Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1816 Letter

David Jewett Baker

Delivered: 1866

I hope, under existing circumstances, I may be excused for the uncalled for introduction of myself, showing how I found my way into the College as one of its pupils, before I attempt a presentation of the institution in its relations to those under its charge. I was raised from early childhood in the western part of the State of New York, where I was transplanted, at the time when there were only a few inhabitants west of Geneva, with only a very few of very common schools under the charge of teachers indifferently qualified or quite incompetent; and those schools, by my labors on my father's farm, I was prevented from attending.

At the age of sixteen, too feeble in health for the successful prosecution of those labors, I resolved, against the remonstrances of my parents, to obtain a college education, though I knew not how the resolve was to be executed. No academy then, in the part of the country where I lived, afforded facilities for preparation for admission into college, and if they were afforded, I was not in funds to obtain them; nor were there, in convenient distance, to be found men qualified to teach the Latin and Greek languages, whose services I was able to obtain. Not deterred from my purpose by these and other inconveniences, and having ascertained the studies, a knowledge of which was the prerequisite for admission into the New England colleges, I undertook the task of self-preparation, while engaged in the teaching of a school to obtain the means wherewith to defray the expenses of my proposed college course.

When Hamilton College was organized, with Dr. Backus at its head, it was the one nearest to Bloomfield, where my father lived; and I was admitted a member of the sophomore class at the commencement of the fall term, 1813. This was the first freshman class that entered the College and I am, I believe, the first person raised in all that large district of the State, west of the town of Geneva, who ever became a member of any college.

About the same time, Philo Gridley was admitted into the class and was, during the year, and perhaps longer, my roommate. He was a hard student and confined himself to the getting of his lessons, and seemed not well pleased if anyone of his classmates made a better display in the recitation room than himself. His lessons absorbed the whole of his time and attention. No amusements or miscellaneous reading drew him from them. He had at his command a vigorous, clear and discriminating mind. His reasoning powers were not surpassed by those of any member of the class.

I may in this communication speak of some others of my departed classmates; but, in so doing, I desire to be understood as speaking of them only as they appeared to me during our college course, and as confining myself to the departed ones, leaving those still in life to speak by their actings and doings for themselves. Several additional members made their appearance in the recitation room after the business of the term commenced; but, who they were and the precise time of their connection with the class, I am unable to say; nor do I recollect with certainty how many the class numbered, at any one time, though not fewer than 24 or 25, and they were as much diversified in appearance, manner, tastes, and character of their minds as any like number usually found in one class of its size of equally learned "pundits." Some of them looked upon the studying of their lessons as a menial and degrading business, and proof positive of the deficiency of intellect. These passed most of their time, while in their rooms, in light reading — in fact, in reading anything rather than the prescribed studies — and never learned anything properly and thoroughly. Some studied hard and couldn't learn; others studied not at all, and didn't learn; nor did they know or care whether they could learn or not; at least, they did not seem to try to find out. Some by faithful and persevering application mastered their lessons, and had time to spare for miscellaneous reading. Some learned well in spite of obstacles and impediments; others learned but little and ever seemed afraid to engage in the battle of human life, and were never happy.

The by-laws of the College, which the faculty had placed in our hands for our guidance, provided that the junior class should have a part of their time for attending the lectures and experiments in the laboratory. It was found we could not do this if the class studied fluxions. Thus it was decided we must study, and omit chemistry. Against this decision the class, one or two only dissenting, remonstrated and resolved to have the benefit of the lectures and experiments as prescribed in the by-laws; and, in the event of being denied this privilege to leave the College. The class appointed two of its members to present their determination to a meeting of the faculty, called at their request in relation thereunto. The result of the meeting, after hearing what was offered in behalf of the class, was that they were excused from studying fluxions and permitted to attend chemistry. This they did accordingly, and all things, wherein the class was concerned, ever afterwards passed smoothly.

Whether this uprising proceeded from the desire of some to obtain chemical knowledge or to pass time more pleasantly in the laboratory than they could in the recitation-room, with hard demonstrations to be worked out, or from both these causes combined, as is probable, I know not. The demands of the class, it is true, were not fully and directly granted, in terms, but we were positively assured, if we returned to our studies and recitations, there should be no future cause for complaint. Probably this combination could never have been formed, with so great unanimity as it was, if the conviction had not fastened itself to the minds of many members of the class that advantage was being taken, by some of the tutors, of the easy nature and pacific disposition of Dr. Noyes, so as to leave him and his field of operations out of sight, or not duly respected.

I cannot, I fear, present anything in the form prescribed to be observed by the writer of annals. My recollection of occurrences, upwards of 50 years ago, while living far distant from the scene of their occurrence, engaged, too, in pursuits little connected with them, is so vague and indistinct as to preclude the attempt of any more than a few brief disconnected generalities, which chance may have left in my way. On some of my classmates, now no longer among the living, I cannot refrain from bestowing a passing notice.

Edward Robinson, though suffering from ill health, steadily pursued his studies, got his lessons well, and more probed to the bottom whatever he undertook to learn than any other member of the class. He exhibited not original thoughts so much as ability to follow out what others had well begun, and to discover and to possess himself of that, which others had known before. He was unremitting and persevering in whatever he undertook and left nothing, on which he fastened his attention, only half learned or unfinished. Neither he nor Philo Gridley ever joined in the amusements or merrymakings of their fellow students. Their manners, if not repulsive, were not winning.

On my advent to College, I found, on a level space upon the side of the charming Hill, rising with a gradual slope from the lovely village of Clinton which it overlooks, several acres of ground, enclosed with a new paling fence, studded thickly, most of it, with the stumps of trees recently felled; and, in this enclosure, was a wooden-framed building of considerable dimensions, as the size of buildings was then and there estimated. It was neither new nor very old in its appearance. This was the College; and, on the right in the corner of the enclosure, as one looked from its front door upon the village, stood the President's House, respectable for size and appearance.

In the rear of the main College building, and not far off, was a low, new, unfinished brick building. This was the Commons where most of the students and some of the tutors took their meals, regularly each day, served up by Mr. Sedgwick, the steward, in the ample dining hall. At the table, one of the tutors, at least, was present. To the steward, who acted as collector and treasurer to the institution, our term bills, embracing our board at $1.50 a week, tuition at $12 a term, and divers contingent expenses, averaging less than $50 a term, were paid.

The blackboard was not used, and some members of the class, instead of learning to demonstrate by looking upon a diagram of the figure, the properties of which were to be demonstrated, barely committed to memory the printed statement thereof as contained in Simpson's Euclid, then used by the class; and this exercise of the memory was pretty nearly all the knowledge they acquired of geometry and its kindred studies. This mode of getting such lessons, I am happy to say, was not general, but was limited to a small minority of the class. As already stated, ours was the first freshman class which entered Hamilton College; starting when the institution itself started into existence, on a feeble foundation, in a part of the State then new and thinly inhabited, and under many discouragements to its maintaining a protracted and vigorous existence; but, like many a craft of questionable seaworthiness, under skilful and faithful pilotage, she made the port of her destination and the safe delivery of all on board. It is not, I trust, a vain boast to claim that no first freshman class of any American college, considering the amount of natural talents and factitious acquirements, and also, high and honorable parts well performed on life's theater, has made a more creditable exhibit. I was not so fortunate as to be found at our Commencement, but I discover from the catalogue, that only 17 graduated — a less number by some six or seven than was in the class in the sophomore and junior years. Whether or not the whole of them were present on the last examination, I do not recollect. They did not die a natural death before Commencement, or, if they did, their knell was not sounded in Hamilton Hall. How, or when, or why they slipped away I know not.

Our alma mater, at first timid, and partly concealed in the thicket, soon made her way out of the woods and found herself upon cleared ground, not entirely dependent upon Fort Stanwix, Oneida Castle and Sangerfield Huddle. The accommodations, for the first three years, were quite indifferent. Too many students were frequently crowded into one room, in which they lodged and studied their lessons. Most of the rooms did not well exclude the winter's cold or the summer's heat; and, at times, severely taxed their tenants' powers of endurance, insomuch that they were not heedless observers of the progress made in the erection of Hamilton Hall then under way.

The faculty, consisting of Dr. Backus, Professors Norton and Noyes, and Tutors Strong, Dean, Spaulding and Robinson, were gentlemen of great worth, and scholars of fine attainments, especially in the studies they were employed to teach; and, true to the interests of their pupils, were faithful in the discharge of their respective duties.

President Backus, besides his large literary stores, was a man of much wit and infinite humor; so much so that it seemed as if he could hardly carry on ordinary conversation without making exhibitions of those properties of his mind; and, by their timely and skilful use, he aroused attention and fastened the hearer's mind more firmly on the instruction sought to be conveyed. His sharp points, witty turns, and amusing illustrations, seasoned with good humor and enforced by appropriate anecdotes, made impressions not easily effaced, and fastened the instruction which they had aided to impart. Irony, satire, and sarcasm were not wholly excluded from the pulpit occupied by this excellent and able man. The last time I had the happiness to see him was in September 1816, while journeying in western New York, where I then lived. As I had been absent by permission from the Commencement exercises, he brought and presented my diploma; observing, as he did so, that Wealthy, meaning his daughter, then present, had fixed on the seal to make me remember her. Thanking him and her too, I said it was unnecessary for that purpose. Not long afterwards, I was saddened to learn the great loss, which the College and the country had sustained by the death of this good man.

Since the year last mentioned, I am without any personal knowledge of any of the members of the faculty, except Josiah Spalding, who, after studying the law in the State of New York, settled in the city of St. Louis in the State of Missouri, where he deservedly attained a high standing in his profession and practiced with much success till his death, in that place, some 20 years ago. His pure and upright life and his literary and legal attainments commanded the high respect of all to whom he was known.

Considering the inconveniences under which the students labored; the disturbed condition of the country then in the midst of a war, declared in opposition to the sentiments of a party at home, powerful for its wealth, intelligence and numbers; and whilst the nation was disturbed to its center by the intrigues of a foreign court, which had befriended and then sought to govern us, the students with much credit to themselves, were steadily and successfully engaged in the prosecution of their college studies, and although party heat was intense in the field of politics, they consumed only a very small portion of their time in party political discussions. The College was their sanctuary and protection against the storms raging without. When, however, the messengers returned with the treaty of peace, the students, one and all, hailed it with joyful demonstrations and the College halls were, forthwith, made brilliant with unwonted light. They, in common with the great body of the people, hailed with joy the return of peace, not stopping to enquire if even the first thing, for which the war had been set on foot, had been obtained from our enemy. Even now, we are sorry to say, if obtained, the history of the times shadows it forth very faintly, and shows, but too unmistakably, that we left off about where we began, only a great deal more in debt. True, the people raised their voices and proclaimed the result a glorious success, and many may have been taught to think it was so in fact.

It was hardly to be expected this College would be able to weather the stormy sea upon which she was launched; but a kind Providence seems to have stood by her in all her dangers, and may this guardianship be her lasting heritage.