Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1877 Letter

Louis Boisot

Delivered: June 18, 1927

“When I was young” — That magic phrase
That brings back in a pleasant haze
Those olden, golden, happy days,
While by-gone hopes and by-gone fears,
Seen dimly through a mist of tears,
Fill up the well remembered years.

It is in the spirit of the foregoing quotation that any half-century annalist must approach his subject. For the old men who come back to Commencement 50 years after graduation are not the same persons as the boys (they thought they were men) who spoke on Commencement stage five decades before. They bear the same names, they retain possibly some traces of their old looks, but their souls are irremediably changed, whether for better or worse who can tell? Fifty years of struggle in the world, 50 years of mixed accomplishment and failure, 50 years of sorrow and of joy, cannot fail to have a stronger influence on character than four years of study and play on College Hill. So when we look back, we do not see ourselves but rather a collection of young men something like us, whose actions, feelings, hopes and ambitions seem strangely quaint and interesting and pathetic.

Fifty years ago the career of a freshman at Hamilton College began at a spot very near where I am now standing. For at the time the chapel auditorium occupied only part of the interior of this building and the rear end held recitation rooms in which the entrance examinations were held. The scene is still vivid in my memory — a little group of boys, strangers to each other and to the faculty, seated at the old fashioned desks and answering with palpitating hearts the questions of Prof. Oren Root, Sr., Prof. North and Prof. Hopkins. The examinations were not hard; a few applicants were rejected.

The course of study in those days was a rigid one, and to the students of today it would seem narrow. The backbone of the curriculum consisted of Greek, Latin and Mathematics, leading up to a comprehensive study of English Literature and the elements of French and German Literature. In the senior year we had Hamilton’s Metaphysics, Blackstone’s Commentaries on English Law and courses in Moral Philosophy, Political Economy, Evidences of Christianity and Constitutional Law. English composition and rhetoric constituted a large part of our work during the entire four years. We all took the same studies. The only elective was extra chemistry, which was usually taken only by those who intended to be doctors.

The great majority of students expected to enter professional life, and the above coursework was well adapted to prepare them for their post-graduate work. The coursework was rather weak in science, except chemistry, but the lack was not felt. It may be a comfort to the older alumni to reflect that if we had had more instruction in science in our undergraduate days, the information thus acquired would be worse than useless today, since the revolutionary changes in scientific theories have rendered the old science entirely obsolete. As an instance I may cite the fact that we used to have a course in conchology, and it is a safe guess that the college student of today does not even know what the word means.

I have long thought that the immutability of the classics and mathematics is a strong argument in their favor as cultural studies. Since our graduation the textbooks on physics have had to be rewritten more than once, and the science of chemistry has been turned upside down. But geometry, in spite of Einstein, is still taught as it was in Euclid’s day, while the honey from Hymettus hill is just as sweet and the sands of Pactolus are just as golden as they were when Old Greek led us gently along “the pleasant walks of Academe” or lingered with us by the ships of the Argives.

We were marked for each recitation and every examination and the average of all these marks determined our position on graduation. For some inscrutable reason (or perhaps lack of reason) the result of this marking was kept carefully concealed until the entire course of study was ended and the final results announced. The bad effect of this policy was two-fold. In the first place, a student, not knowing during his undergraduate days what his relative position in his class was, had no incentive to try to do better than those just ahead of him; and secondly, many a man left college surprised and bitterly disappointed with his recorded standing, and his love for his alma mater changed in to aversion.

We often hear it said that one advantage of the small college is that the students are brought into closer touch with the professors and receive more personal influence from them than in a larger institution. If by that it meant that the faculty and students met on a friendly footing outside of the classroom, it was emphatically not the case at Hamilton in my day. This was partly the fault of the students. An inflexible code of conduct imposed by the students upon themselves and one another forbade any student to converse with a professor outside the recitation room under penalty of being called a “supe” — an epithet about as pleasant among undergraduates 50 years ago as a “scab “ is among trade unionists today. But it seems to me on looking back that some of the blame for this alienation must be laid at the door of the faculty, for none of the professors ever did anything, to my knowledge, to attempt to bridge the gap. If there could have been free, friendly intercourse between the professors and the undergraduates, college life might have been much richer and more inspiring for the boys, and questions of discipline and order much easier for the faculty.

The only organized form of athletics at that time was baseball. Football was unknown and golf undreamed of. There was one form of exercise, however, that helped keep us all trim, and that was the daily walk to and from the Clinton post office, which few students ever omitted, even in the stormiest weather. There was a gymnasium in a wooden building back of Middle College, but the apparatus it contained was old and poor, and there was no instruction or incentive for effort. So little good was accomplished there. It was during our undergraduate days that the College attempted to enter the intercollegiate regatta and the gymnasium was filled up temporarily with rowing apparatus, but the story of that ill-starred effort has been rehearsed by previous half-century annalists and need not be repeated here.

Perhaps we should include under the head of athletics the cane row and the Chapel rush, both of which were trials of strength between the sophomore and freshman classes and which perhaps filled a want that is now more effectively met by football. Both of these events occurred early in first term. On some Saturday at noon in September or October, as the students were filing out of Chapel in their usual order, the sophomores would attempt to hold the freshmen inside the outer door of the Chapel and the freshmen would valiantly struggle to push the sophomores through the door and off the stone steps, while the juniors stood around and enjoyed looking at the scrimmage and telling how much better such things were done when they were underclassmen.

The cane row took place on the campus usually on a Saturday afternoon. It was part of the unwritten law of the campus that freshmen should not carry canes or wear silk hats until after the end of second term, under penalty of having the canes confiscated and the hats smashed. The rule as to hats was never violated by the freshmen, for a silk hat was expensive to buy, easy to smash, and as impossible to restore as Humpty Dumpty himself. But an annual attempt to evade the cane rule was always made. The cane on such an occasion was a stout hickory staff, perhaps an inch and a half in diameter and six feet long. Four or five of the biggest and brawniest freshmen would lift this cane high in the air and try to carry it around the campus, surrounded by the rest of the class, while the sophomores fiercely attacked them and attempted to capture the cane. All members of both classes took an active part in the struggle, which was quite violent while it lasted, though no harm was done except to the clothes of the combatants. Both of these institutions have long since passed away, I believe because President Stryker abolished them. I do not know why, as they did no harm and were great fun while they lasted.

There was a strong religious spirit in those days. Nearly half of the professors were Presbyterian ministers and many of the students were studying for the ministry. In addition to Sunday Chapel and morning prayers, which were compulsory, there were class and college prayer meetings held regularly, and an earnest effort was made to draw all the students into the communion of the College church.

Apart from the required college work there was not much serious reading done by the students. There was a College library but, like the gymnasium, it was of little use. The books were old, were poorly arranged and not catalogued. Moreover, the rules governing the library seemed to be framed with a view of discouraging the use of the books by the undergraduates as much as possible.

One delightful feature of College life in our day was the entire absence of both snobbery and sham. The College was so small and the association of the students was so intimate that it was impossible for anyone to humbug his fellows. Each of us knew accurately the ability, the habits, the physical prowess or lack of it, and the virtues and vices of the others, and knew also that the rest had equal knowledge as to him. So there was complete candor among the undergraduates, and in the language of Hiawatha, we “spake with naked hearts together.” As for snobbishness, it simply did not exist. No student was toadied to on account of wealth or family, and if anyone thought himself better than his fellows, he carefully concealed the feeling. The sentiment of the College boys on this point was that of the Irishman who stoutly asserted that, “one man is as good as another and usually a great deal better.” To anyone who for 50 years has lived in a world infested with strutting humbugs and sycophantic flatterers, the memory of this feature of undergraduate days is as refreshing as a drat of cool water from the College well.

Discipline was not President Brown’s strong point, and the boys had an idea that the faculty did not dare to punish any general outbreak. One night some freshmen went to Houghton Seminary to serenade the girls and were arrested. The news was speedily brought up the Hill and the whole College body sallied forth to rescue them by persuasion or by violence, as the occasion might demand. Fortunately, it was not necessary to storm the village jail, as the president of the village board (himself a Hamilton alumnus) promptly ordered the boys released. Flushed with their easy victory, the students marched triumphantly back up the Hill, and the next morning the old wooden sidewalk running from the president’s house to the campus was found to be torn up and piled in barricades across the way. The faculty could not find out who actually tore up the sidewalk, so nothing was done about it. The excuse for this act was that the sidewalk was old and broken and that a new one would be much better for sliding down the Hill. But the faculty, instead of building us a nice new one wooden sidewalk as we had expected, filled up the space with ashes, so that the last state of that walk was worse than the first.

While the spirit of unrest and rebellion was nearly universal in the College of that day, in our class it was peculiarly with it. When we first appeared on the campus, a little group of downy freshmen, Professor North, whether inspired by a spirit of prophecy or by spirit of mischief I cannot tell, gave us our class motto the Greek sentence, “By standing together we carry the day.” The class accepted the motto with enthusiasm and applied it thus: “By standing together we carry the day against the faculty.” The motto was tested on many a stricken field. Sometimes we were victorious but more often we were not.

A typical instance occurred during our junior year. During the pleasant autumn weather the class was seized with an irresistible desire to visit Trenton Falls. So we asked the faculty for a holiday for that purpose. The request was refused, but the holiday was taken just the same. It lasted three days instead of one, for the bolt was followed by a lockout while for two days the faculty debated the question of making the punishment fit the crime. By way of helping out the discussion the class assembled under the windows of the faculty room and sang Home Sweet Home with much gusto. The final result was rather tame; each member of the class received four warnings. The Utica papers, however, published a report that the entire class had been expelled from Hamilton, which resulted in several of us receiving rather unpleasant letters from home.

Another time, however, the faculty completely got the better of us. The old stone church in Clinton, in which the College Commencements had been held from time immemorial, burned down during the summer of 1879 and was not rebuilt in time for our Commencement. What was to be done? No other church or hall in the village was large enough for the occasion. The College Chapel of those days was also too small. Our class unanimously decided that Commencement should be held in the Utica Opera House, but the faculty would not allow it. Heated discussions took place in class meetings and many of the students wanted to bolt. But the risk of losing our diplomas after four years of toil was too much of a gamble and we gave in. Commencement exercises were held in a temporary building erected for the purpose on a vacant lot on College Street. So our class possesses the unique distinction of being the only class in the history of the College whose graduation took place in a building that was neither a church nor a chapel.

So much for the Hamilton College of 50 years ago. Let me add a word regarding the Class of 1877 and what we did with the education we received here.

We were a small class, even for that day of small things. We entered only 30 strong; we lost seven men during our undergraduate days and picked up three; so we added only 26 names to the noble army of alumni. Nine of these still survive, of whom five are here today. In those days, as I said before, a college education was usually considered a preparation for a professional life of some sort, and our class ran true to tradition. The College Catalogue for 1878 shows 13 men, just half the class, engaged in teaching. With several, however, this was merely a temporary job, a means of raising money for further study. Eventually the class disposed of itself thus: nine men (Blue, Budlong, Hodges, Hoyt, Lockard, Middleton, Milles, Reed and Streibert) entered the ministry. Three took to the law: McAdam, Johnson and Boisot. The medical profession claimed four: Baird, Butler, Hawley and Laird. Six made teaching their profession: Budlong, Griffith, Hodges, Pattison , Streibert and Winne. Three became bankers: Perkins, Fay and Boisot.

There are a few duplications in the above enumeration, as several men were both teachers and preachers, and one was both lawyer and banker. Only three of the class attained sufficient notoriety to have their names included in Whose Who in America: Hodges, Butler and Boisot. Only one: Hodges, has had his biography published. Four  have written books: Hodges, Butler, Boisot and Hoyt. The first three represented, respectively, the three learned professions: theology, medicine and law. Hoyt’s contribution to literature was a small book of verse. Hodges was by far the most prolific author, having no less than 35 volumes to his credit.

So ended the swan song of the Class of 1877. Morituri salutamus.