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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1820 Letter

Charles Avery

Delivered: 1870

It has long since been recorded on the page of history that Hamilton College owes its origin to the Rev. Samuel Kirkland, missionary to the Six Confederate Nations of North American Indians. This Christian philanthropist, deeply impressed with the importance of teaching the children of the forest to discern the difference between a state of nature and a state of civilization; between paganism and Christianity; devised a plan of education, which should not only apply to them, but also to English youth, when the wants of the fast settling country should demand an institution of learning. The precise period when the germ of this plan took form in the heart and mind of the good man does not clearly appear. Fancy whispers, on a wild and stormy night, when the tempest swept the hills, and the primeval forest bowed to the power of its blast — when the family had retired to rest, and the faithful dog, forgetful of the chase, slept quietly on the old stone hearth, that the missionary with his Bible on the stand, by the light of the tallow candle and the blue flames as they played fitfully over the embers, wrote as follows:

A serious consideration of the importance of education, and an early improvement and cultivation of the human mind, have induced me to contribute of the ability wherewith my Heavenly Benefactor hath blessed me, toward laying the foundation and support of a school for the mutual benefit of English and Indian youth; earnestly wishing the institution may flourish, that the advantages of it may be extensive and lasting; and that, under the smiles of the God of wisdom and goodness, it may prove an eminent means of diffusing useful knowledge, enlarging the bounds of human happiness, aiding the reign of virtue, and the kingdom of the blessed Redeemer.

Mr. Kirkland's favorite plan of education was never lost sight of, for a single moment.

In 1793, a charter was granted by the legislature of the State of New York, and the institution was incorporated under the name of "Hamilton Oneida Academy." At Philadelphia, Mr. Kirkland saw President Washington, who expressed a warm interest in the important enterprise, so also did Hamilton, who consented to be named as one of its trustees in the petition for incorporation. In 1793, on the third of September, the corner-stone (a spectator says it was brick), was laid with appropriate ceremonies. Baron Steuben had the honor of placing it in position. A living witness informs me that in the afternoon of that beautiful day, when the shadows of the tall trees lengthened and stretched far down the eastern declivity of College Hill, a cavalcade was seen slowly ascending towards the table-land on which our alma mater stands. This company was escorted by Captain George Whitfield Kirkland and his troop of Clinton Light Horse, followed by Rev. Samuel Kirkland and Baron Frederick William Augustus Steuben, the hero of two worlds. Accompanying them were two beautiful, accomplished females, daughters of the missionary.

The fact that the cornerstone of Hamilton Oneida Academy was placed in position by the hand of this great captain, has so identified him with the annals of the College, as to make it highly proper to state in this connection, that Steuben was born in Germany in 1730. He served with Frederick The Great in a seven years' war, possessed the entire confidence of that monarch, and became his aide-de-camp and lieutenant general in the Prussian army.
By the earnest solicitation of Dr. Franklin, then in Paris, he embarked on September 26, 1777, and landed, after a rough voyage, on December 1, at Portsmouth, N. H. He was received with open arms by Washington and appointed inspector-general, with the rank of major general in the American army then wintering at Valley Forge.

His first great work was to bring order out of confusion, which he found to be the prevailing element among the troops. So successful was he in accomplishing his task, that Washington was constrained to say, "The baron has, in every instance, discharged the several trusts reposed in him with great zeal and ability, so as to give him the fullest title to my esteem as a brave, indefatigable, judicious, and experienced officer." On the fifth of May, 1786, the New York Assembly voted the baron 22,000 acres of land, situated in the township which bears his name; and in 1790 Congress granted him an annual sum of $2,500. On November 25, 1794, he had a stroke of paralysis, which terminated his long and brilliant career on November 28. His body was buried in his military cloak, to which was attached the star of knighthood always worn during his life. His grave is in a dense forest about four miles west of the village of Remsen, Oneida County, New York. No piercing fight, no doubling drum, no booming cannon is there heard. The tap of the woodpecker, the bark of the squirrel, the note of the blackbird and the speckled thrush, are all that break the silence of the sacred and hallowed spot. A monument is soon to be erected, which will mark the resting place of one of the great men of the Revolution. Shall we longer say that republics are ever ungrateful?

The second acting president of Hamilton College was Dr. Henry Davis of Middlebury, Vermont. He had a high reputation as a college officer, and had just been invited to the presidency of Yale College, recently made vacant by the death of the great and good Dr. Timothy Dwight. When the news of his acceptance of the presidency of Hamilton College was made known in Clinton, there was wild enthusiastic feeling expressed. Books were thrown aside, lessons forgotten, rooms deserted, and all rushed to the front of the College to express their delight and tumultuous joy. Every window was illuminated, and the old tallow candle did its best to add its feeble light to that of the bright stars, which looked down on the merry scene below.

The first time Dr. Davis was seen by the writer was on a chilly afternoon as he stood in front of Hamilton Hall, in company with two trustees. He seemed to be reconnoitering, and was probably laying plans of attack, for he had already learned that the bastion was not an easy one to take. A long blue surtout, "all buttoned up before," wrapped the president's form, and apparently added not a little to his height. His personal figure was commanding. To strangers he was affable and polite, displaying the manners of a dignified Christian gentleman. His conversation was extremely interesting; sometimes delightful and enchanting. His sermons were of a high order; well written and delivered with great force and energy. Had it not been for a little thickening of his voice — perhaps from too free use of snuff — he would have been considered a fine example of a pulpit orator. As a disciplinarian he was unsurpassed. The disorderly condition of the College, in consequence of more than a year's interregnum, taxed his powers to the utmost.

The Class of 1820 was the first to lead off in the path of disobedience. Sober, industrious, and determined, much disposed to interpret according to the letter of the law, it claimed Christmas as a holiday, from the announcement made by Dr. Backus the year before in the Chapel, that the students should have Christmas forever. And considering that "forever" could not be interpreted a less period than one year, the class appropriated the 25th of December, 1816, for their own use. This made a great disturbance in the College and lashed the smooth waters of government into quite a fury. The waves ran high for several days and several nights before the oil of pacification could calm the troubled surface. At length, the class, having eaten the Christmas pie and made a humble confession, returned to their studies, and ever after remained loyal to the commands of their alma mater.

This was only the beginning of Dr. Davis' trouble in government. The sophomores were wicked. Juniors and seniors loved to have them so. The cannon was fired. The offenders were detected and expelled. The number of students was reduced to the immortal nine. The trustees interfered, and in the fullness of time Dr. Davis resigned, not from compulsion but from choice. He died at his residence a little north of the College in a good old age, and was buried in the College cemetery.

Dr. Davis, notwithstanding his dignity, did sometimes indulge in pleasantry. The following anecdote was narrated to the writer by the doctor himself. He said that when president of Middlebury College, wishing to go a few miles into the country and after he had made part of the journey by stage, he was compelled to take a livery horse. The horse ready, the doctor mounted and rode off. The young man was called to account by the principal of the establishment for letting a horse go to so worthless a character. "You will never see that horse again." "Why," said the hostler, "do you say so?" The reply of the owner was, "Did you not see his nose?" The president had along nose and when exposed to the sun it had very much the appearance of one whose owner had made too long a stop in a country tavern.

The Rev. Sereno Edwards Dwight was elected to the presidency of the College in 1833, soon after the resignation of Dr. Davis. He held the office nearly three years, resigning in 1835. He did much during his brief period to improve the financial condition of the College, and contributed largely to its prosperity in many ways. His personal appearance was uncommonly fine.

Rev. Joseph Penney was the next president. He entered upon his duties in 1835, and resigned in 1839. Educated in a foreign country, he was not well adapted to American institutions. His views of government were somewhat peculiar. If a student insulted him, which sometimes occurred, he was quite likely to hear from it either physically, mentally, or morally. The laying on of hands was a favorite mode of toning down voices from the major to the minor key. Dr. Penney was a scientist versed in chemistry and natural philosophy. A natural mechanic, he had his workshop in which he passed many happy hours in relaxation from his collegiate duties. His parlor abounded in small articles, manufactured by his own hand. He died in the city of Rochester after a long and painful illness, in the midst of friends who sincerely mourned his death.

The other gentlemen who have held the presidency of this College are now living in our midst. The time has not arrived when with propriety their biographies can be written. Distant yet may be the day when this important duty shall devolve on friends worthy to do justice to their memories.