|Chapter 5 Dr. Nisbet Resigns, and Is Reëlected|
CHARLES NISBET took the cumbersome oath of office on July 5, 1785, "omitting that part respecting his demeaning himself as a faithful citizen and subject of this or any of the United States, before his arrival in America"; and began his work. However, he and his entire family soon became seriously ill. He had relief at times, but only temporarily, and before the end of August he notified Rush that he would return to Scotland as soon as possible, and in this determination he remained fixed for months, despite urgent appeals to the contrary.
During their first days in Carlisle the Nisbet family were the guests of John Montgomery. They then went to the "Works," and were delighted with their home. However, the lowlands along the Letort were marshy, and they soon became victims of malaria. Rush inveighed bitterly against the place as unfit for occupancy, saying that during the late war medicines for those stationed there had cost more than was required to support a full regiment. Miasma, such as might "Stifle a bird flying over the place," and night air were freely blamed, but the really dangerous mosquito was not suspected. The family moved into another house in the town for a time, but the damage had been done.
Dr. Nisbet wrote of his sickness: "Since ever I landed in this country I have felt a constant progressive decay of strength and natural spirits, accompanied with a dullness and bluntness of the intellectual faculties, and a perpetual sensation of lassitude without previous exertion. My night's rest has almost gone from me, and my memory and recollection has become weak and indistinct. All these symptoms preceded the attack of the fever, and seemed to be the operation of the climate alone. It is true that since the fever I am still weaker and fainter." Again in September he writes, "I have lost my health and vigor.... I have lost
much of the strength of the right side of my body and contracted a confusion of thought which I never formerly experienced."
Dr. Nisbet wrote many letters on the subject, and they show that he was both sick and homesick. The unwonted heat of the new climate had probably undermined his strength. Malaria had followed, and then came a slight stroke of paralysis. He was in very bad case, and Rush wrote in September to Montgomery, "I feel in the most sensible manner the distressing account you have given me of good Dr. Nisbet's illness. I hope the next report of him will be more favorable. His death would be a great blow to the interests of religion and learning in our country. But the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. All will be well."
Dr. Nisbet, however, was set on his return to Scotland. He longed for home with a very great longing, and had persuaded himself that it was the will of the Lord that he should go. He wrote: "If Providence disables me from doing the duties of my office, by taking away my health, who can help it? ... I had promised myself great satisfaction, not to say distinction, in discharging the duties of my office with fidelity.... I am afraid I have been too sanguine in my expectations, and may have provoked God to write vanity on my favourite prospects.... The hand of God is irresistible."
Nisbet's decision to resign and return to Scotland, reached in August, caused consternation for a time, and Rush writes to Armstrong and Montgomery, September 2, the chief letter to the former, telling the latter to call on Armstrong to see the letter written him. "It will unfold a melancholy tale too. The whole must be kept as private as possible. By prudent management all may yet be well. You and the General must concur in soothing the Doctor and in reconciling him to our country. I have written three long letters to him in which I have opened fully to him the prospects of usefulness, honor and happiness that await him in his present important station.... Keep up your spirits; mine were never better."
He wrote them again, September 9, that he was distressed for the possible loss of Nisbet to religion and learning in our country.
However, all consideration for Nisbet on Rush's part disappears four days after the above letter of September 9. Letters of the Nisbets to Philadelphia friends giving their views of college conditions had been reported to him, and almost in a rage Rush writes Montgomery in Carlisle, "Our city rings with nothing but the complaints of Dr. Nisbet's family against our College, climate and the village of Carlisle. If they should at a future day alter their resolution, the Doctor, I am afraid, could not be useful to our infant institution. He has done it more mischief than can ever be atoned for by his greatest exertions.... The Doctor will cost us the whole of Mr. Dickinson's late donation. What then? We are only where we were when we sent for him. All will end well ...."
Armstrong, Nisbet, and Rush, the three men now most active in the college drama, rather tragedy, being acted, all agreed that Nisbet should return to Scotland, the first two because of Nisbet's broken health, and the third because he believed Nisbet could no longer benefit the College, "with his present family." The time of his resignation and the financial terms on which he should go were not so clear. Rush proposed that Dr. Nisbet should resign at the next trustee meeting, but he replied that this would leave him without further claims on them for salary, and that he and family would be in a strange land far from home and without means to reach that home. Rush answered that the trustees were already heavy losers in that they had brought him to this country without any return. Dr. Nisbet's reply was pathetic enough, "You will say the Trustees have lost much in bringing me hither. I am sincerely sorry for it, but their loss is trifling in comparison to mine. I have lost the life tenure of a benefice of L120 sterling per annum. I have lost my health and vigor.... My loss is greatest, who must become an adventurer in my old age." His position was unanswer-
able, and it was agreed that on the resignation the trustees would meet the expenses of the return to Scotland. This arrangement was formally endorsed by the trustees on October 16, 1785. Nisbet's resignation was coupled with a separate statement that it was due to his health alone. The resignation was accepted with assurances of deep regret.
At least a month before Dr. Nisbet's resignation, individual trustees were openly, with his full approval, talking of a successor. He alone was certain. He wrote that he was "'exceedingly glad to see ... that you have thought of a successor. I wish only to quietly and as quickly as possible get out of this country."
Sharp differences, however, developed among the trustees. There was no thought of the reëlection of Dr. Nisbet, which later occurred, and there were at least three suggestions. Rush was for once in doubt, though he tentatively suggested the son of Jonathan Edwards. King, of Mercersburg, was "persuaded that the selection of any foreigner would not receive any support by the Trustees," and favored the election of Davidson. Montgomery also favored Davidson, who was his pastor; Armstrong opposed Davidson. Armstrong's sister was the wife of the pastor of the other Presbyterian Church of Carlisle, and church rivalry may have had something to do with his position, for Armstrong makes a thinly veiled threat against the election of Davidson, "one Trustee would declare open war against it."
In December, Armstrong writes Rush "Davidson lacks the scholarly reputation needed for the principalship . . . write Montgomery, and tell him so.... We ought not to give up a possibility of Dr. Nisbet's stay with us." Nisbet's health was improving. Rush writes Montgomery very promptly "The less you say of Dr. Davidson the better," thus supporting Armstrong against the plans of his old friend.
Armstrong alone seems to have brought Dr. Nisbet to the attention of others for the place. In October, shortly after the resignation, he wrote Rush "Dr. Nisbet from his paraytic symptoms is really an object of pity." The following
month he wrote Rush: "Dr. Nisbet is recovering his intellectual faculties fast, and his favorite Scotch Ship is not likely to arrive for a winter passage. Who knows, then, what Providence yet designs to do?" December 29, King writes Rush: "Dr. Nisbet is pretty well recovered, and appears better reconciled to the Country."
Dr. Nisbet was yet in Carlisle, two months after his resignation, because he had refused to sail for home under an Irish captain. Any Atlantic voyage was bad enough forty-seven days he had spent on the ocean coming to America and he would not risk any worse conditions under an Irish captain whom he did not trust.
When it became clear to the local trustees that Dr. Nisbet's health was much better, though he was slow to admit it, King lamented the fact that there had been no earlier Scotch boat, a wish doubtless heartily seconded by Rush. He wanted none of the Nisbets. In November, when there was no thought of Dr. Nisbet's return to the College, he wrote: "Poor man. I have constantly considered him as insane, his wife as foolish, and his son Tom as worse than both." Nisbet's recovery, however, at once put a new face on the problems before the trustees.
Though Dr. Nisbet was being urged by Armstrong after November, Rush and the trustees from a distance were unfavorable to him, the latter probably influenced by the letters of Rush. President Dickinson's objection was that a man who could not rule his own family could not govern a college, and Rush frequently charged that Dr. Nisbet was too much under family influence.
Dr. Nisbet gave no countenance to the hopes held out by Armstrong that he could return to the principalship. On the contrary, he wrote Rush twice in December, once that he was still as bad as ever, and again he complained of "want of hearing, memory and cheerfulness."
On January 9, however, he wrote Rush again in very different spirits: "I acknowledge that the cold weather has been of use to me, tho I dreaded its approach, and though
my complaints are not quite gone off, I am much better than when I wrote you last. The good people here, whose kindness I can never requite, continue to urge me to stay among them, not considering, that since my resignation, it is quite optional to the Trustees to restore me, or not, on the former terms.... I have now almost recovered my health, and have hopes of being able to do something before I die." He thus suggests his own willingness to remain in Carlisle. On January 30 he writes again, "I informed you in the former letter of the recovery of my health. I have received no answer to that as yet.... My affairs are in the greatest uncertainty."
This "uncertainty" had abundant ground. He was willing to stay, did not know whether the trustees would reëlect him in May, nor, if they did elect him, did he know whether it would be at the same salary. If reëlected he might lose both salary for the six months of his sickness and the promised funds for the return of himself and family to Scot- land. His fears in this were realized. He got neither. He knew that there were influences at work to elect a Principal in May at a lower salary than that for which he had origi- nally come. He feared that this might be made to apply to him. His comments on this possibly are interesting as bear- ing on his own case, and as evidence of cost of living in America. "I was drawn from an honorable and secure station... on the faith of men of whom I had the most favorable opinion, and I am now in danger of having the salary lowered.... I wanted only to live as I did formerly, and, as I have found by long experience and exact calculation that the necessaries of life cost more than twice as much here as in Scotland, it would be greatly distressing to my family to have less support than what was stipulated in the first bargain. I have been used from my infancy to frugal living, and expected no other here, but I think it would be hard to reduce me below my former situation." He closes the letter, "I beg your answer and best advice as soon as possible."
Rush's "answer and best advice" came promptly, and
suggested reduction of salary to about $800 instead of the original L250 sterling, or about $1200 Dr. Nisbet's reply told how unjust, even dishonest, he thought such a reduction would be. Apparently he wrote others on the subject, and his complaints reached the ears of Rush. Rush unbosoms himself on the subject in a letter to Montgomery: "Dr. Nisbet had no object in coming to America, and, I believe, has no object in staying but salary. He will make no sacrifices to atone for the injury he has done our College.... In his first letter I ever got from him after he went to Carlisle ... before his sickness he complained very indelicately of the low state of our funds.... I blush for his littleness and ingratitude in this business and wish only to forget and forgive it.... I have advised him to be content with the £300 [Pennsylvania money] the first year ... for this advice he has branded me in the most indecent manner in his letters to his skunk friends in Philadelphia. I have many more things to say ... but I forbear." He then says that the College would have delightful prospects "could we hope that our Principal would possess the disinterested -benevolence, the active public spirit, the fortitude in duty of a Dr. Finely, a Dr. Allison, a Mr. Bream or a Mr. Davis. The high priest of the temple of science and religion pausing at the altar and declaring that he would not ... even kindle a fire, till his wages for performing the sacred duty were paid.... What a melancholy sight. The clergy in this country have not so learned Christ."
February -2, three days after his second letter to Rush, Dr. Nisbet wrote to Armstrong, Acting President of the Board, proposing to return to the College. He writes:
Carlisle, Fenruary 2, 1786
Sir: Having now, by the Divine Goodness, recovered my health, and retaining the same affection to this country which led me to abandon my native soil, I beg the favor that you would communicate to the trustees this unexpected change in my situation. Could I have hoped for such a thing in October last, this trouble would have been unnecessary, but at that time having nothing but death or incompetency in view, and wishing
only to convey my family back to their relations, I was advised to resign my charge, that the trustees might proceed to the election of a successor. As this has not been done, my present situation, their own feelings, and the earnestness with which they invited me formerly, will suggest to them what is fit to be done on this occasion. Begging that you would take the earliest opportunity of communicating this to the trustees, I am, with sincere esteem,
Sir, Your very humble servant,
John Armstrong, Esq., President pro tempore, of The Board of Trustees of Dickinson College, Carlisle
Eight days later Armstrong wrote an official letter to the trustees as follows:
Carlisle, 10th Feb., 1786
Gentlemen: It is with pleasure you are hereby informed of Doctor Nisbet's late and tedious illness and that his intentions of returning to Scotland are changed with the state of his health.
He is now willing to remain with us, and very desirous of pursuing the great object which led him from his native country, provided he is reinstated in his former charge, but apprehends there is an obvious hardship in waiting the long interval until the meeting of our Board, and even then a possibility that he may not be reëlected
In order to remove this difficulty as far as in our power, seven or eight of the trustees being occasionally in town, we had a conference on the subject, which issued in the desire of those present, That the Dr. should commit his wishes to writing, and a request that I should communicate them (as now enclosed) to as many of the Trustees as I possibly could; in order to procure their sentiments as individuals, either for or against his reëlection, that the Dr. may have some ground of confidence, or line of direction to his conduct, until the meeting of the Board in May next. It is also proper to inform you gentlemen that in the conference mentioned above, there was not a dissenting voice to the reappointment of Dr. Nisbet, but on the contrary, very explicit declarations in his favour, alleging that no principle either of honor, or good policy, could justify a refusal of it. Two of the number then present, it's true, hesitated at giving the former salary, being in their opinion more than our funds would allow, others opposed that idea, referring the matter as it must be to the decision of the Board. On this occasion, Gentlemen, your intimations will be expected, as early as may be convenient,
By your very respectful and most humble servant,
Dr. Nisbet now frequently visits the College, much to the satisfaction of the professors, students and trustees at this place, and I may warrant-
ably add, every other person of discernment, who have gained any acquaintance of the Doctor, since his recovery.
Nisbet's letters resulted in a conference of the local trustees, and Armstrong's letter gives its result. The Carlisle Gazette of February 9 publishes the facts in the case:
"We can now assure the public ... that the Doctor's health and strength is nearly fully restored; that he has proposed to accept of his first appointment, provided the board ... should re-elect him, of which there can be no doubt.... The Trustees in and near Carlisle having already given their unanimous suffrages in his favor." Seven weeks later a Latin poem appeared in the Gazette. "In Carolum Nisbet, Sacrosanctae Theologiae Doctorem Ex gravi Morbo convalescentem Carleoli tertio Kal, Aprilis, 1786."
It thus became clear that while trustees at a distance, led by Rush, were generally opposed to Nisbet's reëlection, trustees of Carlisle and vicinity, who might be supposed to know him best, under the lead of the "Old General" Armstrong, were apparently all in his favor. Dr. Black, of Gettysburg, was not certain what should be done, but in view of the facts of the case he writes Rush: "You inform me that President Dickinson is against the reëlection of Nisbet ... also, ... that this is your judgment.... General Armstrong and his party ... are now fixed on Dr. Nisbet, whilst Col. Montgomery, etc., are determined for Dr. Davidson. In this chaos ... unite or die ... let us labor to come to some agreement." And they did, for on "Tuesday, 9th May, 1786, the Board met, pursuant to adjournment," with a bare quorum of nine. On the following day they elected "a principal by ballot, when it appeared that the Rev. Dr. Charles Nisbet was unanimously elected principal of Dickinson College." A letter from President Dickinson was read and referred to a committee, which reported the next day in a letter to Dickinson, saying in part, "We feel a peculiar satisfaction in observing the perfect correspondence of your sentiment with a measure unanimously adopted by us, that is, the election of Dr. Nisbet to the office of Principal of Dickinson College."
The election of Nisbet was unanimous, but the old salary was not voted unanimously. King, who had wanted somebody at less salary, reported to Rush two weeks after the meeting, "A few of us labored to have the salary of the Principal voted in Pennsylvania currency and settled at £400, but we could not prevail." Nisbet's salary, then, was to be £250 sterling, about $1,200. The Pennsylvania pound was worth $2.67, and King's proposal would have made the salary nearly $1,075, and the proposal of Rush to Nisbet of £300, about $800.
This important trustees' meeting of May, 1786, and the earlier one of June, 1785, had some unusual features to which their successors today are not subjected, and to which they would probably object. At the 1785 meeting, we learn from the Gazette, "An Oration in Praise of Mathematics was delivered before the Trustees of Dickinson College by Jno. Montgomery, Jr. The dialogue between Philemon and Eugenia ... was then spoken by Jno. Montgomery, Jr., and Robert Duncan." Some students delivered orations before the trustees at 5 P.M. on the afternoon of their second day's meeting in May, 1786.
Rush's conduct following this reëlection is most interesting. It is revealed in various letters to Montgomery, to whom he continued to write with perfect freedom. On June 18 he writes, "Is it peculiar to Scotchmen and heads of colleges to be sordid and arbitrary? Smith ... Ewing ... Witherspoon and Nisbet alike in these two qualities." He then says that he is reconciled with Nisbet, and proceeds: "I have forgiven him all the unkind, unjust and cruel charges he has brought against me.... I have advised the Dr. to be more cautious in complaining of the Trustees and of the 'sickly' and 'dirty' town of Carlisle." July 1 he says "All has ended well," but three weeks later, "Glad that Dr. N. gives so much satisfaction and is so popular among you.... His wit gives him pain while it is confined, and everybody pain when it is discharged." At the same time he complains that English and Irish papers are full of Nisbet's complaints of "having been deceived ... found neither students nor
funds at our college and that he was particularly displeased with the town of Carlisle. If he should live an 100 years, he can never atone for the mischief he has done our College."
Rush had objected to the salary given Nisbet on his reelection, and complained that those who had voted it were doing nothing to provide it, leaving that largely to him; and this was true. Some tactful consideration for Rush at this time on the part of Nisbet might possibly have brought about better relations. Nisbet, however, was not tactful. Apparently he continued to give his opinion of Rush. Nothing else seems to explain an extremely bitter letter of Rush to Montgomery in August, 1786, following Nisbet's second election: "He will know the value of my friendship better when he feels the deficiency of his salary occasioned by his own folly, for as I had no vote in his second appointment, I shall not think myself bound to concur in supporting him. I consider myself as neglected and insulted by all the trustees in Carlisle who have tamely witnessed his abuse and calumnies circulated against me. I have not deserved this from your hands. But I have a remedy in store. If you do not oblige him to contradict in all his letters the falsehoods he has told of me before the next meeting of the Board, I shall certainly send in my resignation, and dissolve all connection with the College forever. You may show this declaration and the whole of this letter to all the Trustees in Carlisle. I have bore and forborne long. But all in vain his heart cannot be softened by favors, nor subdued by Friendship. To prevent a repetition of his insolence to me (for in his last letter he calls me indirectly a rogue and a traitor), you may inform him that I will receive no letter from him now which you or some of the trustees do not first see. If it is sent to me without this formality, I shall send it back unopened."
Other sorrowful correspondence, including a long letter from Gen. Armstrong to Dr. Rush, ensued, but cordial relations were never reëstablished.
Thus Dr. Nisbet really began, in May, 1786, the eighteen years of service that ended with his death in 1804.