|Chapter 12 The Private Life of Dr. Nisbet|
NISBET was such an outstanding figure in the life of the College, and lived under such strange conditions in Carlisle, that it seems well to recover in some measure the conditions of his private life.
He first lived at the Works, in July, 1785, and though driven out by the malaria, returned in a few months. Here he remained for about eight years, apparently well satisfied with a "comfortable house and garden." He does write late in his stay of the "foul air of the marsh," and his daily trips to the College in Liberty Alley were at times over muddy streets and roads almost impassable. However, during his latter years at the Works, he had a horse and carriage.
The trustees were to furnish a house as part of Nisbet's salary. He was, therefore, subject to removal at their will, and when they decided that he should move into Carlisle, he greatly regretted the change. In 1792 he wrote Rush that he was to be moved from his "convenient house and garden here, which perhaps may be coveted by some person who may have interest to obtain it, or it may be an object to a malicious person to see me turned out of it, and I know by experience what wretched lodgings I had in the town."
His fears were realized a year later, for he writes a friend: "The Trustees removed us from the Works to the town on the first day of the month [October, 1793] under cover of friendship, but they let the heat of June, July, August, and September be past, that the foul air of the marsh might have an opportunity of working its proper effects on us in the first place, which sets the nature of their friendship in a proper light. They now talk of draining the marsh, that the Works may be a healthful habitation to those whom the Leaders of the People delight to honour, now when I am out of the question. My wife is contented with the removal, as she is nearer the market and the shops, and can walk to church in a few minutes. We are very much confined at present, occupy-
ing only two rooms and a closet in a house possessed by another family; but we have hopes given us of getting General Irvine's house which is a good one, as soon as he removes to Philadelphia, the time of which must be very uncertain at present, as the disease [yellow fever] still continues and we have no appearance of rain as yet."
Whether he secured General Irvine's house and where he lived for the remaining ten years of his life is not certainly known. However, even before he left the Works he had bought two lots opposite the present campus on High Street for £13.10s, and in 1800 he bought an adjoining lot for $28.60 $64.51 for the three lots. These two purchases covered most of the frontage from the present Alumni Gymnasium to College Street. This property was sold after his death by Mrs. McCoskry, his younger daughter, for $1,000; and the greatly increased value shows that at least a modest house had been built, probably the one removed some years since to make room for the modern residence of Mrs. Abram Bosler. After 1799 he is on the tax-lists as owning a house, probably the one thus built, and he doubtless occupied it until his death in 1804. The lot was large enough to admit of both a "comfortable house and garden."
Nisbet may have been uncertain about his house, but he was always certain that he did not like Carlisle. As he described it, it was ill suited to its new responsibility of housing the College, and not very attractive for residence. It was, doubtless, in sorry contrast with the well-ordered Montrose of his Scotch home, but was probably a fairly good frontier town. Two early travelers give their views on the subject. Theophile Cazenove, in the journal of his travels through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, 1794, says of Carlisle that its "streets are wide and well laid out, not paved nor lighted yet. There are at present from 330 to 350 houses, about 100 of which are neatly built, and 2,400 inhabitants here. The inhabitants are generally Irish [Scotch-Irish probably meant], and a few Germans, who gradually are coming to live here, but the first inhabitants were all Irish."
Another traveler, Fortescue Cuming, in his "Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country," tells something of Carlisle as it was in January, 1807, thirteen years later than Cazenove. As he approached the town from Harrisburg, he says, "Dickinson College, a spacious stone building with a cupola, was directly before me, with the town of Carlisle on the left of it ... the whole having a very good effect on the approach." "Old West" was then being built, but was outwardly complete, and one acquainted with Carlisle will readily understand how this imposing building must have impressed a stranger as he approached from the hill, on the northeast. It was the one considerable structure in the town, except the Presbyterian Church, and there were no great trees to hide the view. Cuming spent one night in the town and reports: "Carlisle ... contains about three hundred houses of brick, stone, and wood.... The streets are wide and the footways are flagged or coarsely paved.... Dickinson College ... has a principal, three professors, and generally about eighty students. It has a philosophical apparatus and a library, containing about three thousand volumes. It has £4,000 in funded certificates.... On the whole it is esteemed a respectable seminary of learning." Cazenove's estimate of houses is greater than that of the later Cuming, and was doubtless excessive, as was also his estimate of 2,400 people in the town. Between the two visits, 1794 and 1808, the footways had been "flagged or coarsely paved."
However bad the material surroundings of Nisbet's life may have been, the civic conditions were probably worse; for Carlisle was twice the scene of bitter strife, even to riots and bloodshed, during the first ten years of his residence there. The Federalists and anti-Federalists, the friends and enemies of the new Constitution, came to blows on the old Carlisle Square in 1787. Nisbet took a decided stand on the question, and vigorously espoused the Federalist cause from the pulpit of the Presbyterian Church in Carlisle, as from his Montrose pulpit he had defended the Colonies. This
may have made him friends, but enemies also, and Montgomery writes Rush, "It is said ... that the Antis have now draped the effigy of Dr. Nisbet, notwithstanding the old gentleman is praying for them, that they may be cured of ignorance, barbarity and savage manners. This he does every Sunday, as it is uncertain what lengths these people may proceed." This was in 1787, when the adoption of the Constitution was an issue. Seven years later he narrowly escaped having his house attacked because of his position at the time of the Whisky Rebellion.
Nisbet naturally made enemies in such a divided community as Carlisle at this time. He was the friend of strong government, so greatly feared by many of the citizens, some of them leading men. In spite of this, however, his outstanding ability and character were such that he was called upon for various public services. He was, for example, the community preacher on the Fourth of July in 1787, just two years after his arrival in Carlisle. He received, the following day, a vote of thanks from those in charge of the services. A little later Nisbet and Davidson were appointed, with other citizens, to provide schools for those too poor to do so for their children.
Nisbet was also a prominent member of the Carlisle Library Company, organized in 1797, and was chairman of its original committee on rules. The fact that the company ceased to exist in 1806, two years after Nisbet's death, suggests that he may have been its chief driving force.
Nisbet apparently made few friends, for, as he said, he was "like a pelican in a wilderness." Even the trustees who ought to have been his friends seem to have stood aloof from him, and this troubled him.
Indeed, Nisbet was, with reason , suspicious of the trustees because of their concealment from him of the facts concerning the College. Some of his suspicions, however, must have been unfounded, must have been imaginary. In 1799 he writes judge Allison of them: "Few students have appeared as yet, and I believe that many means are used for sending
them elsewhere, in order to lay the blame on me." This suspicion of Nisbet must have been groundless, but he held it, for the same charge appears in his last letter to Rush, four years later, in 18o3, only a few weeks before his death. It is a long letter, too long for quotation, but it details events which must have profoundly affected his private life. The fact that he writes thus to Rush suggests that the two men had finally reached a better understanding. His letter was largely devoted to the financial questions in dispute between him and the trustees. They had offered him a case stated before the courts, but he feared this as two of the trustees were on the court to which the case might come. He therefore sought good legal advice. "If you could secure me a consultation in forma pauperis, for I am now a real pauper" he felt that it might be well.
Whether Rush secured him legal advice is immaterial, as nothing could have come of it; for only a month after he wrote the letter, Nisbet fell sick and three weeks later died, January 18, 1804, three days before his sixty-eighth birthday. As shown elsewhere, however, Nisbet's heirs secured settlement with the trustees for nearly $7,000, due the dead Principal, but the man for whose services it was secured enjoyed none of these fruits of his toil.
It had been agreed on his resignation, in October, 1785, that the family should be returned to Scotland, at college expense. They did not return, and Nisbet was reëlected in May, 1786, on the same terms as before. The trustee minutes show that they considered themselves in his debt for six months' salary when he resigned April to October, 1785. Whether this was ever paid is not stated in their records, but Nisbet's letter to Rush says that they paid him only $30 on that salary account, but later transferred it as a credit to themselves on his account after the reëlection! If this is the case, the poor man got absolutely no salary for thirteen months, nor anything for the proposed trip home. He was badly treated; no wonder that he asked Rush to secure him competent legal advice.
Disagreement as to the amount of salary in arrears was not all, probably not his chief trouble, for what he did get came irregularly, and was altogether uncertain. He had no regular and reliable income. In 1799, after fourteen years of service to the College, he writes, "I am at present without money and deeply in debt, which I never was before, so that I might decently like a good citizen, take the benefit of the Insolvent Act, which, however, I have not yet done." He probably never did it, for on his death, five years later, he had some property, both real and personal. The chief assets of his estate, however, were the large salary claims on both the College and the Presbyterian Church of Carlisle, for which he had preached once each Sabbath. The inventory of his personal property shows that he had some fine old furniture, probably brought from Scotland in 1785.
The Nisbets had four children, two sons and two daughters. Tom, the oldest, was just reaching manhood when they came to this country. His letter to Rush in 1785 shows that he was probably hasty of speech. Nisbet's biographer, Miller, says that he was dissipated and died without reformation shortly after his father, having never married. Another son, Alexander, was born in 1777 in Scotland, graduated from the College in 1794, and was for many years a city judge in Baltimore, and a railroad president. This son had a family of seven children, three sons and four daughters; the sons, however, all died in early life. Nisbet's older daughter, Mary, was the first of the children to marry. In 1790, she became the wife of William Turnbull, of Pittsburgh, but later of Baltimore. He was a native of Scotland; and the happy settlement of his daughter did much to reconcile Nisbet to his life in America. This daughter became the mother of nine children, four sons and five daughters. All of these children except one son were living as late as 1840, and occupying "various highly respectable positions," as reported by Miller. Her family continues to this day in like enviable position in Baltimore and elsewhere. Mrs. Turnbull survived her father about twenty years. The
younger daughter, Alison, in 1795 became the second wife of Dr. McCoskry, a physician of Carlisle, and one of the original trustees of the College, so that she was much younger than her husband. They had six children, three sons and three daughters. Two of the sons died early, but the third graduated from the College in 1824 and was for many years the Right Reverend Samuel McCoskry, the greatly distinguished Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. One of her daughters married Rev. Erskine Mason, D.D., of New York, son of President John M. Mason of the College, 1821-1824; another daughter married Charles D. Cleveland, Professor in the College, 1830-1832.
Nisbet had much cause for pleasure in his family, though otherwise he led a hard life. A great scholar, on the word of many reliable witnesses; a great teacher, on the scant testimony remaining from his students and the undoubted distinction of their careers, he was yet forced to live at times uncertain as to his home, without money, and weighed down with an unaccustomed and embarrassing load of debt, and, possibly worst of all, lonely and doubtful of his security in even these poor conditions. All this must have cut the taproot of zest for his work; yet, in spite of it all, he faced the hard conditions resolutely and fought a good fight to the end.
This end came unexpectedly, though he had been in poor health for some time. On January 1, 1804, he contracted a severe cold which aggravated his old symptoms, and, as previously noted, he died on the 18th. Notwithstanding the treatment he had received at the hands of the trustees, his death evoked from them, and, in fact, from the entire community, overwhelming evidence of their deep respect for the great man who had sojourned among them for so many years. All became mourners and multitudes attended his funeral, at which a fitting eulogy was delivered by Dr. Davidson, his co-laborer for nineteen years in both Church and College.
Two days after his death there was a meeting of the Board attended by eight trustees, the local members only,
at which it was decided to continue the work of the College on plans proposed by Dr. Davidson, and it was then "Resolved unanimously, That the Board feeling the deepest regret at the death of the Rev. Dr. Chas. Nisbet, late Principal of the College, recommend that each of the trustees, professors and students wear a scarf of black crepe on the left arm for the space of thirty days as a mark of respect to his memory."
Thus ended the official recognition of Nisbet's death. Rush would have had them do more. He wrote to Montgomery on February 9, 1804, "The death of Dr. Nisbet was expected in our city before your letter came to hand. He has carried out of our world an uncommon stock of many kind of knowledge. Few such men have lived and died in any country. I shall long, very long, remember with pleasure his last visit to Philadelphia, at which time he dined with me in company with Dr. Dwight of New Haven and Dr. Cooper of our State. His conversation was unusually instructing and brilliant, and his anecdotes full of original humor and satire. I hope the Trustees have done honor to his memory by a funeral sermon and by defraying the expenses of his interment. Who is to be his successor?"
Miller's biography says that the trustees would have erected a monument to his memory, but had not the means to do so. They possibly felt that they needed to be honest rather than generous with the meager funds at their disposal. They did nothing further in recognition of Nisbet's services to the College, but a suitable monument was finally placed over his grave in the "Old Graveyard," by his younger son, Judge Alexander Nisbet. On it was a Latin epitaph which has been ascribed to various persons, but most probably was composed by John M. Mason, fifth president of the College, 1821-1824. It follows on page 158 as translated, supposedly by one of his old pupils, Chief Justice John Bannister Gibson. Gibson pronounced it "a modest but faithful delineation of the qualities of Dr. Nisbet's mind and the virtues of his heart."
Kline's Carlisle Weekly Gazette, in its edition of Wednesday, January 25, 1804, following Nisbet's death said of him:
On Wednesday* last departed this life, the Rev'd. Dr. Charles Nesbit, Principal of Dickinson College, in the 68th year of his age. (A feeble sketch of the many virtues and excellencies of this great and good man, will, at present, only be attempted.)
Nature had lavishly bestowed on him every quality necessary to the completion of a finished scholar; a memory tenacious, almost beyond belief; a solid Judgment; and a correct Taste nor had nature lavished those qualities in vain; unwearied application and study, not often united to genius like his, had improved, to the utmost, every faculty of his mind.
He was among the best classic scholars of the age. With an incredible facility, he could repeat, all the beautiful and striking passages of the classic authors. The ease, with which, he acquired languages, afforded him, a new and never ending source, of learning and information, besides the learned and oriental languages, the modern languages of Europe, were, familiarly his own. His-mind was stored, with all the knowledge, books could afford. He was indeed a prodigy of learning, yet he was
* The 17th of the epitaph as here translated is clearly wrong. It should be the 18th.
modest and humble, no pedantic display, no fastidious exhibition of talents, nothing dogmatic or magisterial in his manner, or conversation. He instructed all around him, by the extent of his information, and delighted them, by the simple and unadorned manner, in which it was communicated.
He was ever, truly pious and devout, without austerity, and without superstition. As a Divine, the palm of knowledge was yielded to him by all. His discourses in the pulpit were solid, argumentative and perspicuous. The instruction, and not the applause of his hearers, was his great design. His Theological Lectures contain a more complete and perfect body of Divinity, than has yet appeared, in the World. As a Teacher, his Lectures opened a mine of Learning and Knowledge, communicated, in a manner, to attract the attention of the student, and to impress on his mind, the important subjects, of which he treated. It was not a mere technical jargon, but the discussion of the subject in a nice, masterly and animated manner, occasionally enlivening the driest topic, and most abstract question, with those happy strokes of true wit and genuine humour, so peculiar to himself. His pupils looked up to him, as a Being of a superior order, as one born of the Delight, Instruction and Improvement of Mankind. Their regard was not the cold respect of a scholar to his master, it rose to veneration. He considered them all as his children., they loved him as a father; and this veneration was not cast off, at the college door, but increases, as they advance in years, and become more capable of appreciating the value of his instructions.
In the endearing relations of Husband, Father and Master, he exhibited a bright example of true tenderness, affection and kindness, as a Friend and Neighbour, it will be difficult to supply his loss. His hand was ever open to relieve distress, and his heart ever dissolved at the woes of others; and his uncommon openess of temper, sincerity and ardency of expression, had on any occasion given momentary dissatisfaction, yet his pure integrity and universal benevolence reconciled all. To his breast malice was a stranger. He never lay down or rose from his pillow, with ill will, in his heart, to any of the human race.
As a companion ... where shall we see his like again? Never more shall we be delighted with his bright sallies of pure wit, his effusions of true and genuine humour, the lively anecdote, the smart repartee, the keen irony, the delicate, chaste rebuke, the pointed but never ill-tempered satire.
The simplicity of his manners and the innocence of his life were uncommon. In the common affairs, concerns and traffic of this world he was a very child.
Let it not be forgotten, that he possessed a sincere and ardent attachment to true liberty; that in his native country where the cause of America had but few friends, and at a time when the event of the contest with Britain appeared to the sanguine, uncertain. Tho' from his general
temper, averse to all political strife, and, unappalled by the surrounding danger, his tongue, as it ever did, uttered what his honest heart conceived. Conversant with every age and nation, and intimately acquainted with the nature of man, of liberty, such as best secures the freedom of the nation and the happiness of the individual. He was ever the firm friend and most zealous advocate.
It may, with justice and truth be said of him, in the words of his countryman, the incomparable Thompson,
But let us not mingle with our regrets, for such departed worth, too much selfishness: He was fitted for a better world, where grief cannot assail, nor sorrow ever enter.
Another American paper, of unknown name and place, said of him, "Dickinson College has suffered an immense loss.... Though an adept in verbal criticism, his acumen was directed not so much to words, as to things; to language, as to sentiment.... A memory singularly retentive ... a judgment singularly penetrating.... His imagination was lively and fertile, his understanding was equally acute and vigorous, and his erudition at once very deep and wonderfully diversified. His morals were unimpeached, his temper cheerful, his manners gentle and unassuming. As a Principal of a College, as a minister of the Gospel, as a true patriot, or a good man, 'quando ullum invenies parem?'"
This quotation appears in the preface to a monody in Nisbet's honor published in Edinburgh in 1804, its author doubtless one of his Edinburgh correspondents. The preface continues: "The author hoped some masterly hand would have paid a tribute of this nature to the memory of the Rev. Dr. Charles Nisbet, but, as no such mark of merited respect has been shown either in Great Britain or America, he makes
the following feeble attempt, in honor of learning, talent, and worth."
A few of the several hundred lines of the monody must here suffice: