or the Alpha Delta Phi. We take our gymnastic exercise partly in sawing and splitting our firewood, and backing it upstairs to our rooms, and in bringing our water from Mr. Buttrick’s wall. Among our earliest College instruction is the signification of the word “heads.” We race in procession, from the chapel after five o’clock prayers, the seniors leading, down the hill, when crossing the valley at a more sober gait, some to supper, all to the post-office; little realizing the important part which that hill, by its enforced exercise, plays in our education of those who, boarding in the village, have to mount it twice every day, Sundays included.

This period was made memorable by the entrance on their life careers of two eminent educators, Professor Dwight, and our revered and beloved Professor North, clarum et venerable nomen. Professor North did not take our class, but commenced his service, of now more than 52 years, as professor of Greek in this institution, with the class next below us. So the boy who shall serve an annalist next year will be entitled to Professor North.

Tutor Dwight had our class in German. His picture is before me as vivid as if I saw him in the “bear-box” at this moment. He had a jolly full moon of a face, brimming over with smiling good nature. He was devoted to the cultivation of his memory, and never brought a book into the classroom, nor was he ever embarrassed by the want of it. He inspired the class with an enthusiasm for the German language and literature, which I fully shared. Resolved to become a German scholar, I purchased Schiller’s works, in one large volume, and after graduating was accustomed for some time to devote two hours a day to reading them, and writing translations of his shorter poems. But alas! My devotion proved not to be of the enduring kind. Amid the engrossing labors of a checkered life, and aided by a cause to which I shall refer presently, my knowledge of German long ago vanished — with this solitary exception. When we were on the personal pronouns, Tutor Dwight told us, with a twinkling eye, that we would never forget the three forms of the second person singular, if we would think of the appeal of the dusky lover to his mistress, du, dinab, dir. That I, for one, have never forgotten.

As a tutor, Professor Dwight showed all those qualities of mind and heart, that, in a long and far different career, won for him the admiration and the love of successive generation of lawyers.

An anecdote of John Norton Pomeroy, the name which alone, of all the graduates of Hamilton or any other college, rivals that of Theodore W. Dwight in the same field, may not be inappropriate in this connection. The precision, accuracy and comprehensiveness, and especially the philosophic character, of Pomeroy’s legal writings are still the admiration of lawyers. Anything illustrating the habit of such a mind cannot fail to be of interest. In a chance meeting of several fellows in his room one day, while the tobacco smoke was being cut with jokes and laughter, John, then a sophomore, sat apart in a window absorbed in a book. After awhile I went across the room to see what the book was. It was La Place’s Mechanique Celeste.

The visits of Dr. Dwight, the venerable treasurer of the College, were always made interesting by the information on many subjects that he was ready to impart. I well remember being first impressed by him with the fact, that all students are, and must necessarily be, in a large degree beneficiaries; that the term bills pay but a small part of the expense of a student’s education in College, and so the difference in degree in which students are beneficiaries, between those who are and those who are not so in name, is really small; and I feel that it is among the former class, and those who approach most nearly to them in worldly circumstances, that we are chiefly to look for students who are to become the most influential men. There is a reason for this. This is the purpose, the struggle, the sacrifice, the consecration, the prayers, the faith, on the part of the student, or his parents, or both, that at once mark and make the coming man. I remember being told by one, whom his college and the church and the world could not well have spared, of the satisfaction with which, years afterwards, he was able to pay to the treasurer notes which his father had been obliged to give for the term bills of his entire college course.

Our sophomore year was signalized by the completion of the south hall of the “Babel,” as the North college was then called, after another long unfinished building. Its, to us, prehistoric state was thus changed. This marked progress in the growth of the College. It also afforded the Phoenix society the opportunity to obtain for its library and museum quarters as large as those of its rival, the Union society. It was not too slow to avail itself of the chance, and the four central rooms of the fourth story were fitted up in a tasteful manner for this use. To most of my auditors this is ancient history, sure enough. This excavation doubtless reminds you of those lately carried on, on the site of Troy.

These literary societies have long ago perished. The Phoenix has not arisen from its ashes. This was not the Union that was preserved. For one, I lament their demise. They seemed to me valuable institution. Their weekly debates and literary exercises were interesting and useful. Their rivalry and their politics kept things lively. The address pronounced before them was an important feature of commencement week. The members of the different secret societies and the neutrals found them in common ground, were brought together in pleasant relations, measured themselves with each other in debate, learned a good deal from one another, and the tendency to segregation was much modified. I do not know out of what changed conditions of extinction of these societies, something undreamed of in my time, has resulted; I only know that I ask for them in vain.

The Babel has for me many interesting associations. One of these is the following: The winter after the completion of its south hall was marked by a great fall of snow. I remember that so late as the second day of April, when we went home for the spring vacation, no trace of a fence was to be seen all the way to Oneida; the traveled road went over the fields at random. High drifts were formed in front of the colleges. One Wednesday afternoon a sort of frenzy took possession of the students, which found vent in snowballing the windows lately put in the front of the Babel, till every pane of glass was broken. Pretty much the whole College seemed to be engaged in the sport. As the survivors became more scattered the excitement increased. “The mirth and fun grew fast and furious.” A single pane in a fourth-story window held out for some time. It seemed to bear a charmed existence. When the whole assault was concentrated on it, it looked defiance. A last a well-aimed snowball finished its career, and with a great shout the satisfied crowd dispersed.

I have pleasant recollections of President North, the erect, dignified, cultured scholar, who managed a rather spirited team of colts with consummate skill. I occasionally enjoyed the privilege of a private interview with him. One of these I especially recall. On one occasion, some of us found it necessary to employ the voice of the Chapel bell to express our joyous feelings. How we got to access to the bell ringer’s room, after someone had enticed that official student away, is immaterial. When my turn came at the rope, I laid out all my little strength in efforts to give the bell the second turn over. I heard a rush down the belfry stairs, but was too deeply engrossed to pay attention to it. A moment or two later, someone touched me on the shoulder; I looked around — President North and myself were the only occupants of the room.

Professor Avery was the wit of the faculty. His humor was not often displayed in the classroom or the laboratory, but in alumni meetings it shone resplendent. I regret to say, that of all the faithful instruction in chemistry that I received from his lips only a single item abides with me now. That shines out brightly from the darkness of forgotten lectures. It is this: After having used a piece of apparatus, always lay it down in such a position, that in rolling it will roll further on the table, and not off on the floor, as a piece laid down by his assistant had just done.

At that time the world was excited over the daguerreotype. Professor Avery was in advance of most of his contemporaries in experimenting with the new wonder. I remember sitting to him for a picture. Those were days when sitting for a picture meant something. It meant sitting motionless for six minutes, to ensure which the head was secured in a vice, with a pleasant expression on the countenance, in order to obtain one picture, which could not be duplicated, on a silver plate, where it was protected by a film of gold so thin as to be absolutely transparent.

Professor Catlin was our strong man, a kind of intellectual Sandow. From the elevated region of mathematical analysis in which he lived and moved and had his being, he descended to the classroom to guide our uncertain steps. A grave man, of few words, he had a sympathetic nature, and often showed a quiet humor. We grew to be very fond of him. I could never determine which he liked best, to help a student who he could see was really trying to master his work, or to put a lazy or especially a bumptious fellow in a hole, for his own good, and the entertainment of the class. A mathematical atmosphere seemed to surround Professor Catlin and all that he had. Even his horse went by the name of “Old Conics.”

Our class enjoyed the instruction of Professor Mandeville himself. I do not, however, recall that any of its members became distinguished in the field of oratory, a demonstration of the fact that orators are born, not made. Professor Mandeville, was an enthusiast in his work, as all who leave a deep impress on other minds must be. Delightful memories cluster around his dignified and somewhat portly presence and kind and cordial manner. One humorous one I may be permitted to recall. Once, after a recitation in rhetoric, the professor gave an animated talk on the characteristics of true eloquence, and became deeply absorbed in his theme. He closed by saying that, after an impassioned burst of eloquence, under which the audience involuntarily held their breath to listen, a sigh might always be heard all over the room. One fellow broke the succeeding silence with a sigh. The class instantly caught on – an expressive term, which, by the way, had not then been invented — and a universal and profound succession of sighs was kept up for some seconds. The professor at first turned red, then good-naturedly joined in the general smile.

I wish to drop a tear over the grave of Tutor Bradford. I knew Tutor Dwight began to be a tutor, but Tutor Bradford I supposed had always been a tutor. He had charge of our hall, and neither the quiet gentleness with which he usually made his official calls, nor the decisive manner in which he sometimes informed us that “Such conduct is not to be tolerated, young gentlemen,” nor the flashing eye, will ever depart from my memory. He was a deeply earnest man, quite unconventional, a good instructor, had some amusing peculiarities, and was full of interest in the students. I remember his once saying, “I do not care so much what a young man knows, as what he can do, and “with intense emphasis on the word “do.”

Tutor Bradford, who was never suspected of being at home in the higher mathematics, was absurdly enough introduced into a dream I had long afterwards. I dreamed that I was in heaven, at school, with an inconceivable number of classmates, in a course lasting a million or two of our years, introductory to the study of the infinite wonders of the love of God, which would continue forever. A throng of us had stopped a million miles or so inside its orbit, to see the earth go by. On came the beautiful planet, attended by its faithful satellite. As it came just in front of us, dear old Ham. Coll. appeared in view, seen by me with perfect distinctness, for the vision of spirits is not affected by distance, they see most clearly that which they most love. The society of celestial beings had no charm for me then. Mounting a sunbeam, I was quickly in the junior recitation-room. I arrived in the very nick of time, just as Jim Douglas was about to make a flunk in the calculus. I must explain here that Jim Douglas and Sumner Ely were the mathematical giants of our class. Each was accustomed to tell, with about the same fluency, stories which seemed to interest Professor Catlin a good deal more than they did me. As, in my dream, Douglas stood utterly at a loss, I whispered the solution of the problem in his ear. He supposed, as we all do when, as it doubtless constantly the case, we are told something in this way, that he had thought of it himself, and at once rolled off the demonstration, scoring a mark of 9 3-4. When he sat down, Tutor Bradford, who seemed to be hearing the class, moistened the tip of his little finger with a little saliva, pressed it on one of the little pieces of paper that lay back upward before him, and turning it up read off, “Porter.” My knees smote together, as I remembered that I had never looked at the lesson, and my distress woke me up. Was the fabric altogether baseless?

I feel that occasion of this kind ought to be turned to practical account. We hear a good deal now a days that improved methods of education. To the flood of talk on this subject I want to contribute my little rill. My particular theme is, “How not to make a scholar,” with a “frightful example.” The question whether or not a boy may become a scholar is determined long before he enters college. The critical moment is, when he begins the study of any language, especially Greek. He then forms the habit is far the more easily formed. Merely learning is nothing, remembering is everything.

One can hardly realize the responsibility that rests on the teacher in this respect on the very threshold. If a boy is hurried along, leaving every word and sentence directly for another, each drives the preceding one out of his mind, and in a month, “nay, not so long, not a month,” for all purposes of scholarship, that boy is ruined. No amount of application on his part, or of fidelity on the part of his instructor, in after years, can be of any avail. If, on the contrary, he is made to become familiar with every word, by dwelling on it in all its forms, and continually returning to it, he is making slow progress measured by lines and pages, but what he learns becomes fixed in his mind forever. The test appears in the general review, made frequently and without preparation. If every word s not then fresh in the studious boy’s recollection, the pace has been too fast.

I feel qualified to speak on this subject, having myself been ruined as a scholar, by just such a superficial method at the beginning. I studied hard, and kept a fair stand in Greek, although obliged to look out a great many words every time I came to them; but in preparing for senior examination, not having then read Greek for a little more than a year, I found the language to be absolutely gone from me. Not a sentence, however familiar it had once been, could I anywhere recall. The habit of forgetting, once formed in this way, lasts through life, and applies more or less to everything.

During the winter and spring of our senior year, the College was blessed by a remarkable revival of religion. A great spiritual awakening swept through and through the body of students. I had never witnessed anything like it before, and have never done since. Personal religion became, apparently, the subject of the deepest concern to almost everyone. I never had any statistics, but it seems to me now as if nearly every student, who had not already done so, then became a professing Christian. I have always felt that this outpouring of God’s spirit was largely attributable to the prayers and personal appeals of devoted Christian students. Prominent among these I desire affectionately and gratefully to name William DeLoss Love, of the Class of 1843, although the fruit of his earnest efforts did not appear, at least not in this striking manner, until two years after. This may encourage the faith of those, whose burning zeal for the glory of God and the supreme good of their fellowmen moves them to be instant, in season and out of season, in efforts to win souls to Christ, especially among students. Here this work is of peculiar importance. The Christian student may become also a power.

Education which does not comprehend conversion, which does not bring man’s spiritual nature into harmony with the Divine nature, lacks the most important feature, fails of the most important purpose. This is true, even considered intellectually. Without this spiritual enlightenment, the mind cannot form adequate ideas of fundamental truths. Estranged from God, man is not only spiritually, but intellectually as well, out of harmony with the universe. He is incapable of true philosophic insight, which penetrates not merely through matter to force, but beyond force to spirit, and within spirit to motive; and thus sees in everything not only infinite wisdom and skill, but this wisdom and skill animated by love — universal, changeless, eternal and infinite love — and by this love forever impelled and directed into infinite diversity of beneficent energy. Love thus becomes disclosed as the single underlying motive, or principle, or law, of the spiritual and the physical universe, of which all other laws are modes of expression, and which, from its nature, must inhere in a personal being.

Philosophy, that does not reach to this ultimate and sublime truth, in which science and religion meet, and the innumerable manifestations of which throng us and press us on every side, needing only to be seen and recognized in their real character, as such universal manifestation, is, obviously to the Christian observer, as yet in a stage of partial development.