|Chapter 4 Charles Nisbet Comes to America|
PRESIDENT DICKINSON of the Board of Trustees wrote Dr. Nisbet on April 21, 1784, just two weeks after his election. His reply is of record in the trustee minutes, and indicates his probable acceptance, though he asked for further information before a final decision.
In addition to this first and official notice, Dickinson wrote him two other letters, which might be called semi-official. The granting of the college charter was something of a political issue, and the 1784 elections in Pennsylvania seemed to Dickinson unfavorable to the College. On October 25, therefore, Dickinson again wrote Nisbet that there had been such political changes as to make him "apprehend that the law for establishing a college at Carlisle will be repealed or at least the design will be exceedingly discouraged and impeded. I therefore think myself bound in honor ... to request you will not think of coming to America ... until I can assure you that prospects are much more favorable." On receipt of this letter Nisbet reasonably decided accordingly, as a letter to his friend, the Earl of Buchan, shows, and two sentences from the Earl's reply are interesting. "A mother whose constitution is broken seldom produces healthy children. I am sorry to see the features of the mother grow every day stronger in North America, and I can hardly condole with you upon, your being obliged to live with your countrymen."
President Dickinson's second letter was without the knowledge of the other trustees and caused consternation among them when they learned of it. Rush was their spokesman, and a bitter spokesman he was. He wrote Montgomery on November 13, 1784, that Dickinson's letter was "big with ruin to our hopes-an act of treachery"; did he wish to "annihilate our college and thereby to prevent any further draught made upon him for its support? I know not, but
he has become the most formidable enemy to our College that ever we have yet known.... I have spoken very plainly to Mr. Dickinson, but all of this had no effect upon him. He said it becomes us to act with prudence. I replied in warm terms that prudence when honor is concerned is a rascally virtue."
Rush may have been mistaken in thinking that "all this had no effect upon him," for only two days after Rush had so written Montgomery, on November 15, Dickinson wrote again to Dr. Nisbet, saying, "Since my letter to you, the General Assembly has evinced such a temper of conciliation and liberality, many ... are fully convinced that no attempt will be made against [the college].... My hopes are stronger ... in favor of the institution.... You may entirely confide in the intelligence they [some of the trustees] may transmit."
The letter of these trustees, in which Dickinson said Dr. Nisbet might "entirely confide," said that the fears of Dickinson seemed to them "wholly without foundation"; that they were "fully of the opinion that the charter of the College is as secure as any private property in the State",and they also begged of Nisbet to "place the fullest confidence in the assurance and obligation of the Board of Trustees contained in their public letter of the 30th of September last" . This later letter in answer to Dickinson's fears was signed by Rush and three others.
Rush later writes Montgomery how anxious he had been: "I have experienced degrees of anxiety I never felt before. Colleges like children, I find, are not borne without labor pains. But all will end well. Our brat will repay us hereafter for all the trouble it has given us."
Dickinson had in his later letter to Dr. Nisbet told of much more favorable political conditions in the state; but nevertheless the letter must have caused misgivings in his mind. In addition to this he had a wise old Scotch friend, Lady Leven, who advised him strongly against an immediate acceptance of the call to the new college. She wrote Nisbet on July 26, shortly after he had received Dickinson's notifica-
tion of his election and Rush's early letters, "I think it plain that you ought to be in no hurry with your positive determination, as the foundation of the college seems not yet to be laid.... I find, from what I can learn, that the whole originates from Dr. Rush. His temper is warm and lively.... His eloquence I have had much experience of by a long correspondence with his family.... How do you know whether the forty members of the Board of Trustees ... will all continue of one mind, especially as they are composed of all sects? ... How do you know but that Dr. [probably Witherspoon of Princeton] is in the right, and that he is really your friend, in dissuading you from going.... It [the College) has not yet come the length of the infant described by the good Doctor.... Remember that I write you in confidence, never to be read but by yourself... I should think the call to such a sort of vigorous duty, was more the province of pious young men, than one come to your time of life, with such indifferent health as yours." She wrote him again in November, "You are not endowed with a hardy spirit. You do not seem formed for enterprises in the bustle of public life.... Surely there are many arguments on the staying side very weighty, as well as upon the side of removing, had I the pen of a Rush to illustrate them. I do not think his fixing on you at the distance of twenty years, at all surprising. It is a question if he had heard much concerning people in your line during that time, and scarcely of any one whose character he could depend upon as friendly to America. So that he had, perhaps, no other choice.... The present call from abroad certainly appears far from clear, and is at best but an indigested scheme."
It was no easy task to persuade a man enjoying a life tenure among a loyal people, surrounded by such friends as Nisbet had. But Rush was a remarkable man, and usually had his own way despite obstacles and enemies. He was determined that Dr. Nisbet should accept the appointment, and urging this acceptance he more than made up for any possible lack of warmth in the formal letters of Dickinson.
At once following his election, Rush wrote Nisbet, and again on May 15, "in such terms as to induce you to accept ... [The public] destine our college to be the first in America under your direction and government.... The ministers who compose the synod of New York and Philadelphia begin to feel themselves interested in your arrival. They begin to expect in proportion to your superior knowledge and ability that you will bear a superior share of the labor in the harvest field of the Church in America.... You have a dislike to the sea.... It must not separate you from us. Your benevolence and sense of duty, I am sure, will overcome every fear, and even antipathy itself. Remember the words of the Saviour 'It is I' I, who govern both winds and waves. I, who have qualified you with so many gifts and graces for the station to which you are called. I, who by my Providence have made your name known and dear to the people of America. I, who have many people in that country, to be enlightened and instructed, directly or indirectly, by you. I, who preside over the whole vineyard of my church, and, therefore know best in what part of it to place the most skillful workmen. It is I, who call you to quit your native country and to spend the remainder of your days in that new world in which the triumphs of the Gospel shall ere long be no less remarkable than the triumphs of liberty. I have now done with ministers of my Providence. Washington and the Adams have finished their work. Hereafter I shall operate on the American States chiefly by the ministers of my grace."
June 1, but two weeks later, he writes again: "Our prospects ... brighten daily. Our funds amount to near 3,000 pounds, and as to buildings, we expect to purchase some public works built with brick within a half mile of Carlisle during the late war. They are large and commodius and may be had at small expense from the United States. Our Legislature has patronized a new college insomuch that we expect an endowment from them at their next session of 500 pounds a year.... We have little doubt but what we
shall have 10,000 pounds in the course of a year or two from public and private donations. Indeed, Sir, every finger of the hand of Heaven has been visible in our behalf.... Dickinson College, with Dr. Nisbet at its head, bids fair for being the first literary institution in America."
In a letter of November 28, Rush compares the public order in Britain with that in America. "The factions, riots and executions in London, and the bankruptcies, clamors and distresses of every part of England and Scotland afford a most striking contrast to the order, industry and contentment which prevail in every part of this country.... All crimes that have been committed since the war have been by deserters from the British Army and emigrants from Britain and Ireland, and indeed even these have been comparatively few. The means of subsistence here are so easy and the profits of honest labor so great that rogues find it less difficult to live by work than by plunder.... I have written three letters to you within these three weeks, in each of which I have given you such assurances of the safety and flourishing state of our College as will determine you to embark in the Spring for Pennsylvania."
In other letters Rush assured Dr. Nisbet that the Board of Trustees embraced many men of wealth, every one of whom would consider his estate and his honor pledged to see that their newly elected Principal should not have a want so long as he lived. It is not known how many letters Rush wrote Nisbet during these months, but they were many.
Rush surely painted in glowing colors, for there was no pledge of help from the Legislature, and only small state help was ever granted. The £10,000 suggested in the correspondence as their early expectation was never realized during the lifetime of either of them. The College never had so much at any time within fifty years. His statement that the Public Works "may be had at small expense" from the United States must have been based mostly upon hope, inasmuch as years of negotiation for their rent or purchase were fruitless. The forty trustees upon whose "honor and estate" Nisbet
was assured that he might rely, seem to have been really but little interested. Dickinson alone excepted, the men of great wealth on the Board, whose "honor and estate" were committed to the enterprise, did very little to increase the resources of the College. William Bingham, of Philadelphia, made one of the largest subscriptions, £400 in loan office certificates, or about a thousand dollars. This greatly encouraged Rush, yet two actions of the Board, years after it was made, show that it was then unpaid, despite effort to collect it.
Another wealthy trustee left the College, at his death, a petty bequest of $200. Financial aid from the trustees was the exception and not the rule. The clergy showed no signs that they were waiting for Dr. Nisbet to "bear a superior share of the labor in the harvest field of the Church in America." The fingers "of the hand of Heaven ... visible in our behalf," as described by Rush, seemed suddenly to disappear on Nisbet's arrival. The Rush idyll on our freedom from crime, disorder, and riot had rude contradiction in the real conditions of our frontier life two years after Nisbet's arrival, with fierce and bloody riots in the streets of Carlisle over the Federal Constitution. Later, during the Whisky Rebellion, there was further contradiction in a near attack on his home, prevented only by the sickness of his daughter, and this because he dared preach in favor of the observance of law from the Presbyterian pulpit in Carlisle.
Rush unwittingly misled Nisbet, and he did not expect to disappoint him. On the contrary, he planned to give him such welcome and support as to make him successful and happy. His letters to Nisbet were warm and personal. He writes on November 28, 1784, "We have allotted a room in our house for your reception which goes by the name of Dr. Nisbet's room. My little folks often mention your name, especially my boys, and they have been taught to consider you their future master."
The following June Rush took the first steps in keeping his promises. There was to be a meeting of the Board in Carlisle which he had planned to attend. He changed his
plans, however, on learning that Dr. Nisbet would probably arrive in Philadelphia during this meeting, and in May writes the Board, "After having made the necessary preparations for attending the meeting of your Board next month, it is no small disappointment to me to be deprived of that pleasure. I have submitted to the advice of my friends as well as to the dictates of my own judgment by consenting to remain in Philadelphia in order to receive Doctor Nisbet upon his arrival from Scotland, in such a manner as to give him the most favorable ideas of the disposition of our trustees towards him."
In furtherance of this plan he met Dr. Nisbet on his arrival in Philadelphia on June 9, 1785, and made the stranger at home. Not only "Dr. Nisbet's room" was at Nisbet's command, but apparently most of the Rush home. Nisbet, his wife, two sons and two daughters were the welcome guests of Rush for three weeks, till their departure for Carlisle, June 30. During this time Rush wrote enthusiastic letters to Montgomery in Carlisle on the character of Nisbet and the impression he was making. Of his own personal feelings he wrote on June 14, "I am so chained down to his company that I regret leaving him for a moment to attend to my business. Indeed, my friend, in the arrival of Doctor Nisbet I can see the new sun has risen upon Pennsylvania. His whole soul is set on doing good, and his capacity has seldom, I believe, been exceeded by any man in this country...." June 24 he wrote, "Mr. Dickinson ... called on the Doctor's family ... and offered me his services for the Doctor.... He told me that we might command him in any way. 'I will endow professorships. In the meanwhile let the Doctor and his worthy family want for nothing.' . . . Doctor Nisbet has charmed everybody with his preaching. He is pleased with everything he sees and hears. Indeed, 'tis he deserves everything from our hands.... The most disinterested man I ever met with. The more I see of him, the more I love and admire him."
A third letter says, "After congratulating you from the
bottom of my heart upon Doctor N.'s safe arrival, I beg leave to suggest a few things to you that are calculated to make a good impression upon the Doctor on his arrival in Carlisle.... One of the best speakers in the College ... deliver an address to him.... Request Doctor Davidson to compose it for him.... Meet the Doctor on his way to Carlisle.... Suppose the court-house bell should be rung as he enters the town. Will make a clever paragraph in the Philadelphia papers." Again he writes, "Did I not tell you so? Is not every wish and hope gratified in him? Indeed, my friend, he has stolen so much of my affection that his absence has left a blank both in my heart and family."
Thus Rush had secured the man of his choice, and three weeks of close association fully satisfied him that Dr. Nisbet was the man for the place. He was not only satisfied, but almost extravagantly happy at the outcome. Nisbet was by nature less impulsive than Rush, but he also was happy over the outlook. The attentions of Rush and others in Philadelphia, Dickinson among them, had their influence, as shown by at least one letter of the time, for he wrote the Earl of Buchan that his prospects were more encouraging than he expected. Both men were in good spirits, and there was promise of a future of fine coöperation in their work for the College.
There follows an unsolved riddle in the College story. Nisbet left the home of Rush for Carlisle on June 30, and Rush seems never again to have greeted him as friend. It is not known whether the cause for the change was earlier, but the first evidence of it appears when Rush attended a meeting of the Board in Carlisle, August 9. Though in Carlisle at least three days, Rush did not even see Nisbet, then a discouraged and very sick man, sadly needing the ministry of Rush as a physician, but especially as a friend.
After Rush had been in Carlisle two days, Nisbet wrote him a wretchedly scrawled note from his sick-bed:
Tomb of Dickinson College, August 10, 1785
Dear Sir: And is this thy kindness to thy friend? To have been two whole days in this place without a single moment's tête-à-tête This
ought not so to be. If I were in health I would have waited on you by night or by day, to have snatched every moment you could spare. Please let me know by the bearer, if or when I am to be favored with a few minutes' conference before you leave this place.
I am, dear Sir, your much injured
Rush inexplicably ignored this plea of the man he had so urgently invited, so enthusiastically welcomed, and so generously treated in his home. After his return to Philadelphia he wrote Montgomery to "Keep up Dr. Nisbet's spirit. " He had heard that Mrs. Nisbet in Scotland was "as much dissatisfied as she is with Carlisle. Her natural temper is to complain and find fault. . . . She is a good-hearted woman, and with all her whinings, she never made anybody unhappy but her husband." He also enclosed a letter for Dr. Nisbet. "Send the enclosed letter to Dr. Nisbet. Say nothing about his note to me to anybody.... I have written him in great freedom. If we pay his salary punctually and get him sufficient assistance in College his complaints will all rebound on himself."
Rush's change of attitude at this time is puzzling. Nisbet himself did not know of cause for this change before it appeared in August. He had looked forward with pleasure to Rush's coming to Carlisle. Yet the last sentence of Rush's letter to Montgomery above, coupled with Nisbet's first letter to Rush from Carlisle may furnish a possible key to the puzzle.
Nisbet arrived in Carlisle on July 4, 1785, took the oath of office the next day, and entered upon the discharge of his duties. Ten days later, July 15, he wrote Rush a letter, though, as he found no early messenger to take it to Philadelphia, he added to it, eight days later. In this first letter Nisbet gives a general but hasty report on college conditions as he found them, and the now homesick Scot unfortunately adds some of his personal feelings, his longing for home, and the state of mind and possible purpose of his family to return to Scotland. "I am persuaded that nothing can be done
with the boys here while they occupy the present school nor till the higher classes are separated from the lower. A master capable of teaching the principles of grammar is absolutely necessary to make Mr. Ross's appointment as professor of Latin and Greek of any use to the students. Even in that case he will have the work of two men to perform. At present he performs the work of three, viz., Latin, Schoolmaster, Humanity and Greek Professor. A Professor of Natural Philosophy ought to be chosen in time that he may prepare his lectures before he is called to teach ... free from ague, but we are experiencing another severe disorder, desiderium patriae ... my wife and children are unhappy and laying plans to return to Scotland, or to carry me with them thither.... I know not where this will end.... Perhaps all emigrants are uneasy for a time, even those who recover afterward. The low state of your funds and the present condition of this country fill me with alarm, the uncertainty of my situation and the unhappiness of my family add not a little to them.... When I consider my present situation I am often filled with melancholy thoughts and consider myself a deposed minister, or a deserter of my charge.... I have not yet written Lady Leven that things are disagreeable, as I hope a favorable change may take place.... If you do not come up [to the August meeting of the trustees] I am afraid nothing will be done to increase the funds or to procure from Congress a full right to the building." He continues eight days later: "Finding no opportunity of sending my letter I resume the pen.... Since I arrived we have got two new scholars, one from Washington County and one from Trenton.... I know not what to say to your proposal of boarders, as it is hard to find any victuals in the market here, and no meat can be kept over night without putrification. We still dread the month of August, but hope for consolation from your friendly conversation and medical advice. There seems to be a want of virtue and public spirit somewhere. How is this to be remedied? Expecting the pleasure of seeing you soon, I am, CHARLES NISBET."
This letter seems innocent enough to the casual reader. It told what the College needed, all of which Nisbet had a right to expect. There was no provision for room to teach beyond that of the old Grammar School one room "not twenty feet square," and only two teachers; no book-store in the town; no approach to the ample funds promised; the state of social and public morals seemed low; the hot Carlisle summer oppressed them all; and they all longed for home. No wonder that he hoped Rush could attend the meeting of the Board in August!
There was no friendly response. The first answer was Rush's refusal to visit Nisbet in Carlisle, and his final answer was written later, on his return to Philadelphia. The letter itself is lost, but the spirit in which it was written may be inferred from several things. Rush wrote Montgomery, "Do you remember the harsh and cruel note I received from Doctor Nisbet at Carlisle?" and cautioned him to say nothing to anybody about it. He said that he had written Nisbet a letter "in great freedom," one, we may guess, not likely to help the discouraged Nisbet.
Rush's letter was answered by Nisbet's son, Tom, when the father was too sick to write, and the son's answer is preserved. His letter shows that Rush had written Dr. Nisbet that a man should be thankful that the Carlisle heat was not the fires of hell, that he should accept Carlisle markets and not long for the flesh-pots of Egypt, and that he should be brave enough to stand by his task. It is not surprising that Tom also wrote "in great freedom," nor that Rush wrote Montgomery of this letter of Tom's, "Oh, my friend, it [Dr. Nisbet's note to him in Carlisle] is nothing compared with a letter I received from his son, Tom, in answer to a most friendly letter I sent to him to try to reconcile him to Carlisle, and our country."
This letter of the son may have justified the strictures of Rush on it to Montgomery. However, if reasonable inferences from it of Rush's "friendly" letter are correct, the provocation was very great. Rush had not even mentioned
the real college questions raised in Nisbet's letter; no answer was possible. He had, however, discussed Nisbet's troubles and the discouragement of his family, "in great freedom," even to the point of cruelty, it might seem, as the man to whom he wrote was in a strange country, lonely, sick, and expecting to die.
The break between Nisbet and Rush, the two most influential factors in the affairs of the College for nineteen years, thus came as early as August, 1785, two months after Nisbet landed in Philadelphia. It was not due, as some have concluded, to any differences about salary. Rush forced the break. Either Rush saw that he was unable to keep his early promises to Dr. Nisbet, or he thought the latter lacking in the heroic elements demanded by the new College.
All guesses and favorable interpretations aside, however, there are certain hard facts in the case from Nisbet's side. If ever a man was taken up into a high mountain by another and shown the Kingdom, Nisbet was so taken by Rush; and, hard though it may be for a friend of the College to say it of Rush, the real founder of the College, as those who thus take men up generally desert them, so Rush deserted Nisbet in the hour of his trouble. It must be owned, too, that Rush had a gift for breaking with his friends. He could not claim for himself what Nisbet claimed in their correspondence, when he wrote, "In Europe I never lost a friend except by death; the friends of my youth are the friends of my mature age, and those who were my friends at twelve years of age continue to be still with increased, instead of diminished, esteem." Rush had broken with many before. He was at one time close to Washington, and frequently entertained him in his home, but his fault-finding faculty was busy here also. He wrote an unsigned letter to Patrick Henry, sharply criticizing the Commander-in-Chief, which he later tried hard, but vainly, to suppress. The late judge Edward W. Biddle, for nineteen years President of the college Board of Trustees, in "The Founding and Founders of Dickinson College," thus generously writes of Rush: "His ardent and
aggressive nature repeatedly involved him in dispute, resulting at intervals in much anguish of spirit, so that we may fancy him on many occasions sorrowfully murmuring the lament of Hamlet,
The time is out of joint, 0 cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right."
Benjamin Rush was a very great man. He gave much of his life to public service, and while he engaged other men in his public enterprises, he urged nobody to do more than he was himself doing willingly. This was shown in Philadelphia's fearful scourges of yellow fever. While many fled the city, Rush remained and was constant in his service, day and night, and nobody under compulsion served more faithfully than did he as a volunteer. He was great in many ways, despite some faults of character, faults taking on at times some of the large characteristics of the man. He was impetuous, and saw things in the large; his plans were patriotic and humanitarian, and he pressed to their realization with a fierce energy which made him impatient of opposition.
Dickinson College was part of Rush's statesmanlike educational plan for Pennsylvania colleges in Carlisle, Pittsburgh, and Lancaster, and a university in Philadelphia, and into its accomplishment he threw himself with all his imperious purpose and will. He was wise enough to see that for this plan Dickinson needed at its head a man of commanding qualities, a scholar the equal of any to be found anywhere in America; and when he had found him he held out promises to him, many of which were improbable, and some nearly impossible, of fulfillment under any ordinary conditions.
Friends of the College especially are likely to be generous in their judgment of Benjamin Rush, when they find that their College was little short of a religion with him, as many of his statements show. He calls the College "that nursery of learning and religion." He declared "Our cause is the cause of virtue and heaven." "It must, it will prosper," he asserts to a discouraged follower. He chides a friend seeming
to lag in fidelity, "I am afraid you are growing careless of the child you have helped to bring into the world." "I think of it constantly. All will end well." "Think of nothing else, do. nothing else, but collect subscriptions for the College." "Get money. Get it honorably, if you can, but get money for the College!" "The dear petulant brat.... If I thought my bones could receive pleasure after my death from being near the object of my affection, I should give orders to have them deposited under the present College of Carlisle." After Dr. Davidson had made a successful visit to Baltimore for subscriptions he writes, "Show me a man that loves and serves our College, and he is my brother." "Give over our College? God forbid!" He voices his sorrow for one of the trustees who in 1784 could not be "at Carlisle on the 6th of April to join with the friends of humanity and virtue in consecrating our temple of justice." If he was friendly to the College and its friends, he was equally bitter toward its enemies. Of one of these he asks, "What new rewards can the devil find out to confer.... He would strangle the Saviour and poison the twelve Apostles, if they stood in his way.... He is not less formidable for malice and wickedness than the Devil himself."
A man who felt as deeply as these sayings of his would indicate has claim upon us for charity of judgment under any circumstances, and the scholar he secured to head the College was really its main asset for many years such an asset as made it respectable in spite of many adverse conditions. When Nisbet died, after nineteen years of service, the College had won such a position that even the following thirty years of untamed trustee administration was not quite able to kill it. Though its doors were closed twice [1816-1821 and 1832-1834], it had made such a record in the lives of its students that the memory of what had been, of the golden age of Nisbet, doubtless had much to do with its resurrection.