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Half-Century Annalist Letters

On The Threshold

Edward Fitch, Class of 1886

Delivered: June 1936

A backward glance upon the period from 1882 to 1886 convinces me that these years were of singular importance, not only to us of the Class of 1886 but also to the College. This letter might be entitled “On the Threshold.” In those years there was an infusion of new blood in the Faculty. Francis M. Burdick, a graduate of the College and a young lawyer and former mayor of Utica, became full-time professor in the fall of 1882. His chair, which had earlier been occupied by an older man in infirm health, bore the resounding title of Law, History, Civil Polity, and Political Economy. George P. Bristol in the fall of 1882 became assistant professor of ancient and modern languages. He was fresh from the universities of Johns Hopkins and Heidelberg, taught the freshmen Greek, and carried the instruction in German for sophomores and juniors. Eighteen eighty-two was only six years after 1876, the year when Johns Hopkins University began its work of providing here in America university training, and so eventually establishing a new tradition of fitness for college teaching. Professor Bristol was Hamilton’s first experience of this new movement. His significance is also in part that of a forerunner, for the primary purpose of his coming was to take temporarily the place of Professor Brandt, who had accepted the professorship of modern languages in 1882, but with the proviso that he should have a year abroad. This is the way in which serious study of the modern languages began at Hamilton College.

We undergraduates were aware of an intellectual stir, which was related not only to changes in the Faculty personnel, but to the beginnings of the elective system of studies. The College Catalogue issued in the fall of 1882 contained this cautious statement: “It has been decided, after mature consideration by the Faculty, to adopt a course which shall provide for a certain amount of elective or optional studies. The details of this plan will be announced later.” Changes came rapidly in the following years. The Catalogue, which appeared in our sophomore year, registers a very considerable number of elective courses, and the process of expansion and enrichment continued. We thought of the process in terms of particular men: Professor Burdick, and his new courses in history and legal institutions; Professor Brandt, whose aggressive historical method of studying language was a revelation; Professor Bristol, who offered work in Sanskrit and Anglo-Saxon; and the older members of the Faculty, too, Professor Chester, who began doing something in the way of pre-medical work for the prospective physicians, and Professor Frink, who offered new courses in English Literature. Even Dr. Peters, whom we regarded as dwelling apart, afforded opportunities to a few gifted men. These years in the 1880s were important for the intellectual history of the College, showing as they do the impact of the new forces that were being liberated by the university movement. Hamilton was answering to the call of the time, and did so with reasonable promptness, as a comparison with other institutions will show.

Our four years experienced another change which deserves to be chronicled. When we entered college the prime honors of the records on which these appointments depended remained absolutely secret until the very end of four years. No announcement of standing was ever made during the course. The announcement that came at the end of senior year was, naturally, an event of the first importance. The Literary Monthly of June 1882 thus described, “the pent-up stillness met by a storm of threatening looks and indignant hisses from interested and excited undergraduates clustering about senior recitation room door.” My own recollection is the announcement of standing of the Class of 1883 was news, important College news, and headline news. As such, I entered the numerical standing of every man in the class in the margin of my copy of the Catalogue, where it stands to this day.

This system of complete silence was destined to pass away before our eyes. The first sign of its passing came in our sophomore year, when a change was made whereby instead of class monitors who marked absence from Chapel, there should be two college monitors who should sit in the gallery and take the attendance. The Literary Monthly declared: “The Era of Reconstruction has come.” That was because of the tacit understanding that the two monitors were the two leading scholars in the class. Dalzell and Page of the senior class received the appointment. Later, in our course, the numerical standing was given at the end of the year, and in time other changes came. But nothing was quite like that first unveiling, when Dalzell and Page stood forth as the twin summits of Class of 1884. Sociologists tell us that the desire for recognition is as elemental a human wish, as the desire of security. And psychologists warn us of the consequences of suppressed desires. I have often thought that the fierce suspicions of partiality on the part of some members of the Faculty, and the sore disappointments that came from some undergraduates were due to this unnatural system of suppression, whereby all knowledge of the main competitive honors was withheld for four years.

In referring to the new members of the faculty who came in our time no reference has been made to the new president, Rev. Dr. Henry Darling. Hs administration was on its upward course when we entered. One distinguishing feature of his policy was the effort to bring the College into close relation to the Presbyterian Church by establishing an organic connection between the College and the Synod of New York. This idea had apparently existed in a dormant form since the Presbyterian reunion of 1869. It took definite form in 1879, when Dr. Herrick Johnson, Class of 1857, and Dr. Darling, then a pastor in Albany, appeared before the College trustees as spokesmen for an informal conference of clergymen held in Syracuse. Their proposal was favorably received by the Board, upon the recommendation of a committee of which Judge Dwight was chairman. There were considerations: on the part of the College, an endowment of $500,000, to be raised by the Presbyterian church, and on the part of the Synod, certain concessions as to filling vacancies in the board of trustees. In due time Dr. Darling was elected a trustee of the College, then president. He was inaugurated as president on September 15, 1881. When we entered, one year of this new administration had passed. The effort to complete the endowment was in the forefront of attention. In order to enlist the interest and help of the leaders of the church it was arranged that the Synod of New York, meeting in Utica in October 1882, should pay an official visit to the College. This visit occurred the afternoon of October 18. The heavens smiled, and the College had a half-holiday, and we all crowded into the Library, and from the alcoves looked down upon the august ecclesiastical body. My most distinct recollection is of Howard Crosby, the moderator, pastor of a large city church, and chancellor of New York University as well, an outstanding intellectual of his day. This visit of the Synod to College Hill has, for me, a symbolical meaning: the hopes of raising the half-million endowment were then at their zenith. There were later reports of progress, but usually in the form of pledges made upon condition that the entire amount be raised. Then, at the end of our sophomore year, something happened which must have been a blow to the policy for which President Darling stood, just as it was a blow to him personally. At the meeting of the trustees in June 1884, a paper was received signed by eight members of the Faculty, a decisive majority of that body, calling for the resignation of President Darling. The signers affirmed, among other things, that they had deliberately come to the conclusion that the administration of President Darling had signally failed. “It is not,” they said, “that the scheme for raising money has failed though that of itself is a serious fact. Our disappointment arises from the fact that there is no vigor in administering the internal affairs of the College.” It was generally understood that friction had arisen over the conduct of discipline, particularly after the “bolt” of the College, and then of the senior class, in the preceding February.

This paper, when its contents became known, produced in the friends of the College a feeling of dismay. A week later, there was a large gathering of alumni in Utica, and as a result of much discussion, resolutions were adopted and signed by 184 alumni, asking that the trustees “make a just and fair settlement of the matter, and set the affairs of the College in good order previous to the beginning of the fall term.” The trustees had already appointed a committee of investigation, with Hon. Theodore W. Dwight as chairman, and had instructed it to report to October first. This request of the alumni for a report earlier than October first and prior to the opening of the College, was not met. In fact, no report was ever published. Neither party of the controversy received a public vindication or a public rebuke at the hands of the trustees. In September 1884, the College opened as usual, the President and Faculty were there as usual, and things went on. This Fabian policy of the trustees, adopted, perhaps, on the theory that running water will purify itself, worked. It received criticism, naturally, but as long as the discordant elements in the Faculty could establish a living relation, it might well be the part of wisdom to let it go that way. What may be interpreted as formal justification of the policy of the trustees is found in a report made at the annual meeting of the Society of the Alumni on June 30, 1886. This report as signed by the four alumni trustees: Edward North, Joseph R. Hawley, A. Norton Brockway and Elihu Root. Its concluding sentences were:

The year now closing will compare most favorably with the best of antecedent years in whatever contributes to the prosperity and good name of a college. Cases of discipline have been fewer than usual. Heavy tasks have been cheerfully accepted. The examinations have been more rigid and exacting. The actual attendance of 180 students has given full classes in comparison with former years and the dominant spirit has been in the interest of accurate scholarship and genuine manhood.

My personal conviction of the wisdom of the trustees in refusing publicly to pronounce upon the merits of the case is in part due to my observations as a junior member of the faculty in the last years of Dr. Darling’s life, the years 1889 to 1891. By that time the adjustments were already made. The situation had been simplified in that three members of the Faculty had accepted calls to other institutions. Barring certain limitations of his power, which he quietly accepted, Dr. Darling was actually president. I admired his Christian patience in word and action, the skill and perseverance with which he worked to win students for the College, and the success which he had in his administrative work, work done under difficulties, for the College was poor and the president accepted and carried certain financial responsibilities for instruction.

To return now to the proposed endowment and the consequent organic connection with the Synod of New York: in the decades since the 1880s the tide has run strongly in the opposite direction. Dr. Darling’s successor publicly renounced the idea. Other provisions were found for those needs, which were to be met by the gifts of the church. Dr. Darling’s work ended before the period when large gifts to education by private benefactors were a common occurrence. My latest vivid recollection of President Darling belongs to the closing months of his life, when, on a public occasion, he made a playful reference to the good omen in the name Fayerweather, at the time when the educational world was deeply stirred by the announcement of the benefactors of the modest millionaire leather merchant, Daniel B. Fayerweather.

Reference has been made to the College “bolt” which took place on February 11, 1884, precipitating a clash between students and Faculty and causing friction within the Faculty. The entire College body refused to attend recitations that Monday morning, on the grounds that it was unseemly to go on with College work prior to the funeral of the former president, Simeon North, whose death occurred late Saturday afternoon. Such sensitive regard for the memory of a man who we had never seen and who had lived in seclusion on the edge of campus, furnished a talking point, and much was made of it. Our attitude would now be described by the term rationalization: we were seeking a rational basis for an action that was due to impulse. Concerning the impulse, the following may be said: bolting a recitation had become rather common, in fact, our class had in the previous October bolted the afternoon recitation to go to a circus, with no greater penalty than a warning. In addition, there was a particular stimulus on this occasion. On Saturday, February 9, a member of the Faculty, at the close of the hour with our class, paid a tribute to Simeon North, whose death was hourly expected, and spoke the probability that the class would not meet on Monday. When, therefore, the death of the former president no holiday was declared, the consciousness of a grievance emerged. Our class became what is known in present day medicine as a carrier. We carried the infection, and the bolting fever swept through the College like wildfire. As a comment on this unfortunate happening and its serious after effects, it may be said that in our underclassmen years there existed a contemptuous feeling toward law and order, due in part to the fact that authority had been frequently used without being effectually used.

It may serve as an escape from this unhappy subject to give a harmless anecdote that belongs in this very environment. About 30 years ago, when Dexter North, Class of 1869, was preparing the memorial volume, Old Greek, I came upon an editorial from the Utica Herald of February 11, 1884, summarizing the career of former President Simeon North. The detailed knowledge of his life and the intimate and felicitous phrasing of the article supplied, as I thought, internal evidence to show that “Old Greek” was the author. When the matter was brought to the attention of his son, Dexter North, he recalled the circumstances. It was Sunday. Proper notice of President North’s death, which had happened late Saturday, must appear in the Monday’s Utica Herald. There was no mail service, no train service, and the telephone habit did not exist. The one possible course of action was to harness old Dobbin to the cutter and drive in to Utica with the previous article. And so it duly appeared at the head of the editorial page on Monday morning. Meantime, the faithful professor drove back home that winter night, so that he might meet the Class of 1887 in Greek Testament on that fateful Monday morning, only to be confronted by seats that were empty for conscience sake.

Let us now turn away from these unhappy incidents, which give an unfair picture of our College life, and take our stand at the beginning of junior year, in September 1884. College opened well, we thought. To us the rift between the President and the Faculty was not much more than a nine days’ wonder. We heard spicy personal anecdotes of what Professor X said to the committee about Professor Y and had our laugh about it. But the present belonged to us, and we did not despair of the republic. Two students had left to enter Princeton, but on the other hand our class had gained three recruits in junior year. The entering class was not as large as its predecessor, but it was notably small. The changes in the curriculum had given new interest to some of the class who were finding an appeal in the courses of history and literature, and even in the courses in engineering by Lieutenant Denig. It was junior year and we were not yet burdened by the future. We were free of the obligations and limitations of being underclassmen. It was a happy period between the past and the future. And besides all else, a presidential election was due, with Blaine and Cleveland as the rival candidates.

Our four years at Hamilton saw the emergence of two national figures who were to play an important part in the succeeding years. In our freshman year, Cleveland, then an unknown man, was elected governor of the state by an overwhelming majority, and Theodore Roosevelt, elected to the Assembly in 1881, was becoming the hero of the young fellows, for he himself was young. In our sophomore year, in the spring of 1884, he was the dominant figure in the Republic state convention which met in Utica to choose delegates to the national convention. We sat in the gallery of the opera house and watched this fair-haired young man, he sat in the center, radiating energy and sending out messages to different parts of the floor, with the result that Senator Warren Miller, who sought to get a delegation pledged to Blaine. Several of the Faculty were following the lead of George William Curtis in repudiating Blaine and favoring Cleveland. They had to take their medicine in the form of the nickname “Mugwump.”

There were large political rallies in Utica which commanded our attention. At one of them General Benjamin F. Butler, who was the candidate of the Anti-Monopoly and Greenback parties, spoke, and had something to say. He tried to divert our attention from the old familiar topics of political discussion that had come down from the Civil War, by dwelling on the economic problems that were then emerging. He seemed just an interesting old demagogue. On the other hand, Chauncey M. Depew had heard with the most sympathetic attention. His speech in Utica in this campaign was perfect of its kind, but he seems now more of an entertainer than statesman. But he did entertain, and the memory of some of his sallies brings a smile even yet. Mr. Blaine, the Republican candidate, visited Utica that fall. It was a tense occasion, for on account of his feud with Roscoe Conkling he knew that he was in the enemy’s country. Hew spoke from the rear platform of the train that halted in Bagg’s Square for a few moments. My only distinct recollection of him is of his mobile mouth, from the corner of which he seemed to speak. His opening sentence I remember: “I thank you most sincerely, gentlemen of Utica, for this cordial welcome.” Oneida County, though, was not cordial. In the close election when Cleveland won by gaining New York State, and New York State was carried by a bare thousand, there were three different explanations of the result, any one of which was sufficient by itself. The vote of Oneida County was enough to give the state to Cleveland. One more political reminiscence. In the fall of our freshman year we saw Judge Folger, the Republican candidate for governor, defeated by a majority of 200,000 for Cleveland. Most of the students were Republicans and of course gloom prevailed. At this juncture, on the following Saturday, William A. Hoy gave a senior oration which redressed the balance. He defied fortune, affirmed the supreme effulgence of the Republican Party, and forecast a long and glorious future. He received salvos of applause.

And this leads me to say something about Saturday Chapel as an institution. It came, 12 noon, and closed the week’s program. The entire College was present and participated. It was the one intellectual interest that we all had in common. After Chapel, we used to go to our rooms, get out our lunch baskets, munch our cold viands with the relish of a good appetite, and talk it all over. In those days there were no Sunday papers to deluge us with their varied supplements, and there was no such abundance of popular reviews as to keep us in touch with the current movements of thought. Saturday Chapel was, in its way, a forum of opinion. I recall that my first knowledge that there was a religious movement called the Salvation Army came from an oration by Morey, Class of 1883, and my first inkling of the significance of William D. Howells was due to an essay by Bradford, Class of 1885. The discussion between White and Deacon Wood on the question: “Is the influence of the works of George Eliot immoral?” reads well even yet. Carlyle, Emerson. Longfellow died in the year previous to our entrance to College, and bequeathed to us a wealth of subjects for orations and essays. In his sophomore year, Tolles took the prize on the subject: “Longfellow the Poet of Youth,” with an essay that was then much admired, and really was an extraordinary production for a boy in his sixteenth year.

In general, we lived on the same intellectual level as the world without. We were creatures of our day. This was true of our outlook on literature, true, also, of the religious life of the College. In those days preachers took texts and preached from them, so that it seemed quite in order when Rev. Isaac O. Best preached from the text: “Make this valley full of ditches,” or when President Darling chose for the admonition of his youthful hearers one of the shortest texts: “Remember Lot’s Wife.” The question is sometimes asked about the religious life in colleges. The answer, I am persuaded, can be found be found by a look at our own homes, our own communities, and our own churches. Expressions of the religious life have changed in college as they have in the world outside.

One final item may be included in the record of changes of our period. When we entered Hamilton, the students generally roomed on the campus and most of them went down the Hill, many even beyond the Oriskany, for breakfast and dinner. The noon meal was a cold luncheon, carried up the Hill each morning in a basket. This procession of lunch baskets that filed up the Hill every morning grieved the heart of President Darling, and he tried the experiment of fitting up a commons hall near the campus. While his plan did not work out just as he intended, it was, in a sense, the herald of a new day. While we were in College, two fraternities bought property near the foot of the Hill, and had their own dining rooms. In the three years following our graduation this movement went even further, and the lunch basket passed into history. This was a part of the process by which, during a term of years, the College community had become a unit separate from the village in the valley.

In conclusion, let us return to our starting point, where the title “On the Threshold” was proposed in this letter. In our time there was, to be sure, no forecast of a College water-system; there was only the vanished dream of a course in biology; and the building period of the following decades hardly existed even as a thought. But when the history of the College is written, the decade of the 1880s will have a chapter to itself. It will be the administration of President Darling, and it will include the record of important beginnings. There will be lights and shadows, but as the picture precedes the lights will grow steadier, and the whole decade will fall into its place as a mediating period when the old was passing gradually into the new.