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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1818 Letter

Gerrit Smith

Delivered: 1868

When our class entered college, Clinton was a small and plain village. It is now expanded into a large and beautiful one, and her recently acquired railroad facilities have taken away the last objection to making her an important and permanent seat of learning. Her people were at that time very affectionate and very pleasant. They worshiped together, as should every people who are not too numerous to do so. They had but one preacher, as well as but one house of public worship. A dear man was their Rev. Dr. Asahel Norton. So wise and so meek was he, it is no wonder that all honored and loved him, and were content to be of one religious assembly.

The Harts — some of them in and others a little out of the village — were a prominent family. Ephraim Hart and all his brothers were enterprising men. They were exceedingly zealous Democrats. Ebenezer Griffin, a bright and genial young man, was the foremost of their political opponents. Amongst the most respectable Clinton families in that day were the Bristols, Comstocks, Hecox, Lays, Marvins and Kelloggs. Very agreeable are our recollections of the six Hastings brothers, three of whom were albinos and all of whom were honest. Orrin Gridley, who, from his wealth and religious zeal, became so conspicuous, was then in his early manhood and as fond of fun as any of his companions. Dear old Deacon Butler was called the good man of Clinton.

At the principal corner in the village stood the tall stone, on which were inscribed the name of Moses Foote and the year when he and his fellow immigrants began the settlement of Clinton. Foote was still alive, a tottering old man in the midst of his numerous descendants. Between this corner and the farm of the celebrated missionary, Kirkland, at the foot of College Hill, there were probably not more than a dozen dwellings. This farm was then, and, for a long time after, occupied by the widow of Kirkland, and his daughter Eliza, who was so much admired for her personal graces and literary tastes. It was on this farm and by Kirkiand's grave that we (mostly College students) buried Skenondoah, the great Oneida chief, whose warmest desire was to rise at the general resurrection by the side of his beloved teacher. In all the way up College Hill, and for nearly half a mile farther on, there were but six or eight dwellings.

Not less than those in Clinton are the changes on College Hill. Its numerous substantial edifices and ornamented grounds contrast very widely with the rude beginnings there upwards of 50 years ago. The College Catalogue of 1814 presents the names of 66 students; that of 1867, 183.

A few reminiscences of the earliest teachers may not be uninteresting. President Backus was a man of remarkably strong mind. His scholarship, though very respectable, was not of a high order. His love of prayer and his power in prayer were amongst the evidences of his deep religiousness. His emotions were as strong as the mind. His undue yielding to them often damaged the delivery of his sermons. His love of music being very great, the students not unfrequently serenaded him. Scarcely, however, had their strains begun, ere he would spring from his bed and walk the room and wring his wrists in what might be called a delicious agony. His cousin, Colonel Backus, who commanded a regiment in our war of 1812-15, invited the president to visit it, whilst encamped near New Hartford. As he approached the encampment, he was met by the colonel's band of music, and was so overcome by its martial airs as to exclaim, "Stop that music, or I shall 'list!" One morning he came into the Chapel and accused the students of stealing wood from the piles belonging to the corporation. He made the religious exercises as short as in his wickedly angry mood it was but decent to make them. All that day the students hated him. In a few hours, he discovered his mistake, and when we had assembled in the chapel for evening worship, he came in, shedding tears. Sincerely as David "wept as he went up" Mount Olivet, so sincerely our penitent president "wept as he went up" to the pulpit. "I beg your pardon! I beg your pardon!" he exclaimed as distinctly as his deep sobbings would permit. These words were the keynote of those which followed. He could hardly have humbled himself farther than he did, had he fallen upon his knees before us. Then it was that we all loved him again. His repentance broke our hearts. Not David himself followed up sinning with deeper repenting. Often were there tears upon the Doctor's pillow to bear witness to his sorrows for his sins.

Professor Seth Norton, so far as I am capable of judging in a matter of which I knew little, was a very accurate Greek and Latin scholar. Never was a teacher more devoted to the improvement of his pupils. His death was a great loss to the College.

Professor Strong still lives; and still does my heart go out to him in gratitude and love for his unwearied endeavors to bring forward his classes. The students were proud of him—for they believed, and, justly no doubt, that he was one of the very ablest mathematicians in the whole country.

All the students liked the good-natured Professor Noyes. But it was much more because he was indulgent to them than because he made them study.

Tutor Spalding was a good scholar, and was more given to literature than any other member of the faculty. He died in St. Louis, where for many years he had been an exemplary citizen and an eminent lawyer.

President Davis, who succeeded the lamented Backus, was a wise and a wary man. Nevertheless, and though he came to us with a high reputation as a scholar and a disciplinarian, the College — perhaps from no fault of his own did not prosper under him.

Rev. Dr. Barstow, who has, for many years, been a very acceptable minister of the gospel in Keene, N. H., was, for not a long time, one of the tutors of the College. For a less time, and only a few weeks during the connection of our class with the College, was Mr. James Dean one of its tutors. He was held to be a good linguist, and preeminently the gentleman of the faculty.

The only remarkable scholar amongst the students of the College, during the years of our class, was Edward Robinson. That he came to stand amongst the eminent scholars of the world is not surprising to us, who saw with what great facility he acquired varied learning in his youth.

It was stated in the valedictory oration of our class that 24 had entered it. I can recall but 23. For the "lost pleiad" I have hunted much, but wholly in vain. On Commencement day we found our number reduced to 1-. Only seven of the 23 survive.

The lamented John H. Lathrop, who died whilst president of the University of Missouri, had the best mind in our class for the acquisition of learning. Ours was far from being a studious class. Several of its members aspired to the fame of possessing genius. But their most relied-on proof of possessing it was flowing hair or the broad "Byron Collar." To have both these graces was beyond all question to be a genius.

We who are left of the Class of 1818 are grateful to God for having passed our manhood in the most enlightened of all the half-centuries. In no other of them have the material forces of nature been made to yield so largely and so variedly to human enjoyment. In no other has so much been done to educate and elevate the people. In no other of them has the war of sciences upon superstition been carried on so vigorously and successfully. Never before had the simple do-as-you-would be-done-by religion taught by Jesus—the one and the only one religion, which honors God and blesses man, been so inculcated, or so widely welcomed.

How marvelous, too, the progress during this half century, in the knowledge and assertion of human rights! Scarcely in the whole of an ancient library was there so much proof of the consciousness of what is due to the individual man, as there is in that little book of John Stuart Mill on Liberty, which can be read through in a few hours. That our day has given birth to such a book is amongst the striking evidences of the progressive wisdom and upward tendency of the human family. Beautiful for situation, is Hamilton College! Seldom shines the sun on a scene more beautiful than the eye here surveys. May nature, so lavish of her beauties without these walls, be more honored by the studies within them!