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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1831 Letter

John Cochrane

Delivered: June 1881

The process of time is a process of change. Modification and decay march in the procession of the years, and every year declares the universal law. The proposition, though indisputable in terms, is nevertheless qualified by specific influences. Often, the perishing material is conserved by the principle that informs it; and often, the moral, social, and intellectual objects proposed, restrain the mutability of the agent to attain them, and stabilitates it. So, the inner life supports the shell that wraps it, and where decrepitude is, renovates, and where decay, renews.

The College, whose memories we recall, vividly illustrates this truth. Its rudimental growth of the previous century penetrates far into this. Its early germ, wide spreading, fills increasing space. Not uninterrupted however, nor unimpaired by the ravage of time, did this vigor mature. In infancy it suffered extreme vicissitude, and in adolescence, succumbed to adversity. But the principle of its being, rescued the College from impending ruin, and retrieved its lost position. Thus prompted to renewed activity by the inspiration to improve, elevate, and dignify humanity there it stands, and long may it stand, an institution devoted to learning and consecrated to truth, deep seated, far reaching and beneficent.

Anomalous was the Class of 1831. Singular and eccentric were its fortunes. There we sat, about 20 of us, in the southwest room, on the ground floor of South, rejoicing in examinations passed and reckless of recitations to come. It was in September 1827. A somber day united with the dignity of E. D. Maltbie, our tutor, to make the occasion impressive, if not solemn. While some, intent upon the teacher, "saw virtue in her shape how lovely," other some, abashed, "felt how awful goodness is." Beneath the enforced gravity of a few, however, could be distinguished traces of that hardihood which subsequently wrought them evil. The collegiate year was not well out before one had exchanged home and the habitations of civilized life for the adventurous habits of the hunter and the subtle wiles of the savage; another had abandoned invita Minerva for the yardstick and scales; and still another had wandered from academic shades into the fierce blaze of miscellaneous life. All, at its end, were dispersed by the misfortunes of the College, never to reassemble in the integrity of a class. The lives of none, however, besides those who survived to the Class of 1831, require, or are the subject of our record. Their various fate, embalmed in the charities of home and chronicled by the country side, needs no mention here. As little need be said either of the reputation of the College, or of the character of its faculty at that day. Both remained as established before the public, by 16 years of favorable experience and trial, and both have been heretofore fittingly reviewed. From that hegira, however, is to be dated the renewed succession of the classes.

The College doors were reopened in the autumn of 1829, and a remnant of the freshmen of 1827-28 were gathered into the junior class of 1829-30. We were seven — not all indigenous freshmen of 1827, but supplemented by Thomas T. Davis, of the sophomores of 1827-28, Asahel C. Kendrick and Othniel S. Williams. Subsequently Clark B. Bailey and Edward Thorp were matriculated with us as seniors. The sophomore and freshman classes below and contemporary with us were fully represented, and a moderately full faculty was prepared to enlarge the field of our mental vision. Such was the situation on College Hill, in September of 1829. Though juniors, in the absence of a senior class we arrogated its privileges, and dutifully dominated our subordinates. We also gravely assumed that the responsibility of setting the College machinery in motion devolved on us. It was understood, to be sure, that the president and the corps of professors had a part to perform; but for the wisdom of counsel, and the efficiency of effort demanded by the emergency, we held ourselves accountable — and we acted accordingly.

The two literary societies, the Philoputhean and the Phoenix, had, together with the College, suffered suspended animation  and until restored, it was believed by us that the lungs of the College could not act freely. The societies were rivals; and as each had members among the juniors — aboriginal freshmen of 1827 — the strife of the canvas for proselytes, as may be conceived, ran high. Not an act known to ingenious youth that was not exhausted. Rural walks, darkened conclaves, clandestine councils, exploited libraries and society-rooms — in fine, all the stratagems known to academic astuteness were employed. The Philoputheans were in the ascendent, and the Phoenicians at the end of their wits. But one resource remained. It lay among the ashes of the Phoenix, and promised to that rara avis fair hopes of illustrious succession. Then, as now, the College boardinghouse was felt to be unequal to the demands of the College stomach; and it was shrewdly projected that if, after a lenten dinner, peradventure its famine could be filled, the pendulous and unsettled mind would mend its doubts, and gratefully incline to the fortunes of its amphitryon. A field was found; ovens were embedded; and as the crude potato was produced, roasted and discussed, conviction followed discussion, and conversion seasonably ensued. That night's meeting witnessed an accession to the Phoenix rolls of many of its brightest ornaments. Baffled envy, however, dubbed them the "potato crop." Primitive as was this process, it is not without its moral. It is suggestive to the student of the liberal art of electioneering, that the jaded efforts of the flimsy politician may be superseded by the roasted potato, and the morbid appetite of the sleazy partisan, reclaimed by its free use — ruminant.

But little of the systematized order of the present day, appertained to, and regulated the habits of that. Students gravitated seemingly without obstruction to their social affinities, and employed their energies very much in the direction of their inclinations. This irregularity, however, instead of impairing, rather increased the momentum of progress; for the College, not having recovered its prestige, its executive wisely referred to reason, the obedience that might have been refused to authority.

Many were the anomalous incidents in consequence. This is one of them: Storrs of Whitesboro, a son of Henry L. Storrs, Richards of Auburn, a son of Rev. Dr. Richards, both of the sophomore class, and myself of the junior, in search of repairs of the damage inflicted by the College ordinary, effected an admission as boarders to the table of the professor of chemistry, Dr. Josiah Noyes. Its presiding deity was Mrs. Noyes, whose wonderful culinary combinations the doctor analyzed and we devoured. The labor of preparation, analysis, and deglutition, thus divided, continued to our common satisfaction until interrupted by a visit of some days' duration of Mrs. Noyes to a neighboring gossip. We were reduced in her absence to a tray of twisted doughnuts, beyond the doctor's power of analysis, and ours of digestion. Richards was the first to be unfitted for prayers; and when summoned by President Davis to account for his absence denounced his diet of doughnuts as the cause of such a complicated twist of his legs o' nights that it was impossible to untwine them for prayers in the morning. Whether the excuse was deemed valid was never known, but certain it is that Mrs. Noyes returned forthwith, the doughnuts disappeared, and those who professed to know, declared that whenever afterwards the president approached Richards' room, his body seemed unconsciously to sympathize with the twine of a twisted doughnut.

To faithfully portray the separate characteristics of the staff of College instructors, would require an intimacy with the individuals of it seldom enjoyed by the college student. Personal peculiarities and mental idiosyncrasies are apt to impress the class more deeply than the substantial qualities that underlie them. The result of current observation, though not without value as an efficient in the process of delineation, is apt to assume false colors, and to sway to erroneous conclusions. Decisive as is this admonition to refrain from a portraiture that possibly might misrepresent, the exigent period of the college history to which it belongs may excuse, if it does not demand, an allusion to him within the term of whose official incumbency the exigency occurred.

President Davis was not only revered for the stainless purity of his personal character, but admired for the uniform justice with which he exercised his high office, and the ruggedness with which he encountered and repelled the assaults of malevolence. It was his unenviable lot to witness the decline of the College, and his happy fortune to preside at its revival. The efforts were futile to penetrate the causes of these violent vicissitudes; nor, if successful, would it be attended with either interest or profit. In the extreme of the storm, the president stood steadfast. When the College succumbed, he did not resign; and when it emerged, his hand was at the helm. His subjection to unprecedented trial, did not impair his greatness as a teacher. The mutual sympathy, which had always subsisted between him and his charge did not fail. As an instructor his tuition was wise; as a friend his counsel was just; and both as instructor and friend he was honored and beloved. He was not without support. He was seconded by an able professorial corps. When history shall have restored those days in their fullness, there will be seen a Lathrop, a North, a Wayland, a Maltbie, and a Kirtland cooperating with their chief— and full surely did the College feel the impetus of their efforts.

The work of rehabilitation proceeded during the last two years of the Class of 1831. At their close, the College had attained its former grade. Thence onward, fresh and vigorous has been its career of educational usefulness. Generous endowments have multiplied and broadened its liberal foundations. The circuit of the public interest has been enlarged, and the public confidence secured. Inquiry has been provoked, research stimulated, and store of inestimable experience amassed. Exact science is honored, and the liberal arts pursued. The exploring telescope beguiles the stars of their secreted life, and the eloquence of the lecture room lures them from their station to enlighten and instruct. The sons of Hamilton have traversed many paths, and reached many a distinguished goal. The Senate knows them, the bar esteems them, the pulpit respects them. When rebellion crested its horrid front, from patriot ranks they taught that all their lessons learned, enforced the single one — whatever the man, his first of duties is to country and to God. Still other fields await the influence of Hamilton College. She may not invade the appropriated sphere of older eastern institutions. Another domain invites. Clarumet venerable nomen is hers, through all the teeming West. Its destiny has been, in good part, shaped by her accredited envoys, and its generations shall turn filial steps to her protecting porch.

As memory defines, with variable distinctness, the lineaments of 50 years ago, earnest figures throng the vista, and impatient, cry for recognition. The task is closed. The annals of the Class of 1831 are writ. All save two — Kendrick and the writer — have garnered their treasures with their hopes, upon the further shore. They twain are beckoned thither; and when the tale shall be all complete, which sums above the roster of the class below, to know that its record here is good, will be something of immortal savor.