|Chapter 14 Robert Davidson 1804-1809. |
DR. NISBET was gone. The king was dead, and there was no heir apparent. The Faculty continued with one of its members to superintend the College. Two days after Nisbet's death the trustees met and received communication from Dr. Davidson. "It was resolved that the Plan of Studies as recommended in his statement pursued until otherwise directed." The next meeting was held three months later, April 12, 1804, when it was "agreed that Dr. Davidson shall have the superintendence of it [the College] and shall call and preside in the Faculty," and that a committee of ten visitors should "attend the Quarterly Examination, consult with Dr. Davidson and the other Professors respecting the mode of conducting the College and to render them any assistance for the promotion of order." The salary of each of the three Professors Davidson, McCormick., and Borland was fixed at $400 per year, "to commence from the 1st day of January last past," a total of $1,200, the same as Nisbet's salary alone prior to 1801.
These were the only actions of the time and Davidson was never formally chosen Principal, though referred to as such in later trustee records. The trustees may have been willing to do without a Principal for a while to live within their income, but there seems never to have been any purpose to make Davidson the Principal. Even Rush, Davidson's warm friend, wrote Montgomery in June, "I am glad to hear you do not purpose to elect a successor to Dr. Nisbet immediately. Dr. Davidson is equal to all the duties of a Principal, and he deserves well of the Institution. He can for a while fill Dr. Nisbet's place with his present salary."
The serious matter, however, was not any informality of Davidson's appointment, but the fact that he could not fill Nisbet's place. Davidson did fairly well under the circumstances, the man and the conditions considered. But the
conditions were difficult, and he was now called upon for service in the College for which he was not especially fitted. He was primarily a preacher and a church administrator, and but secondarily a teacher, and with seemingly little taste or fitness for college administration. The preacher and the teacher were then very often combined, and so it was with Davidson; but when it seemed wise to cease one of his activities, probably on account of health, he dropped his work as educator and gave his last three years to his first love, the pastorate of a church, in which he rendered always acceptable, even distinguished, service.
Robert Davidson was born in Elkton, Maryland, in 1750, graduated at the College of Philadelphia in 1771, taught a short time in the academy at Newark, Delaware, was licensed to preach in 1772, ordained shortly thereafter, and became assistant pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. He also became instructor in the College of Philadelphia, and was soon advanced to the professorship of history. These two positions he held for about eleven years. On April 27, 1785, he became pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Carlisle, and so continued till his death, December 13, 1812.
It seems probable that he came to Carlisle expecting to become a member of the Dickinson Faculty, for Rush and Montgomery had so planned, and Davidson was assistant pastor of Rush's church in Philadelphia. Rush wrote the Board for its meeting in June, 1785, strongly urging Davidson's election. "I wish much to see him occupy a Professor's chair among us.... His habits and reputation as a professor in the University of Philadelphia will add greatly to the credit of our infant seminary. [His subjects] are so familiar to him that ... he could favor us ... for three or four months in the year without detracting in the least from his duties to his congregation." He was not elected at this June meeting, but Rush was present at the later August meeting, at which he was elected.
In the meantime, July 4, Dr. Nisbet had arrived in
Carlisle, and later shared the duties of Davidson's pulpit after the latter undertook college work, the pastoral work being done by Davidson alone. On Nisbet's resignation, in October, 1786, Davidson was made Acting Principal, and was urged by a few for the vacant principalship, to which, however, Nisbet was himself reëlected the following May. Davidson, as the popular pastor of the leading church for many years, doubtless became the outstanding member of the Faculty, and, after the death of Nisbet in 1804, he served as Acting Principal until September, 1809, when, on Atwater's arrival, he resigned all connection with the college Faculty and shortly thereafter became a trustee.
Davidson's work in the College is not easy to estimate, though he served it for twenty-four years, as long as any other man till Charles F. Himes retired in 1896 after a service of thirty-one years. Davidson was no letter writer, to tell something of his real self, as were Nisbet before him and Atwater after him, and no biography of him has ever been written. Rush was his friend, but only one letter from Davidson on college affairs is found in the Rush collection; and this in 1808, just before the close of his college connection. In this solitary letter, written about the election of a man to succeed him at the head of the College, he wrote that he did not see how a new man's salary could be paid, unless there should follow a large addition of students, and his judgment proved correct. He adds just one personal word, "Having now a fine son to provide for I would be willing still to continue a professor, as formerly." This "fine son" was his only child.
Davidson was a leader in the Presbyterian Church, and many of its publications recognize this fact. They say little on his college relation, however, beyond perfunctory reference to his "long and faithful service" thereto. Some of the more intimate facts of his life are found in a brief epitome, furnished by his son for Sprague's "Annals of the American Pulpit." This son, Robert Davidson, Jr., D.D., says of his father, "While a student of Divinity, he was seized with a
dangerous illness, at a farm house in the country, and owed his life to the assiduous care and kind nursing of a daughter of his host. She became so much attached to her patient, that, upon his recovery, he ascertained that there was but one way in which he could repay her. Such was his gratitude, and such his nice sense of honor, that, finding her happiness seriously involved, he married her, although she was older than himself, had not the slightest pretensions to beauty, and moved in an humble sphere of life. She made him, however, for over thirty years, an excellent and devoted wife. She came to a tragical end, being killed by the overturning of a carriage." This first wife, Abigail Davidson, died in 1806, and she lies buried in Carlisle's "Old Graveyard," by the side of the younger Davidson's mother. On April 30, 1807, Davidson married the daughter of John Montgomery, thirty-one years his junior, who died March 30, 1809, on the birth of a second son, as is recorded on her tomb in the same cemetery. The following year, April 17, 1810, he took to wife Jane Harris. The facts about these marriages are found in the son's story and in Davidson's own record of the marriages he performed during his long pastorate a most interesting document. The son's story continues: "A few months previously [before his resignation in 1809] he had lost his second wife after a brief union of two years, Margaret, daughter of the Hon. John Montgomery of Carlisle. He gave vent to his grief in a touching monody.... He composed a dialogue in blank verse in honor of the patrons of the College, which was spoken in public and printed.... He made himself acquainted with eight languages ... was well versed in theology, and was familiar with the 'Whole circle of science. But astronomy was his favorite-study ... [he] invented an ingenious apparatus, called 'a cosmosphere or compound globe,' presenting the heaven and the earth to view on the same axis.... He was also an amateur and composer of sacred music., and in his earlier year, amused himself with executing pen drawings, some of which ... are great curiosities. They have deceived connoisseurs, and have
been taken for engravings, even by ... (a) distinguished painter. In 1796 he was the eighth Moderator of the Church."
Davidson died in 1812, and his remains lie buried by the side of his second wife. His tomb records:
"In Memory of Robert Davidson, D.D., a blessed peacemaker, as a pastor winning and affectionate. He filled the chair of History and Belles Lettres first in the University of Pennsylvania, then in Dickinson College, of which he was some time the vice-president.
"Universally loved and respected. Departed this life in Christian hope Dec. 13, 1812--62y.
"Beside him lies his wife Margaret of a character equally amiable
and of a piety equally pure.
Dr. Davidson was a man of scholarly tastes and of wide knowledge in several fields of learning, and was also of musical and artistic temperament, though other interests compelled him to sacrifice these pursuits to the sterner duties of life. He was somewhat given to rhyme and verse, of which a remaining evidence is a rhyming geography of sixty pages, to which Taney makes caustic allusion in a quotation soon to follow. His real literary remains are found in his numerous sermons and lectures, the latter largely on scientific subjects. Nisbet wrote that Davidson had adopted his own plan of reading lectures to his classes, and Taney and Buchanan, two of his old students, give estimates of him, the one as a teacher, the other as an administrator. Atwater, his successor, tells of college conditions when Davidson ceased his college work.
None of these, however, show him outstanding as an educator. Roger B. Taney, of the Class of 1795, and later Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, 1836-1864, says:
Dr. Robert Davidson, the vice-principal, was not so popular as Nisbet; indeed, he was disliked by the students generally, and some of them took
no pains to conceal it. Yet he was not harsh or ill-natured in his intercourse with us. But he was formal and solemn and precise, and, in short, was always the pedagogue in school and out of school. He lectured on history, natural philosophy, and geography. He had written a rhyming geography, which as well as I remember contained about fifty printed pages, printed in octavo, and was an enumeration of the countries and nations of the world, and the principal rivers, mountains and cities in each of them.
This little book we were all required to buy, and to commit to memory, and repeat to him in lessons. It filled our minds with names of places and general descriptions, without giving us any definite idea of their position on the globe, or their relation to one another; and, as may well be supposed, some of the lines and rhymes were harsh and uncouth enough to be the subject of ridicule. But he was very vain of it, and always showed his displeasure if any one was not master of the lesson, and could not repeat it readily, word for word, as he had written it. And what rendered the whole thing more absurd in the eyes of the students, he had composed what he called an acrostic upon his own name, by way of introduction, and this he required us to commit to memory, and to repeat to him with the rest of the book. Nothing lessens the respect of young men for a teacher more than a display of vanity, and they are always prompt in seeing it and amusing themselves with it. And nothing, I think, impaired the respect of the class for Dr. Davidson more than his acrostic.... It was so often and habitually repeated among us in derision that, although I have not thought of it for forty or fifty years, yet, in recalling the scenes of my college life, I find I can still repeat all of it but the last four lines....
The rest has dropped from my memory.*
The title page of this geography is in part as follows: "Geography Epitomized, or a Travel round the World, by an American. Philadelphia MDCCLXXIV."
James Buchanan, of the Class of 1809, and President of the United States, 1857-1861, is another witness on Davidson, especially on the conditions of the College during the last two years of his administration. In his own story of the early years of his life, Buchanan gives his experience as a student in Dickinson College. He says:
After having received a tolerably good English education, I studied the Latin and Greek languages at a school in Mercersburg. It was first kept by the Rev. James R. Sharon, then a student of divinity with Dr. John King, and afterwards by a Mr. McConnell and Dr. Jesse Magaw, then a student of medicine, and subsequently my brother-in-law. I was sent to Dickinson College in the fall of 1807, where I entered the Junior class.
The College was in a wretched condition; and I have often regretted that I had not been sent to some other institution. There was no efficient discipline, and the young men did pretty much as they pleased. To be a sober, plodding, industrious youth was to incur the ridicule of the mass of the students. Without much natural tendency to become dissipated, and chiefly from the example of others, and in order to be considered a clever and a spirited youth, I engaged in every sort of extravagance and mischief in which the greatest proficients of the College indulged. Unlike the rest of this class, however, I was always a tolerably hard student, and never was deficient in my college exercises.
A circumstance occurred, after I had been a year at college, which made a strong and lasting impression upon me. During the September vacation, in the year 1808, on a Sabbath morning, whilst I was sitting in the room with my father, a letter was brought to him. He opened it, and read it, and I observed that his countenance fell. He then handed it to me and left the room, and I do not recollect that he ever afterwards spoke to me on the subject of it. It was from Dr. Davidson, the Principal of Dickinson College. He stated that, but for the respect which the faculty entertained for my father I would have been expelled from college on account of disorderly conduct. That they had borne with me as best they could until that period; but that they would not receive me again, and that the letter was written to save him the mortification of sending me back and having me rejected. Mortified to the soul, I at once deter- mined upon my course. Dr. John King was at the time pastor of the con- gregation to which my parents belonged. He came to that congregation shortly after the Revolution, and continued to be its pastor until his death. He had either married or baptized all its members. He partici- pated in their joys as well as their sorrows, and had none of the gloomy bigotry which too often passes in these days for superior sanctity. He
was, I believe, a trustee of the College, and enjoyed great and extensive influence wherever he was known. To him I applied with the greatest confidence in my extremity. He gave me a gentle lecture, the more efficient on that account. He then proposed to me, that if I would pledge my honor to him to behave better at college than I had done, he felt such confidence in me that he would pledge himself to Dr. Davidson on my behalf, and he did not doubt that I would be permitted to return. I cheerfully complied with this condition; Dr. King arranged the matter, and I returned to college, without any questions being asked; and afterwards conducted myself in such a manner as, at least to prevent any formal complaint. At the public examination, previous to the commencement, I answered without difficulty every question which was propounded to me. At that time there were two honors conferred by the College. It was the custom for each of the two societies to present a candidate, and the faculty decided which of them should have the first honor, and the second was conferred upon the other candidate as a matter of course. I had set my heart upon obtaining the highest, and the society to which I belonged unanimously presented me as their candidate. As I believed that this society, from the superior scholarship of its members, was entitled to both, on my motion we presented two candidates to the faculty. The consequence was that they rejected me altogether, gave the first honor to the candidate of the opposite society, and the second to Mr. Robert Laverty, now of Chester County, assigning as a reason for rejecting my claims that it would have a bad tendency to confer an honor of the College upon a student who had shown so little respect as I had done for the rules of the College and for the professors.
I have scarcely ever been so much mortified at any occurrence of my life as at this disappointment, nor has friendship ever been manifested towards me in a more striking manner than by all the members of the society to which I belonged. Mr. Laverty, at once, in the most kind manner, offered to yield me the second honor, which, however, I declined to accept. The other members of the society belonging to the senior class would have united with me in refusing to speak at the approaching commencement, but I was unwilling to place them in this situation on my account, and more especially as several of them were designed for the ministry. I held out myself for some time, but at last yielded on receiving a kind communication from the professors. I left college, however, feeling but little attachment towards the Alma Mater.
Davidson's successor, Atwater, becomes an incidental witness also on the same subject. Atwater reached Carlisle in September, 1809, and his first report to Rush on the College said, inter alia, "The college building is elegant and spacious.... Its state is very much that of a broken city
down and without walls. I find that almost everything is to be begun anew." He wrote thus on October 28, 1809, and in a later letter of April 22, 1810, he repeats part of the above, and adds material items. "I found the institution, as I expressed it to you, as a city broken down and without walls, students indulging in the dissipation of the town, none of them living in the College, and the religious state of things appeared to be, in a great measure, out of regard and estimation.... Dr. D. [Davidson] appeared timid as to making any opposition, and without that influence so desirable in a clergyman of his standing."
These three testimonies were given under very different conditions Chief Justice Taney's nearly sixty years after he left college, and his college impressions must have been very decided; President Buchanan's probably within ten years of the facts recorded, and he may possibly have been still smarting under his sense of injustice done him, though he was already a man of large affairs; and President Atwater's was given as a calm survey of college conditions when Davidson withdrew. Atwater's survey, too, was sent to Davidson's ardent friend of many years, and there is no evidence that Rush resented it in any way, as he remained Atwater's intimate friend till his death in 1813. The agreement of three such men seems to prove that Davidson was no great educator.
A fair estimate of Davidson in the College would probably be that he rendered no specially distinguished or outstanding service at any time, but that he was always a man to be relied upon, one to whom they could turn in any emergency. As teachers, Nisbet and Ross, possibly others, were probably his superiors, as was Nisbet in the administration of the College and in handling young men. Nisbet had "less trouble with the young than with the old," probably chastising the student deserving punishment by his caustic, scourging wit, while Davidson called upon the trustees to help him in the maintenance or order. There is recorded a thrust of Nisbet at Professor Ross's methods of discipline
when he came upon him "horsing" a boy, and said "Tut, tut, mon, ye'r putting in knowledge at the wrong end." The conventional Davidson was probably not equal to anything of the sort with either teacher or pupil.
Davidson won the title of "Blessed Peacemaker" by his kindly handling of the divided Presbyterians of Carlisle, bringing into one church those who were at variance and in two churches at the beginning of his pastorate. The gentler methods of Davidson's administration were probably unsuited to the needs of the College at that time, when strong-hand methods seemed the rule. Then, too, when he undertook the work of administration he had reached the age when many men of the gentle mold are wont to seek lines of least resistance and put on the protective covering. Under all these circumstances, one may readily trust Buchanan's and Atwater's pictures of a lawless, disorganized student body at the close of five years of Davidson's administration., and it is therefore not surprising that he seems not to have been considered for the succession.
After Nisbet's death, there were frequent trustee actions showing belief that the College needed a Principal, but there appears to have been no suggestion of Davidson for the place, as had been the case twenty years before. He was a great man in another field. It is given to few men to achieve preëminence in more than one field, and Davidson had secured undoubted position in his first and final love the Church.
One would fain know many things about Davidson's administration which are hidden from us. Did he, as an American to the manner born, have better understanding with the trustees than his predecessor, a stranger to American ways? Nisbet thought him the confidant of the trustees, even during his own administration. Did he bring harmony to college administration? There is no answer, though we may guess that Davidson was amenable to trustee authority, that he "went along," as Nisbet charged that he and other members of his Faculty had done when they approved a
college course of only one year. There is, at any rate, no evidence during his five years of any friction.
The annals of Davidson's five years are few and unimportant. The old grammar-school building on Liberty Alley was abandoned for the new college building. Two changes in the Faculty occurred. John Hayes succeeded Borland as tutor in 1805 and as Professor of Languages in 1807, and Hayes was succeeded by Henry R. Wilson in 1809.
Hayes was the first graduate of the College to become one of its professors. He resigned in 1809 and became pastor of two near-by Presbyterian churches, Silver Spring near Mechanicsburg, and Monaghan, later called Dillsburg. His pastorate closed in 1814, probably because of ill health, as he died in 1815. In 1807 Hayes published "Rural Poems, Moral and Descriptive," printed by Loudon, of Carlisle. This little volume, still on the college shelves, was probably undisturbed for a hundred years, until recently an ornithologist of a distant university made inquiry concerning the man because, forsooth, he seemed first to have observed and recorded in one of his poems a certain peculiar marking of one of the local birds!
Probably no serious attempt to strengthen the College was made during Davidson's time. All tacitly accepted it as a period of exhaustion, and waited for something to turn up. Rush wrote Montgomery in 1804 that no money could be had in Philadelphia. Disasters of all sorts had "exhausted the charity of our well-disposed citizens. Suppose you renew your application to the Legislature for a fresh gift from the State. I cannot bear the thought that the labors and censures, which some of us incurred in establishing the College, should become abortive. It has already given several excellent characters to all the learned professions. It will, I hope, give many thousands more." The following year he was more hopeful on report of good progress being made on the college building, and writes, "I was much gratified in learning of the advanced state of our building.... By all means sell our lands.... Are you sure they have not been sold for
taxes? ... How gladly would I meet you on the day of the completion of the College! With what pleasure would we review our mutual labors for it, and with what delight would we look forward into futurity, and anticipate its future usefulness to Church and State." A year later, 1806, Rush writes, "I rejoice in the completion of our College, and the prospect of the revival of its reputation and usefulness. The stock you have concluded to sell bears a good price." Two of the shares of United States Bank stock sold for $1,113.50. In 1807, however, a letter to Montgomery gives a gloomy view of financial conditions, together with some of his views on education and his distrust of a society with many educated people. Thus wrote Rush:
The sooner we pay our debts the better. But such is the effect of the apprehensions of war with Great Britain in consequence of the late events in the Chesapeake, that no sales of stock of any kind can now be made. If Dr. Nisbet's heirs will take our stock at par or near it, for our debts to them, it should ... be transferred to them....
Suppose we add ten dollars a year to our tuition money.... Education in the present state of our country on an intensive plan should be considered a luxury; and placed only within the reach of persons in easy circumstances. Unless this be the case the proportion of learning will soon over-balance the proportion of labor in our country. Let a plain education ... reading, writing and arithmetic be made as cheap and general as pos- sible, and even free of expense to those who are unable to pay for it. In a Republic no man should have a vote who is unable to read.
Accept my congratulations on the marriage of your daughter to Dr. Davidson. I heard of it with pleasure. They both deserve to be happy.
Early in 1808, following the death of John Dickinson, Montgomery wrote Rush as to a possible bequest to the College, and in March Rush replied, "The day after ... your letter I wrote to Wilmington ... [and learned that he] had not left a single bequest out of his own family." Montgomery, later in August, suggested another plan to get a gift from Dickinson sources. He writes, "What would you think of Mr. Logan, son-in-law to the late Mr. Dickinson [for Mr. Dickinson's successor as a trustee]? He perhaps ... might give us some hundred dollars. You see that I am
mercenary. I acknowledge it." Of this also nothing came, for Mr. Logan never became a trustee, and they probably got none of his money.
This letter of August, 1808, was apparently Montgomery's last one to Rush, for he died the following month. His letters to Rush over a period of twenty-five years, and Rush's letters to him, the earlier ones fortunately returned to Rush and preserved, are the main sources for much of the intimate college history for this quarter of a century. The original old guard was going. The "Old General" Armstrong went first in 1793; Nisbet ceased from labor in 1804; Dickinson followed early in 1808; and in September of the same year Montgomery drops out of the picture. Henceforth, new names appear occasionally in the Rush correspondence, names of men who were to keep him, the real founder of the College, in touch with college movements, especially the names of Dr. James Armstrong, son of the "Old General," Judge James Hamilton, a trustee for twenty-five years from 1794, and others.
The first of these new correspondents was Hamilton, who wrote in July, 1808, "The College will be soon completely finished, and provided with books and philos. apparatus if not splendid, not mean or contemptible.... $800 per year will be put into the hands of (a new) Principal, a sum sufficient to pay two-thirds of the Professors.... After (paying) for the electric machine and air pump we shall have about 3500 doll. which we are obliged to vest in books and apparatus." This money for "books and apparatus" remained from a state appropriation for that specific purpose. The "completely finished" of the College meant only the outer building.
The election of a Principal to succeed Nisbet was doubtless delayed for financial reasons, and though there was no money to pay a Principal, for years, the trustees indulged in the pleasure of anticipation. Rush was asked to talk the matter over with proper parties at the meetings of Presbytery in Philadelphia, and a committee was instructed to
consult the heads of various institutions to get suggestions. A grant of $40 for expenses for this committee suggests that even personal visits may have been contemplated. Various trustees wrote individuals who might be considered, including Hunter Lee, late of the Princeton faculty, and Samuel Miller, of New York; but both of these men were unwilling to undertake the task. Despite this, however, Miller was elected in September, 1808, salary to be $1,000, but he declined. He knew the situation all too well. Thirty years Iater in his "Life of Nisbet," Miller wrote, "After the decease of Dr. Nisbet, Dickinson College continued still further to decline. Its deplorable poverty, and the still more deplorable want of zeal, harmony and efficiency on the part of the Board of Trustees ensured an existence, if continued, sickly and feeble."
After the declination of Miller, President Dwight of Yale recommended Jeremiah Atwater, President of Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont; and in June, 1809, he was unanimously elected. On representations of Rush to him, Dr. Atwater accepted, and reached Carlisle the following September to begin his work. Davidson resigned on the arrival of Atwater, and after declining a request to continue to teach some few subjects in the College, was elected a trustee. So closed, in 1809, Davidson's official connection with the Faculty. The administration of Atwater followed.