|Chapter 11 Dickinson's Early Alumni|
WHILE Dr. Nisbet's work was done under extremely bad material conditions and with very limited means, the resulting early alumni of the College attained an amazing standing. Fortunately, one of Nisbet's private letters of 1791, to his friend Judge Allison of Pittsburgh, gives his own picture of the College, and shows how he deplored the conditions under which he was compelled to work. He says:
I would wish to say nothing of our infant seminary here, being hardly worth mentioning, unless I were afraid that you would complain of me for the omission.... I found only a grammar master and a teacher of mathematics here on my arrival, and those are still obliged to keep their classes open in the manner of schools, for the purpose of receiving students at all times.
Dr. Davidson teaches Geography, Chronology, English Grammar, the Elements of Oratory, History, as well as Astronomy, by exercise and examination. But, as on a change of masters he has got Natural Philosophy added to his department, he now reads short lectures on all these subjects, in such a manner as can be done to those who only remain at college for two years, and some of them not so much. My occupation is to read lectures on Logic, Metaphysics, and Moral Philosophy, to which I premise a short account of the Greek and Latin Classics; a course of lectures on the History of Philosophy, and another on Criticism; and sometimes explain a classic critically in the beginning, before my class is fully assembled. I oblige my students to write out all the lessons, ad longum, at least enjoin them to do so, that as they have not time to read, they may at least acquire a few ideas; and Dr. Davidson has lately conformed to this custom.
We have a sort of four classes; tho' as most of our students are at their own disposal, they attend several at the same time. You may be sure that all our lectures are very imperfect, but we are yet in the day of small things. Our students undergo an examination for seven days, and perform a public exercise before they receive a degree; and we endeavor to do as much for them as their short time will admit. I have only mentioned this seminary for your own private satisfaction, as I would not wish it to be known in Scotland what poor doings we are about in America.
His early reports showed the small beginning and many needs of the College, while later statements indicated how
little had yet been done to supply them and to give the College opportunity to grow, at the same time showing also his own disappointment at the outcome. He worked, as best he could, actually "making brick without straw." Any man would have been discouraged by such conditions, but it is amazing that a man like Nisbet could endure at all the conditions under which he was compelled to work, and win real victory out of apparent defeat.
In spite of discouraging conditions, the College was doing remarkable work in preparing men for positions of high, service, and the distinction of Dickinson's alumni has been widely recognized. Isaac Sharpless, President of Haverford, and a recognized authority on Pennsylvania's biography, once asked the President of Dickinson College how the eminence of Dickinson's graduates could be explained. The Cyclopedia of Education, edited by Paul Munro of Columbia University, says: "The record of Dickinson's alumni is remarkable. With Princeton and Bowdoin, Dickinson is the only other American college possessing the distinction of having graduated in arts both a President of the United States and a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The list of other Federal judges, of members of state judiciaries, and of governors of states is surprisingly long, while it is doubtful if any educational institution of a similar size has furnished to its country as many as nine cabinet officers, ten members of the highest legislative body and fifty members of the Lower House. In addition, the Legislature of Pennsylvania began very early to contain a large number of Dickinson graduates." This distinction appeared in the early years, and it is doubtful whether any period of the College, or of any college, for that matter, has graduated a larger proportion of distinguished men, than did Dickinson under harassed and discouraged Charles Nisbet.
Early colleges were generally founded by religious bodies, openly in most cases and indirectly by the Presbyterians in the case of Dickinson, especially to train preachers. It might be expected, therefore, that the Presbyterian pulpit
would be greatly enriched by Dickinson's product, and such was the case. A two-volume Centennial Memorial of the Presbytery of Carlisle abounds in tributes to Dickinson trained pastors and educators. The remarkable thing is that so many became famous in other fields. Only thirteen classes graduated during Nisbet's administration, but these classes furnished eight principals of academies, three college professors, and five college presidents; one state governor, three members of state cabinets, and nine members of state legislatures; five judges of lower state courts and seven judges of higher state courts; four United States judges, one being Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court; three United States Cabinet members; one foreign minister the first one to go to Russia; seven members of the National House and four United States senators; sixteen educators and forty-four men in prominent public service. Sixty in all of the alumni attained distinction nearly five per class graduated.
The Class of 1790 furnished a president for Ohio University; that of 1794, a president for each of the following, Jefferson, St. John's, and Washington Colleges; and in 1795, another president for Washington College. Ninian Edwards, of the Class of 1792, is little known to general history, though a recent writer says that he almost ruled Illinois in its early years. Edwards was a "member of the Legislature of Kentucky, 1795; admitted to the bar, 1798; Judge of the Circuit Court, 1803-6; Judge of the Court of Appeals, 1806-8; Chief Justice of Kentucky, 1809-18; United States Senator from Illinois, 1818-24; Governor of Illinois 1826-30." He died three years later, only fifty-eight years of age.
Roger Brooke Taney, of the Class of 1795, was Nisbet's most distinguished pupil. He became a member of both houses of the Maryland Legislature, Attorney General of Maryland, United States Attorney General, Secretary of the Treasury, and then was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States for his remaining twenty-eight years, 1836-1864. In this position he had two distinguished
Dickinson associates in high places, a trinity without precedent in our national history. Robert Cooper Grier of the Class of 1812 was his Associate Justice for eighteen years, continuing to serve as Justice six years after Taney's death; and James Buchanan of the Class of 1809 was President of the United States, 1857-1861, when both Taney and Grier were on the bench of the highest court of the country.
Fifty-seven of the men of Nisbet's time entered the ministry, and many of them rendered distinguished service in the work of the Church on our expanding frontiers. A good example of the work they did is that of Matthew Brown, who has left such an interesting account of his old college Principal. Brown was pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Mifflin and Lost Creek, 1801-1805; was first president of Washington College, 1806; and became president of Jefferson College, 1822. He received honorary degrees from Princeton and Hamilton College. Of the same class with Brown, Henry Lyon Davis was vice-principal and teacher of mathematics in St. Mary's County, Maryland, vice-president and professor of mathematics in St. John's College, and later its president. In this same Class of 1794, selected almost at random from among the classes, in addition to Brown and Davis, were three other ministers and four physicians; then came Callender Irvine, Superintendent of United States Military Stores by appointment of President Jefferson; Alexander Nisbet, a judge in Baltimore and railroad president, and William Noland, Commissioner of Public Buildings, Washington.
In addition to the already named, in every class but two of the first ten classes graduated under Nisbet, there was at least one man distinguished in civil life, not to mention educators and preachers. These two classes are those of 1788 and 1791; and no classes graduated in 1793 and 1796. In the class of 1787 was Jonathan Walker, judge of the United States District Court; in that of 1789 was Charles Huston of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania; in 1790 was Francis Dunlevy, Judge in Virginia; in 1792 was Isaac
Wayne, son of General Anthony Wayne, and Member of Congress; in 1794 was Jesse Wharton, Member of Congress and United States Senator; in 1795 was William Creighton, Secretary of State in Ohio, Member of Congress, and United States Senator; in 1797 was Henry M. Ridgeley, Secretary of State in Delaware, Member of Congress, and United States Senator; and in 1798 was John Bannister Gibson, probably the most distinguished Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Was it accidental that no such men of distinction are found in any of the classes from 1798 to 1802 the period of "yearling" graduates, as Nisbet called them? Those who graduated during this period had only one year's college work, and it is probable that they paid the penalty for the folly of the trustees who planned it. They were not exposed long enough to the erudition and educational devotion of the learned Scot!
Nisbet, during his presidency, surely begot a virile progeny, and could he have seen of the travail of his soul, he would have been satisfied. As Taney said of him, as a teacher he tried to train men to think for themselves, and he seems to have succeeded.