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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1823 Letter

Farrand Northrop Benedict

Delivered: 1873

I thank you for your flattering invitation to thus meet you on this festive occasion. It is an honor I appreciate, although so large a share of it is due to time only, and age. These, indeed, are worthy of all respect. They constitute not only a necessary function in the dynamics of nature; but they invest with an interest, not otherwise its own, every object of sense and contemplation. The mountain crag is viewed with emotion from the impress of its age in the moss that covers it and the fossil remains of past eons imbedded within it. Even our alma mater, within the memory of her early sons who still survive, has become venerable for her years. In this radical and progressive age, in which decades are more crowded with events than centuries formerly were, and the past is soon forgotten in the excitements of the present; institutions, if they have not already receded to their vanishing limits, are soon contemplated as old.

It is now four years more than half a century since the members of the Class of 1823,  which I have the honor to represent, began their tutelage and their frolics within these venerable halls. The institution was young, as well as the pupils; her oldest sons having completed only the fifth year of their academic majorities. Those of us who survive the ravages of this half century, and to whom, from the experiences of life and the infirmities of age, the visions of the future have ceased to be alluring, revert with singular pleasure to the scenes of those early days. But this is not the time to indulge in these emotional recollections, for few indeed are left to enjoy them. But to all the alumni of Hamilton College, whether old or young, and to all her friends, the study of this epoch in her history can never cease to be instructive and interesting.

Waiving, therefore, personal recollections, and those of fleeting manners and customs, I propose to glance for a moment at some of the circumstances and conditions whereby the College has gained her high position as a conservative and progressive institution. These are embraced chiefly in two trying crises — that which she entered at the time of her birth, and that of her transition from the quiet period of the past to the active and turbulent present.

The first of these periods is replete with interest. Although embracing little more than a decade, it reveals to the curious observer the organic life and distinctive character of the College. Ex ungue leonem. In this respect it harmonizes with the analogies of nature. The future oak is revealed by the acorn and the sapling; the vegetable, by its flowers in the early period of its bloom; and even the complicated and innumerable curves of the imagination in nature are determinable from the infinitely small elements of their origins. First then of all, for distinctive character we must seek the semina rerum.

Hamilton College was a natural development of Puritanic Anglo-Saxon life. The course of study on which she began her work was substantially that of Yale. This was among the best products of the kind of New England culture, and it fully met the intellectual demands of that age. Indeed, meager as this may now appear, its complete mastery by the graduates of these more enlightened days would give a growth and discipline which is rarely attained, even with the acknowledged advantages of present broad and improved courses. I say this, not to deprecate the latter, but rather to give due credit to the former.

Hamilton was fortunate also in her geographical location. This was in singular harmony with the inherited endowment above alluded to. Escaping the distractions and countervailing influences of the city, and the already fixed habits and comparative effeminacy of a densely populated rural district, she wisely chose her seat on this charming hill, in a region fresh from nature and barbarism.

With the exception of the central and western portions of the State of New York, sparsely dotted with primitive settlements not yet 10 years old, a wild solitude spread westwardly of her with no limit but the shores of the Pacific. This was then the most western seat of liberal culture. Primary schools and academies, even then, were sufficiently numerous and efficient to meet the wants of those sturdy and intelligent pioneers. Here was a field for her to cultivate of virgin soil and of almost limitless extent. The unparalleled increase of an acute and homogeneous population inspired her hopes and stimulated her energies.

 The students who resorted to these halls, with rare exceptions, had been reared in the school of industry. They had learned that labor, whether in the field, the shop, or the study, was the necessary and honorable lot of man. Under such impelling and inspiring circumstances, our alma mater began and prosecuted her work with a deep sense of the significance of her mission.

Her corporate body was one of strength and ability, embracing such names as Miller, Kirkland, Platt, Norton, Lansing, Snowden, and Smith — men eminent for their deservedly high position, and wisely active in their efforts to promote the interests of the infant institution entrusted to their care. The president and professors, whose memories I cherish with reverence and affection, were able and efficient in their several departments. They were choice specimens of the conservatism of the age and of New England culture. In their genial sympathies, the amplitude of their general knowledge, their zeal in their several callings, and their devotion to the cause of sound learning and human progress, they would have done honor to the academic chair even of the present time. I am forced, however, to admit that their geniality was not a striking characteristic in the estimation of their fast pupils 50 or 6- years ago — for the boys then were fast, if alma mater was not.

But we are all slower now, for a half-century has eliminated a redundancy both of velocity and momentum. We can now retrospect through a clearer and less distorting medium. The solicitude and affection of President Davis are now apparent through his commanding and almost unapproachable presence, and his sincerity is not obscured by his courtly and politic manners. "Uncle Tid" (since and elsewhere known as Professor Strong), whom we looked upon as the incarnation of parallelopipedons, imaginary surds, and "the ghosts of departed quantities," was admired and loved as a man of broad culture, deep attachment, and a genial heart.

These brief allusions to the ancient annals of Hamilton College are sufficient to show that, in her organic life, surroundings, and earliest developments, she was distinctively conservative. They show that her aim was the highest moral and intellectual culture then attainable, through means and agencies that wisdom of the past had furnished and sanctioned.

During a few succeeding years, and including those in which the Class of 1823 enjoyed the privilege of her instruction, the College increased steadily in favor and efficiency. These were years of progress, without shocks, and of hard work without noise. The faculty members were indefatigable in their efforts to adopt the most suitable customs, to establish safe precedents, to strengthen the system of salutary discipline, and to elevate the standard of scholarship. In short (as if they prophetically knew that their time was short) they made haste to endow her with those attributes of the conservatism of an age that was about to expire.

This radical period was ushered in by a general sense of uneasiness in the public mind; by a restless anxiety or change; by a disregard of prescriptive wisdom, authority, and law; and in an irrational confidence in present inspiration. These sentiments and feelings soon manifested themselves in distinct but protean forms. In some sections they assumed the form of monitorial schools; in others, of a demand to exclude from the curriculum the department of the exact sciences, retaining only English and polite literature; in others to restrict the course of study to the practical business and arts of life ; in others to lower the standard of scholarship, and thus to multiply the undeserving recipients of baccalaureate degrees; in others to open the halls of colleges and professional schools for the coeducation of the sexes ; in others to banish all undergraduate honors and distinction ; in others to replace a necessary and determinate course, which the wisdom of ages had established, for the optional and variable.

I do not here necessarily mean that any one or all in this category of radical demands may not be comparatively harmless or even desirable, under the gradual unfolding of new circumstances and wants, and in new conditions of time and place. The single point contemplated is not so much the character of the object as the mode of its creation or change. The principle contended for is equally opposed to its sudden eradication — even as an acknowledged existing evil. It requires only conformity to the analogies of nature, where the compensations and adjustments are effected gently, and the cataclysms, where ruin is apparently intended, by violence.

Hamilton College, located on our extreme western border, was among the first of our institutions to receive the shock; for popular agitations, true to nature in planetary movement, proceed from the west. She was startled from her conservative slumber by a popular clamor for the sacrifice of her treasures of ancient classical literature; but met the demand in a spirit consistent with her origin and purposes. She refused to close her eyes upon the wisdom of past ages, to surrender her identity or voluntarily to give up her life. Life was nothing to her without this vital Greek and Roman element, and the struggle was a desperate one. It would be interesting to follow in detail the steps of this conflict, but time permits me only to say that the result is victory — a victory of which her sons and all friends of sound learning have reason to be proud, and for which they are bound to be grateful. She passed through this crisis in her history not only with life, but with brighter hopes and renovated powers.

The College, on emerging from this conflict, found herself translated from an old to a new world. She had passed from an era of repose to one of agitation. In short, she awoke to the consciousness that indeed "the nineteenth century was upon her." To reconcile conservatism and radicalism and bring them into harmonious rather than conflicting action, like the poles of a magnet or the centripetal and centrifugal forces of nature, was now the problem and mission of the age. Its condition was to recognize in the intellectual, as well as in the material world, the principles of developments by insensible degrees and organic growth. Its demand was to subject these developments, in all their forms of manifestation, to the exacting law of conservatism, and to make provision for changes of thought and of action, of whatever extent or form, and of progress, whether constant or variable, under a rigid and strictly conservative formula. Difficult as this is to announce, it is much more difficult to solve; and its solution at best can only be progressive and approximate.

Institutions founded since the active era began, or very shortly before, were specially liable to err on this grave question. Some of these, with little or none of the culture and spirit of the past age, closed their eyes upon its life, and yielded to the activities and uncertain inspirations of the present. Some, on the contrary, of much older establishment, under influences inverse to these, may have reached results directly opposite, and possibly, equally erroneous and pernicious. The misfortune was, that the former had lived a period too short and the latter too long, in that age of deficient movement, to be suitably prepared and fortified for the exigencies of the succeeding one in which the movement was excessive.

Our alma mater had the rare felicity, in my judgment, to escape both these dangers. She sailed without harm near enough to the rocks of Scylla to keep out of the vortex of Charybdis. She had been in a safe harbor just long enough to ship ballast, and not sufficiently long to overload, for the rough sea ahead. In short, without figure, she knew (for so she taught her boys 50 years ago) that there was a conservatism not only of rest but of motion, however much varied by known or determinate laws. Her habits of thought and action were firmly established, but still they were not so inflexible as to forbid their being modified by the reasonable demands of a more active and progressive age. Thus qualified, she entered upon the new era, and began her life work — a solution of the problem above announced. It would be grateful to me to show how fully Hamilton College, after the lapse of half a century, has satisfied the conditions of a conservatively progressive institution. But this is impossible within the narrow limits assigned me.

It is gratifying to the older alumni, especially so to the veteran remnant of Class of 1823 now here on their semi-centennial pilgrimage, to witness the expanded and increased activities and powers of their alma mater, and at the same time to recognize so clearly her ancient identity. It is with filial notions that they see the same college in its amplitude under North, Fisher, and its present eminent executive head, as that in the days of their youth under Backus and Davis.

To the younger alumni I owe an apology, if not indeed a submissive peccavi to the faculty. They meet us here with reasonable curiosity to know something of college life along half-century ago. They enquire what there could have been to learn — what was the manner, and what the degree of intelligence of pupils and teachers in this wild region and in that benighted age.

Qui teneant (nam inculta videt) homines feraene.

As it is impossible at this time to enter upon this most agreeable theme, I can only hope that this will be done by your next more considerate annalist.

In conclusion, let me say to all my brethren that we have a good mother, and we should love her — honorable and we should reverence her — conservative, and we should trust her — progressive, and we should admire her. Her sons yield to infirmity and decay — but her comeliness and vigor increase with her years. Her sons die, but she lives — and "let her live and not die, and let not men be few."