Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1848 Letter

Edward Orton

Delivered: June 1898

It is safe to say that the celebrants of these half-century alumni gatherings do not, like Falstaff, attempt to set down their names “in the scroll of youth.” They are willing to confess that they are “written down old” with many, if not all, the “characters of age.” If they are ever tempted to deny the impeachment, the searching questions of the Chief Justice will surely help them to see themselves as others see them. “Have you not a moist eye, a dry hand, a yellow cheek, a white beard, a decreasing leg, an increasing belly? Is not your voice broken, your wind short, your chin double, your wit single and every point about you blasted with antiquity?”

These celebrants are practically certain to have at least reached the three-score years and ten, which the Hebrew Psalm makes the ordinary limit of human life. We learn by the same authority that it is “by reason of strength” that any ever appear upon this stage. By reason of strength? The words seem sarcastically spoken when applied to some of us.

Curse if thou wilt, thy sires
Bad husbands of their fires,
Who, when they gave thee breath,
Failed to bequeath
The needful sinew, stark as once
The baresark marrow to the bones,
But left a legacy of ebbing veins,
Inconstant heats and nerveless reins;
Among the Muses, left three deaf and dumb;
Among the gladiators, halt and numb.

We, the surviving members of the Class of 1848, the largest class that up to that time had ever gone out from the halls of Hamilton, have returned, near the end of our journey, to renew our allegiance to alma mater, to mark the evidences of her expansion and progress during the half century since we left her protecting care and, particularly to share the rejoicings of all her friends in the new tide of prosperity which is now stirring beneath her keel.

The annalists of preceding years have naturally and properly used these occasions for reviewing the college life and college experience of their own days. I shall be pardoned for briefly following their example, but my record will be less valuable than some of my predecessors. I was young in years and immature in character as compared with my classmates throughout my college life, and my observations and estimates will alike be colored and vitiated to some extent by this cause.

I entered Hamilton in the fall of 1845, coming from my home in western New York. I made the journey from Buffalo to Utica in four hours and two minutes, and from Buffalo to Albany in five hours, 52 minutes.

I found my way from Utica to Clinton by stagecoach, and was examined for entrance by Professor Theodore W. Dwight in the study of President North. My letters from teachers and others were satisfactory. Hamilton needed students and no insuperable difficulties in the way of entrance were allowed to develop. The rough places in the examination were made smooth and the mountains brought low by my genial examiner, my admiration for whom began at this time and never grew less. I was much impressed, especially during my first year in college, by the upperclassmen, most of all by the seniors. For the silver-tongued Brayton, and the eloquent Spaulding, I had great admiration. Then, too, there was “Old Smith,” or “Big Smith,” as he was sometimes called, who was believed to have averaged the reading of one book a day throughout the latter two years of his college course. How much he knew.

Even the juniors claimed a share of my youthful enthusiasm. There was one man among them that I felt certain must make his mark. He was of medium height, alert, and active; a heavy head of hair overhung his square, but handsome face, on which decision and courage were imprinted in unmistakable lines. He had a sharp, incisive way of speaking which matched well to the thoughts he had to express. He was an earnest antislavery man, an abolitionist in fact, and of this school there were but a few in college. I well remember a prophecy of his, in the old hall of the Union society. He had been expatiating on the monstrous inconsistency of the great republic, with its high-sounding phrases of the Declaration of Independence in regard to the natural rights of man, and nevertheless holding within its territory millions of human slaves. Waxing warm, he continued, “Unless we strike off the shackles of the slave and let the oppressed go free, I tell you that blood will flow through our streets — blood, ‘blood to the horses’ bridles.’”

This poetic quotation from the book of Revelation fastened itself in my memory, I have often thought of this prophecy since, and I have also recalled my own anticipations as to the career of the speaker. We called this junior Joe Hawley. The entire course was prescribed and obligatory upon all alike. No account was taken of difference of tastes or of difference of purpose. The germ of electives had been, however, already introduced in the shape of extra studies that at rare intervals we had an opportunity of taking. We could make our own arrangements with our instructor, paying a very moderate fee for his time and trouble. We got a little German and French in this way, and some began their study of law in their senior year.

In another and more important way, we introduced electives for ourselves, by giving scant attention to certain studies were not altogether to our liking and concentrating our energies on studies that we enjoyed. Students who had regard to college standing could not afford to adopt this policy, but there was a great deal of this kind of natural selection going on in the class.

The arguments that we so often hear, that one gains, at least, valuable discipline by mastering some study that he does not like, seem to me hardly to apply to our experience. The majority did not master what they did not like; they wasted more or less time on such branches. We had no natural science to speak of and no laboratories. Worst of all, the scientific method of study in other departments had not been introduced. Its time had not come.

The College library of our day answered a very different purpose from the library of the present time. It was opened for three hours on two afternoons each week. Our use of it was altogether involuntary. I do not remember ever to have been sent to consult an authority. We read to extend our knowledge. We read for literary culture. We read for inspiration — the standard histories, philosophies, novels, among them. The English essayists, and especially Carlyle and Macauley, were popular and influential. They were the best representatives of current literature we had. Longfellow’s shorter poems were familiar to us, but they did not command the respect that we now give them. There was a little volume in the library, bound in paper, of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poems. We thought them very amusing, but little dreamed that the autocrat lay behind them. Social, economic, and political science, as such, was scarcely known to us. Today in all our leading institutions they are among the most attractive and influential subjects of study. They are bringing into exercise the altruistic sentiments, which, with us, were practically limited to a single calling. If we really and sincerely wished to serve the world, there was just one vocation, in which the work could be done, viz.: the Christian ministry. This, doubtless, led to crowding into this profession many who were ill adapted to it. The same initial purpose is now spread through a half dozen different callings.

In our time the College fraternities were becoming important factors in the life of the institution. Look back upon their influence; I see that they made us clannish to a certain extent. It cannot be denied that they interfered somewhat with natural tastes and affinities in the matter of acquaintance and fellowship. On the other hand, in bringing the members of the several classes into close relations and in establishing a genuine feeling of brotherhood among the members of a particular circle, they seem to me to have wrought for great good. Another advantage I ascribe to them — they worked directly against the drawing of hard and fast lines among our classmates as to character. The “wild fellows” that we were intimately associated with, we knew we were not totally depraved, and they were held in check for fear of losing the confidence and goodwill of their sober-minded brethren. We were thus stopped to some extent from a Pharisaic classification of our fellow students. The influence of the fraternities was on the side of sanity in this regard.

We had no athletics and no gymnasium. Occasionally, we played ball in old-fashioned games, pitched quoits, or entered on trials of strength or skill in wrestling, jumping and the like, but there was no general interest in these things. We had no intercollegiate contests of any sort. In fact, we rarely met students of other colleges.

We had few college songs and no college colors, while college and class yells had not yet emerged from the infernal pit; but we were not lacking in loyalty to Hamilton, and certainly it never occurred to us that college life was not worth living. The ringing of the College bell and other ways of making night hideous, the locking of professors out of their recitation-rooms, the breaking in of doors and the like, seem to me to have been more frequently practiced then than now, even if it were possible to recall it. Much that proved very amusing to us depended altogether on local setting.

A little incident that happened soon after I entered Hamilton comes back to me in sharp outline and distinct colors. You will remember that there was in the old chapel an extra pulpit, perched about halfway up the west wall, a sort of sky parlor, about in range with the gallery. I presume it dated back to former Commencement occasions, when the president would occupy it and announce to the Commencement audience, "Proximus orator ascendat; videlicet Smith." But whatever its purpose or early use, it had long since passed into a state of “innocuous desuetude.” We, at least, never saw it used but once. An elderly man one day found his way to College Hill. He was an enthusiast in the cause of universal peace. He was travelling on his errand, and valued especially the privilege of speaking to college students. I think he belonged to the Society of Friends. On this occasion he fell into the hands of Jack Burton, Class of 1846, who kindly undertook to collect an audience, and also to “introduce” the speaker. Word was passed from room to room.

Access was gained to the Chapel in some way, and as the students entered at the appointed hour it is putting it mildly to say that they were surprised to see Jack Burton and the Quaker seated in the upper pulpit, Burton looking as grave as a judge, but the Quaker beaming satisfaction on the gathering throng. Burton’s “introduction” came first. He decanted on the horrors of war and the imperious duty that was upon us to put an end to its evils. But when he turned to the distinguished speaker that was to address us, he cut loose from fact altogether and gave free reins to his fancy. He described the speaker as a philanthropist and orator of the first order, who had taken his life in his hands to preach the gospel of universal peace. He told of the different parts of the Western world, which he had already visited, including the distant tribes of the Sioux and the Flathead Indians, the old man vainly seeking an opportunity to correct the grotesque misstatements that were being made; but when Burton passed to the Old World, he fairly took our breath away. He described Europe, Asia, and Africa as the fields of the missionary’s labors. “Not Asia nor Africa,” interrupted the Quaker, pulling at Burton’s coat tails. By the time the lecturer was “introduced” the audience had come to a full recognition of the situation, and I suspect that the missionary seldom spoke to so demonstrative an audience.

On another occasion, near the end of our sophomore year, “the devil entered into” certain members of the Class of 1848, if I may use an archaic expression. The occasion was a beautiful moonlit night in June that in and of itself tempted to outdoor activity. The representatives of the class on this occasion were a rather sober set. They had no conscious malice in their hearts, though they were intent on devising what would make trouble for somebody. The experience in which I shared has helped me to understand, or rather be patient, with many forms of college deviltry ever since. Language is inadequate to describe its foolishness and inanity, but I was once there myself.

There must have been several distinct items in the night’s program, but it was the business of one section to overturn an outbuilding at the Williams schoolhouse, west of the College. This division entered upon its appointed task vigorously, but was not able to report progress. Such levers as could conveniently be borrowed in the shape of fence rails, etc., were applied to the structure without effect. At last, one member of the class, after careful and sufficient examination, as he supposed, called out, “Boys, it’s no use, it’s dovetailed in.” Now, it so happened that some of our enemies, the Class of 1847, had found that something was going on which it might be to their interest to keep track of, and they had followed us in the role of private detectives. They had watched the futile attempts of our party and, worst of all, had heard the exclamation of our representative as to the condition of things that he supposed he had found.

The next night the work of overturning was attempted again, but not by the Class of 1848, and this time it was successfully accomplished. The juniors wanted to show some things can be done as well as others, and we were duly humiliated by their success.

But the worst was yet to come. The series of incidents above referred to was turned over to the Class poet of 1847, and a day or two later a printed broadside was circulated on College Hill, in which history of the eventful night was given in altogether too great detail, and with altogether too much fidelity to the truth to edify the Class of 1848, especially those numbers of it that had “gone wild” on this occasion. The incidents of the abortive attempt above described were elaborately set forth. The poem, if not set to music, at least was sung to some popular tune, and we were obliged to hear snatches of it for a few days from every corner of the campus, and the most common refrain was, “It’s dovetailed in.”

But let me briefly name some of the inspiring influences of my college life. Speaking for myself, I can safely say that I received my best and most practical college training from the study of Greek. I have had little to do with the Greek language or literature since I left Hamilton, but I secured by the study of better habits of thought, and especially greater exactness of expression than it could otherwise have attained. The translations that Professor North gave us as examples from time to time were to me a great inspiration. I learned from them that just the right English word could be found to translate a particular Greek word and that the quest for the right word was worth making. This discovery was soon extended to exercises other than translations. It has made me a great deal of trouble all my life, and has made writing a difficult and painstaking task, but it has brought after all its reward. I am sure that it has added lucidity to what little I have had to say. I have felt the influence of the careful translation of Greek tragedies in my college days in the preparation of reports on the dry-as-dust subjects that it has fallen to me to discuss.

From the pulpit, though well disposed toward it, I derived little inspiration, but some large views of life, its end and meaning, I got from President North in the Sunday evening prayer meetings. He would speak for a few minutes on these occasions with rare eloquence. His habitual hesitation would disappear and one glowing sentence would follow another with startling effect. After hearing one of these informal exhortations life always seemed to have a deeper meaning.

The occasional visits of former graduates to the College would sometimes bring great stimulus and encouragement to those of us who were still in the harness. I can recall some speeches to which I listened in fraternity halls that would ring in my ears for days and weeks thereafter.

Another source of inspiration, I found in my classmates and college friends. Perhaps this was most potent of all, because, “like the casing air,” it was constant in its pressure. I was in daily intercourse with young men who loved the best literature, who cherished the highest ideals, and who were constantly planning to make their lives as serviceable as possible to the world. The idea of service was the best that I took away from college walls.