|Chapter 17 John Mitchell Mason 1821-1824. Renewal|
JOHN MITCHELL MASON was the peer of any man in the Dickinson history. Most of his great work, however, was done before he came to Carlisle. He was born in 1770 and graduated from Columbia in 1789. At the age of twenty-two he succeeded his father as pastor of a small New York church, where his ministry added six hundred members in a few years. At thirty-one, as an additional service, he established and organized the first theological seminary of the Associate Reformed Church. Five years later he projected the Christian Magazine, a church theological organ. In 1811, at the age of forty-one, he took on, as additional work., the duties of Provost of Columbia College.
The late Clyde Furst, Dickinson, 1893, Secretary of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, shortly before his death furnished the following account of his entrance upon his work as Provost of Columbia. Because of its curious features it follows in full:
The history of Columbia University, published in 1904, refers to him on page 95 as follows: "The Rev. Dr. John M. Mason, a great pulpit orator, the most distinguished, perhaps, of his time, Provost of Columbia College, President of Dickinson College;" on pages 97 and 98 are extended notices concerning him as follows: "Early in March, 1811, Bishop Moore resigned the presidency, and a committee was appointed to consider 'What measures are proper to be pursued with respect to the appointment of a President.... An influential party desired the election of the Rev. Dr. John M. Mason, of the class of '89, one of the committee that had introduced the new curriculum. He appeared, however, to be ineligible to the presidency by reason of the condition of the grant of land made by Trinity Church that the President should be a communicant of the Episcopal Church. This restriction had been eliminated from the Charter by the Legislature, but the prevailing opinion, nevertheless, was that it still remained in force as to the land, which would be forfeited by its nonobservance. The determination to secure the services of Dr. Mason was, however, so strong that, on recommendation of the Committee, an executive officer, additional and really superior to the President, was provided
for, styled the Provost. The President was to superintend the buildings and grounds, to report to the Trustees, as occasion might require, the state of the College and measures that he deemed necessary for its prosperity, to have power to visit the classes and any of the College departments, to give such directions and perform such acts generally as were calculated, in his opinion, to promote the interests of the institution, to preside at Commencements and meetings of the Board of the College, and to sign all diplomas. The Provost was to have all the duties and powers committed to the President, except that he was to preside at Commencements and meetings of the College Board only in the absence of the latter, and, in addition was to grant leave of absence from College in his discretion, to see that the prescribed course of instruction and discipline was faithfully followed, and to rectify all deviations from it, and to conduct the classical studies of the senior class. Under this arrangement, the Rev. Dr. William Harris, a Harvard alumnus of the class of '86, was in June, 1811, elected President, and the Rev. Dr. Mason, Provost. Under a special act of the Legislature, Dr. Mason was subsequently (1812) made a Trustee."
Finally, on page 102 there is the following statement: "Dr. Mason had been one of the severest critics of the methods of administration that prevailed during the presidency of Bishop Moore, and was believed to possess great executive capacity. He was one of the most active of the Board of Trustees and was doubtless largely influential in securing for the College from the Legislature the grant of Dr. Hosack's 'Elgin Botanical Garden.' As a College administrator, he appears not to have equalled expectation, and in July, 1816, resigned the provostship and severed his connection with the College." (The Elgin Botanical Garden mentioned above was the land on Fifth Avenue still owned by Columbia and recently leased to Mr. Rockefeller for approximately three million dollars a year.)
Mason was probably one of the most versatile men of his time, and one of the most distinguished. He was "pastor of a large congregation, the provost and teacher of an important college, the professor of a theological seminary, teaching with but little assistance the whole range of biblical and theological studies; he was the conductor of a religious periodical, and carried on at the same time several important controversies [theological] against vigorous and distinguished opponents."
His reputation was probably second to that of no man in the pulpit of his day. In 1816, however, when he was only forty-six years of age, he began to break under the load, and
traveled for a year; but was not fully restored when he returned to his pulpit. A slight stroke soon followed. He tried again, but was forced to resign his great church in 1821. At this time he was invited to Dickinson College. He accepted the invitation, saying, "It will employ me usefully in a work to which I find myself adequate." He hoped for further service, but his greatness of achievement was all in the past when he was only fifty-two years old; for, after a little less than three years of poor health and discouragement in Carlisle, he returned to New York, to die five years later.
Of all the list of college preachers of that era it is probable that Durbin alone, who followed him twelve years later, could match him in pulpit power. A sermon preached by him in London before the London Missionary Society made him "the idol of London. It served to bring him the most importunate invitations from all directions." At another time he preached on an academic occasion in New Haven to "Senators and men of learning from every part of the land. There sat the venerable Dwight and not less venerable Backus, melted into a flood of tears. That vast audience ... with few exceptions covered their faces and wept."
Before Mason accepted the Dickinson invitation, he made inquiries which resulted in a statement from the trustees, September 8, 1821, that the tenure of Principal and Professors was during good behavior; that the probable revenues on which the College must be conducted for the next five years were the $2,000 annually from the state, $1,000 expected annually from subscriptions recently secured, and the student fees; and that after the five-year period student fees would be the sole reliance.
Mason came to Carlisle expecting the College to open in December, 1821, but the opening did not occur until January 15, 1822, when "the students, professors and the trustees moved in procession to the Presbyterian Church where the oaths of office were administered ... by the Hon. J. B. Gibson to Dr. J. M. Mason ... Henry Vethake ... and the Rev. Alexander McClelland.... An eloquent and im-
pressive address was then delivered by Dr. J. M. Mason." This address, Mason's inaugural, laid emphasis on three things: the evolution of faculty; the formation of habit, especially of proper subordination to authority and the right use of time; and the cultivation of manners. Gibson, who administered the oath, was then both a trustee of the College and AssociateJustice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Mason's salary was to be $2,000 per year, and before he finally agreed to come he secured from the Board the promise of such salaries as would secure two other men he desired for his Faculty big men, both of them: Henry Vethake and Alexander McClelland. Their salaries were to be $1,500 and $1,200, much more than had ever before been paid a Professor, as Mason's was much more than had ever been paid a Principal.
Vethake came from a professorship at Princeton. Born in 1792 he graduated at Columbia, at the age of twenty-one; was professor of mathematics at Rutgers, and, after four years, went to the same chair at Princeton. Four years later he came to Dickinson, whence he returned to Princeton in 1829. He was later professor in various institutions and head of Washington College at Lexington, Virginia, 1835-1836, and of the University of Pennsylvania, 1854-1859. He was a very versatile man, and it is probable that one of the first courses in political economy, if not the very first openly announced in this country, was one carried on by Vethake during his stay at Dickinson College. He was author of the articles on political economy appearing in the Encyclopedia Americana issued in his time. He died in Philadelphia, December 16, 1866.
Alexander McClelland, born in 1794, had graduated from Union College at fifteen. He then took his theological course under Mason in New York, and later served as pastor for seven years close to Mason's own church, so that Mason well knew his man. He left Dickinson in 1829 for a professorship at Rutgers, where he remained till his death in 1864. His chair at Dickinson was "Belles Lettres and History
of the Human Mind," and there are records of the great hold he secured upon both the student body and the cultured people of the town. When he spoke, and it was allowed them to be present, people flocked to hear him, for though his subject might be dry, his treatment of it never was. These scant reports of McClelland suggest Charles J. Little and Robert W. Rogers of later years, within the memory of men yet living.
Mason, Vethake, McClelland, great men all, must have made a notable Faculty, probably second to none in the country in power to stimulate young men. When planning for this Faculty, Mason wrote the trustees that if these men could be secured "No college in the country could look down on us." Few students have had such an opportunity except those gathered by Durbin twelve years later. Rev. George W. Bethune, D.D., of the Class of 1823, one of their students for two years, writes of them: "The faculty was small, but could scarcely have been more perfect. Dr. Mason, a ripe scholar, and the most eloquent pulpit orator of his country and perhaps of his age; Professor Henry Vethake, a thorough mathematician; Dr. Alexander McClelland, who, as an educator of youth, was without a parallel; this institution, so admirably furnished, presented great attractions to the youth." What a record the College might have made under such men had other conditions been favorable! It was too good to be lasting, for the leader was soon forced to lay down his work, and disagreements in the Faculty later appeared. The name and fame of these men, however, especially that of Mason, brought an almost immediate response to the call of the College for students. A number followed him from New York, and though the College opened January 1, only a short time after public announcement that it would do so, twenty-eight were in attendance almost at once, two of them so advanced in their work as to be recommended for degrees the following June, one of them being the son of the Principal.
In this Faculty Joseph Spencer, of Somerset County, Maryland, became Professor of Languages, with permission
to act as Rector of the Episcopal Church in Carlisle, and he continued in this dual capacity for several years. Going later to the far south, he died in Mississippi in 1862.
Student promise of the early days of Mason's times seems to have been realized for a time. There were trustee actions to allow students to live in the town when the building was full, and to convert a woodshed into a student dormitory! The growth of the College soon called for another building, for any considerable number of students would crowd the building. At least one Professor, with his family, was required to live in the building, so that after recitation rooms were provided the building could accommodate but few students. On these grounds the trustees memorialized the Legislature for an endowment and a new building, but without success, as usual.
Mason's home in Carlisle was on lot No. 17 of the" Additional plan of Out Lots," diagonally across High Street from the southwest corner of the main campus, about four acres, for which he paid $600. This is part of the "Mooreland" of a later day, taking name from Johnston Moore of the Class of 1829, who lived there from about 1830 to his death. It was occupied by his daughters until their deaths, the last occurring in 1931, when it was acquired by the College. Mason sold the property for $3,800 when he left Carlisle. He had evidently built upon it. The house was later occupied for a short time by Dr. George Duffield, and then for this long period by Mr. Moore and his family.
There was a tradition in the College as much as fifty years after Mason had gone that he drove to and from the College with his liveried coachman; and one looking at his portrait among those of the Presidents on the walls of "Old West" may easily believe that he was of them all the "gentleman of the old school."
The brilliant Mason came to Carlisle in poor health. In addition to his college labors, blow after blow fell upon him, in both his person and his family. He was long confined to his house with a broken hip from a fall; a married daughter
died; and his young son, who shortly after graduation from the College in 1822 began to teach in the Grammar School, was stricken during an epidemic of typhus fever and died the following November. The father shrank from the ordinary funeral eulogies and had arranged for no address, but as student bearers lifted the casket the father cried out in his anguish, "Young men, tread lightly, ye bear a temple of the Holy Ghost." Then, overcome by his feelings, he laid his head on the shoulder of a minister friend from New York, and said, "Dear Mac, say something which God may bless to his young friends." He did; a religious revival followed in both College and town, and many of the students became Christians, though college students generally at that time had very little use for religion.
Dr. Mason's life was under shadows, the darkest of which was his constantly lessening mental vigor. He returned to New York in 1824, after less than three years' service to the College, but never to any further work; and there followed, as one has said, "a steady verging toward a state of comparative imbecility." Mason's son had married a granddaughter of the old Principal Nisbet, and a number of descendants from that union survive.