Dick Couper '44 giving the Class and Charter Day speech in 2004.
The Third Time Around
Class & Charter Day
May 7, 2004
Madame President, distinguished platform guests, members of the faculty, students, friends.
I cannot resist one presidential comment; it is a matter of historical record that between 1812 and 1833 the trustees of Hamilton College offered the presidency to seven different individuals each of whom declined. I think I express the gratitude of all here that you, Madame President, did not decline, further that from the start you were the unanimous choice of the search committee, an occurrence for which we are all deeply grateful.
I do observe that I first recited on this platform in the fall of 1940 in a mandatory freshman-sophomore declamation class. In those days my knees knocked in the key of C. Recently I had both knees replaced with the result that they now knock in the key of E flat. A new tone is welcome.
As I am sure you have heard from tiresome ancients like me, public speaking was mandatory for each of four undergraduate years. My view is that there was virtue in requiring each of us to appear before our peers, but I must say, the courses were not well taught, and there was no requirement that we say anything substantive or memorable. That we had to learn in later life, sometimes harshly.
There is a passage in Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry on this subject of public speaking so much touted by elderly alumni, "In his class in public speaking, a course designed to create congressmen, bishops, and sales managers, Elmer had had to produce discoveries on taxation, the purpose of God in history, our friend the dog, and the glory of the American Constitution. But his monthly orations had not been too arduous; no one had grieved if he stole all his ideas and most of his phrasing from the encyclopedia. He had, in public speaking, never been a failure nor ever for one second interesting."
This is the 192 year of Hamilton College. This is the 55th Class & Charter Day occasion, a day on which we celebrate chartering by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, May 26, 1812, when in the language of the day the College was "en grafted" on the Hamilton-Oneida Academy. But the real celebration is the honoring of faculty and students who are especially cited for their achievements and very deservedly so. With special enthusiasm I cheer all of you; this is your day, your occasion.
President Robert Ward McEwen, the 14th president of the College, was the instigator of Class & Charter Day in something like its present form with the injunction that the speaker should focus on history, preferably on aspect or aspects of the history of the College. The roster of presenters is lustrous including distinguished academics. For example, Willard Thorp of Spiller, Thorp & Canby, Sy Syrett, distinguished historian, editor of the Hamilton Papers, Fred Rudolph, historian, especially of higher education in the 19th century, Philip Jessup, scholar and jurist, plus a gaggle of alumni and Hamilton associated worthies. And then there have been some Coupers: in 1962 my late father, Edgar W. Couper, Class of 1920, held forth on the subject of Hamilton and Higher Education in New York State; my mother, Esther W. Couper, in 1997 then age 97, held forth with the title "The Bristols and the Coupers: A Reminiscence;" then R.W. Couper, Class of 1944, spoke in 1954, the subject being "The Hamilton-Oneida Academy;" and he held forth again 40 years later in 1994 at which time he, that is I, was guaranteed an appearance in another 40 years. However, President Stewart and I had a close look at my last annual physical report and agreed that we should speed things up just a bit.
As a kid of 81, I continue to marvel at my mother's Class & Charter Day presentation at 97, especially because I am acutely mindful of Dag Hammarskjöld's observation, "Time goes by, reputation increases, ability declines." And I am ancient enough to appreciate fully the late George Burns quip, "I am so old I can remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty."
During my lifetime a commonplace expression was a 5 percenter or a 10 percenter, a distinctly pejorative expression. The Coupers, including today, claim 5 of 55 presentations from this platform so we are 9.1 percenters, nearly 10 percent. The real reason for a third invitation to me is the fact that this is the year of my 60th reunion. So if you don't mind, a modest cheer for the Class of 1944, now 51 in number.
I think one could safely argue that Class & Charter Day is an established tradition; 55 successive years after all is commendable justification. Commonly the word tradition is associated with our long established small residential quality liberal arts colleges, but the association is not always one of praise and commendation. As samples, red hot cannonballs rolled down dormitory hallways, paint night when early in the semester freshman here at Hamilton were supplied with cans of green paint and deposited at the foot of the hill. They were instructed to climb the hill in the course of which they were to deposit paint on sophomores who were semi concealed behind bushes and trees en route. The sophomores were supplied with cans of red paint which they were to dump on hill climbing freshman.
Some traditions here were far more acceptable; as a sample, in my time, an interclass sing competition was held on the main quadrangle, a thoroughly enjoyable competition.
The always reliable OED has a series of offerings re: tradition, "a statement, belief, or practice transmitted (especially orally) from generation to generation;" "an immemorial usage;" "the action of transmitting or ‘handing down' or fact of being handed down, from one to another or from generation to generation transmission of statements, beliefs, rules, customs, or the like especially by word of mouth."
I don't think we need to reinstitute nefarious past traditions, but Class & Charter Day does pass the test--55 years--filling a worthy, laudatory purpose; truly a tradition. One of my all time favorite Hamilton alumni felt so strongly about traditions that he recommended a standing committee on traditions, the function of which would be to recommend the establishment of traditions to be sure we had the right ones.
As to today's presentation, I should run little risk were I simply to use material from my talk in 1954. It struck me that that would not be proper either for you or for me so bearing in mind President McEwen's originating theme, I decided to focus on significant dates in the history of the hilltop and relate these to those dates in the history of our country. To use the inevitable phrasing employed on history quizzes over the years I shall do some comparing and contrasting. Possible considerations are the following:
1793 -- the charter date of the Hamilton-Oneida Academy--our origin.
1812 -- the charter date of Hamilton College.
1820 -- the class of my great great great grandfather Charles Avery.
1864 -- the class of Elihu Root, Hamilton's most distinguished graduate.
1892 -- the arrival of President Stryker, he being the president who served the longest in the history of the College--25 years, also the year of graduation of my grandfather, Walter Thomas Couper. President Stewart has only 24 years to go to match the record, and 25 to exceed it.
1920 -- my father, Edgar W. Couper's class.
1944 -- my own class year.
1962 -- the sesquicentennial year of the College.
Finally 1968 -- entry of the first Kirkland College class.
My mother was a Clintonian brought up in many associations with Hamilton. She possessed a wealth of College lore, much of it focused on the faculty. A favorite of hers related to the distinguished professor of English literature who wrote in the margin of a freshman's composition, "verbose and needlessly profuse." Were I to attempt to treat all of the dates mentioned just now, I should be guilt y of being both verbose and profuse, so I have selected rather arbitrarily, mindful of time constraints. The dates selected are these:
If I survive an adequate number of years and today receive a passing grade so that another appearance will occur, I do have a suitable subject already selected, i.e. treatment of the years 1812, 1864, 1920, and 1962.
1793 is truly the genesis, the beginning year of what we are today since the charter of the Hamilton-Oneida Academy was granted by the regents January 31, 1793, very largely through the efforts of the Reverend Samuel Kirkland who had effected a mission first to the Senecas then to the Oneidas, that mission having endured since the 1760s. Walter Pilkington in his history of the College comments that Alexander Hamilton's "contribution to the founding of the institution was indeed nominal." The historian Hildreth records the fact that the Congress charged Alexander Hamilton with "corruption and peculation," nine resolutions of censure were introduced into the Congress, but all of these failed. This was the year in which Hamilton's tawdry off air with Maria Reynolds became known. An irony surrounds this date because at the same time a charter was given the Hamilton-Oneida Academy, so was a charter provided for the academy of the Town of Schenectady, which became Union College. This was for some years a matter of moment when the Hamilton-Union relationship was intense both on and off the football field. The Academy came into being and existed for the most part on a precarious and chancy basis, that is, little money and few students. The Samuel Kirkland concept was unique in that it called for provision for Indian and white boys and girls. The Academy, never large, had a minimal quotient of Indians to Kirkland's distress. And in this key year of our founding in Clinton the first two story house was constructed as well as the first church.
We should observe that the plan for the Academy stipulated that students should "write the English language with propriety, accuracy, and elegance." But to the comparing and contrasting issue 1793 was a year of national significance. President George Washington ardently wished to retire but was persuaded to a second term. So his second inaugural occurred in this year at which time he was paid $25,000 a year. A carpenter at that time received approximately 80¢ a day for his labors. To the consternation of many citizens, Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality. And it was in this year, after unsuccessful earlier attempts, that Jefferson did succeed in resigning as Secretary of State prompted in large part by the increasing Jefferson-Hamilton animosity. And should you care, Williams College was charted in this very year, 1793. In this same year the hostility between Federalists, i.e. Hamilton, and Republicans, i.e. Jefferson, sharpened measurably. Jefferson retired to Monticello on leaving the Cabinet, ostensibly out of politics, but the quantity of his extant correspondence indicates continuous and strenuous political activity. Further this was the time of the infamous Citizen Genet affair, and in this year France and Britain were at war which prompted Washington's already mentioned proclamation of neutrality.
At this time in our history there were just over 4,000,000 people; it took almost 10 days to travel from New York to Boston. There were 15 states in the Union. Drinking was a favorite social pastime. As historian Edward Channing observed "Intoxication was regarded rather as an accomplishment than a disgrace," and shades of the present lotteries were endemic.
In this very year of 1793 Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin, and the building of Washington as our capital began.
Abroad not only were France and Britain at war, Louis XVI was executed and the Reign of Terror began.
There is ample reason for comparing and contrasting national and local events in 1793 since in that very year our founder, Samuel Kirkland, succeeded in arranging conversations with President George Washington and then Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, from each of whom he received encouragement. And as already made clear, this was the charter year; Kirkland was the most generous contributor to the nascent academy. His labors in 1793 were quite remarkable in that he suffered a severe painful eye injury but carried on nobly engaging in almost constant interplay not just with the Oneidas but also with the Tuscaroras, Stockbridge, and Brotherton Indians.
This is the moment to move to my second choice of date, 1820, the year in which my quite remarkable great great great grandfather Charles Avery graduated from Hamilton. In fact, graduating with distinction, he served the College for 34 years as a professor of chemistry. He helped the College by proving to be a successful fund raiser, served briefly as acting president, a genre with which I can associate. His autobiography, never published but available in type script, was written when he was 87; I therefore have six more years in which to take careful notes before beginning. The 11th of 14 children, he was farmed out at age eight by his impecunious family. In 1814 he enlisted in the militia to fight the British at Sachetts Harbor. Determined to get an education, he entered Hamilton in 1816. As an undergraduate, he records the fact that he fought the College bully successfully. He was a polymath in that not only did he teach chemistry but at various times algebra, geometry, calculus, geology, French, and philosophy. He received national notice in his pioneering work in photography as portrayed in a recent exhibit in the Emerson Gallery. His daughter, Delia, married Othneil S. Williams, my great great grandfather who went to Hamilton and built what is now the Alexander Hamilton Inn in 1832.
A word about the College in 1820. Henry Davis, who had turned down the Yale presidency, had left the Middlebury presidency to become Hamilton's second president, was in office. The faculty consisted of three professors, two tutors and two recent graduates. The students numbered 93; 19 seniors, 19 juniors, 35 sophomores, 20 freshmen. Davis, who got into a struggle with his trustees but survived, was a noted disciplinarian as all students were acutely aware. There were no electives; the curriculum was turgid. Entry at age 15 or 16 was not uncommon. A relevant comment on curricular liveliness comes from Eliphalet Knott, president of Union for 62 years. Typically as president he taught the mandated senior course on moral philosophy. When in his 37th year he was asked how frequently he changed his lecture notes, "Never," said he, "there is no need." In this year, 1820, worthy of note in New York State is the fact that while the Erie Canal Clinton's Ditch was completed in 1825, it was begun at this time.
On the national scene James Monroe described in the DAB as "lacking the qualities of high imagination, unpretentious in appearance, far from brilliant in speech, without any genuine graces, Monroe yet attained distinction," served as President, in fact was reelected in 1820 with only one dissenting vote in the electoral college. By this time the two party system had disappeared, that is the Federalists were gone. The year 1820 is noteworthy on the national scene because of the Missouri Compromise, which like all compromises satisfied no one. As you well remember this called for the admission of Missouri as a slave state, no slavery north of 36 30, and admission of Maine as a free state, the 23rd to be admitted. The great compromiser Henry Clay was largely responsible for the Missouri compromise.
Historian Edward Channing, in his multi volume history of the United States, makes a series of observations about the year 1820. Many states had lotteries to support education; steamboats constantly plied the Hudson River between New York and Albany; in fact, some 16,000 trips a year. Of the 9 ½ million Americans, about a quarter lived west of the Atlantic seaboard. Channing remarks on "A most appalling consumption of alcoholic stimulants throughout the country and among all classes of people." It was in this year that Washington Irving produced the Sketch Book, and it was in this year that a land act was passed allowing for 80 acres for citizens at a cost of as little as $100 in cash. This provision, making cheap land available, caused a doubling in the price of slaves
Two concluding comments re: 1820. One more delicious description of Monroe offered by Allan Nevins, "Tall, awkward James Monroe who presented that not unusual combination, a commonplace man with a highly distinguished public career." Concluding offerings on the year 1820, three trivia remarks; this was the year in which Keats wrote Ode to a Nightingale; it was the year in which Susan B. Anthony was born; and finally, for these addicted to racket sports note that in this year squash was invented.
1892, my third selection, is worth notice for events on the Hill and nationally. In this year my grandfather, Walter Thomas Couper, graduated from Hamilton as salutatorian. He served briefly in the library and then for several years as a teacher of Greek and German at a salary of $875 a year plus room. Of great consequence was the arrival of Melancthon Woolsey Stryker, Hamilton's 9th president. Not only was he the 9th president, but the 9th ordained minister to serve. Searches in those days were much different then they are today. The Board elected Stryker with no certainty that he would accept. He left a quantity of imprints including a book of poems, several of them being in Latin, the lyrics for some 20 songs, the most famous being Carissima and second only to my generation Bright Hamilton searches much different in 1892. Board elected Stryker -- no certainty he would accept. Mr. Stryker's first meeting with the board was held in the Stone Presbyterian Church.
President Stryker, Class of 1872, was a man of great energy, an activist. When he discovered the College color was pink, he immediately ordered that the colors be buff and blue, thus the Continentals. No consulting trustees, staff, faculty, students, or alumni. Prior to this decision the Hamilton Literary Monthly referring to Intercollegiate Field Day recorded "the grounds were filled with old Hamilton men who were proud to wear the pink." That same magazine recorded in 1892 this entry, "the future of athletics in Hamilton is a question that should deeply concern every student." And at about the time of the election of President Stryker, the Literary Magazine had this choice entry, "the College choir is very much like the baseball team. Both have good material but they do not play together. They both need practice."
Stryker was a one man band; in addition to quantities of other responsibilities he was the Admissions Officer. An eager prospective freshman wrote to Prex that he wanted to come to Hamilton in the worst possible way. The President immediately shot back, "Try the O & W;" this being a favorite story of my mother's.
At the time of the president's arrival, the faculty had 17 members including Abel Grovenor Hopkins, Dean, and a relative of mine. The then Catalogue was very prescriptive, for example this kind of entry, "Candidates should bring with them paper and pencils for writing." One Hamilton publication had this entry regarding President Stryker, "Dr. Stryker is a man of deep learning and wide experience--in short, a progressive man. He is in thorough sympathy with the students. He loves the College."
Mr. Stryker served for 25 years; longer by far than any other president. In his late years he fomented a quantity of dissensions, the most noteworthy being an intemperate attack on President Woodrow Wilson. The collection of disagreements led to his departure in 1917. In retirement he was revered by quantities of old grads.
Nationally speaking 1892 was an interesting year. This was the year that the University of Chicago was founded. And in this year Grover Cleveland, a New Yorker and sometime governor of New York, was re-elected president after a four year interlude. He was a Clintonian in that in the 1850's he lived here and attended the Clinton Grammar School, and in 1887 he returned to Clinton for the local centennial celebration. Frances Cleveland in that year, 1887, received local ladies in the Williams house that is now the Alexander Hamilton Inn.
Cleveland ran on a pro gold anti free silver platform. Just ahead the panic of 1893 was brewing. The infamous Homestead Strike of 1892 tarred the Republicans and helped the Cleveland election substantially, although the central issue was clearly the tariff. Interesting to us today is that Cleveland, a Democrat, was the candidate of business. Noteworthy in this election year of 1892 was relatively speaking a strong third party, the People's Party with James Weaver as candidate. This was the beginning of the Populist Party described by Allan Nevins as "the most colorful of American political parties." In this same year, 1892, Jay Gould, the looter of the Erie rail road and described by historian Eric Foner as the prototype robber baron died.
It is time for the final entry, 1968. On the national scene 1968 was a parlous and contentious year. James Patterson in his superb book Grand Expectations labels chapter 22 "The Most Turbulent Year." In mid-March of that year, Robert Kennedy announced that he would seek the presidency; before the year was out came the unbelievable awfulness of his assassination. This, too, was the dreadful time of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Just before his death King remarked, "We begot some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn't matter with me now because I have been to the mountain top." The sitting President, Lyndon B. Johnson, pronounced himself, "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president." Ironically, listening to his adversaries and his advisers, LBJ wanted to end the Vietnam War; it went on for another five years. Humphrey was the democratic candidate and as such he did not receive Gene McCarthy's endorsement, and Johnson's support was tepid. The upshot was that Nixon was elected. Nixon was described by Eric Foner as "a responsible conservative and an irresponsible demagogue." He was elected by the slimmest margin since 1912. Specifically the vote was 31.8 million as against 31.3 million providing almost the same mandate enjoyed by the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 1968 quite significantly, witnessed the Republican shift from the eastern establishment to southern and western conservatives.
Prior to the national election this was the year of the feral, inexcusable behavior of the Chicago police in quelling the protests of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman who with their companions were identified initially as the Chicago Eight, ultimately the Chicago Seven, Bobby Seal having dropped out. This unseemly occurrence took place at the time of the Democratic convention in Chicago. Mayor Daly who ordered the police behavior was excoriated by many. Very likely the police incident cost Humphrey the election.
Of course this year 1968 was the year of the infamous TET Offensive, a year in which Vietnam was on the minds of virtually all Americans. During the presidential campaign both Nixon and Humphrey were ambivalent in views about the Vietnam War. A reviewer of Mark Kurlansky's book entitled 1968: The Year That Rocked the World observed, "Technological advance meant that a mass audience could for the first time see history in the making or at least within 24 hours. Once America's cameras focused on Vietnam, its war was lost." And one throwaway which I cannot resist relating to 1968 is that this was the year that open tennis began.
In that most turbulent year quiet did not exist on the university front, Columbia being the most notable example of turbulence. Mark Rudd, student leader, successfully organized a series of protests. He was adroit; the university was woeful and inept in response. Long after this time I sat on a board with Grayson Kirk, Columbia's president in the troubles. A decent man but I think he had no sense at all of what was happening. David Truman, provost of the university, did understand but was unsuccessful in quieting the disturbed university. I did have lunch and a long talk with Truman many years after the hellish time. In the year 1968 my late father, Class of 1920, then Chancellor of the Board of Regents, received an honorary degree from Columbia. He was asked to give the commencement speech but refused rightfully sensing that the speaker should be someone who had been in the heat of battle. The speaker selected was Richard Hofstadter, described by a colleague as, "the finest and also the most humane historical intelligence of our generation." I was there for the occasion. During his delivery Hofstadter wept occasioned by the grief he felt for the tragedy of his university. In his speech, Hofstadter observed, "How can it not go on? What kind of people would we be if we allowed this center of our culture and our hope to languish and fail?"
But what about our hilltop in 1968, our usually quiet hilltop relatively speaking. A series of significant events took place in 1968. Noteworthy was the opening of Kirkland College, the origins of which began with deliberations of the first ever Hamilton trustee long range planning committee in 1961. In the spring of the year following two years of my acting presidency, John Wesley Chandler was inaugurated as Hamilton's 15th president. Appointed by President Chandler, I served as the first provost of the College. Students organized sit-ins protesting the presence of military recruiters on the campus, this being a reflection of increasing national anti-war sentiment. There was more or less continuous student ferment regarding Vietnam. President Chandler announced that the College would financially support students who needed legal help when punished by draft boards regarding protests.
1968 was the year of the filming of the Sterile Cuckoo on this campus. Author of the novel with that title was John Nichols of the Class of 1962. It was in this year that fraternities were notably facing declining membership, and coincidentally this was the year in which the construction of the Bundy dorms began.
In preparing these remarks I have born in mind that Class & Charter Day originated during the McEwen presidency, that inviting speakers for this annual occasion, now a tradition, he strongly suggested that history be the theme. It seemed to me appropriate on this third time around to offer observations on segments of history here and nationally, to suggest that there was some nexus between the two, that we were not always in splendid isolation.
In closing I wish to emphasize again the hearty congratulations which are so much deserved for all faculty and student prize winners. I salute all of you and warmly.
And especially I salute our 19th president, Joan Stewart, on this her first Class & Charter Day. She is a warm, welcome, and sensitive presence among us.
This is not a hortatory occasion, that description being reserved for most commencement deliveries, so my conclusion is only mildly hortatory. In 1968 in an address to the student body from this very platform I observed, "We live in hope. If you are diligent, search hard and fairly, you will find several people on this campus over thirty whom you can trust." My advice -- circumspice.
Bibliography Re: Class & Charter Day
May 7, 2004—RWC
Allison, Charles Elmer; A Historical Sketch of Hamilton College, Yonkers, 1889.
Burns, James M.; The Crosswinds of Freedom, New York, 1989.
Burns, J.M., The Vineyard of Liberty, New York, 1982.
Channing, Edward; A History of the United States, vol. 4, New York, 1917.
Dayton, Edson C.; And Hamilton
Documentary History of Hamilton College, Hamilton College, 1922.
Dodge, M.G.; Fifty Years Ago, Hamilton College, 1900.
Elkins, Stanley, and McKitrick, Eric; The Age of Federalism, New York 1993.
Foner, E., and Garraty, J.; The Readers Companion to American History, Boston, 1991.
Gridley, A.D.; History of the Town of Kirkland, New York, 1874.
Grun, Bernard; The Timetables of History, New York, 1991.
Hildreth, Richard; The History of the United States of America, vol. 4, New York, 1856; vol. 6, New York, 1855.
History of Oneida County, Philadelphia, 1878.
Jones, Pomroy; Annals and Recollections of Oneida County, Rome, 1851.
Lee, Frederick P., and Johnson, Wallace; Hamilton College Songs, New York, 1915.
McMaster, John Bach, A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War, vol. 2, New York, 1885; vol. 4, New York, 1895.
Miller, William; A New History of the United States, New York, 1958.
Nevins, Allan, and Commager, Henry Steel; A Short History of the United States, New York, 1942.
Patterson, James T.; Grand Expectations, New York, 1996.
Pilkington, Walter; Editor, The Journals of Samuel Kirkland, Clinton, 1980.
Pilkington, Walter; Hamilton College 1812-1962, Clinton, 1962.
Rhodes, James Ford; History of the United States from Hayes to McKinley, 1877-1896, New York, 1919.
Rudolph, Frederick; The American College and University, New York, 1962.
Simon, James F.; What Kind of Nation, New York, 2002.
Smith, Page; The Shaping of America, vol. 3, New York, 1980.
Smith, Page; The Rise of Industrial America, vol. 6, New York, 1984.
Williams, Neville; Chronology of World History IV, New York, 1999.
OTHER SOURCES USED
Avery, Charles; Autobiography (unpublished)
Catalogues: 1820, 1823, 1892, 1967-68, 1968-69
Dictionary of American Biography, passim
Edgar Williams Couper; Diary, passim
Faculty Minutes: 1967, 1968, 1969
Hamilton Life, passim
Hamilton Literary Monthly, passim
A Memorial of the Semi-centennial Celebration of the Founding of Hamilton College, Utica, 1862
In memoriam, Abel, Grosvenor Hopkins, 1844-1899
In memoriam, O.S. Williams
Some notes re: Cable program on the subject 1968 elections, December 18, 2003
The Spectator, passim
Trustee Minutes, passim