|Chapter 13 Dickinson Students Address President Adams|
THE political pot boiled fiercely in Pennsylvania in its early years, and this was especially true of Carlisle. The public meeting of 1774 in protest against the Boston Port bill has already been mentioned. In 1787 there were two bloody riots at the center of the town over the adoption of the Constitution, with two burned in effigy Dr. Nisbet probably one of them. The following February there was "An address to the Minority of the late State Convention From Union Society." This minority had opposed the new Constitution. The "Union Society" must have been other than the college Literary Society, which was founded a year later. The address, too, was signed by "James Sterritt, Sec.", and no such name appears on the College rolls of the time. There were many local sympathizers with the Whisky Rebellion in 1794, and even when Washington appeared with the army on the march west to suppress this outbreak, the local population was much divided. To avoid strife, the trustees early forbade the discussion of political differences by students of the College.
None of these things, however, would call for mention in the story of the College but for an incident during the Presidency of John Adams. The actions of the French Government had greatly stirred the American people, and encouraging addresses were showered upon President Adams. An address of this character, from the students of the College, came into his hands through Senator Bingham, a college trustee. The address was as follows:
TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.
Sir: The students of Dickinson College, assembled again after the usual vacation embrace the earliest opportunity of making a public and explicit declaration of their sentiments, and resolutions at this important crisis. Beleiving that unanimity is of infinite importance to the citizens of these States and that the most unequivocal proofs of such unanimity
should now be given by the citizens at large; we the pupils of a seminary in which we are taught highly to prize our own government and all the blessings of liberty and law, feel it our indispensable duty to cast in our mite into the treasury of public sentiments.
It cannot be supposed that youths of our standing can be deeply versed in political disquisitions; yet we know what liberty means; we, can in some measure estimate the importance of national dignity and independence; and we cannot be ignorant of facts which are known to all the world.
We are sensible that we live under one of the most free and happy governments that has ever existed; and we also know, that we are indebted, under the smiles of Heaven, to the virtue and patriotism of our fathers, for the blessings we enjoy.
We trust that we inherit their spirit, and shall always imitate their noble example.
Confiding in the wisdom and integrity of our rulers, and trusting that their aim has ever been to preserve this country from any participation in the convulsions of Europe, we join with our fellow-Citizens in approving and applauding the measures that have been pursued to maintain a state of neutrality and peace.
But what do we hear, proclaimed by the highest authority? That a nation, whom we were taught from our earliest years to call our friends, intoxicated with their victories and apparently grasping at universal empire, says, "We shall no longer be a neutral power; that we must retract our complaints of their hostile measures and become in fact their tributaries, before they will admit our envoys to an audience." Such language and demands cannot fail to rouse the indignant spirit of Americans, and create an indissoluble union of all, both old and young, in the common cause.
The yielding of a single point in obedience to unjust and imperious requisitions, would, in our opinion, be to surrender our independence: for a tame submission to one insult would only invite a repetition; till we should at length become a most degraded people, and our name, as a nation, be blotted from the records of time.
While such terms of peace and reconciliation are urged by the minister of France, the organ of the Directory, as appear to our government to be inadmissible, and the depredations on our commerce still continue and increase, we conceive that to neglect the means of self-defence, would be highly criminal, and evidence a most abject spirit.
If there be any among us who would still plead the cause of France, and attempt to paralyse the efforts of our government, they ought to be esteemed our greatest enemies.
For our part, we reject with abhorrence every idea of submission to the will of a foreign power and shall cheerfully leave the pleasing walks of science, when the voice of our country calls, to repel every attack upon our rights, liberty and independence.
To you, Sir, we look up with confidence, as the patron of science, liberty and religion; rejoicing to find that in every thing which flows from your pen, you consider these as the choisest blessings of humanity which have an inseparable union, and without whose joint influence no society can be great, flourishing and happy. While we ardently pray that the American republic may always rise superior to her enemies, and transmit the pure principles of liberty to the latest ages we join at the same time with the millions of Americans in beseeching Heaven to bestow its choisest blessings on our beloved President.
One might look for a formal acknowledgment of such a letter, but could hardly expect a reply. However, there is a letter from the President, which is a real reply to the substance of the letters sent him. President Adams writes:
TO THE STUDENTS OF DICKINSON COLLEGE.
Gentlemen: I have received from the hand of one of your senators in Congress, Mr. Bingham, your public and explicit declaration of your sentiments and resolutions, at this important crisis, in an excellent address.
Although it ought not to be supposed, that young gentlemen of your standing should be deeply versed in political disquisitions, because your time has been occupied in the pursuit of the elements of science and literature in general, yet the feelings of nature are a sure guide in circumstances like the present.
I need not, however, make this apology for you; few addresses, if any, have appeared, more correct in principles better arranged and digested, more decent and moderate, better reasoned and supported, or more full, explicit and determined.
Since the date of your address, a fresh instance of the present spirit of a nation, or its government, whom you have been taught to call your friends, has been made public: two of your envoys have been ordered out of the republic Why? Answer this for yourselves my young friends. A third has been permitted or compelled to remain Why? to treat of loans, as preliminary to an audience, as the French government understands it to wait for further orders, as your envoy conceives. Has any sovereign of Europe ever dictated to your country the person she should send as ambassador? Did the monarch of France, or any other country, ever assume such a dictatorial power over the sovereignty of your country? Is the republic of the United States of America a fief of the republic of France? It is a question, whether even an equitable treaty, under such circumstances of indecency, insolence and tyranny, ought ever to be ratified by an independent nation there is however, no probability of any treaty, to bring this question to a decision.
If there are any who still plead the cause of France, and attempt to paralyse the efforts of your government, I agree with you, they ought to be esteemed our greatest enemies.
I hope that none of you, but such as feel a natural genius and disposition to martial exercise and exertions will ever be called from the pleasing walks of science to repel any attack upon your rights, liberties and independence.
When you look up to me, with confidence, as the patron of science, liberty and religion you melt my heart.
These are the choisest blessings of humanity;-they have an inseparable union; without their joint influence, no society can be great, flourishing or happy.
While I ardently pray that the American republic may always rise superior to her enemies, and transmit the purest principles of liberty to the latest ages, I beseech Heaven to bestow its choisest blessings on the governors and students of your College, and all other seminaries of learn- ing in America.
President Adams was the last Federalist President. The extreme actions of his administration, culminating in the Alien and Sedition Laws, probably sounded the death knell of his party. The execution of these laws was made the basis of effective attack on the Federalists, and Thomas Cooker, later to be Professor in the College, served a prison sentence under them. Who knows but that these many addresses encouraged the actions of Adams which caused his fall?
This student address to President Adams seems to, have been from the entire student body, though there were doubtless Anti-Federalists in the College, despite Nisbet's teaching of "high-toned Federal politics," of which Rush complained. The address was sent in the first flush of American protest against the practical demands of France that America accept France as her suzerain. Two years later, when the campaign was on to defeat Adams and elect Jefferson and Burr, the case might have been different. The college body would doubtless have divided, and might not have endorsed Adams so heartily.