1815 Class Annalist’s Letter
You ask me to give you some reminiscences of Hamilton College during my connection with it; but in endeavoring to recall the transactions of those days, I find my memory very much at fault; and I fear that many things which I might say with regard to its early history, would not be of much interest to your audience.
As you and all the alumni know, the College had its origin in Hamilton-Oneida Academy, an institution founded mainly by the persevering efforts of Rev. Samuel Kirkland, which, as soon as established, took a prominent place among the academies of the State.
Although it may seem inappropriate to the occasion, I am quite unwilling that this old Academy building, where so many were gathered of a generation now almost gone, should pass into oblivion unnoticed and undescribed. The frame of the edifice was erected in the year 1794, but was not enclosed until nearly two years afterward, as no means could be obtained to complete it, and there it stood a naked frame in the midst of the forest. The foxes burrowed in its foundations, and birds built their nests beneath its rafters, and the squirrels careered up and down its naked timbers, as if in derision of the attempt to build a temple of science so near their wild domain, and it was sneeringly called, “The Dominie’s Folly.” (Mr. Kirkland was generally called, “Dominie Kirkland.”) But in the year 1796, it was enclosed. Four study rooms were finished, and a large room whose length was the width of the building (about 40 feet), was fitted up for a chapel, and for other public exercises. With such accommodations the Academy went into operation.
The original subscription by which it was built has been recently framed and presented to the College library. Although this building has been torn down to make room for a larger structure, yet as a slight tribute of respect to the men of that day, who were willing to give their time and means for the erection of so large and commodious a building for a public school, while they were themselves dwelling in log houses, and destitute of what would now be regarded as almost the necessities of life, I have caused a drawing of the building to be made, and some photographs taken, that if deemed proper they may be placed among the College archives.
Hamilton-Oneida Academy closed its existence September 15, 1812. On the afternoon of that day, four individuals, who had been members of the Academy, were examined as candidates for admission to the sophomore class of the new College.
October 21, 1812, was the time appointed for the opening of the institution, but the building not being thoroughly prepared, exercises did not commence until November 1, 1812. Dr. Backus, the newly appointed president, arrived November 23, and took up his residence in the village of Clinton. A few days later he dined with the students, some 15 or 20 in number, at the public boardinghouse, when he was welcomed by a committee from their number, who in a short address pledged their fealty to his authority. To this Dr. Backus replied with much feeling, assuring us of the interest he felt in our welfare.
The faculty then present were President Backus, Professor Norton, Dr. Noyes and Tutor Dean. Thus organized, we began our regular recitations, three times a day.
We were expected to rise in the morning, summer and winter, at half-past five o’clock, attend prayers in the Chapel at 6 a.m., when Dr. Backus always, if at home, officiated; then came morning recitations until 7 p.m. Recitations came again at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Every student was required to be in his room during study hours, and if found elsewhere, he received a reprimand on the spot. Each class had its monitor, whose duty it was to notice if any member was absent from prayers or religious services on the Sabbath. For these offenses the delinquents were required to answer, once a week, before the whole body of students in the Chapel; and great ingenuity was often displayed in forming excuses for neglect of duty; and it was often the occasion of much merriment to those who were only listeners.
The first College bell was a very small affair, scarcely audible in the different rooms of the building, and not very sonorous in the open air; and it was a very easy excuse for sleepy boys to make, “They didn’t hear the bell.” Dr. Backus received this apology for some time, and finally confessed he could not blame the offenders much, adding the oft-repeated saying, “The bell is no better than a fur cap, with a lamb’s tail for a clapper.”
Our time was occupied chiefly in the study of Greek and Latin languages and mathematics. Dr. Noyes occasionally amazed us with chemical experiments, and during senior year, the rhetorical exercises under Dr. Backus were interesting and profitable. The physical sciences, at that time, were little known or understood in this country, and of course had no large place in the college system of education.
Our College course being completed in July 1815, we were required to prepare for Commencement. The Class of 1814 containing but two individuals, they were excused from speaking, although it had been a subject of debate in the meetings of the faculty whether they should have any Commencement exercises. Some of them were in favor of it, but Dr. Backus opposed it, declaring it would never do: “It would be quite too much like a young rooster flying upon the fence, flapping his wings and trying to crow, before he could get his throat open.”
But the Class of 1815 must have a Commencement; and as it was to be the first one, it became a grave question as to what should be its character and exercises. Hamilton-Oneida Academy almost from its beginning had its annual exhibition in the village church, and it was one of the great events of the year, drawing large audiences. The exercises consisted in part of orations and declamations, but the dramatic performances constituted the chief attraction. Even some of Shakespeare’s plays, Merry Wives of Windsor, Taming of the Shrew, and Macbeth, were performed to the great satisfaction of the audience. The scenery and dresses for the occasion were procured from the furniture and wardrobes of the surrounding inhabitants. We thought that a Commencement, which was only another name for an exhibition, should consist of like performances; that five or six orations would make but a sorry bill of fare for an audience accustomed to something more entertaining. But the faculty said, No; we were a college now, and must have something of a higher order than comedies or tragedies. We could not see the propriety of so young a mother putting on any very matronly or dignified airs, and insisted on our own views.
The matter was finally compromised by the faculty consenting to a play if written by a member of the class, thinking probably, that we would not venture on so high an undertaking. But “where there’s a will there’s away,” and a dialogue was written entitled, The Capture of Derne. It was founded upon the then recent expedition of General Eaton to the coast of Barbary, to release certain American prisoners confined in dungeons in the city or town of Derne; and to punish the pirates for their depredations on our commerce in the Mediterranean. The officers and men of the land and naval forces were represented in their appropriate uniforms, and the Turks in their Eastern costumes. The play occupied nearly two hours in its performance, and elicited much applause from the audience. Some of the literati present on this occasion, comparing the Commencement with those of older colleges, like Yale and Harvard, thought there was some want of dignity in allowing theatrical entertainments, especially with the display of dress and equipage to make it lifelike. But in the general estimation, it formed a suitable and happy transition from the former Academic exhibitions to College commencements. At any rate we had obtained the approbation of the audience, and the College dignity might take care of itself, or be handed over to the keeping of future students.
The exercises of the class being concluded, the degree of baccalaurea artium liberalium was conferred on six persons, constituting the Class of 1815, and so ended the Commencement 50 years ago. Of that class, five of whom are living, three became clergymen, two were lawyers, and one a farmer, cultivating his paternal acres, where he has spent most of his life, and where he expects to die.
George Bristol, Class of 1815
“The first College bell was a very small affair, scarcely audible in the different rooms of the building, and not very sonorous in the open air; and it was a very easy excuse for sleepy boys to make, ‘They didn’t hear the bell.’ Dr. Backus received this apology for some time, and finally confessed he could not blame the offenders much, adding the oft-repeated saying, ‘The bell is no better than a fur cap, with a lamb’s tail for a clapper.’ ”