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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1872

Asa G. Benedict

Delivered: June 1922

“Those dead yet sceptered sovereigns still rule our spirits from their urns,” says Amy Lowell. When we commence remembering, there is no beginning and no end.

Whence came the efficiency that has characterized the activities in our country college during the last half-century? From the inspirers of the men of the 1840s and 1850s. Was that compelling ambition spontaneous? No, it came from the orderly thinking, consecration of graduates of Yale College, from Backus in the Class of 1787, from Simeon North in the Class of 1825. The convictions of these inspiring men were based on solid principles underlying the civilization of our time. The developed conscience of a nation is the measure of progress.

The Annalist’s Letter appeared for the first time in 1865. Going back to the Class of 1815 George Bristol was ready. In 1868, Gerrit Smith of 1818 appeared. I was in Clinton to pass the entrance examination at the time. Had I known what is happening today I would have listened attentively. We were equals in that he knew no more about my half century than I did about his brimful period of 1818-1868. In 1879, Hamilton’s former President Simeon North gave a most valuable paper on the difficulties of College administration in the 1830s. Dr. North was graduated from Yale College in 1825. He studied theology and was offered a fine church. He preferred to go west and give his aid to the young Hamilton College. He was the finished scholar in the department of Greek from 1829-1839. In 1839, he was elected President of the College and served faithfully for 18 years. He lived in retirement for 26 years, but was deeply interested in the questions and progress of the world. Soon after 1880, I called on him at his home over the gulf and saw the original, urbane gentleman from whom no impatient word was ever heard.

In 1862, the first 50 years of Hamilton College was celebrated with great enthusiasm. An elaborate program was carried out. A large representative gathering from the whole state gave expression of loyalty and approval of the work of the College. The exercises were held in the Stone Church and in a tent erected on Williams Street. The historical address of President Samuel Ware Fisher, D.D., who succeeded Dr. Simeon North in 1858, gave a fine resume of notable events since 1812. The College opened its doors while our country was at war with England, and its semi-centennial celebration had a listening ear for the battles of our civil war. In letter, speech and poem there was not only hope but conviction that all would be well for the Union. In the address there came to light items of information of the early presidents which nothing but a semi-centennial could evoke. President Backus, Yale 1787, was 48-years-old when called to be president in 1812. He had a fine reputation as a preacher. He had a keen wit and there was no question about the sincerity of his patriotism. He was distressed when Thomas Jefferson, an avowed unbeliever, was elected President of the United States. In his sermons, Dr. Backus gave the grounds of his fears of the result upon the country. Dr. Backus was soon prosecuted for libel. Early in the morning of the day of the trial, the Marshal called on Dr. Backus at Bethlehem, Conn., and informed him that he must be in Hartford by 12 noon. He rode with the Marshal eight miles to Litchfield before breakfast. Here a friend loaned his strong, fleet horse and chaise. The Marshal on horseback could not keep up. Applying whip and spur and coming within call, he cried out, “Mr. Backus! Mr. Backus! You ride as if the devil was after you.” “Just so! Just so!” he shouted and pushed on. On returning to his home in Bethlehem, friends in Litchfield came out to meet him and escorted him on his way. Said he, “I know not what speech to make you. I will say as the Indian to his brethren when they came to bury his wife, “Thank you, thank you, hope I shall have sometime the opportunity to show you such a favor.”

On going from Clinton to Albany to preach, his trunk was stolen. His host, a bulky citizen, offered his wardrobe from which to get needed changes of linen. “The things fit pretty well,” he said, “but I don’t believe I can work in this Dutch collar.”

Dr. Backus died in 1816 and was succeeded by Dr. Henry Davis, Yale 1796, who was president from 1816-1833. He died in 1852 in Clinton. Under his administration, capital funds were used in erecting buildings, leaving nothing for current expenses. He was an eloquent preacher. So powerful was he in carrying his audiences, that it is related that if he had used this opportunity to preach through the state he would have filled the College with new students. In Dr. North’s Half-Century Annalist’s Letter dim reference was made to the difficulties of the early 1830s.

Two reasons were given for the crisis in College affairs: One was the interference of the trustees in matters of discipline amongst undergraduates, instead of leaving them in the hands of the faculty. The other was the question of moving the College to Utica. That it was decided to keep the College in Clinton was due to the efforts of Gerrit Smith, who vigorously contended that all gifts had been made to the College on the understanding that it should remain in Clinton. Several trustees resigned. The number of students was reduced to nine undergraduates in 1829. About this time, the bequest of William M. Maynard of New York, acting as member of the court of appeals, established the Law Department. This was the first substantial gift to Hamilton College. Owing to the gift of S. Newton Dexter, the department of languages was established. Soon followed the gift of the Litchfield Observatory.

Dr. Sereno Dwight, Yale 1803, was president for two years. He raised considerable money in cooperation with Dr. Avery. When the proposal to remove the College to Utica was rejected, Dr. Strong resigned the presidency. President Penny, born in Ireland, educated in Dublin and Glasgow, a pastor in Rochester for 11 years, influential and beloved pastor at Northampton, Mass., was president for four years. His foreign training did not help him to meet the problems that clamored for solution. Dr. Simeon North resigned in his stead. Junior Ex. was inaugurated.

Now was graduated the Class of 1840. There were five whom I frequently saw at commencements: Drs. Miller, Knox, Kendall, Nelson and Theo Dwight of Columbia Law School. It happened that Dr. Miller of Ogdensburgh met his son, Rumsey Miller of Bath, at my home and all the grandchildren beamed in the light of his benignant smile. One could not live in Central New York and not know Dr. W.E. Knox of Rome. He was toastmaster at a commencement dinner in Towers Opera House. The thermometer showed high figures. His first words, “An Irishman commenting on the weather said, “This would be a good day for a thaw if it were not for one thing.” “What is that?” “There is nothing froze.”

Dr. Knox, in the semi-centennial celebration in 1862, emphasized the close relationships between the graduates who share a common pride in the past, common joy in the present, a common hope in the future. We love our Mother College as we love our Mother Country. We love her all the better because we feel that the College and the state are identical in their interests. I have heard a western man say that he was not sure but Missouri had been a rebel state if Dr. Nelson had not been pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. At any rate, his influence for good, by the bold and powerful stand he had taken, could not be overestimated.

Dr. Kendall was frequently at my home. His sermon preached at the semi-centennial supported the assertion that the church needs an educated ministry. Men with little learning have been very useful in subordinate positions. But all that have been leaders, from the days of Paul to our own, have been learned men. Colleges are the growth of the church and the hope of the church. He was a man of affairs in missions and in establishing schools in the Midwest and on the Pacific Coast.

Professor Edward North I knew intimately for 35 years with increasing affection of his gentle nature. Like his uncle, Dr. Simeon North, he had a remarkable knowledge of local incidents and projects.

In 1908 in San Jose, Calif., I called on Hon. Augustus Loring Rhodes of the Class of 1841 – 67 years after he graduated. In his prime he was the hardest worker and of untold influence in molding public opinion in his state. I found him in his office transacting legal business with his son. His memory of College days was vivid. He gave many items of interest concerning Babcock Hill near Bridgewater. He recalled Kirk Peter Crandall, 1869, and his remarkable scholarship. My freshmen wonder was aroused as Crandall would pace the floor and recite pages from Homer – whether Iliad or Odyssey – it made no difference to me.

You will pardon the on-looker who saw men of sober mien come up the steps of Houghton Seminary during Commencement week and seat themselves with scant attention to men who had preceded them. The on-looker acting as host pronouncing the names. Up sprang the sober and shy and grasped the hands of Bill, Tom and Jim. Age slipped away as a garment and youth came back. In just this way Eurotas P. Hastings, 1842 of Ceylon, sauntered in wearing the identical hair and beard of Moses as Michelangelo chiseled his statue. For a moment he was a stranger but he soon smiled on delighted friends. His brother-in-law, Grover Cleveland, the same year, was elected Governor of New York and in 1884 was elected President of the United States. Three years later, at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the settlement of Clinton in 1887, President Cleveland was guest of the town in which his boyhood was spent.

In the early days of Hamilton College there were two debating societies, the Union and the Phoenix. Following the famous debating societies of Princeton University, the Cliosophic and the American Whig, these two societies, the Union and the Phoenix developed in high degree, logical reasoning and even forcible eloquent expression. The Union society was merged into the Delta Upsilon Fraternity. The Phoenix society, losing many of its brighter men to other college fraternities, was succeeded by the Theta Delta Chi Fraternity in 1868.

In June 1870 the cornerstone of the monument in memory of Baron Steuben was laid in the center of a 10-acre plot of untouched forest, near Remsen in the northern part of Oneida County. General Franz Sigel, a successful Union General in the Civil War, gave the address in German. I understood only the first two words – meiner freunder. A group of 32 voices of a mannerchor from New York gave melody and harmony on this occasion. Governor Seymour and many other prominent people of Central New York were present. After the formal exercises the crowds moved to Moor’s Hotel at Trenton Falls. On that afternoon Albert Bushnell, Class of 1871, and I passed through the gorge at Trenton Falls. Trilobites were quite numerous. Bushnell and I thought we found an elegant specimen. It was about eight inches in diameter and weighed twelve pounds or more. It showed the imprint of the five toes of some prehistoric animal. We showed it to Professor Oren Root, Sr. We were shocked to hear him say, “Those indentations were worn out by the action of water,” however, I atoned for my former unscientific attempt to enrich the cabinet of Hamilton College in 1870 by placing in the hands of Professor Miller in 1909 several specimens which I picked up in the petrified forests of Arizona.

Morris Edwards and Platt Underwood were on campus chatting about the laying of the cornerstone at Remsen on the following day. One dared the other to start as they were and walk to Trenton, distance about 25 miles. As they neared their destination late in the evening they saw a stalwart young woman carrying two pails of milk. Glimpsing the Dairy Maid of literature they essayed speech with her. Gallantly they opened the gate for her to pass. They had lassoed a daughter of the Cheese Rind, who had no time for chinning. To secure her herd from straying she threw over her shoulder,
“You’ll shut that gate, won’t ye?”

Every decade in the history of Hamilton College carries a list of eloquent, efficient men. Dr. Henry Mandeville, Chair of Rhetoric from 1841 to 1849, and the author of The Standard Work of Elocution, was a man of a fine personality. Then came Professor A.J. Upson until 1870.

The Civil War took its toll on brave men — 227 students of Hamilton College in the service of the Union Army, from private and drummer boy (Edward G. Love, Class of 1872) to our dear friend of the Class of 1847, Joseph R. Hawley, General Governor and U.S. Senator, president of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

On the day after graduation, the Class of 1862 furnished 20 enlisted soldiers. Col. George Hastings, 1857 and Capt. George H. Star, 1861, author of Cheer Boys, Cheer, were long in Southern prisons. It was of such men as these that linked our College to the successful termination of the war to save our Union.

The classes immediately after the close of the war in 1865 were enlarged by veterans. So modest were they that military titles were forgotten and rank in college classes grew in importance. Not until recently did I learn that Bagley, 1870, had been a colonel in the Civil War. The members of the faculty were not numerous but they concentrated their instruction on few subjects. Undirected reading was successfully used to find the masterpieces of literature.

What a glow of pleasure we experienced as President Brown began a lecture by repeating the opening lines of Spenser. “A gentle knight was pricking o’er the plain.” Then following his lead we caught a glimpse of the beauties of the beginnings of English Literature. Dr. Charles Avery, 1820, for 50 years the professor of chemistry, would occasionally lead the devotional exercises in the College Chapel. He would choose the words of Isaiah “Ho, everyone that thirsteth” but he read the passage HO, the old chemical formula for water instead of the new symbol H2o. Professor Root, Class of 1833, was called affectionately Cube Root for he was held to be the perfection of moral worth.

Conversations with members of the faculty outside of the classroom were not carried to excess. Social life was very limited to many undergraduates. Consequently, those worthy professors lost many opportunities for increasing their wisdom. In my four years at Hamilton, Dr. Goertner, the College pastor, spoke to me but once. Then he asked if I could tell him where Peter Blake could be found and not only caught the ball but threw it to second base before he touched the ground getting the runner.

Hamilton College once had a navy. In 1876, the Hamilton crew raced at Saratoga with 12 other crews including Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Cornell. But for allowing his eyes to turn toward the pursuing Yale boat, Brown of Hamilton crew “caught a crab.” His car was torn from his grasp and knocked the car of his companion in the water. They recovered the cars and continued the race closing in eighth place. History from that date is silent about the Hamilton navy. But Hamilton was proud of the stalwart, valiant crew.

At the intercollegiate contest in oratory at the Academy of Music in New York in 1876, Julian M. Eliot, Class of 1877 won first prize. The following year Hamilton College was awarded first prize. Thus ended intercollegiate competition.

To give a glimpse of the primitive simplicity of living in 1850, I give the following incident: In Chicago in 1903, I was introduced by one of my former pupils, Mr. J. Northrop to a Mr. Adams of the Board of Trade. It was a pleasure to learn that he formerly lived on Paris Hill. A telegram handed to Mr. Adams interrupted our conversation. After reading his message his eyes wandered to the ceiling. He recovered his train of thought and tapping me on the knee said, “The first ice cream I ever ate was in Clinton. My stepbrother, S. Gardiner Williams, was a student at Hamilton College and boarded himself in the village. It was my duty to bring him food supplies. On one of these visits he told me that around the corner of Stone Church I could buy a glass of ice cream for three cents.” Mr. Williams was graduated in 1852 and became a professor of Geology in Cornell University.

Gerrit Smith, who had married a daughter of President Backus, kept his hospitable door open at his home at Peterboro. His daily guests were counted by the score. All were welcome. Peterboro was the chief station of the Underground Railroad. Through its aid, the runaway slave were assisted on their way to Canada and freedom.  On one occasion a minister enjoyed the cordial open house for two weeks and he did not reveal the day of his departure. Then there came the prayer of Mr. Smith at morning devotion “Dear Lord, bless and keep our friend who departs from us on this day.” The delaying guest accepted the blessing and protection of the dear Lord as he passed along his onward way. Gerrit Smith lived to see his heart’s desire, the emancipation of the slaves. He died in 1874.

In the 1870s it was my privilege to know most intimately Judge Henry A. Foster of Rome, who was a trustee of Hamilton College from 1836 to his death in 1883. He was a judge of the Supreme Court of the State of New York and U.S. Senator by appointment. On his return from the Commencement stage, he also quietly stated that the deficit reported by the treasurer was made up on the spot by the personal contributions of the trustees. It is considered that their successors, a half-century later, would be equally generous if a deficit could be found.

The roads in New York State in those days were left to the varying moods of nature. Rain caused deep mud and snow gave the winter highway a smooth surface, sometimes, for pleasure and business traffic. On such favorable conditions the fine spans of President Fisher and Dr. Goertner tested their speed on the return from Utica. When once Dr. Goertner, by skillful driving, was in the advance he chuckled and said, “It is remarkable how these horses like to go.” Coasting and skating will continue to be pleasant memories of Hamilton College students.

A humble man acquired wealth and desired to embellish his home with family mementos. He called on an artist whose fame had been increased by his picture of the Hebrew prophet, Moses, and asked him to paint a portrait of his father. The answer was “No.” The artist replied, “How can I paint a picture of a man whom I have never seen?” The man came back, “Did you ever see Moses?” “No,” was the answer. “Well I guess if you could paint Moses you could paint a picture of my father.” After further discussion and the promise of a liberal fee, the artist consented to do his best to please his patron. He finished the picture and delivered it. The man was greatly pleased and pronounced it splendid. He added: “Gosh, how he has changed.”

H.W. Shaw, “Josh Billings,” Class of 1837, speaks of the influence of President Simeon North. Shaw was asked how he managed to climb up and down the Chapel lightening-rod without breaking his sophomoric neck. His solemn visage was lighted up with a cheerful reply, “So you, too, have been in Hamilton College?” You see, I was full of the devil there — that was what was the matter with me. There was a Greek and Latin man in the faculty. He had studied Socrates to some purpose. He didn’t go to work to kill the boy and leave the devil. His plan was to kill the devil and leave the boy.” Thus, Billings continued to be the boy with the devil left out.

The prompt donning of the khaki in 1917 by the younger sons of Hamilton saving test tubes, textbook and classrooms for his company, battalion, regiment, division, corps, airplane, submarine and ambulance service placed them in rank with their brothers in 1862, gave assurance that they too would be free or die who speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake.

The 20th century crowns with laurel Hamilton sons in international affairs, in world conferences, in Red Cross service, in pure benevolence and in the Y.M.C.A. Our poets and writers have made our College name familiar all over the world.

Our half-century at its close faces the rising, not the setting sun. When the Class of 1872 left college, there was no typewriter, telephone, automobile or airplane, electric light or electric motor power. No wonder radio service receives instant approval. The world rejoices. Speed! Speed! But the men of this period do not surpass our fathers in their serene courage, clear perception of truth and strong convictions of duty.

The vigorous campaign for $750,000 endowment fund found generous and willing donors. It was a shoulder-to-shoulder effort giving the cheer of companionship and the joy of success.

The Hamilton graduate fertilizes the minds and ideals of his community and state. His fellow citizens know what he stands for.

Quiet, unassuming Rev. James Anderson of the Lone Star State impressed his personality on the whole of Northwestern Texas. He was the father of his Presbytery who gave him responsibility and honor because of the stability and the reasonableness of his opinions. Jim Anderson multiplied himself in the numbers of men of his kind who looked to him for inspiration and who caught his vision of wider horizons. In 1903, I found Jim at his home. The next morning as I planned to go he begged me to spend one more day. I was possibly his first guest from New York in 30 years. There was a tenderness of appeal which gathered in itself the longings of a quarter-of-a-century. The communing of that day did not change the landscape or economic condition but they fed our souls with the ambrosia of our youth. 

In every state the influence of Hamilton is expressed in terms of citizenship which is helpful and constructive. A welcome is accorded to new methods that can prove their excellence and superiority.

The roster of statesmen, educators, lawyers, preachers, editors, physicians, chemists, businessmen, managers, authors and superintendents is plentifully sprinkled with names of Hamilton College.

At the 110th anniversary of our College with its increase in equipment we must keep in mind that character does not grow save by contact with spiritual forces and by striving to attain the highest ideals.

Mark Hopkins said, “Wisdom is the result of applying the best means to attain the highest ends.” Here, under the leadership of Dr. Ferry, we find our College with its inheritance of the highest ideals, grasping money in needful measure, inviting young men here to fit themselves to solve the problems of society, of church and of state.

“Let them behold with us these Dead but sceptered sovereigns still ruling our spirits from their urns.”