I believe that the last time I spoke in this Chapel was to give the salutatory address at the commencement exercises of the Class of 1920; and I realize, half in dismay and half in amusement, that to you that date sounds like the Late Stone Age. Your impression will be strengthened when I remind you that it was in Latin, after the custom of those times. In spite of that precedent, I decided to speak this morning in English. In part I was led to this decision because today's curriculum, though reputedly more difficult, is certainly less classical; but in much larger part because of the present state of my Latin prose composition.
Even in the days when the classics were more emphasized, I would hesitate to claim that the language was readily understood by a commencement audience. The usual device in writing a Latin salutatory was to put in some familiar phrases such as sic semper tyrannis applied to the faculty, and always a reference to the very pretty girls in the audience, puellae pulcherrimae. One coached classmates to applaud, or at least look intelligent, when such familiar words appeared.
Speaking of the classics, may I turn for a moment from Latin to Greek. A year ago this month I was able to fulfill a long-held ambition by visiting Greece. After my first few hours in Athens, which were spent viewing the Agora, the ancient market place; walking where Pericles, Socrates, Plato and all the other giants of the Golden Age must have walked; gazing up at the most famous ruins in the world, the incomparable buildings of the Acropolis; seeing 30 centuries of human history and prehistory before my eyes; and sensing in full the antiquity of the area, I began to wonder why we of Hamilton College were preparing to make such a fuss over a mere 150 years.
But such a feeling, though understandable, is hardly valid. Against the background of an ancient land like Greece, 150 years may not be considered long against the background of a still-young nation like ours.When this College was started in 1812, only 23 years had passed since the ratification of the federal Constitution, only 36 years since the Declaration of Independence. Just a generation before, the land on which stood the Hamilton-Oneida Academy and the Village of Clinton had been wilderness, Indian frontier. In New York State, as I am sure you know, Hamilton stands third in the order of founding of colleges and universities, and it is among the first two score of all such institutions in the United States. Hence, the attainment of a century-and-a-half is definitely worthy of celebration. Our predecessors had similar feelings in 1862 and in 1912 when the first 50 years and the second 50 years were reached, and a little later I shall refer in some detail to those earlier observances.
The year 1812 was a war year, the beginning of the second struggle with Great Britain, but that seems to have had little effect upon the plans for the new college. The Iroquois had been moved westward; settlers, most of them from New England had poured in, and the people in this new central area of the state felt that it was destined for further growth. With the limited transportation facilities of those days, Columbia and even Union were vastly farther away than they are today. Hence, they felt it was time for a nearby college to train preachers, teachers, lawyers, the leaders they needed. By and large, it was members of those three professions which the College produced in its early years, and a surprising number of them did become leaders.
So an application was made to the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York to convert the earlier Hamilton-Oneida Academy to a college; and after due deliberation the regents, with what seems like faith verging on foolhardiness, granted a charter on May 26, 1812. This is, of course, the event we are celebrating today. Actual college instruction began on Nov. 1, 1812.
Though it has existed since 1784, this "University of the State of New York" is still misunderstood. It never has been a university in the conventional sense. Instead, the term comes from the "umbrella" type concept of a university, which considers it as a group of many colleges or other educational entities. It constitutes the entire education system of New York State, public and private, from the kindergarten through the graduate schools, and is the oldest state education system in the world.
In 1812, its governing body, the regents, had a comparatively simple task in supervising only three colleges and a modest number of academies which were tuition-charging preparatory schools and predecessors of free public high schools. Public elementary schools were in their infancy. Today the university consists of 191 colleges and universities, 6,700 elementary and secondary schools, 700 libraries, 200 museums and 230 historical societies. Its executive officer is the commissioner of education, and its administrative staff is the State Education Department with nearly 2,000 employees.
It is an interesting and unique arrangement emphasizing the essential unity of education in the midst of great diversity. To help eliminate misunderstanding, I should point out that this University of the State of New York includes two institutions with similar names: New York University, a large private state university in New York City, and State University of New York set up in 1948 to take over and expand the state's publicly supported institutions of higher education.
This then is the organization which granted the College's charter and which, at various times, had approved of amendments to it. During its history, Hamilton has had many relations with the overall University of the State of New York besides the basic legal ones. It has supplied 12 members of the Board of Regents. An early graduate, Samuel B. Woolworth of the Class of 1822, served for some 25 years as secretary of the board. From the beginning the Regents have granted honorary degrees sparingly, but two of them have gone to Hamilton graduates -- Edward North, the famous professor known as "Old Greek," and Elihu Root.
Now I return to the early days on the Hill and in a rather personal vein. My earliest ancestor to attend Hamilton was Charles Avery of the Class of 1820, who must have been typical of many of the early students. He was a farm boy from Oneida County whose father had migrated from a hill farm in western Massachusetts in hopes of making a better life. Later on Charles Avery was to become professor of chemistry here and to serve from 1834 to 1869. He was also proficient in raising money; and since the College was always hard up, they frequently called upon him for this extracurricular duty. The connection between chemistry and money-raising I will leave to you to ponder.
When an old man, he wrote an autobiographical sketch for his descendants, of which I am the present custodian. Of the College when he entered in the fall of 1816 he wrote:
"The buildings were not numerous. The South College and Hamilton-Oneida Academy, with a boarding house in the background, constituted all the structures which belonged to the corporation, if we except the house where the president of the College resided. This was a humble structure, two-stories high and painted white, conveniently divided for domestic use."
That president's house is now the Alumni House located some 150 yards west of its original site. The "boarding house in the background" is Buttrick Hall, but the other two building he mentioned have long since been replaced. He went on to say that he boarded in Commons during his first two college years when he paid $1.25 a week, adding "The College Commons was anything but a school of manners." And listen to this: "There was a tavern kept directly opposite to the president's house where intoxicating liquors were sold." Think of having the Village Tavern so close at hand. Obviously the early days had some advantages not known to any of us.
Professor Avery wrote of undergraduate pranks which included locking a young bachelor professor on the roof of one of the buildings with some visiting young ladies from Utica. Like most old graduates, he described his College days with nostalgia, though he does refer to the hard benches on which the students sat for recitations and to various primitive living condition of the time. By our standards, accommodations for the students here on the Hill were primitive until the end of the last century when, in 1895, a modern water and sewer system was at last installed. This reminds me of the remark made at one commencement by Samuel Hopkins Adams to the effect that when he was an undergraduate in the late 1880s the sanitary facilities on the Hill, especially in the winter, were not only primitive, but also punitive.
Charles Avery was nearing the end of his long service as a professor when, in 1862, the College celebrated its semi-centennial. That was another war year. In the words of the Reverend Samuel W. Fisher, the sixth president of the College:
"It was amidst the smoke and thunder of war that, 50 years ago, the foundations of this College were laid: ... it is amidst the heavier thunder and darker cloud of this dread conflict, when all that to us is most precious is in peril, we celebrate our semi-centennial jubilee. This thunder shall roll away and the cloud disperse before the uprising patriotism of 20 millions of freemen and the re-right arm of the Lord of Hosts."
In spite of the Civil War, the 50-year anniversary was largely attended, thoroughly observed, and a thin book was published giving a complete record. After some preliminary events, the main celebration was held on July 16, 1862, described as a beautiful summer day. It was held in one of the Clinton churches; most such events were held in the village instead of on the Hill until comparatively modern times both because of the remoteness of the College and the lack of accommodations. It was an all-day affair of many speeches and some poems. The audiences of those days seemed to have more staying power, or perhaps more sitting power, than we do today. They would have been surprised at our notion that "no souls are saved after 20 minutes."
John V.S. Pruyn, the then chancellor of the regents, was on the program. I was amused to find that he made an explanation of the University of the State of New York not unlike the one I have just given you. Later in the day it was announced that he had given $500 to found a prize essay contest which has continued until the present day. If that example had been followed with the growth and number of colleges and jubilee celebrations, being chancellor would have become a very expensive business. Perhaps you will excuse me from founding another essay prize if I swear to you that I have contributed to the Development Fund.
The Hamilton family had much to celebrate -- first that the College had survived at all. It had nearly succumbed; during a two-year dispute between President Davis and the Board of Trustees, the enrollment had sunk to seven. If you will look at the complete alumni record, you will find no graduates in 1829 and 1830. It had been perennially hard up financially; it still was in 1862 but its condition was better. In spite of more competition -- the number of colleges in the state had risen from three to 22 -- the enrollment was nearly 200; the number of buildings had reached nine; and the campus bore at least general resemblance to that of today. All in all, there was an air of optimism for the future, which is still apparent as one reads the story of that July day.
In cold fact, it was long before that optimism was justified. The College showed little real further progress until, in 1892, a remarkable man named Melancthon Woolsey Stryker assumed the presidency. He served for 25 years, until 1917, and it was in the latter part of his regime that the 100th anniversary was observed at the commencement of June 1912 -- 50 years ago next month. That was not a war year, but it was only 26 months before the fateful events of August 1914.
You may have read a recent book by Walter Lord called The Good Years, meaning the years from 1900 to the outbreak of the First World War. Since 1914 it has been a different world, as the following quotation by Bertrand Russell will indicate:
"For those who are too young to remember the world before 1914, it must be difficult to imagine the contrast for a man of my age between childhood memories and the world of the present day. I try, though with indifferent success, to accustom myself to a world of crumbling empires, Communism, atom bombs, Asian self-assertion and aristocratic downfall. In this strange insecure world where no one knows whether he will be alive tomorrow, and where ancient states vanish like morning mists, it is not easy for those who, in youth, were accustomed to ancient solidities to believe that what they are now experiencing is a reality and a transient nightmare. Very little remains of institutions and ways of life that when I was a child appeared as indestructible as granite."
So the members of an older generation look with nostalgia on the good years; not that everything was all right, but that there was confidence it could be made right, a confidence we seem to lack today. Similarly, older Hamilton men look back upon that same period as the "good old days."
But the celebrating crowd of June 1912 could not see what was ahead in the world. Stryker had revitalized the College. His regime was a veritable building boom. He had inherited nine buildings, most of which he renovated, and he left 17. He produced confidence, which attracted financial support. His was the era of the most obvious physical change. When Elihu Root gave the historical address at the 1912 celebration, he would well say of President Stryker: "He needs no monument; but when he does, circumspice."
In student enrollment he was less successful. It is startling to find that the total in 1911-12 (including the Root Fellow and the Locke Fellow) was exactly the same as in 1861-62 -- namely 191. He had refused to relax the College's rigid entrance requirements in Latin, Greek and mathematics. Competing institutions which had become much more numerous did so and had grown rapidly.
Stryker, however, was still near his zenith in 1912. The weakness of his administration became more evident during the final five years of his presidency, which lasted through my freshman year of 1916-17, during the spring term of which America went to war.
Now we come to the third of the half-century periods we are discussing, during which substantial progress has been achieved in spite of two world wars. The disturbing lack of growth in student enrollment was corrected; and as you know, for many years the College has been able to attract many more applicants than it can accept. Furthermore, the admissions system was revised and improved. In the old days it was easy to get in but also easy to flunk out. That philosophy changed to one of attempting to admit only students who could be expected, scholastically at least, to remain for the full four years. The curriculum has been brought up-to-date and expanded; the faculty had been enlarged, strengthened and more adequately paid; the relations with the alumni have been improved; and, of course, the physical plant has grown larger.
These are only highlights. In general the College has been brought to a new peak of usefulness and reputation. Nowadays it is even referred to as a "prestige college," about which I have mingled feelings.
In the late winter I paid a visit to the Hill, and as I started for the village, picked up two undergraduates with whom I fell into conversation. One of them asked if I was a visitor to the College, and I owned up that I had been reviewing some material for this appearance today. Thereupon I asked for suggestions regarding my remarks. One of them counseled against any more presentation of the advantages of liberal education. I agreed to leave that alone. Then I asked about length of time -- could they stand for 20 or 25 minutes? They said yes, particularly if I stressed specifics as against abstractions. Finally, one of them said, "It really is a pretty good day to come to speak because we are so glad to get the afternoon off that we are relatively patient in the morning."
I have tried to follow their advice. This has been only a survey of the College's history divided into the three 50-year periods -- an arbitrary division rather than a logical one. The first 50 years comprised the struggle to get started and to survive; the second half century was of progress, especially in physical plant; the third, to which I have devoted less detailed attention, has been one of solid if unspectacular advance so that Hamilton is today a first-rate college in its class.
What of the next 50 years? The suggestion as to time leaves me little room for prophecy even if I should dare. During the last 50 years, in spite of the growth of the College, there has been no radical change. It is still the same kind of college.
Today the pressure for change is greater because of the growth in college enrollments and the enormous expansion of knowledge, to mention only two reasons. It appears obvious that the publicly supported institutions will have to carry a bigger share of the total enrollment load. Here at Hamilton, if there should be the same proportionate growth in the next 50 years as in the past 50 years, there would be a college of 3,000 on this hilltop, and that is hard to visualize. Our location, still relatively remote even today, will help resist radical transformation. Think how different an institution Hamilton probably would have become had it been removed to Utica as was so often proposed in the 19th century.
I suggest that you take note of all the prophecies, and come back to check them in 2012 at the 200th anniversary celebration. No matter what changes may have taken place, I hope and believe you will find the essential Hamilton spirit the same. In Mr. Root's historical address of 1912, he refers to
"The spiritual succession by which the original qualities and standards of an old institution are transmitted through a long and continually changing series of individual members who differ widely from each other, but who, coming find and going leave the institution always essentially the same." He goes on to say,
"Great endowments, stately buildings, public favor and prosperity cannot produce or take the place of that indefinable and mysterious quality which has been transmitted from a remote past, which has persisted through many changing years and many passing lives, and which give to the institution a personality of its own, a continuance of the life breathed into it at the moment of its birth."