|Chapter 10 Unfortunate Trustee Interference|
THE trustees allowed Nisbet and his Faculty little freedom of action, and the conditions under which he was compelled to work doubtless surprised him. In 1784, when the trustees were urging him to come to Carlisle, they wrote that they relied on his experience for the organization of the new institution, but he soon discovered that he was to have little influence in the organization of the College, and but little freedom in its administration.
The original charter forbade membership in the Board to the Principal or any Professor. The trustees accepted this with all possible implications, and by the time of Nisbet's reëlection, in May, 1786, they had developed a policy which never admitted him or any of his successors to their counsels. He was their hired man, to do their bidding, with little influence on general college procedure. Had Nisbet been a more tactful man, and had he better understood American life, he might have changed this; but he had neither qualification. During all his administration, and for many years after, the trustees were often at variance with the Principal and Faculty, to the great disadvantage of the College.
Nisbet did not understand the developing civilization about him. He had no capable friend to advise him. But for their early separation, Rush might possibly have been such a friend, though it is doubtful whether Rush was constitutionally able to help the erudite but inexperienced Nisbet in such an emergency. So it came to pass that the trustees neither collectively nor individually ever cooperated with the man they had so urgently sought as their Principal. On the contrary, they criticised him and gave him orders. The fact that the government of the College gradually fell into the hands of a few local trustees made matters worse. They took their responsibility all too seriously and met in
special meetings to consider the most trivial matters of college life. President Dwight of Yale once asked Atwater during his administration what was the trouble with Dickinson College, and on learning the facts said that fifty meetings of a Board of Trustees during a year would ruin any college.
Nisbet openly resented the conditions, and some of the trustees recognized the justice of his position. Armstrong writes Rush in 1790, "Temerity and strength of expression ... at ... times require our regret, but ... we who called him ... have provoked the imperfection we now censure; for could we do him and his family any tolerable degree of justice ... a- more peacable, or less troublesome person we could neither have expected nor wished for." While Armstrong was thus generally charitable in his judgment of the man they had brought into trouble, some others were not. The first college commencement was held in September, 1787, when Nisbet had not yet finally accepted the hard conditions of his life, and he apparently used this commencement to say such things about college conditions as to stir even the kindly Armstrong. A visitor in attendance at this first commencement on his return home writes Rush:
I returned last night late from Carlisle, after having spent a few days there very agreeably. I was present during the commencement and was much pleased with the exercises of the young gentlemen. There were nine graduates, four of whom appeared to have pretty considerable talents for public speaking. A stage was erected in the meeting house, upon which the trustees and professors sat, and the class of graduates ascended it in rotation as they exhibited. The house was much crowded and everybody seemed pleased until Dr. Nisbet had delivered his charge to the class. It was a laboured piece of composition, about as long as one of his sermons, but the ideas held forth in it will disgrace the Dr. and injure Dickinson College greatly. I wish I had time, before this opportunity (messenger) starts, to be very particular, but I have not, as he is now waiting for me. However, as the Dr. is to be in Phila. shortly, I must give you a few hints, as you were one of the subjects he pointed at. After he had given a little charge, in the usual manner, upon such occasions, he took notice of the situation of America., and pointed it out as a country almost void of honor, justice, or public faith; he then said that he was a
native of a country that was renowned for the most learning of any nation; and that he had been from his infancy upon the greatest intimacy with the first men in that country, all of whom he left to take charge of Dickinson College, which was at present a deserted institution, and that he alone was the main prop of it. The person he mentioned, who was most noisy, at first in its support, had now not only neglected it, but had become its persecutor and slanderer (I give you his own words). He then reflected upon some persons in Carlisle most grossly, maliciously and falsely, which I suppose you will be informed of as Mr. John Montgomery, Mr. King, Mr. Cooper and Mr. Black were present, with some others. The whole board of trustees condemn the piece. Old General Armstrong is very angry and Mr. Duncan, the lawyer, does not hesitate to speak of it, and abuse it in public company.
Kline's Carlisle Weekly Gazette in its issue of October 3 following this first commencement gives a full account of it, and while there were some curious features possibly, there is no hint that anything in bad taste had been spoken by Nisbet in his address to the class. One may wonder whether Rush's correspondent did not write Rush what the latter would probably like to hear, or at least magnify what Nisbet said. The Gazette said:
On Wednesday, the 26th ultimo was held the first Commencement for degrees in Dickinson College.
The Trustees, having obtained leave to use the Presbyterian Church on this occasion, the exercises with which a crowded assembly of ladies and gentlemen were very agreeably entertained, were exhibited in that large and elegant building.
At 10 o'clock in the morning, the Trustees, Professors & the several classes of students in College, proceeded in order from the College to the Church. When all had taken the places assigned them, the Principal introduced the business of the day by prayer. The following orations were then announced.
A salutatory oration, in Latin, on the advantages of learning, particularly of a public education, by Mr. John Bryson.
An oration on the excellency of moral science by Mr. John Boyse.
An oration on the importance and advantages of concord especially at the present crisis of the United States of America, by Mr. David M'Keehan.
An oration on taste, by Mr. Isaiah Blair.
An oration on the advantages of an accurate acquaintance with Latin and Greek classics, by Mr. Jonathan Walker.
After an intermission of two hours, the following exercises took place in the afternoon.
An oration on the pleasure and advantages of the study of history, by Mr. David Watts.
An oration on the nature of civil liberty, and evils of slavery and despotic power, by Mr. Steel Semple.
An oration on the various and wonderful powers and faculties of the human mind, by Mr. James Gettings.
The degree of Batchelor of Arts was then conferred by the Principal on the following young Gentlemen, viz: John Boyse, John Bryson, Robert Duncan, Isaiah Blair, Jonathan Walker, David Watts, David, M'Keehan, James Gettings and Steel Semple.
This was immediately followed by an address of the Principal to the graduates in which they were affectionately exhorted to prosecute their studies with zeal and diligence ... and to conduct themselves in future life in such a manner as might render them useful citizens, blessings of their country, and an honour to the College in which they were educated.
A valedictory oration in praise of science, and of the worthy patrons of literature, concluded with suitable addresses to the Trustees, Professors and Graduates, was pronounced by Mr. Robert Duncan.
The business of the day was concluded with prayer by the Principal.
The young gentlemen performed all these exercises with a propriety and spirit which did them great honour, reflected much credit on their teachers, and gave ground to hope that the sons of Dickinson College will at least equal in useful learning and talents, those of any other seminary.
The trustees at a distance seem to have been generally critical, and were possibly writing Rush on lines of his own thinking. King of Mercersburg was surprised that Nisbet would not cease his complaints, so injurious to the College and to his means of support. He had not yet learned that mere material consideration could not muzzle the outspoken Scot. Even the generally kindly Montgomery took a mild fling at the suffering stranger. He wrote at one time that he was glad that they could pay him part of the salary due him, as it would prevent his starving though not his complaining! He seemed unconscious of the fact that he was himself thus giving the very best grounds for all possible complaints.
Rush, however, was the most outspoken critic of them all, though he and Nisbet needed one another, and should
have been friends. Rush would have delighted in the continuance of the intellectual fellowship he surely had with Nisbet on his arrival in Philadelphia, and though estranged from him, he occasionally wrote Montgomery of his pleasure in chance meetings with Nisbet. Nisbet needed Rush as a friend and counsellor, and possibly even more for intellectual association, of which he had so little. The fact that these two men were thus estranged was a personal tragedy to each of them. Anything else, however, would have required that Rush be less imperious in his attitude toward his associates, or that Nisbet be less independent and less critical of faults and needs of both country and College. Yet if either of these conditions had been met, there would no longer have been a Rush or a Nisbet!
Individual trustees railed at Nisbet unofficially, but the Board took frequent official actions, not only without consulting him, but contrary to his known wishes. From the beginning they exercised to the full their legal right to regulate the internal life of the College, and a sorry mess they made of it. There were at the time no generally accepted principles for college government, and Rush, the most experienced of their number, urged them to keep a "watchful eye over their own authority and ... decide the government of the College." He, at least, was set on one thing, that Nisbet should have little authority.
It was a period of constitution-writing for states and nation, and the trustees were in no way behind their time in this for the College. Their records teem with reports of committees on "Scheme of Education" and "Rules and. Regulations," a half dozen or more in the first ten years. A beginning of this was made in August, 1785, while Nisbet was sick in bed, and many others followed. Only one of their sets of "Rules and Regulations" is recorded, and only one "Scheme of Education," both of the year 1795. We have also some of Nisbet's comments on their "Rules and Regulations," apparently the first ones of 1785. They were possibly not much worse than those in force elsewhere, but they were
bad enough; and Nisbet's comments show that the College would have had better "Rules" had the trustees listened to him.
The trustees ordered the entire college body to be present at the opening of work both morning and afternoon. Absence or lateness was fined from three to six pence. Student monitors called the roll twice daily and reported at a general college assize on Saturday morning, when all were required to be present to pay fines and have monitors appointed for the following week. Saturday absences cost the absentee, "one-eighth of a dollar," six pence. Noise to disturb the study of others, cursing, playing cards or dice or any unlawful game, a mean or wilful falsehood, associating with improper companions, or anything of a kindred kind could result in admonition and possible suspension or even expulsion. The commission of "any infamous crime" was to be followed by immediate expulsion.
Commencement was held the last Wednesday of September, and was followed by one month's vacation. There was another month of vacation beginning the first Monday of May. May and October were the vacation periods, and college exercises continued through the summer months. Travel conditions made it difficult to visit home for even these vacations. As previously noted, Taney reports that he went home but twice during his three and one-half years in College.
Nisbet's comments are sketchy and desultory, but extracts show that he would have had rules at least reasonable. His criticism on the requirement of prompt attendance is based largely on the absence of timepieces to govern the movements of pupils. It was the age of grandfather's clock, which was probably about the only keeper of time, and Nisbet says, "The first [Rule] is utterly unpracticable, as we have no certain standards to determine when it is eight or nine o'clock. If the ringing of the Court bell is proposed, that can be no certain standard, being rung on many different occasions. And how can the Trustees expect that a bell will
be rung every day by their order in their absence when they could not effect the opening of a door yesterday, during their sitting!" Nisbet says of the fine for lateness, "The fine of three pence seems to be too high"; and the fine for another "Rule" he calls "very high."
There is a suggestion in one of Rush's letters that he looked toward a self-governing college community, and Nisbet's comments on one of the "Rules" lends color to the suspicion that he had secured the incorporation of the idea into the "Rules" formulated in August, 1785, during the last trustee meeting attended by Rush.
If the masters have many causes to hear, they cannot spend sufficient time in teaching. If there were public trials every morning, and we would be seldom without them, all the classes would be kept from their business several hours. May not the Trustees think it better, and more simple, as well as profitable, that every master should govern his own class, by such rules as he thinks proper.
These strictures on the "Rules" appear as an undated sheet in the Rush papers, and were probably sent by Montgomery to Rush for his information; whereat Rush seems to have written, "If you are united in the Board and act firmly, we shall do well and all will end well." He writes again, "I hear that he [Nisbet] has destroyed all good in the College and ... become very popular with the boys at the expense of his brother professors. In this way Dr. W. [Witherspoon] played the tyrant ... at Princeton. I shall bear a strong testimony against this conduct.... My only hopes now are that God will change his heart or take him from us."
All these "Rules" had to do largely with student control but another kind of control was attempted in the way of an effort to modify Nisbet's methods of teaching, which was largely by lecture to be taken down in full by his students. April 17, 1794, the following trustee action was taken:
It has been represented to the Board that the Institution is likely to suffer very much by the complaints of many of the students who have
had their education here, on account of the labor of writing so great a number of lectures in the various branches of literature; that the dread of this circumstance has deterred many young men from coming to this place and occasioned their going to other colleges for completing their education; and that an ungenerous use has been made of the copies of these lectures in some instances, which have been communicated to others to be written out under care of private teachers, so to obviate the necessity, of attending any public seminary. In consequence of the above representation, the Board had a conference with the principal and professors and it was agreed to recommend it earnestly to them to lighten as much as possible the labors of writing on the part of the students without abridging the plan of education or the time of attendance in college for that purpose; to oblige them to make transcripts and such epitome of the sciences as they may judge essentially necessary and examine and lecture as often as they find most useful to their students under their care.
Along the same line, in June, 1798, the Board directed the Professor of History to give certain definite lectures on government.
All institutions for the promotion of knowledge ought to be essentially useful in propagating such just political principles as are best adapted to insure the happiness of society, and as this Board is impressed with the highest esteem and reverence for all genuinely republican institutions and forms of government which are exempt from licentiousness, and which temper Liberty with order, Resolved, that the Professor of History and Belles Lettres for the time being be enjoined to deliver annually to the classes to whom he lectures on History Four Lectures on the preEminence of the Republican Form of Government to all others, to display its virtues and energies, its moral and intellectual excellence, the grandeur and perfection of our Federal System and State Institutions, and to point out any practicable improvements, to exhibit the defects of the ancient Republics compared with the enlightenment of Representation which pervade the American Codes, and which now renders this form of Government commensurate with any extent of Territory.
Other actions, perhaps even more annoying, were taken at various times. They instructed the Principal as to the time he should devote to general supervision, and the Faculty how often they should meet. A permission granted them to substitute admonitions for fines in certain cases really showed how little freedom of action they had. The badgered feeling of Nisbet probably had cryptic utterance
when in a report on the College he said that "endeavors were used to carry into effect the 'Rules and Regulations,' made for its government." "Endeavors" was all he could promise; full enforcement was impossible. The trustees certainly suspected, probably knew, that their "Rules" were not being obeyed, for they appointed a committee "to visit the College quarterly or oftener, if they think proper and to report how far the officers of the Institution conform to its laws." It is not surprising that Nisbet reported that he had "more trouble with the old than with the young," and that he found the "trustees ignorant of their duties."
Such a condition of friction was sure to issue in collision, and it did finally on a relatively trivial matter. In September, 1798, at commencement time, a committee on "the manner of conducting the public examination of those students who are candidates for degrees" made a report which was adopted, "That hereafter no degree of Bachelor of Arts will be conferred on any student of Dickinson College, unless a certificate in the following form be first signed by the Faculty." Here follows a somewhat complicated form of academic certification, and a further certification that candidates "have respectively demeaned themselves well during the time they have been students of Dickinson College, and that they are persons of good character as far as we know the same." One year later the faculty recommendation for degrees ignored this form and made recommendation as follows: "The professors of Dickinson College recommend the following young gentlemen, To wit ... as prepared to receive the degree of A.B., they having gone through the usual course of studies, having demeaned themselves in general with propriety as to their moral conduct and having passed a public examination." The trustees thereupon "Resolved, That the Board cannot help expressing their dissatisfaction at the departure from the words prescribed in the resolution of the 28th Sept. ult., nevertheless agrees to receive the said certificate and to allow a mandamus to issue to confer the first degree in the
arts upon the above named young gentlemen agreeably to the charter."
The trustees then appointed a committee to revise the laws for the government of the College and the System of Education and to confer with the Faculty [an unusual instance of faculty coöperation being sought]. This committee reported in April, 1800, and advised change of the form of recommendation for degrees to conform with that used by the Faculty at the previous commencement. Thus the Board possibly "saved its face," but did not learn that trouble could be avoided by conference with the Faculty. Trustee attitude toward the Faculty was that of the suspicious schoolmaster toward his pupils, and there was never any of the generous give and take so necessary to successful coöperation of different bodies.
Reference to a Senior Class was first made as early as 1786 by Nisbet, when an early graduation was suggested by the trustees. For ten years thereafter, however, there was no clear division of the students into classes. There was no body of students set apart as candidates for graduation at the next commencement period. In 1796, however, the Board divided the students into four sections. There were three college classes Freshman, Junior and Senior, and the Grammar School. At the same time they ordered also that "no student at his first entrance into College shall be admitted into a higher class than the Junior."
The standard thus set was quite advanced for the time, but later action shows either that it was not honestly formulated or was based on no fixed policy. It was really only a fine gesture, on paper. In 1798, two years after the adoption of this paper course of study, the trustees either ordered or permitted a college course of only one year's work, and classes graduated in 1799, 18oo, and 1801, after only a single year's study. A class then graduated in 1803 after two years of college work.
The trustees appear to have taken many actions privately and by general agreement. This seems to have been one of
them. There is no trustee record of either the original action or its repeal, though a trustee advertisement of December, 1802, gives two years as the time required for the course. Most of the above facts appear only in a letter to Rush from Nisbet two months before the latter's death. Nisbet's letter is a statement on the reduction of his salary, which the trustees declared necessary because of the "decline of the Seminary." Nisbet, on the other hand, insists that the decline
... was brought about by their act for annual commencements, & restricting the time of study to one year, which diminished the tuition money by two-thirds, & took away more than three- fourths from the reputation of the seminary which declined apace. Mr. Thompson ... as well as Dr. Davidson & Mr. McCormick had been obliged to vote for this restriction (to a one-year course), on a combination of the students, encouraged by the Trustees, which took place on the 7th November 1798. On that day, having examined a class of students newly entered, I went to College to begin my lessons, but no students attended, and Mr. Thompson, who was in the secret, told me that I might have a conference with the students at two o'clock, but that they had unanimously resolved that they would leave the College unless the time of study was restricted to one year. On this I wrote to Mr. Montgomery, President of the Trustees, to call a meeting to support their authority against the combination of the students, as the Trustees had a little before decreed that every student should enter as a freshman, that next year he should rank as a junior, & the following year as a senior, having borne these appellations respectively, for a year each. But now it was determined that they should be freshmen, seniors & juniors at once & complete all their studies in one year. Mr. Montgomery told me that the matter was referred to the faculty, & on meeting with them I found that the Trustees had taken their measures so effectually that all my colleagues voted for the yearling system. It was truly a wonder that any seminary could exist, after such a degradation, for in the years, 1799, 1800, and 1801, there were yearling graduates & yearly commencements. The Trustees, indeed, repealed their favorite act for yearly commencement but they did it privately, & as I only learned the repeal from a confidant of the Trustees, we took the liberty of detaining those students who had entered in November 1801 till September 1803 when we had our last commencement.
The College was evidently in the hands of men who knew little of education and who administered on no fixed policy.
They sadly needed the counsel of the "Old General" Armstrong, who had died in 1793. Despite their brave pronouncement of a three-year course in 1796, there were three "yearling" classes, 1799-1801, the entire College, new at the opening of the year, completing the course at its close! The College declined, of course, in every way, and Nisbet was unsparing in his comments on the resulting conditions. Apart from the material folly of their course, he accused the trustees of educational quackery, of attempts to deceive the public and the young men coming to the College, and of pandering to popular ignorance instead of maintaining respectable standards.
Samuel Miller, his biographer, reports somewhat fully Nisbet's comments on the subject before the students of the College. "You have studied at a time when the most false and absurd opinions concerning learning have been current, prevalent, and even rampant ... opinions which suppose that a liberal education may be obtained in a very little time ... that education may be completed in ... a year; that two years is too long, and that a great part of the time of education ought to be allotted to amusement, etc." Miller also reports that in his last address to the students Nisbet said, "While this seminary continues to exist, though in degraded state, when compared with others, we shall think it our duty to do all that our circumstances permit.... The teachers of youth among us, owing to the disgraceful subjection in which they are placed, cannot do what they would for the improvement of their pupils ... to promise to do as much in one or two years, as other seminaries can do in three or four, is undertaking an impossibility. Men of learning and experience would disdain to use the language of quacks and imposters.... But when it is imposed on them by others, without their consent, their situation is singularly calamitous and their circumstances make them resemble a sect under persecution. But ... the teachers of youth must be contented to do what they can, though they have it not in their power to do what they would." Some
governors of seminaries have appraised "the labors of learned men by the standard of mechanics and day laborers, and imagined that the education of youth could be conducted on agricultural and mechanical principles" and have for- gotten that education "depends wholly on the will and in- clination of the student, whether he will give ... attention or not." When such opinions prevail, "It is impossible that learning should prosper.... The human mind ... is not a mere passive subject, like arable land, wood, or metal, which can make no resistance ... but it is a spiritual substance, endued with understanding and will, the former, perhaps, very weak, and the latter very strong and obstinate.... It sometimes requires a long time to excite the attention of youth.... No one will learn anything against his will.... Those who imagine that a liberal education may be obtained in a year or two, do not seem to consider this, but to suppose that scholars will as readily receive instruction as the earth yields to the ploughshare, or the hot iron to the stroke of the hammer.... Many youthful minds resist instruction for a considerable time, and occupy themselves with any trifles ... who, nevertheless, may afterwards be awakened to attention and be successful, and, in some cases, even highly successful in the acquisition of knowledge.... We must follow nature; we cannot contradict or control it.... Hence we may see the absurdity and folly of all short roads to learning. They all proceed on false principles and must end in miserable disappointment."
No member of any of these three yearling classes, 1799-1801, appears to have achieved distinction of any kind. There seems to be a sudden and sharp let-down in the character of the men who graduated. No other three classes of Nisbet's time could match the drabness of the record of these three.
As Samson shorn of his strength was forced to grind at the mills of the Philistine, so Nisbet robbed of opportunity to do his best took the treadmill course the trustees imposed. The same trustee hectoring and blundering awaited Nisbet's
successors in turn. Even as late as Atwater's administration the trustees required the "Principal and each professor to make report each Saturday in writing to the Secretary of the Board, personally delivered or left at his home, of all delinquents and absentees not satisfactorily accounted for to the principal or professors in whose class the delinquency takes place and in case the delinquent had been proceeded against before the faculty to report the judgment of the faculty thereon and how far the sentence has been enforced. If any penalty, suspension or other punishment has been directed and adjudged, the principal and each professor to furnish the secretary a correct list on the first Saturday thereafter of the class or classes in his department." Finally conditions became unbearable. The entire Faculty resigned in 1815 and the College was closed one year later.
A recent writer seems not to understand why the first fifty years of the College were years of anarchy, while the later years were orderly. The answer is easy; the change of charter in 1834 gave the college Faculty authority, made it responsible for college government, and respectable before the student body; and thereafter the conditions of college life were altogether different.
Fifty years of nagging uncertainty in the administration of the College seemed necessary to show that there was a better way, which was finally found and incorporated in the charter. This long delay in finding the better way may be cause for regret, but hardly for surprise. It has taken many generations for governments of nations to learn that better results can be secured about the council table than of the old ways, and possibly all colleges not in any Dickinson alone, may be congratulated on having learned the lesson at all.