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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1854 Letter

William H. Maynard

Delivered: 1904 

For the first time in several years, your half-century annalist must note the fact that not a single person survives who was connected with the faculty in the year of his graduation. But though dead, their influence is still shaping the destinies of thousands. Referring to the fact that Wicliffe’s bones were exhumed, burned and their ashes cast into a neighboring stream, Thomas Fuller wrote, “The little river conveyed Wicliffe's remains into the Avon, Avon into the Severn, Severn into the narrow seas; they to the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wicliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which is now dispersed all the world over."

The character and thought of true teachers are reproduced in their immediate pupils as they go forth into all the walks of life and into all quarters of the globe, and through them in all the succeeding generations of all races and conditions.

The faculty of our time was composed of remarkable men. Simeon North was the President. His ripe and accurate scholarship, his aptness to teach, and his Johannine disposition were universally acknowledged, but he was sometimes criticized as unduly lax in discipline. The justice of the criticism depends upon the ideal of discipline. If your ideal is military, he was a monumental failure. Military discipline costs less trouble and produces more perfect order than other kinds. Shoot a man for a rebellious word or act — he is dead and gives no further trouble. Expel a man for an offense, the college is rid of a troublesome factor and you can rest on a downy bed of ease. But attempt to save a man by inspiring him with nobler motives: that means hours of anxiety and soul travail.

To save, not to destroy, was President North's ideal. It may be true that in some cases he was too long suffering but many a man can reinforce the testimony of Henry W. Shaw, better known as Josh Billings. "So you have been in Hamilton College," he said to a caller.  “I was there, too. The trouble with me was that I was full of the devil. There was a Greek and Latin man there who had studied Socrates to some purpose. He knew how to kill the devil and leave the boy. Most men will kill the boy and leave the devil."

The President was surrounded by an able corps of instructors: Charles Avery, without the conveniences of a modern laboratory doing his best "in the cellar of the Chapel to analyze light in the midst of darkness." Oren Root, a born mathematician and teacher with a suppressed poetic element, and four square in his integrity. Edward North, known as Kaigar to our genitive case and then clothing himself in sackcloth and putting ashes on his head because no more time was granted for the dissection of that particular case, yet insisting on critical accuracy, gifted with that poetical sensibility which made his translations as much masterpieces as the original. Anson J. Upson, frowning, no, not frowning, that kind genial nature could not frown upon well meant effort, but putting his gentle yet decisive veto upon all sophomoric bombast in oration, essay, declamation; doing it moreover without suppressing that warmth and vitality without which the so-called cultured speaker produced no more emotion or conviction than the diamond flashing out its cold brilliance. Theodore Dwight, whom an eminent Englishman pronounced the finest teacher of law in the English-speaking world.  It was a glorious constellation unsurpassed by any institution in the land.

But what about the method of instruction? Recitation was a prominent feature. Recitation however was not a mere slavish reproduction of the ipsissima verba of the textbook. That kind of recitation is a farce. The student becomes a phonograph, upon whose metallic foil the words have been imprinted, the professor nothing more than a hand by which the crank is turned. But recitation meant for the Class of 1854 the expression of thought in the student's own language, the thorough assimilation of the subject matter. Our class enjoyed special privileges in recitation work. There were but few of us, and no one dared skip daily preparation on the supposition that he would not be called. It must not be supposed, however, that reproduction of the textbook consumed the whole hour. Who can forget the sidelights thrown upon the topics and the free discussions? I do not know, but I have sometimes thought there is a tendency to underrate the value of memory as disciplined by recitation. Some men have a vague knowledge that is of no service. Their knowledge is like that of the Irish sailor, “Captain, what is a thing lost when you know where it is?” “Pat, what do you ask such a foolish question for?" "And by all the saints it is not a foolish question. I dropped the tea silver service overboard. It is in the bottom of the sea by this time and I am so thankful it is not lost, for I know where it is."

How many persons have a lot of unavailable knowledge in the depths of their minds? It may be a truth that whatever we have read or heard will be recalled some time in eternity but for me I had rather have available capital to use during my earthly pilgrimage.

The student of our day was expected to bone not bohn. I suppose that is the case now, I don’t know. I happened in a bookstore the other week and saw a shelf labeled “Stable and Horses.”  In my simplicity I supposed the dealer had been purchasing in anticipation of a Farmer's Institute, and on examination was astounded to find translations of classic authors. Whether the use of translations is or is not wise, I will not discuss, but had a member of the Class of 1854 been known to use them, he would have been ostracized for violation of a fundamental ethical principle. But here I have to confess that our class, as well as the classes preceding us, were distinguished for poor scholarship. Written on our diplomas in large capitals was the Latin abbreviation S.P.D. We translated it S, scud, P, poor, D, dunces; scud poor dunces.

Soon after our graduation, the race of dunces became extinct. An era of brilliant scholarship was ushered in — that is if the marks on the professors' books are to be trusted. The highest mark that had been given up to our time was 8 7/10. To attain that, we thought, required marvelous powers. 8 6/10. Succeeding classes jumped to 9.9 6/10; some almost touched 10. Should this gain continue, the classes in the 20th century would go above 10. That would be sad, for when one goes above 10, he is more than perfect, and that means he will be shut out of heaven. An imperfectly sanctified and even a perfectly sanctified soul has a chance, but when a man is more than perfect, he will be superior to angels and saints, and must be excluded for fear he will attempt to take the reins of government into his own hands.  The Class of 1854 begs the 20th century professors not to mark 20th century valedictorians above ten, for we expect to go to heaven before long, and heaven would be lonesome if we could not meet some 20th century valedictorians and talk over the affairs of Hamilton College.

But despite our relative intellectual dullness as measured by marks, the faculty were patient with us and made all they could out of the material given them to work upon. Our training did not depend all together upon the faculty.  Students helped educate their fellows. The writer owes a great debt to the most brilliant man in the class, and an equally great debt to the dullest man. On the one hand Charlie Bayliss, gifted with poetic genius and exquisite literary taste, insisted upon my reading with him during his lingering illness the standard English classics, and his comments as well as the books opened up to me a new world of feeling and thought. On the other hand, a man of rather dull perception, with no linguistic aptitude and a meager preparation, but thoroughly industrious, used to turn up almost daily and ask help for his Greek. How often did I find in attempting to explain the difficult passages that the lesson, which I supposed I had mastered, must be relearned? His dullness served as a whetstone on which to sharpen my own dullness. I found out that even from the selfish standpoint, it was more blessed to give than to receive. Other students doubtless recall similar experiences but the influence of students upon each other was not confined to these individual relations. I remember that our class organized a debating society in the freshman year. That freshman recitation room, with planks two or three inches thick for seats, a scantling for the back, one tallow candle upon the professor's desk for a light, was illuminated on the evenings of our debate with mental electricity, evoked by the friction of mind with mind. Each in his own estimation was a dynamo, and not a word was uttered of less than a hundred candle power.

At the outset some of us were glib of tongue. In the biography of John A. Andrew, the war governor of Massachusetts, he related that when a babe, the neighbors fearing he was tongue-tied, sent an old gentleman reputed skillful in such small troubles to operate on him.  He declined to use his skill, but when Andrew got beyond babyhood, he exhibited such a marked gift of gab that the neighbors said, "It was lucky that the old gentleman didn't cut that boy' s tongue unless to cut a piece off, for if he had there would be no living with him." Our debates shortened the tongues of those born with the gift of gab, compelled them to make a connection between the brain and the tongue, but it also unloosened the cords of the tongue-tied.

This reference to debate reminds me that our horizon was not circumscribed by scholastic subjects.  A college uninterested in the great subjects which agitate the public mind, is like an abandoned building, its faculty and students, spiders spinning scholastic and metaphysical cobwebs, with the jeweled dew-drops of poetic fancifulness, admirable exhibitions of intellectual subtlety, but of no value in sustaining the weight of the struggling world. Hamilton never believed in placing its students upon an insulating stool.  There has been but one violation of this principle during its history. In l837, its faculty presented a memorial to the Legislature of New York. Let me quote the comments of the abolitionist Beriah Green upon that transaction. He says,

The faculty of a college known by the name of a leading patriot of the Revolution, sent not long a memorial to the legislature of a great state, describing their grievances and demanding protection. What was the matter? Why, a number of their students, ingenious law-abiding youths, had without their leave prayed the legislature to exert itself, in accordance with the fundamental principles of ethics and of the Constitution of the Republic, for the abolition of the most deadly evil with which the nation was afflicted. To do this they had been excited by private letters from two members of the legislature. From such assaults in future our memorialists respectfully ask for protection. And so those who are to be liberally educated, to be trained up to manly activity, are to be deprived of rights and privileges to which even the driveling idiot and the bloodstained criminal are inalienably entitled. They may not without offence even where their welfare is vitally at stake, open their lips in the language of petition; under the crippling power and crushing weight of such restraints, they are to be fitted to subserve the cause of holy freedom.

Hamilton College was not alone in its disgrace. Madison (now Colgate) suspended 14 students for the crime of forming an anti-slavery society. Lane Seminary took similar action, and its trustees came near enacting a law forbidding students from even mentioning the subject in each other’s presence. The whole nation was suffering from an insane fright. Partial sanity soon returned to Hamilton, for in the winter of 1838 Beriah Green was invited to address the society of Christian research in the College Chapel. President Penny presided. "When the President," says Professor North, "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 noncommittal courtesy that the speaker of the evening might, "have hearty enjoyment of whatever of truth there might be in the words he had spoken.”

In 1850, the year of our entrance was not 1837. On March 7 of that year, Daniel Webster made that speech which justly or unjustly was branded as a cowardly surrender to the slave power. On March 11, 1850, W.H. Seward announced that there is, "a law higher than the Constitution." From that time on, when translating that passage where Antigone tells Creon that she prefers to bear the punishments of human rulers rather than violate the unwritten and immutable laws of the gods, which are not of today or yesterday but live forever."

Dr. North used to remind us that the heathen Sophocles had anticipated Seward's higher law doctrine. Sometimes he added, "What an everlasting shame for a young man, taught to look upon Jesus Christ as his ideal, to act upon a lower principle than the heathen Antigone." The majority of students accepted the doctrine of the higher law, and one used to be continually quoting that passage from Burke in which he speaks of comprises that are, "to a just man's eye odious and disgusting things, like those noxious insects that flit about in the compromise of a twilight between day and night." How little we anticipated what a great sacrifice must be made in the support of the higher law doctrine. In a class debate upon compromise one man shouted, "The South threatens to secede. That is buncombe. Think of the poorhouse at Rome threatening to secede from Oneida County!" How little we thought, as we laughed and cheered that utterance, that we were approaching the most bloody civil war of modern times, to which our class was to contribute one major, one captain, one surgeon and one private. But Abolitionism was not the only ism. All kinds of isms were floating in the atmosphere; some good, some detestable.

Then, as now, unsettled minds chased every novelty. How often have I been reminded, as some old error has reappeared as a novelty, of Charlie Bayliss' sarcastic but true characterization of certain minds. There was a case of smallpox in town — a disease at that time almost unknown in the neighborhood. I said to Charlie, "Do you think it will spread?" "Of course it will," and naming a woman noted for every kind of ability except stability, he said, "Mrs. _____ will go and catch it because she thinks it is something new. Full of benevolent purpose, she will hurry off to the Stone Church social to communicate it, and before we can say Jack Robbin we will all be down with it.”

Charlie’s remark suggests the vast difference between an open mind, hospitable to new truth or new applications of old truth, and a restless mind delighting in novelties for novelty's sake, or in its ignorance accepting some old pestilential theory as advanced thought. Men of the open yet discriminating mind will be more needed in the 20th  century than in any of the preceding centuries. Men of the restless mind, mistaking the glare of paradox for the light of truth, will be more numerous in the 20th century than in preceding centuries. If this College is true to its past, it will train up men of the first type.

One word with regard to our class. Its graduates number 19. Of these, 12 became lawyers, two bankers, two teachers and three ministers of the Gospel. It contributed, as before stated, three officers to the Union Armies. It has also contributed a governor to the State of Virginia, and two judges to the nation. The remaining members, if not conspicuous on account of official positions, have rendered good honest service to their fellow men. Five of the 19 are still living. Your annalist prays that God may grant his surviving classmates, and the younger graduates, a blessed old age. Do you remember the old New England Indian Summer — a little haziness in the atmosphere, but serene skies without tempestuous clouds, and the orchards laden with golden fruits? There is an old age with perchance a little haziness over the memory, a little impairment of the faculties, but the heart is filled with childhood’s faith, the judgment remains unimpaired and the fruits of past experience become a benediction to thee rising generation. May God grant this blessed experience to us five and to the other classes who will soon celebrate their 50th anniversary.