1828 Class Annalist’s Letter
Henry Pitkin Norton
Fifty years ago — “Alas! How time has sped, ’tis even so” — your annalist having climbed by a ladder through a north window of the old church on the green, sat in the corner square pew occupied as a waiting room, until summoned by the sonorous voice of President Davis crying, “Primus ascendat, videlicit Norton,” he passed within the curtain and in very limping Latin saluted the president and faculty and trustees and class and general audience. And, alas! Again, how few of all who listened that day, have “ears to hear” now.
How vividly memory presents to Hamilton boys of those years the form and features of that old meeting-house, in which they were wont to appear and strut upon the stage before the assembled intelligence and beauty of town and country. What a pleasing contrast is supplied by the noble and elegantly finished and furnished temple, lifting its graceful spire so high, now occupied for worship by the people of the parish. In those old-style square pews one-third of the hearers presented shoulders to the preacher, another backs, and the rest faces. The choir sat on three sides of the parallelogram-shaped gallery; the tenor and “second” in front, the bass on the right, and the “treble” on the left looking from the pulpit, the leading singers holding central places in their lines, and the chorister directly in front of the “minister.” What delightful and soul satisfying music rose and swelled in harmony and grand volume from the voices of the choir under the leadership of George Bristol, Class of 1815, sustained and fortified by the bassoprofundo voice and well-played viol of Edward Robinson, 1816; and when the pastor announced, as he often did, “Let us close by singing the following hymn, Ye Servants of God, your Master proclaim,” and the leader gave out Devonshire — a tune written expressly for the words of that hymn by Hamilton’s first professor of Greek and Latin, and one of the most melodious and effective ever composed — the joyous notes of praise and thanksgiving filled the house with a richness and majesty of sound that no one who heard will ever forget.
In the north part of the bass singers’ seat a space was devoted to the very grave and reverend seniors. The other students had places in the four-sided pews against the outer wall in the gallery, separated from the bass line by an alley. Here the young gentlemen were accustomed to leave marked proof of highest skill in the use of the pencil, which duly cultivated might have led them on to fame as artists. The circular box that enclosed the minister was attained by a long flight of stairs, and from it the occupant literally looked down upon his flock on the main floor, while his head was level with the front row in the gallery.
The Class of 1828 was graduated under peculiar and strange circumstances. When we departed there remained only one small class, then just pluming their wings for the sophomoric flight. The Triennial gives the names of the graduates of 1828, but for 1829 and 1830 no names are given. This hiatus is surely a cause of remark and wonder to readers of that catalogue who are not familiar with the history of the institution during the years just prior to 1828. The controversy between the trustees and the president, long and acrimonious, had occasioned an exodus of the entire junior and sophomore classes and half of our class, and well-nigh depopulated the College. In July, 1828, was seen the singular and till then unheard-of spectacle of a college of 15 years fair success, in good repute in the land and possessing a corps of competent instructors, without students save this one class whose number was at their graduation only nine. One must believe that those teachers enjoyed during at least two years a peculiarly quiet time, and had ample leisure for private study and personal intellectual culture, filling as they did offices almost sine cura.
Among our Commencement exercises was a dialogue composed by the now distinguished editor of the Methodist Quarterly, Rev. Dr. Whedon, which of course contained many sharp points and witty passages. The writer presumes that such like vanities have long since been banished from commencement boards; that having become a man the institution has put away such childish things. Your annalist well remembers that during the young years of our alma mater, theatrical plays, written for the occasion, were enacted as part of graduating attractions, and possesses a clear recollection of his interest in those displays, and especially of the awe inspired by bayonet points projecting above the baize curtain as sentinel soldiers paced their rounds within.
The class was favored during our last collegiate year with the instruction in the recitation-room of the president, and likewise often by a view of his pleasant, smiling face at our own room door of evenings, as he proceeded on his silent passage through the halls, and rapped and opened — the opening first — to see if all were safe within. An annalist of two or three years ago states that his class never heard President Davis preach during all their College life. The Class of 1828, with the other pupils then in attendance, did have that pleasure.
An ancient alumnus who had been a charity scholar and had developed into a clergyman, came to revisit the scene of his early struggles after science, and being requested to conduct the Sunday services in the Chapel had performed the duty in the morning to his own decided discredit and the manifest disgust of the audience. At the hour for afternoon worship, to the surprise and evident gratification of the assembled people, Dr. Davis appeared in the desk and took charge of the services. Selecting as a text the verse commencing “Rejoice, oh young man in thy youth,” he delivered on that theme a discourse which was eloquent and grand, and delighted the College boys and all others present. A manner exceedingly dignified, action appropriate and graceful, and periods perfectly constructed, rounded and polished and pronounced ore rotundo, rendered the preacher an excelling and commanding orator.
Our class was the last that received the benefit of instruction by that profound mathematician, Theodore Strong. Professor Strong was a superior and thorough teacher of mathematics, and was quite likely to find out if his scholars understood the lessons; and he was accustomed to remark that he did not care how they gained their knowledge, whether by personal application and study or by information given by other persons, for he would very certainly ascertain during the recitation how far they really comprehended the subject under consideration.
The writer feels that he must be permitted to tell of a severe punishment inflicted upon him for a violation of an unwritten college rule. Having, without obtaining permission, gone to the village to attend a choir rehearsal preparatory to a junior exhibition — where he made mouths over and frightened sounds out of a German flute — he was, quite unsuspecting, returning through the grounds to his hall and room, when a window-sash was raised and his name called loudly. Upon looking upward a professor’s head appeared, and his voice was heard commanding the immediate attendance of the wanderer in his room. The truant obeyed the order at once, and after having been duly questioned and reproved, the professor imposed upon him for the violation of law, a fine of six and one-quarter cents. This occurring while the delinquent was under his father’s care, and before he had entered upon the practice of law, he chanced to have in his pocket a single silver coin of precisely that value (sometimes by bad-speaking boys profanely denominated “shad scale”), wherewith he discharged the penalty then and there. Of the broadness and exalted ideas of this professor no word more need be added.
The annalist may perhaps be pardoned for citing fragmentary lines from a fine poem delivered to him by one of the Class of 1826, to be read in the hearing of the society of which we both were members.
Quod srat buslum
In meant roomam
Scarebatur et madebalur,
“Poeta Nascetur, Iioh fit.”
This poet was bom undoubtedly; but surely it was not fit to speak in this way of such an able scholar and elegant gentleman as Tutor Axtell.
The superior genius who originated these gems of fancy, instead of continuing to shine as a poet and so bringing luster to his own name and illumination to the world quenched his light under a bushel. When he might have attained exalted fame in the line of poetic art he became only a leading lawyer, and for some years chief judge of the Superior court of New York City. So men fail to reach their possibilities of grandeur by omitting to embrace obvious opportunities.
Mr. President and Fellow Alumni: We all rejoice in the success and high position and character our alma mater has already achieved, and in the prospect of a yet further advance and more exalted place among the world’s seminaries of learning. In view of her excellent grade of instruction, the distinguished culture and scholarship and ability of her corps of teachers — among whom her Northern light still gleams — our hopes and expectations in her behalf rise high. Without a thought of disparaging in the least degree any member of the faculty, I point you to the night-watcher in the dome of the Litchfield Observatory, and say of the College — Sic itur ad astra.
Henry Pitkin Norton, Class of 1828
“Our class was the last that received the benefit of instruction by that profound mathematician, Theodore Strong. Professor Strong was a superior and thorough teacher of mathematics, and was quite likely to find out if his scholars understood the lessons; and he was accustomed to remark that he did not care how they gained their knowledge, whether by personal application and study or by information given by other persons, for he would very certainly ascertain during the recitation how far they really comprehended the subject under consideration.”