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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1878 Letter

Charles R. Kingsley

Delivered: June 1928

The sons of Hamilton return with something of the feeling of a man revisiting his boyhood home. The walls are vocal with forgotten echoes; every spot has magic to recall the days of long ago.

The Chapel where your freshman effort was greeted with ironical applause; the memorable spot where, good Presbyterian as you were, you were made Baptist, if water does it. Old College days arise as a cloud of witnesses. But there are surprising changes around you. You are impressed by the blooming grace and beauty of Alma Mater, who seems younger with the passing years. One is lost among the buildings new and old. Dormitories, library, laboratories, gymnasium challenge comparison with the best.

In these modern dormitories freshmen lack the exhilaration of breaking the ice before the morning ablutions, shaking down the old baseburner, and toting coal and water from bins and well, but the well- equipped gymnasium may possibly provide a satisfactory substitute for that hardening discipline.

In 1875 occurred Hamilton’s brief flurry in aquatic sports. We proudly recall how Dwight Holbrook walked our crew to Utica and back for practice on the Mohawk and how at Saratoga Lake they held Yale with even prow until that historic “crab” dashed our hopes — and quenched our aspirations. We recall the great days when Jule Elliott in ’75 and Frank Laird in ’76 met the orators of leading eastern colleges and carried off the palm. We stopped rowing; they stopped orating — in both cases it may be with wisdom.

The “marathon,” in our days, was a name with a single thrilling association. From that most vital seed has sprung up a rich crop of marathons scattered over the whole earth. Intercollegiate contests had not begun. Olympic games were not dreamed of. Tracks, bowls, courts, pertained respectively to railroads, kitchens and the police.

We had our 100-yard dash from the Chapel to Old South, and a ring often formed about wrestlers at “collar and elbow.” We had then, as Hamilton has always had, a strong baseball team. Football with us had hardly come into its own. Tennis had just been imported from Europe and was regarded slightingly, if at all as an effete amusement suited to the weaker sex, for in that day there was a weaker sex. The popular pastime on the campus was “knock up and catch,” followed by a game between “scrubs” and the College Nine.

We used to regard quite condescendingly the students in coeducational colleges. We, with three seminaries in Clinton, enjoyed all the advantages of feminine companionship and escaped unwelcome rivalry. Time has made that rivalry appear even more unwelcome in the very house of its friends.

There were no automobiles to open New York State as a pleasure park for attentive swains and their fair ones. But we got along very agreeably with the sidebar buggy or the more ample phaeton, and jogged along to Utica or Willowvale or nowhere in particular, often parking as they do today, by the way.

The College curriculum in our days was rigid and unchangeable, but it has blossomed since like an irrigated desert. It was an event when Dr. Mears, our professor of philosophy, added classes in German to his list. Electives were first offered us in senior year, when we were given the option of chemistry or Plato. From that has sprung the branching tree of present electives, which holds prominent place among changes of 50 years. In 1876 Professor Frink secured a separate library of modern literature, which was conveniently installed in South College. This collection embraced poetry, essays, criticism and biography; it proved most stimulating to literary culture. For this important addition to College equipment Professor Frink merits honorable place in the list of Hamilton’s benefactors. But if we are to mention names, ‘twere most ungracious to omit others who by their faithful but little-appreciated efforts did their best to quicken our inertia and supplant our complacency with scholastic enthusiasm. President Brown always seemed to us the pattern of a scholar — his broad rich culture, his reserved but sincere friendliness toward us, his quiet but persuasive eloquence endeared him to all. Professor North, “Old Greek,” expressed the very Attic Spirit; it spoke through him in lucid, beautiful translation and in illumining lecture on Greek literature and civilization. Professor Root’s rich culture luxuriated on more planes of thought than most men knew. He well merited the familiar subriquet “Cube,” which implied a high and wide range of wisdom in a kingdom of at least three dimensions.

It is noteworthy that half the College faculty were ordained ministers. They spoke from the Chapel pulpit at irregular intervals to audiences equally irregular. Their pastoral zeal may account for the visit to the College of Dr. Herrick Johnson, whose flaming eloquence and piercing eyes, it was hoped, would turn sinners from the error of their ways, and incidentally perhaps to greater regard for morning chapel and Sabbath services. A great deal of good was no doubt accomplished, and the noon-day meeting in the Chapel, and class prayer meetings in the several recitation rooms, experienced a very marked revival. Students were so led to do personal work with their fellows, with varying results. “You know we look at these things rather differently from the way you do,” was the somewhat prophetic answer of one student to this appeal. That attitude of mind has developed widely during subsequent years. Naturally under such influences a considerable portion of our class, over one-fourth, entered the Christian ministry.

No one, considering the status of college morals today, and recalling frankly conditions 50 years ago, can unduly censure student life of the present. There was grave weakness of moral purpose in some and a sad lack of effective restraint. Boys did much as they pleased and too often found their failings quite entertaining to their companions. There was a good deal of drinking in college, and trips to Utica were not always what they should be. I cannot vouch for conditions now, but I do believe that the frequent unfavorable comparison of college life today with what it was a generation or more ago is both unfounded and unjust.

We congratulate the College on its growth. Survivors of a class which numbered 32, about the average for that time, we gladly hail the day when classes are reckoned not by 10s, but by 20s and 50s. Then we were like the youngster in short pants who was afraid he would never grow big. Now we are like the tall and slender flapper who fears she will never stop growing. We share this growth with all sister institutions. It is a heartening evidence of our sturdy democracy and of the prosperity of our people.

We believe in Hamilton College and want more and more students to enjoy the privilege of its cultural discipline. The president of Brown University recently declared: “No where else is education so pointless and aimless, and so blind to its objectives, so indifferent to any specific outcome as in America.” This is most dispiriting, if true, but to look through the register of our alumni is to realize that Hamilton is a splendid exception to any such generalization. The granite pedestal of Dr. Peter’s great equatorial standing in unique grandeur on the campus may seem a monument of past glory. But if the College has turned from discovering asteroids, it has studiously attended to the business of making stars.

We live in a new world today. The contrast to the world we knew a half-century ago is well nigh amazing. Electricity with us was a subject of laboratory experiment. There were no electric lights, nor motors, nor heaters. Horse cars both furthered and blocked street traffic. The marvels of wireless had not entered into the mind of man. The words X-Ray and radium were not in any dictionary. Astronomers only dreamed of measuring the stars, and stretching a line across the universe. We still talked of 4,000 years as the age of the world and were scorned as heretics if we doubted it. Jules Verne might send his air ship to the moon, or plunge it to the depths of the sea, but that was of a piece with the story of Jack the Giant Killer or Cinderella. A Lindbergh had not appeared above the horizon. Steel structure had not come; eight or 10 stories was a skyscraper. Trinity Church dominated the skyline of downtown New York. It is over-topped today by the towering office buildings.

New metals have been discovered and much used for utility and for ornament. Coal cars on the rails eye jealously high-tension cables overhead. Machinery has developed into a veritable robot of power and skill. We deal with infinities, great and small. Life and matter are traced to their beginnings, and creative power is discovered at work.

Scientific schools arrogantly claim chief honor here. But progress is far from being merely material. Accomplishments even more important to our well being must be credited to the college of liberal arts. The founders of the Republic were not scientists. They had received a classical, or merely literary education. Our country has been raised to its present place of power and wealth chiefly by men of like training. Its safety has been kept by them; its high place in the world has been won by their labors. The greatest hope today for world peace and progress in civil government lies in the statesmen – college and university bred – gathered at Geneva and the Hague. The name of Elihu Root stands high in the record of that international achievement.

Wherever one looks there is amazing newness. Institutions that seemed immovable have been carried down the stream, leaving scarcely a stone to mark their memory. Great monarchies as stable as Rome of old have vanished. Thrones have become curios in the museums of democracy. When we were in college the great German Empire was entering upon vigorous youth. We have watched it rise to world supremacy in science and philosophy, and we have witnessed its fall and dissolution. We have seen France regain the height of power and influence which she forfeited a half-century ago. The last few decades saw the crash of imperial czarism in Russia and the rise of the new tyranny of Bolshevism, dire menace to the world today.

Haughty dictators walk the boards in Italy and Spain, and overawe kings. The war to make the world safe for democracy has yet to be won. Nor have we proved til now that democracy is safe for the world. Great gain was made in the struggle when complacent optimism was converted to grave concern, which no doubt is the attitude of many thoughtful college men today.

We have seen three momentous amendments added to the United States Constitution. One of them supplies a dominating issue in the political struggle today. The last — the 19th — enlists reserves enough to ensure its victory. The fact that three great problems have been solved in orderly, constitutional way gives us assurance against the ancient curse of civil strife. We have curbed the flood of immigration that threatened disaster to our institutions, and levees of government by commission have been erected about many of our great cities.

Religion might seem least exposed to change. But half a century has wrought its destined work of progress in that field also. The passing years have definitely established the doctrine of evolution in all phases of human nature – physical, mental, moral and spiritual. There is no more thrilling story than the development of religious thought. The promise of the Master was that discovery of truth would be progressive. That promise has been faithfully fulfilled and the progress has been accelerated in our day. The American Revised Bible was issued just after our class left College, while the battle over Darwin was far from won. The critical work of Bible scholars has brought new light. Churches are adopting shorter creeds; in many cases a few lines suffice. Freedom of thought is demanded by the human mind, and a new and deeper meaning is found in the great promise: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

The seemingly irrepressible conflict between science and religion has subsided; the lion and the lamb are lying down together. Science today is regarded by many as a high priest of spiritual thought. It has brought God out of the book, and made the infinite real to us as the life of all His creatures. The greatest scientists today are theistic; they believe in God. No more impressive change marks the half-century gone.

We have lived through some of the most appalling wars of history, in which the science of slaughter has been brought to an unimagined perfection. The race is apprehensive of its persistence in face of such carnage. The World War branded that fear on the souls of men. And there has arisen the almost universal demand for the abolition of war as a method of settling international questions.

We have witnessed the creation of the League of Nations, and the World Court, the most hopeful agencies for peace ever devised. That we are not in it is evidence of our historic provincialism. But we are playing our part in the drama, which can find but one logical denouement, the outlawry of war among the nations.

Economic problems, like the stone in Daniel’s dream, have grown to fill the earth. Great corporations have sprung up within a half-century. The trust is a modern invention and a very profitable one. What debates over its right to live filled the press! Laws were enacted to suppress it. But keen attorneys were ready and able to outwit the law. The war became statis – a trench fight. Who can doubt where victory has perched or which side holds the spoils. The story reads like a fairy tale. The criminal of former days is the saint of this. His great invention has transformed modern business, and no nicest analysis can detect any taint on the wealth so made. In line with this invention stands the new efficiency in production. The man who laboriously manufactured bicycles one by one, has shown the world how to turn out complete automobiles one every minute. And by this has helped place America at the head of the nations in production of wealth. There is no taint on his money, and everyone appears glad to help him invest it.

A third invention marks the later years of the half-century. One man discovered that “The Golden Rule” was a profitable business principle. He tried it and it worked. Others ventured to try it with like good result. This discovery has brought rich returns on wealth invested, and also served to end deadly strife between labor and capital; it therefore lines up with those who would curtail all war. Possibly this invention exceeds in real importance any other, but we apprehend maybe less promptly adopted. Man has yet to devise a way to distribute justly the products of his labor. If we will believe it, herein lies a path to a millennium of ease and culture for the toilers of the world.

College life is a microcosm; the student during its eventful years meets constantly the varied experiences of the world. The demands that face him, the temptations that test him, the opportunities that invite him, the problems that perplex him, the crises that challenge him, all these and more prepare him for entrance upon his life work. Many a successful politician has learned his trade in college. Class officers and honors furnish incentive, class meetings are organized and conducted, officers chosen, “slates” made and often smashed. The born politician quickly finds himself and starts on the road that may carry him far. So, too, literary talent is developed in graceful essays and forceful orations, which find voice later in press and pulpit. And habits of studious and accurate scholarship formed in college lead to high place in science and in education. The generous culture, the genial friendships, the inspiring association with superior minds, the liberal criticism of all philosophies and systems of thought prepare the coming citizen for useful and influential work. The superior advantage of such educational discipline cannot be doubted where there is the will to get out of it the treasure it offers.

As we look back over the half-century we are reminded of the daring engineers who launched their boat upon swift Colorado to explore the secrets of its awful canyon. The future seems as mysterious as that canyon, and to explore it calls for equal skill and courage. Five classes of Hamilton alumni including ’78 meet in reunion here today. We, the Class of ’78, have done nearly all the exploring we shall do. We have been whirled along through some fearful rapids, we have discovered many fair shores for rest. We know the voyage is dangerous, but it is safe to those who are prepared to meet the test. The course ahead promises greater revelations. We rejoice to see many trained and stalwart souls ready for the quest. We give you the all hail.

Allons! Through struggles and wars!
The goal that was named cannot be countermanded.