1836 Class Annalist’s Letter
Delivered: June 1886
As the mummies are brought to light and made to speak by what remains of them, so after my long-ago burial in Hamilton College, I am unearthed by an archaeological party, if perchance somewhat may be learned through me. The letter by Professor North, making request of me for what I may add to the semi-centennial contributions, protests against an answer in the negative, though this might be the first suggestion of my age and infirmities.
It should be borne in mind that every year turns its back upon time gone by, and when this has been done 50 times in any one life, it will not seem strange if the remote scenes and events appear to memory as having lost vividness. Paintings fade, and inscriptions on obelisks lose sharpness of outline; even so the records of the mind are more or less defaced by time. I need not say this; everyone knows it and the sadness of it. It is more to my purpose to say that in looking back upon the four years preceding my parchment, done in Latin with seal and ribbon, I am not severely punished by the retrospect. Perhaps this is because a moderate ambition is easily satisfied, or it may be because my aspirations were subordinated to what might be my opportunities, which I believed were under the control of Providence.
I reviewed my academic course, in preparation for the freshman class, under the guidance of the Rev. Parker Adams, rector of St. Stephen’s Church, New Hartford, who was at that time one of the college trustees. From him I learned the difference between a teacher and a hearer of recitations. No student could daily leave him with only the lesson under his hat. I may be permitted to say here, that the memory is not merely a cart to be loaded from a book, and unloaded in a recitation room. The unloading might take place with only students to hear each other. Better that a teacher also be there. What for? Merely to listen, keep order, and sit in judgment? Ought not the lesson to be made interesting and profitable by suggestions and illustrations, not found in the textbooks? A wider range of learning than the class possesses after committing to memory, may justly be assumed to be present to aid waiting memories by inviting to their share of interest the imagination, reason, taste, and judgment.
To the task of digging up the roots of words, and finding their grammatical forms, there should be added brief suggestions of the kind usually expanded in formal lectures. For whatever is incidental to a lesson, and not likely to be already known by the class, yet worth being known, may be mentioned by the teacher to enliven the recitation, and render it a more profitable exercise. The ability to do this, with the doing it, certainly violates no law of education, while it proves the teacher to be what he is called. A student might hesitate to take the time of the class by asking questions, however pertinent, but the teacher could take the time and use it by authority. Let not this be regarded as a complaint specially rasping the overseers of my collegiate course, but as a hint merely, to all whose office it is to trim mental lights.
I had the honor to be examined by President Davis, the Rev. Mr. Adams adding cork-like questions, which floated me into the freshman class. How hard it is sometimes, especially when diffidence obtrudes, for the tongue to reveal what the memory has in its keeping! Dining with a friend in the village of Clinton, he stood up to carve the turkey, and rapping with his knife on the fowl, said: “Those are the legs of President Davis!” alluding to the style of small clothes, then out of fashion, but retained by the president. I was not amused by the allusion, but excused it. It was but a feeble shot at the shield of general esteem that protected the president. I afterwards found that tradition and popular respect placed the latter in a most favorable light, not only as a scholar, but as a master of good sense and ready wit. It was related of him that on a first day of April morning, when some student had removed the Bible from the Chapel pulpit, and substituted an encyclopedia, the president as if not noticing the change, looked calmly on the assembled classes, recited a due portion of Scripture and offered an eloquent prayer.
Another illustration of his good sense and ready wit was given in relation to Gerrit Smith. In violation of a well-known and indispensable rule, Gerrit Smith was visiting a fellow-student during study hours, when, hearing the president’s steps approaching, he plunged under the bed. The latter entered, and spying a pair of protruding boots, that from their position might be supposed to have feet in them, advanced, lifted the coverlet and exclaimed: “Ah! Gerrit, what are you doing there?” “Meditating, sir,” was the response, and the president, turning away with a benignant smile, left the room.
I admired President Dwight. With a bearing of dignity, a courteous address, a firm, resonant voice, and a somewhat autocratic countenance, he was a gentleman. I believe he read a student’s face and style at a glance, and if nothing were amiss, no head of the College could be more considerate. Only a word from him with his gracious smile was needed to prove that it was his desire to be both just and kind. True, ironical exceptions were taken to his frequent allusions to his distinguished father’s experience and counsels, but in that way he gave excellent advice on a solid foundation. For that peculiar malaria which rather too often unfitted some of the students for morning prayers and recitations, he prescribed, perhaps with ironical sympathy, a kind of pill then largely advertised, thereby, as the invalids contended, invading the rights of proper medical advisers, whom, however, they did not consult.
His style as a preacher was peculiar and interesting. His impressive voice, and I may say, his eloquent dignity, held the hearers in a listening attitude. Instead of limiting animation and action to the custom of ordinary gestures, he added stamping with his right foot. This was not at all disagreeable, but well suited to what he regarded as his more important thoughts, or, as an Episcopalian, I may suppose it was necessary properly to emphasize Presbyterian doctrine!
President Penney bore the marks of a scholar, in both his countenance, and a slight stoop of his shoulders. Evidently he had spent much time among books worthy of study. To approach him with respect seemed but to award what was due as well to the man as to his office. Still, he seemed to lack in some degree the courteous bearing, which does so much in gaining the praise of popularity for one in high and responsible office. His voice, that ordained musical instrument of speech, was quaintly harsh, and yet in its tone for government mild and decisive. He was a teacher. The lessons were often improved in interest by his remarks. He gave excellent rules for composition, for debating, and for reading. It was thought that he went too far in his strictures on works of fiction, not including portions of history, a wide range of poetry, and not a few sermons. I have a most kindly remembrance of him.
I must excuse myself from a special notice of each of the professors and tutors. In general they seemed well suited to their positions; I mean as to scholarly attainments within the range of their duties. With one exception, however, they seemed to have the weakness of assumed dignity; more of it, indeed, than some of the students could allow to pass without imitative mockery. How could such a phase of deportment escape caricature? Dignity becomes a man only when it appears to be a growth or has the stamp of nature. An assumed tone of voice, a pace of measured stateliness, a mere nod without a smile, or at least an artless, pleasant look, can hardly escape the notice of very natural young men.
Even ministers sometimes lose by too much dignity. Professor Simeon North, afterwards president of the college, was the exception above alluded to. He was erect without stiffness, and he walked without the suspicion of strutting. No one could make fun of him. He was his own self, somewhat reserved in manner because of seeming natural diffidence, with a benignant countenance he gave one the pleasure of feeling at ease in his presence, and of remembering him with a degree of esteem closely bordering on love.
It is more pitiful than amusing to see human nature, among students, yielding to what, not too critically defined, seems a law of evolution. The enacted law of study is opposed to it for special purposes belonging to civilization, and the student who has experienced a vital academic conversion from the natural to the enacted law, is apt to reach college honors. Would it not be expedient for college professors to deliver free lectures on this point annually in all the academies of the state? This would be a new departure in kind solicitude for freshman classes! But I would not advise too rigid an examination as to that conversion, lest the supply of freshmen should prove discouraging. Albeit, the number of students admitted from year to year is an essential factor in the problem of salaries! It is also a reason why colleges that would be known as of the highest cast, should publish their yearly increasing accessions. Yet, I cannot doubt either the shrewdness, or the truth of the remark so often made, that numbers do not form an absolute equation with advantages; for a ripe scholar in after years may trace his career back to classes numerically small; and this perhaps in part, because of the “conversion” above alluded to, whereby his spirit was moved to obey the enacted law of study, regardless of evolution and the hope of natural selection.
It is not to be assumed that students coming from all sorts of families, and all sorts of schools, will come with the alike sweetest dispositions, and the best of habits. In my day on the Hill there was to be found among those, whom I knew, the variety that made college life somewhat spicy. On the whole they were gentlemen. Of the few to whom one might hesitate to award this praise, it may be said that they knew well enough the style of courteous manners, also the rules of good order, and in their general bearing were agreeable companions. This was my opinion of them as taken apart one from another. Yet it strangely appeared at times that some reserve of individuality was lost in the association of numbers.
We know that as a rule, what one would not design or attempt by himself, he will aid others in plotting and doing. I do not hold this to be either cowardice or courage, as distinguishing one person from another. In the way of speculation, I may suppose it to be a phase of magnetism, or some occult force generated by association, in such wise acting on human nature as — perhaps by the law of evolution—to result often in mere fun, but sometimes in detestable mischief. For example, it was only a freak of fun, as I think, that inspired me to hold a light while the class artist, D. Huntington, sketched on the blackboard in excellent style, the tutor and the only two students who would appear in the classroom the next morning. Custom had excused the three lower classes from recitations on the morning of the day during which the senior class was to be examined. The freshmen, except the two indicated by the sketch, chose to uphold the custom by absence from the appointed recitation, and the tutor gracefully and mirthfully yielded the point. More than fun, there was genius in that sketch, and a promise to be fulfilled in later years, by appearance in oil on canvas of Mercy’s Dream.
As specimens of mischief, I remember that the Chapel bell was carried into the woods and concealed for a time; that a recitation room was filled with new-mown hay, on which they who were afraid of “marks” were obliged to sit and recite; that during a mid-winter night the stove and blackboard were removed from a classroom, but the recitation in geometry proceeded with coal marks on the wall; and that the enclosed passage to the attic from one of the upper halls was opened by the removal of the lock, and finally the door. A carpenter came with planks and spikes to effectually barricade the passage. The monument of his skill and toil was removed the first night. The faculty seemed somewhat exasperated for nearly two weeks, when a model senior confessed that he had a hand in that mischief. “Well,” said the president, “Mr. K—, I am utterly astonished, for you are the last one to be suspected!” When it was shown that no disrespect to the faculty was intended, that there was a boastful strife between the carpenter and the students, the door was replaced, the key left in the room nearest at hand, the damages assessed and the mischief condoned. “Now,” said one of the students, “we can reach the roof in case of a fire, and with the lock under our control, we have our first key to self-government!”
In those days there had possibly been less time devoted to mischief, had there been more set apart for athletic exercises. But it was the period of “the great moon hoax,” and shrewd thinkers were on guard against discoveries. The study of Greek and Latin, with other studies and readings, was not then coupled with the discovery that muscular development was essential to the proof that power was knowledge. Even now, it may be doubted whether pitching, tossing, batting, catching, running, kicking and rowing are scholarly attainments, or necessary to any who are to do the best brain work of the world.
If unguarded minds receive shaping or warping from the classical studies pursued, is there not danger that they may be reconciled, in a degree, to the old Grecian and Roman games, and persuaded to think favorably of all, save perhaps those extreme and most horrid exhibitions which the enlightened and sanctified faith of martyrs swept away? True, a recoil of some minds, in some degree, from the temper and faith of the present age, back to the era and usages of mythology, with a scant allotment of clean and sharp philosophy, may be no fault of the approved studies, which have a highly useful and even necessary purpose, and serve it well. But is it not significant that while and where there seems to be most a rage for athletic sports, a spirit of opposition shows itself against our faith’s great duty of prayer, which certainly is not alien from mental culture, but is the purity and sweetness of it? It is well to have a good head; it is well to have a good heart, and so are the two related, that it is not well for an education to estrange either from the other.
I very gratefully remember the arduous walks down and up College Hill, with a cane across my back, holding the elbows in line, as I walked and inhaled through the nostrils, and puffed full volumes of breath explosively from the mouth. In due time my somewhat deformed chest was so expanded that the ribs formed a perfect arch, and the lungs had ample room for their essential work. Possibly the now popular athletic sports would have done the same thing for me; but the exercise I took in the way described was sufficient, without the supplements of bruises, sprains and ponderous hands.
How soon after Commencement day, 50 years ago, my classmates were separated from each other by the attractions of opportunities and obligations, such as are incidental to the various trials of life! Some went away to be lawyers, others to be ministers, and others to find their duties in unprofessional pursuits, everyone I trust, hoping for the welfare of the others. I am not inclined to debate the question, whether the founders of the College were far-seeing, when they chose to establish it as non-denominational. In looking forward from the beginning to the end of an enterprise, which must have the measure of many years, it is not easy to decide at which end of the view wisdom is assured. It is fair to assume that they acted under the strain of necessity. The enterprise could not prosper except in that character, and under a charter recognizing it. So it seemed, doubtless. There was urgent need of endowments on that condition. Nevertheless, by one of the curious happenings which mark human affairs, sometimes, one cast of denominational thought, with its leaning of influence, has presided over the college from the first. Very well, it was a considerate cast of thought, and not at all overbearing, because of charity and charter!
I remember that some of the students took exceptions to the revival meetings, which were held where literary pursuits claimed superior if not exclusive rights. I remember also, that with few exceptions, the objectors seemed to need and certainly could not be ill-affected by an infusion of the special grace of the Spirit, whose presence was sought. The faculty did no more, by virtue of authority, than simply to look with favor upon the meetings, attendance upon which was not urged beyond the kindly persuasions of the zealous students themselves.
I do not regard the location of the College as ill-chosen. Retirement is one of the peremptory demands of study. I mean when books are to be searched for what they contain. There is of course an out-of-door range of obligatory recitations. On his return from a walk in a city or large town, a student might, through modesty, dislike to recount to a professor the various impressions he had received. Diversion has its claims, but so have books. It is not too much that claims largely preponderate during the four years set apart for a collegiate course.
During term time the attractions of town life and society can be, at best, but side issues to study, and helpful in a degree, perhaps. But they are not of sufficient importance to divide with it, and take any large share of the time, which study imperatively claims. A student with lessons before him to be recited is best placed when shut away from all distractions. Out of study hours, if his marks have been creditable, he may rejoice to be out of his room, and on the hill especially, in salubrious air, with a far and wide prospect of attractive scenery. For a change from daily hours of seclusion he does not need the small unvarying interest there may be in the sights and sounds of city life to counterbalance his wonted mood of tranquility. The four years of his course of study are sufficiently broken by vacations; and when they come, and as long as they last, he can visit his relatives and friends, proving to them by his manners, his well-preserved health, and Latin phrases, how confidently they may trust him to fulfill their highest expectations. I did not observe that study, even close and hard study, broke the health of any student who entered college with it. I remember no case of really severe illness among my fellow students. There was a due proportion of those indispositions (if I may be allowed the ambiguous term) which were expressed, but not explained in the classroom by the phrases, “Not well, sir!” “Not prepared!” Not much sympathy was manifested; no more perhaps than a smile would convey. The remedy for this ailment was a professional mark, whether perpendicular or horizontal I do not know, for I never asked to see one.
There was no place on the Hill that could be suspected of breeding any of the forms of malarial disorder. Even the sometimes-maligned boardinghouses were innocuous, unless the table were approached with gastronomic depravity. Before a contribution of fetid atmosphere could ascend the hill from the valley, which was itself generally healthful, it would be so strained by the air of the higher altitude as to be perfectly harmless. And now that the old days of staging are past, Clinton, with its crown of joy, Hamilton College, is by railway rendered easily accessible.
In conclusion I must add that if I have not seemed very gratefully to remember my first diploma, or its implied invitation to often visit the college whence it came to me, my excuse is that a subsequent diploma has more persuasively called me to the theological seminary, where I studied for my life’s profession, and where I was afterwards often present as a trustee. Perhaps the alumni, for whom I suppose this paper is chiefly intended, will reply, “This ought you to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” I take the reproof; but, alas, I am now too old to promise amendment; though not too old to feel an interest in the prosperity of Hamilton College; greeting the faculty and the alumni affectionately.
Andrew Hull, Class of 1836
“In violation of a well-known and indispensable rule, Gerrit Smith was visiting a fellow-student during study hours, when, hearing the president’s steps approaching, he plunged under the bed. The latter entered, and spying a pair of protruding boots, that from their position might be supposed to have feet in them, advanced, lifted the coverlet and exclaimed: ‘Ah! Gerrit, what are you doing there?’ ‘Meditating, sir,’ was the response, and the president, turning away with a benignant smile, left the room.