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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1829 Letter

Simeon North, Hamilton College President, 1839-1857

Delivered: 1879

The duty of acting, on this occasion, as the semi-centennial annalist of Hamilton College, has been assigned to me, doubtless because, though not an alumnus of the College, this is yet the 50th anniversary of my connection with it; and besides, as no class went out from the College in 1829, there is no graduate of that year to whom the duty could be assigned.

The last contribution to the early history of the College was from members of the Class of 1828: From Hon. H. P. Norton and Rev. Dr. C.P. Wing. During that year and the one preceding, I was acting as a tutor in Yale College, and in connection with classes that have since given some eminent men to the Presbyterian Church and to American scholarship. When the official notice of my appointment as professor of languages in Hamilton College reached me, I had under consideration a call for settlement in one of the best parishes in Connecticut. Without hesitation, however, I decided to accept the professorship, although I had little knowledge of central New York, and still less of the history and condition of Hamilton College. This decision I made, because, while it seemed to open a field for useful labor, it also promised to gratify what in those times was with me, almost a master passion, fondness for the pursuits of academic life. With the official notice of my appointment, I received also a request, that in case of acceptance, I would attend the Commencement exercises of the year, then to be held in the month of August, and deliver an inaugural address.

I made my first journey up the valley of the Mohawk, in the stagecoach of those times, and presented myself at the College on the day before Commencement. It was with much surprise that I learned there was no senior class to graduate, and with still greater surprise that I heard an account of the causes that had driven most of the students from the College, and most of the professors from the chairs which they had occupied. These causes, it was stated, had arisen in a long and bitter controversy between the president, Dr. Henry Davis, on the one side, and prominent members of the board of trustees on the other. As stated by General Kirkland, then president of the board, "the captain of the ship and the crew could not agree, and it was therefore impossible to keep the vessel on her course." And as said, and seriously maintained by another prominent member of the board, Rev. Dr. Lansing, in whose views other clerical members of the board were known to sympathize, "under the circumstances, it was impossible to keep the ship afloat, and they ought, therefore, to clear the deck, take in the sails, and let her drift under bare poles."

If allowed to carry out the figure used by these eminent gentlemen, I can truly say, that in my first introduction to Hamilton College it presented the appearance of a bark, which, on a voyage apparently successful and prosperous, had suddenly been overtaken by a tempest, which had swept her deck, and shattered her timbers, and set her afloat, as a dismantled wreck upon the waters. To dismiss the figure — I found that 10 of the trustees of the College had resigned; that of the permanent officers, but two remained: Dr. Davis the president, and Dr. Noyes the professor of chemistry; and that of the students but nine were left, and these, members of the two lower classes— that immortal nine, as they have sometimes been justly termed, who held their places, and regularly discharged their duties, while others forsook the institution — the nine who thus made themselves a connecting link between the College as it was in the early times of its prosperity, and as it has since been, in the times of its later growth and advancement. I hold that among the friends of Hamilton College, these students are worthy of being held in perpetual remembrance, and as a means of contributing to this remembrance, I take pleasure in here recording their names. They were: O. S. Williams, Benj. H. Cadwell, J.A. Woodruff, Daniel D. Pratt, Thomas T. Davis, John Cochrane, Huet H. Bronson, John Dean, and Samuel Eells.

The years 1829 and 1830 present a break in the regular succession of graduated classes. The reasons for this break may be found in the circumstances stated above. Those who may desire a more full and minute statement of these circumstances will find it in a pamphlet, now rarely met with, but doubtless to be found in the College library, entitled Davis' Narrative of the Embarrassments and Decline of Hamilton College.

Without attempting to repeat what Dr. Davis in this pamphlet has given in detail, it may not be without use here to say, that after Dr. Davis had entered upon his office, as the head of the College, and while the institution was rapidly growing in public estimation, and in the number of its students, two great mistakes were made. The first was an interference, on the part of the trustees, by means of a committee, in the internal management and discipline of the College, in a case of wrong doing among the students, which called indeed for discipline, but which should have been managed and disposed of by the faculty alone. This interference, though, it did not at the time interrupt the progress of the College, left in the minds of many connected with it seeds of dissatisfaction which years after bore fruits of bitterness and discord. The second mistake was a decision of the trustees, with, I believe, the concurrence of the faculty, to expend in the erection of new College edifices the permanent funds of the institution — funds that should have been kept intact and in reserve for the support of the College instructors and for the other current expenses. This, indeed, is a mistake often repeated in the history of American colleges, and destined doubtless still to be repeated as long as colleges shall be multiplied in the land, as if accumulations of brick and stone and mortar, piled up in the form of tasteful edifices, could make a college worthy of the name, without adequate support for a board of instruction and other helps for students in the form of libraries and apparatus.

In carrying out the above-mentioned resolution, to erect new college buildings, the College Chapel and Kirkland Hall were commenced and completed much as they now stand. The North college edifice, afterwards known as Dexter Hall, was also commenced; but to the surprise of all concerned, when the walls and the roof were finished it was found that the College funds were exhausted and that the treasurer was without money for the further prosecution of the work. So the building was left to stand — windows and doors boarded up — until 1842, at which time, by a subscription started and circulated by myself, means were provided for its completion.

The exhaustion of the College funds gave occasion to a long series of special meetings of the board of trustees. Those meetings calling out, as they did, a great diversity of views in regard to the management of the College, had their culmination in a crisis which well-nigh brought the institution to the verge of ruin. Among the many plans proposed to meet the case, one was to give up the College to the faculty and allow them to manage it in their own way, but depending wholly upon the receipts from students for their support. Another was to change the course of instruction, by throwing out to a large extent, the study of ancient languages and higher mathematics, and substituting in their place studies supposed to be more popular and more practical — converting thus the College into a high school, in the hope of drawing in a larger number of students, thus increasing the receipts of the institution for tuition— a plan afterwards partially carried out by its advocates in the Oneida Institute. Still another plan was to dismiss the faculty, shut up the doors of the college, and wait for further developments.

Against all these plans Dr. Davis and Secretary Williams, the father of Treasurer O.S. Williams, set their faces as a flint, and I believe it is to the persistency and firmness of these gentlemen, under circumstances of great embarrassment and in the face of a most determined opposition, that central New York is indebted for the fact that Hamilton College still exists, and still holds an honorable place among those higher institutions of learning, which are justly regarded as the pride and ornament of the state.

I have already mentioned, that with the announcement of my appointment to the department of languages, I received an invitation to attend the Commencement exercises of 1829. On that occasion, inaugural addresses were delivered by Professor J.H. Lathrop, the professor elect to the department of mathematics and natural philosophy, and by myself, on subjects appropriate to our several departments. These inaugural addresses, with an address from Tutor Maltbie before the Society of Alumni, with the two customary orations from candidates for the second degree, made up the exercises of the day.

On the evening preceding Commencement I had the pleasure of hearing, in the old church then standing in the center of what is now the village park, declamations from the nine students who for the year then closed, had constituted the freshman and sophomore classes. I had been accustomed to attend similar exercises for many years at Yale, but it was my impression at the time, that I had rarely heard better speaking on such an occasion, and never, speaking characterized by greater strength, and manliness and self-possession on the stage.

At the close of the vacation, which now followed, and with the opening of the next college term, Professor Lathrop and myself entered upon our several departments of instruction, with Dr. Davis and Professor Noyes, and Tutor Maltbie, as our associates. At the same time there was an addition of 20 or more new students — making about 30 students in the three lower classes, and in regular attendance during the year. At the close of the year, an exhibition from the junior class was substituted for the usual Commencement exercises, and as at this time — the Commencement of 1830 — the juniors became seniors, and there was an addition of a new freshman class, the entire machinery of the College organization, with its four classes, and its curriculum of undergraduate studies came into full operation. With the commencement of 1831, the regular succession of graduated classes was resumed, and has never since been interrupted.

I have sometimes taken pleasure in referring to the history of the two or three years which have now passed in review, not because of embarrassments and difficulty successfully met and overcome; but, because of the subsequent history of the young men who then made up the College community.  In the two classes of 1831 and 1832, there were graduated in all, but 22 students; and anyone who will take pains to make the examination, will find that rarely, in the same number of students, in this, or any other college, can a greater proportion be found who have made an honorable record for themselves in professional life, or who have done more to reflect honor upon the institutions which have given them their preparation for the active duties of life. In this list will be found Othniel S. Williams, who for almost 30 years as the treasurer of the College, has managed its concerns, and everywhere fixed the impress of his influence upon the business department of the institution. Among them will be found Professor Asahel C. Kendrick, the pride and the ornament of a neighboring institution. There,will be found Daniel D. Pratt, once a Senator in Congress; also Samuel Eells, a distinguished member of the legal profession and the founder of a literary association, now widely extended into other colleges. There will be found the names of John Cochrane, Thomas T. Davis, Henry B. Payne, and John Dean, all successful lawyers, and all members of Congress. There, too, will be found the names of John C. Underwood — a United States judge in northern Virginia — Hiram Van Vechten Willson, a judge of the supreme court of northern Ohio. And there, too, not to mention others, will be found that generous benefactor of Hamilton College, and patron of learning — Edwin C. Litchfield, who, amid the cares of a successful business career, has connected his name inseparably with the progress of astronomical science.

A history of Hamilton College for this period would be incomplete without a brief notice of the attempt to change its location. During the years of its decline there were not a few of its professed friends, and among them some of high standing and of wealth in the city of Utica, who professed to believe its misfortunes were attributable to its location. They professed to believe that a remedy might be found in a removal of the college to Utica — a city which even then had become one of the great centers of wealth and of influence in the state of New York. In this opinion it is known, President Dwight himself sympathized, and that he did much to encourage it while soliciting subscriptions in the city. The feeling, at length, became so general that under the influence of prominent citizens of Utica, large meetings were held for the purpose of devising ways and means of bringing about the desired change. Counter meetings were held in Clinton, followed by strong protests addressed to the board of trustees. A special meeting of the board was convened in the summer vacation of 1835, for the purpose of deliberation and for a decision of the matter in dispute. At that meeting, Gerrit Smith, then an influential member of the board, made one of his characteristic speeches — maintaining, in accordance with the ground set forth by Daniel Webster in the famous Dartmouth College case, that after a college had received its charter for a given location, and accepted its endowments while occupying that location, no power on earth can annul its charter by removal or otherwise, without a violation of the great law of contracts. The question which then came before the trustees for decision was a very grave one, because it was known that in relation to it there was a difference of views among the faculty of the College, as well as among its friends throughout the country. The trustees promptly met the question, and gave their decision in the negative. This decision against the proposed removal, gave rise to important changes. One was the resignation of President Dwight, and the election of Dr. Joseph Penney, as president of the College. Another was the alienation of many who had before given their support to the College. Still another was an almost entire failure of the subscription made in Utica for the relief of the institution. This was followed by a long course of litigation, in which the College came out the losing party, and the result was, that a subscription of $50,000, secured by President Dwight, yielded but $40,000 as finally collected and invested.

The facts here stated, have long since ceased to be matters of interest in this community, yet they explain, at least in part, why the recovery of the College from its low state of depression, was slow and gradual.

A full account of its financial condition and progress for the last half-century, would be a most important chapter in the history of the college — a chapter full of important lessons, and admonitions. Such a contribution to its history, it is not my province now to give. I may be permitted, however, to refer to two or three points connected with this branch of our subject. After the exhausting of its funds and its consequent crisis of disaster in 1828, the first token of reviving strength came to the college from the will of William H. Maynard. That under the existing circumstances, Mr. Maynard should have left the bulk of his property to Hamilton College, must be accounted one of the most remarkable acts of that remarkable man. In 1827, Mr. Maynard was elected a trustee of the college. As if in disgust at the contentions he witnessed in the board, he resigned his seat in 1828. Yet, in executing his will, before his death in 1832, while acting as a member of the Court of Appeals in New York city, he gave the greater part of his property to Hamilton College for the endowment of a new department of instruction, which has since proved one of the most useful and attractive features of the college.

I well remember how the announcement of this bequest threw a gleam of sunshine over the clouds that then enveloped the College. Its moral effect upon the college itself, and upon the surrounding community far outweighed the pecuniary benefits. It showed that one who had long stood before the people as a leader in the legal profession of our state — one, familiar with the affairs of the college from its foundation, notwithstanding the adverse circumstances under which it was then resting, had yet full faith in its ultimate success, and in the measures then in progress for its renewed prosperity.

Nearly allied to this act of Mr. Maynard, both in its effect upon the College and upon the community, was a similar act of generosity in the endowment of the department of languages, by that noble-spirited citizen and lifelong friend of Hamilton College — S. Newton Dexter. Up to the time when this endowment was made, the salaries paid to the college professors were but $800. Finding this sum inadequate to my support, I had sent in my resignation of the department of languages, to the board of trustees, with the intention of accepting a similar department of instruction then offered me in another institution. The board did not accept my resignation, but as an inducement for continuing my connection with the College, offered for my support the income of the new endowment, just then made by Mr. Dexter. Under these circumstances I withdrew my resignation and continued to occupy the department of languages until 1839. And I speak of this the more particularly, because this endowment made by Mr. Dexter, becoming immediately available, was not only the first step toward a permanent provision for the department of languages, but also toward a more generous compensation for the labor of other professors.

One other item marks another step taken toward a permanent support of the institution. In 1833, Rev. Sereno Edwards Dwight was elected president of the college. Previous to this election, his brother, Dr. Benjamin W. Dwight, who in so remarkable a degree combined the qualities of the scholar, the Christian gentleman, and the exact man of business, had for some time been acting as treasurer. Under their direction and with the assistance of Professor Charles Avery, the enterprise was commenced and successfully carried through of securing for the College subscriptions to a permanent fund of $50,000. In carrying forward this enterprise President Dwight spent one year in presenting the claims of the college before the public, while the more laborious part of the work in obtaining the pledges of money was undertaken by Professor Avery. Before the close of the year, those pledged amounted to the proposed sum of $50,000. The labor of collecting and investing this fund .devolved upon Treasurer Dwight; and so successfully was this done by him that for many years, and until after the accession of Dr. Fisher to the presidency, this fund constituted the main support of the institution. The pledges of money by which it was created were mostly obtained by Professor Avery, and I take pleasure in here adding that while the long period of his subsequent connection with the College, as one of its professors, was filled with labors eminently useful to the institution, in none of those labors did he contribute more to its permanent success and prosperity than by what he did in that year with President Dwight, as the financial agent of the College.

The sketch now given of Hamilton College in the years referred to, would be incomplete without some reference to the aspect and condition of the buildings and grounds. Those who know the College only as it now appears, can have little idea of its appearance as seen by a stranger in the times to which I have referred. Of the buildings now standing on the College premises, the only three in use, or in such a state as to be fit for use, were the College Chapel, Hamilton Hall and Kirkland Hall, while the grounds outside of the college yard (known as the Campus) were open lots used only for cultivation and pasturage. The process by which the College premises have been made to put on their present appearance, has been a process of slow and gradual improvement. Besides the changes in the aspect of the older buildings, much has been done under the direction of the committee having that matter in charge; for the rearranging and improvement of the grounds, and in the provision of new buildings and increased facilities for instruction, in the chemical and astronomical departments. The means for making these improvements were mostly obtained by the sale of scholarships, an effort commenced in 1852, on the recommendation of the college faculty, and with the sanction of the trustees; but made successful by the combined labors of Professor Charles Avery and the late Dr. Lathrop, of Auburn. A large sum was thus raised and expended in fixed and permanent improvements which have entirely changed the aspect of the college, and which have given to its grounds a beauty and attractiveness not surpassed, it is believed, by those of any other institution in the land.

My own connection with Hamilton College as an officer of instruction, though not as a trustee, was terminated in 1857. That year, it is well known, like the year 1873, was one of financial distress and disaster to the whole country. That it brought serious embarrassment and stringency to the College treasury can be no matter of surprise to those who still remember the financial difficulty which in that year pervaded every department of business enterprise throughout the land. How this embarrassment has been met and partially overcome, is well known to all friends of the institution. It has been to me personally an occasion of rejoicing, and of increased interest in the prosperity of the College, that so many of those who were once my own pupils, and with whom I was formerly conversant in the relations and duties of College life, have most generously contributed to its means of support; and this, not only in the ordinary process of adding to its funds, but by so adding to them as to connect their names permanently with its prizes for the higher grades of scholarship, with its departments of instruction liberally endowed, and with the very buildings which occupy the college grounds — destined there to last and be remembered, I trust, as long as Hamilton College shall continue to exist.

In 1839, when called upon to assume new duties and responsibilities in the College as its presiding officer, I had occasion, in my inaugural address, to use the following language:

Many of those elements of prosperity in colleges which are the most unfailing are those which time only can produce. That fruit of their labors which results from the affectionate regards of a wide and influential circle of alumni, they cannot hope immediately to realize. Most colleges, too, find it matter of painful experience that it is not until they have become so far established as to assume the importance of fixed points in the eyes of the community, that its members are accustomed with confidence to look to them as places of education, while they give them a steady attachment and support. In these elements of prosperity, and in the moral and classic associations which are clustered around them, the colleges that were early planted in our country, are a thousand-fold richer than in the silver and gold with which almost two centuries have replenished their treasuries. The scholars who have enjoyed their advantages, look back to them with pleasing remembrances from the cares and toils of active life. When as fathers they lead back to them, for education, the children of their hopes, it is a matter of rejoicing that they are able to commit the care of their offspring to the same foster-mother that cherished their own intellectual infancy. After the colleges have such an interest in the hearts of many alumni and many parents, they rest upon a foundation far surer than any which mere wealth or popular feeling, excited by temporary causes, can ever afford. But such a foundation time and persevering labor only can impart. The friends of youthful colleges like our own must be contented to toil and wait for it. He who plants the acorn, may indeed see it germinate and grow, but he knows that posterity alone will look up to the full-grown oak. In the meanwhile it will have planted deep its roots in the rugged soil, and spread out wide its arms in the face of heaven. The thunderbolt may then fall upon it, but it will stand. The tempest may battle with its trunk, and howl through its branches, but it will remain unbroken. Thus should it be with colleges. They who plant, and who foster them in their infancy, should feel that they are laboring for coming generations, and take care that their work is so accomplished that posterity may have occasion to bless them for their labors.

Forty years have now passed since I had occasion to use this language, and in the review of these years, in their relation to Hamilton College, I find abundant illustration and confirmation of the sentiments then expressed. Not one of these years has passed without adding to the number of its graduates, and thus increasing those elements of strength and of power which are only found in the loyal and unwavering attachment of a numerous and widely extended circle of alumni.

Did time permit, and the proprieties of this occasion allow, I would here gladly add extended notices of the many officers and instructors with whom, during the 28 years of my active service in the College, I became associated, and with whom I labored in the regular routine of its duties. Some of these — the two treasurers of the college, Othniel Williams, the elder, and Benjamin W. Dwight ; and of its instructors, President Davis, Dr. Noyes, and Professor Catlin — names ever to be loved and revered, it was my lot to follow to their graves, and by funeral discourses to share in the public tokens of respect paid to their memory.

Others, and these not a few, having left the College, because they found elsewhere more inviting fields of usefulness, have long since in those fields reached the end of their labors. It is thus that Dr. Sereno E. Dwight, for two years the president of the College, and Dr. Joseph Penney, for four years his successor; Professors Lathrop and Hadley and Maltbie and Wayland and Smith and Mandeville; Tutors H. P. Bristol and I. H. Brayton — all once holding honored places in the list of our instructors, are now found on the catalogue with the significant mark, which indicates that they too have finished their lives of labor and of usefulness. The bare mention of their names, and I here record them with deep sentiments of respect for what they have been, and what they have done, is enough to show how many elements of power and of influence in the years which are passed have contributed to the growth and progress of our college; and how much in all cases, drawn from the lives and the labors of individual men, is requisite to the building up of a great and well-constituted institution of learning. That Hamilton College may thus continue and go on and prosper, is the earnest wish and prayer of the subscriber.