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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1834 Letter

Thomas Allen Clarke

Delivered: June 1884

I am embarrassed as I write. Though a letter implies simplicity of narrative, the title, "Annalist," suggests a doubt as to the exact period through which these annals may run with propriety. If I am restricted to the three years of college life between 1831 and 1834, I must candidly admit that my lifelong friend, Mr. Seward, has exhausted the subject — one year my senior — you know this great distance in college life. I have not even now recovered from that feeling of respect, I might almost say reverence, for those who sat in Chapel on the benches before me. How can my pen do justice to such reverential feeling?

His mise en scene is as perfect as those attributed to the great dramatic artist, Irving, and the narrative as graphic as the masterpieces of our American Irving. Why has not our friend given to a wider circle, at least his "loopholes of retreat," to soften and enlighten? If he has, it has been under the anonymous; but I find none of these with his characteristic flavor. Has Charles Lamb never "clapped him o' the shoulder "?

I might here stay my hand, but deference to your request and a crowd of memories press me on. There are many precedents where, as preparative to the unfolding of some great subject, the reader is carried back to remote periods, the march of events leading up to and elucidating those immediately in hand. I do not propose to enter upon the history of the world, to prepare you for the impressions which I give of the three years of college life, though I am tempted by that foundation principle so tersely expressed, "In Adam's fall we sinned all," so peculiarly applicable in the relations of instructors and pupils in a college course. I feel, however, warranted to go back to the beginning of things in the life of the College, more particularly as my own and its life are co-equal — born just before the first of the numerous progeny.

My first impression was seeing the College buildings from the gig of my invalid mother at one of those eminences near Utica. No doubt many of the travelers on that chief highway between the Mohawk and the lakes and valleys of the west — for the most part New England people — as they saw those buildings, recalled the missionary work of Samuel Kirkland and his Indian friends, and similar work in the neighborhood of their great colleges at home. They thought of the benefits that their children might receive within those walls, and they were cheered to do their pioneer work. My idea was that preachers were made there.

A large group of boys of about my age, some older and some younger, were growing up within the college influence. They heard it talked about, prayed for, and its great blessings anticipated. They partially took in the idea that it was a monument to Hamilton; that the state was interested in its behalf; that students bearing great names had come from a distance, a Key from Maryland, associated with the Star Spangled Banner of his uncle; Leroy, son of a great merchant in New York; Clinton, son of Governor Clinton; Hague, a bright fellow from New Jersey. I cannot call the roll of the names of the interested friends of the College, near and remote; they linger in a boy's memory.

The commencements were gala days for the people of the surrounding country. They surpassed in interest, to "the young men and maidens," those stirring "general trainings" of the olden time. I can see one before me now. I had been put into an already crowded stagecoach, to take chance in lap, or to stand up between youthful beauties, the places all filled by belles and beaux. As we alighted the procession was forming, the band playing; on either hand I was bewildered by the counter attractions. At the right, at General Foote's door, was General Comstock moving about amid a crowd; at the left, at the rear of the old church, in front of the tent, an immense cake of gingerbread, sign of good things for small boys. But my attention was diverted again by the blast of a horn, and then I saw a man appear with what seemed to me an immense hat, black gown, and short clothes, with shining buckles. This proved to be President Davis, and with a long line of men headed by General Comstock, they marched around the green to the front of the church, and entered. I was held thus far in attention to the moving mass, but that cake gained the ascendency, and I believe it had attractions to contend vigorously all day with the masses over the intellectual repast in the church.

Those were simple days; everything slowly and quietly moved. A student on the street attracted attention. Pretty faces looked out of windows to catch a look. The small boys stopped their play to gaze at the wonder. If he stopped, they gathered around him to listen with open mouth to his condescending speech. The uniform, worn by some for a short time, added powers of attraction. What wonder, with all these object lessons, not to speak of those New England mothers' words, the large group of boys looked forward to become, in their turn, centers of attraction, if not wonders of wisdom and learning.

My idea as to the object of the College had materially changed with the lapse of time. I found that it did not check the career of death, as I witnessed the funeral of Charles K. Lothrop, grandson of the founder, whose death cast a strong shadow over the dwelling of dear friends.

Then one day fearful news came, that one of the College buildings had been blown up, and a townsman, William Kirkland, had barely escaped with his life. The excitement was intense; those New England mothers looked askance. I did not know that at the time the disaster was attributed to Dr. Noyes, professor of chemistry; but the facts are, that in the course of his lectures, he had taught of certain combinations, among them, gunpowder. Certain of his students had caught the Chinese half-idea that its office was noise, and quantity and compactness produced the result. The doctor was either careless in showing, or his pupils in learning, that given these qualities, the strength of the vessel was important. The result ensued that the building was partially blown up; and the College became by this occasion nearly a total wreck. Though this was the occasion, the wreck was not a necessary logical consequence, as I find by a letter before me, written by a friend at Yale, dated December 17, 1832. Some years before, Professor Silliman had made a similar mistake, and the communion-table was blown up; but he was not discharged, nor the College particularly harmed.

A great discussion ensued into which numerous parties entered — many intruders. I shall not enter into the merits or discuss the principle involved. You have not asked an epistle; if you had I would have declined the honor, having no desire to emulated Horace in this department, and above all St. Paul, when he spoke "not by commandment." I have much experience both as an administrator and a member of a faculty, but to enter into the matter I should be obliged to discuss that great subject announced in relation to Adam. Excuse me.

It is enough that the College declined under maligning influences, and that large groups of youth to which I have referred, broke from their natural affinities; and though afterwards the College seemed recovering, many went to other institutions near and distant. But for this separation the College might now be able to boast other names, now famous in the intellectual world, among its alumni.

In the autumn of 1831 many of my youthful associates were in college; many others entered in the two lower classes. The number of students reached nearly 100. In my class (the sophomoreclass ) there were over 30. The senior class was not large. The after career of some of them has been notable. I remember them all with respect.

And so with the juniors. We were not quite so much in awe of them, and they permitted us to address them familiarly. I would write of each of them, but I cannot in brief space discriminate. One of them I must speak of, Oren Root — the scholar, kind friend. I think of him as a mentor, ready to give aid and counsel, and by whom my youthful impetuosity was regulated if not restrained; most of you have been his pupils, and I know will join with me in imploring now upon him in the evening of his life heaven's choicest blessings.

Of my classmates I will not write in particular; I would touch a tender chord; they were all men, as I recall them, worthy of respect; for the most part studious, kind, generous, and free from jealousy. Some as scholars were beyond criticism; others, while deficient in some departments, were superior in others, due no doubt in great part to their preparatory advantages or disadvantages.

The preparatory schools of my time were of varied character; some were thorough in all departments; some of them which were called classical were far from deserving the name. I would not challenge the integrity of the instructors; they taught as they had been taught. Most of the classical and historical teaching was by rote; the syntax was learned by heart, without any previous knowledge of its object or application or the meaning of its words. So we learned the language and translation of Cicero, Virgil, etc., without instruction in contemporaneous history. Think of learning Tytler's Universal History, abridged, by rote!

This same mode of instruction had been in vogue in England for 300 years, and was, at the time of which I write, according to the testimony of Head Master Bentley, of Rugby, in his time, about 1830. You may, therefore, conceive how quickly would disappear the conceit of one of those pupils who supposed himself qualified to take some rank on entering college. I remember in my class a flowery composition that "brought down the house " by its allusion "to the fiery Tully," contrasted with the "smooth and flowing Cicero." I will not name the writer lest I make this paper blush.

The two early literary societies flourished; the rivalry was generous though watchful. They were very useful to all; their libraries were quite respectable, ample for reference in history and general literature. The meetings furnished fine tilting-grounds; they caused alertness, encouraged self-possession, and compelled thought and reading, making the libraries attractive resorts. They also aided in setting the tone of social life. Another was formed in our senior year, named after Washington Irving. It seemed needful. It scarcely survived a year, having gathered about six hundred volumes. It and its treasures were absorbed by one of the other societies.

During 1831, several students appeared wearing breastpins with the Greek letters Sigma Phi, and not long after, others with Alpha Delta Phi. Curiosity was excited, but unsatisfied; the wearers were silent. The differences did not seem to indicate hostility, for the wearers were, for the most part, friends, and continued so during my time. During my long absence from this part of the country, I have noticed connected with one or other of these cabala in the public print, choice dinners at Delmonico's, steamboat excursions, and literary festivals, with such names as sponsors as John T. Hoffman, Phillips Brooks, John Jay, and Professor T.W. Dwight. I have also seen attacks upon them, some in very violent language; I have never seen a defense. The fighting-ground was shadowy. Have the illuminati entered this land of liberty? Are they seeking by their foreign symbols to introduce foreign principles and overthrow the institutions of this land of ours?

Our first teachers were Tutors Catlin and Whedon. They had a hard task, but they entered upon it with patience and earnestness, and throughout were faithful and kind; appreciating those who had entered fully prepared and urging on and assisting those weighted with the burdens of a defective mode of preparation. Tutor Catlin never wasted a word; no and yes needed no justification. He was terse and clear; his figures were mathematical ; he had none of speech, and did not appreciate the latter.

Tutor Daniel D. Whedon was a striking contrast; full of poetry, with great subtleness of intellect, his imagination played around every subject with enjoyment to himself and his pupils. He was fond of the alliterative. I can remember how he would, in our sport, with no feeling of disrespect, add to his, refreshed and reinvigorated. He now ranks among the most accomplished scholars of the most numerous religious sect in the land. He is the only survivor of the teachers of our time.

Professor John H. Lathrop of the department of mathematics and natural philosophy was recognized by all, in my time, as possessed of very high mental powers — he was well-equipped for his work. He combined in a striking degree those qualities that command respect and work on the part of his class. Dignified in manner, without stiffness, an eye that the moment he entered the room seemed not only to take in the general scene, but looked into every other eye; all were turned toward him. To the utmost limit of his abilities everyone was prepared. To command the respect, if not the applause, of the professor, was the aim. He did not demand in the answer the precise language of the text. If he found an intelligent response he showed it by sympathetic appreciation in the eye; if otherwise, and he felt the effort to learn had been heartily made, without humiliating, he reformed the answer as if it was simply a question of phraseology, giving perfect clearness. Neglect or inattention was rewarded by a movement of his pencil, and the repetition of the question to another. But so high was the respect inspired, it was rarely that there was any entire failure. He did not appear highly sympathetic, yet he was so full of his work, and commanded himself with such equipoise, that you felt there was that best of sympathy for well doing. No one left the classroom without consciousness of progress, or chagrin at having disappointed reasonable expectations. Certain early associations enabled me to see him in his home, and to witness the cheerfulness with which he reigned there. Twenty-nine years ago this month, in company with one of his pupils at Yale, who had attained the loftiest honors of an exacting profession, I visited him at his home in Wisconsin. We both saw, though no word fell from him of his depreciation of his present work, that the chancellorship of the university of a new state was surrounded with more depressing than cheering influences. I have all along thought that at the bar, in the loftiest sphere of its action, he would have achieved the highest reputation and influence for good.

Professor Simeon North was beloved by all. Diffident in manner, he seldom looked you in the face. He was grieved at the deficiency. He helped the stumbler along with a delicate hand. Any mistakes in rendering would only be noticed by a hesitating, "Yes, or perhaps this reading would be clearer or more forcible," giving his own. He was, and appeared full of sympathy for his youthful pupils. His appearance in the pulpit was always hailed with gratification, and his discourses, full of the spirit of that faith he cherished, left an enduring impression. Earnest, animated, clear, with apt and elegant illustration, he held the attention to the end.

President Davis delivered his farewell address at the junior exhibition of my class. We had no benefit from his class instructions, and but seldom heard him preach, but this farewell and the discourses we did hear were listened to with admiration and instruction. I have no recollection of him but those that are pleasant. I had known him before I entered college, and was greeted by him with warmth of manner and the promise of every assistance in his power, and the request to me to come to him for advice in any emergency. I was grieved and amused afterwards by an instance of rapid induction on his part. Some of the students had been in what was called "a scrape." Dr. Davis called up one who was suspected, and after assuming he was guilty, and administering wholesome admonition (as usual in such cases), proceeded to say that such conduct sometimes affected the health of those who participated. "There is Mr. C— sick in the village." The student answered, "But Mr. C— was not there." I presume the president was gratified at thus drawing (perhaps by his keenness) a confession from a real lover of truth and justice.

The senior year introduced us to a new class of pursuits. Whatever had been the deficiency in actual attainment of knowledge of mathematics and the classics, the discipline of the mind had been generally effective. All became alert and self-confident; some of the most deficient before, pushed forward to a high standard. The assistance of Dr. Dwight, the new president, was somewhat spasmodic, illness or absence on college business depriving us of his presence; but when present, it seemed as if he made up for all. Locke was the text-book, and the quaintness of the style and abstruseness of the subject became fascinating and luminous, as with clear language and earnest expression the president presented the subject to our view.

Professor Lathrop in his department was at home. The year was a happy one for all. The average of standing became nearly equalized, and the class graduated 26, with appointments for all, the most part orations. Dr. Dwight was popular as an instructor, eloquent and instructive as a preacher, and seemed in full sympathy with his pupils.

The discipline of the College was well preserved. There were no scrapes worthy of remembrance. That espionage which presupposes in youth of the college age, a disposition to break away from reasonable rules, and which often encourages if it does not produce insubordination, was but very slight and scarcely observable. There was much wholesome neglect. The moral tone was excellent, supported as it was by the instructors and the influences of all the societies.

I know of but one species of intemperance; for that the faculty was responsible and set an example. The intemperate early rising, at an hour long before daylight on a winter morning, the thermometer below zero, and rushing half-clad through snowdrifts and into an ill-lighted and wholly un-warmed chapel for prayers was little calculated to inspire that reverence which it was designed to show, nor was it favorable to health; then the recitation in an overheated class-room was not favorable to accurate learning; then, after two hours from rising, to breakfast. After such habits it is not to be wondered that two of the best scholars were brought to an early grave, and it is strange that any survive at this anniversary.

The religious sentiment was calm but pervasive, a reaction from certain extravagances that were played not long before. There was no infidelity in reality, though there was a slight pretense in some, rather the assertion of a supposed independence of judgment so common to youth. The time was not then when Jesus Christ was patronized by the acknowledgment of the truth of His history and teachings and the elevation of His character, yet nevertheless making Him a liar, by the denial of His essential claims.

I congratulate you that the institution, dear to us all, was founded in this then almost a border land; touching the Indian with its early influences, consecrated by its missionary founder; that his prayers have been so fully answered; that its life and prosperity are so fully assured. I congratulate you that in the past it has been, and we have confidence that it will remain, true in its influence and teachings to that faith that holds a personal God, revealed in the prophets, apostles, and above all, in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.