|Chapter 6 Charles Nisbet, the Man|
CHARLES NISBET on July 5, 1785, took the required oath of office as Principal of Dickinson College, but only after ten trying months of sickness, resignation, and general uncertainty was it finally settled that he was to occupy the office. At the close of the story of these ten months, and as he is about to begin his work, it seems proper to attempt some estimate of the man.
Dickinson, Rush, and Nisbet were the prominent figures of the early college life. Dickinson's character and lifestory are of record in the history of his country, which he served so well. Dr. Rush has been freely discussed; his fame appears in the chronicles of the medical profession he so greatly adorned. Nisbet, on the other hand, though possibly equally outstanding in many ways, did his work in a less conspicuous field and one little regarded in his time. He is therefore less widely known.
What manner of man was Charles Nisbet? He passed away over a century and a quarter ago, leaving comparatively few sources from which his real portrait may be drawn. He published practically nothing and refused to allow others to publish for him. Even his private papers have disappeared. His only biography, by his old pupil, Samuel Miller, appeared thirty-six years after his death, and Miller complained that even then most of the personal data had been lost. Since Dr. Miller's life of Nisbet was written, some little new material has been found, which adds only a few life touches to the portrait.
Charles Nisbet was born in Haddington, Scotland, January 21, 1736, of parents able to give him no educational advantages beyond those of the local schools. When only sixteen years of age, however, he entered the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1754, and then spent six years in Divinity Hall preparing for the ministry. All the expenses of these eight years he met by services of various kinds,
especially tutoring and editorial work. He then became pastor of a Glasgow church, whose people failed to keep their agreement to furnish him a house, as he was unmarried. At the end of two years he accepted a call elsewhere, and in his farewell sermon gave quiet evidence of his later wellknown wit, preaching from the text "And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him." This new call was to go to Montrose as assistant to an aged incumbent, and came to him on the recommendation of a distinguished pastor of Glasgow, who called him the ablest preacher he knew. He continued as assistant till the death of his senior in 1773, when he became pastor in charge. Here he seemed to have the prospect of a long career of useful service to a devoted people, for, on his leaving for America, they held his place open for him until they thought there was no longer any hope of his returning. His people were loyal to him. He often expressed sympathy for the American Colonies in their struggle for independence, and this sympathy doubtless influenced Rush and other trustees of the College to call him to be their Principal. As has been detailed, he hesitated for a time, and the wonder is that he accepted at all. It may be guessed that the happy circumstances of Witherspoon, his old friend, then for years President of Princeton, and his high position in both church and state, had something to do with his final decision to accept.
His reputation for scholarship in Scotland was of the highest. When but thirty-one years old he was thought of by Dr. Witherspoon "as the person of all my acquaintance the fittest for that office," the presidency of Princeton College. Such was his reputation for learning that he was known as "the walking library." He had many friends in the best literary circles, as also among the Scotch nobility, and their letters to him in Carlisle, even to the end of his life, show how strong a hold he had upon them. His learning, wit, and social talent made him not only a welcome member in any cultured circle, but one eagerly sought.
On his death, twenty years after he had left Scotland, one of his old friends there wrote his impressions of him after the lapse of these years. This letter of his Scotch contemporary, possibly Charles Wilson, of Edinburgh, careful and discriminating, makes clear the abiding character of his reputation. He writes that as a student in the theological class Nisbet "was an excellent Latin scholar ... as much at his ease in Latin as in English.... His command of Latin ... suggests to me the mention of his astonishing memory. In this faculty he exceeded all men that I ever knew. A son of mine had returned from ... the University.... He asked the boy what he was reading. He told him such a book of Homer. The Doctor then began and recited many lines of that book.... I asked him how it was possible.... He replied that he did not well know; that he had read them and they stuck. He assured me that he could once have repeated the whole Æneid and Young's Night Thoughts." Such a letter from an old friend finds support in like statements of distinguished and credible witnesses on this side the sea.
Dr. Ashbel Green, President of Princeton, says "Dr. Nisbet was, beyond comparison, a man of the most learning that I have ever personally known.... It discovered itself in his conversation and letters, but without anything like intentional display.... He was skilled in Hebrew ... Chaldee, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, German and probably Erse.... With the ancient classics and with the modern languages I have mentioned his familiarity was great in each he had read a considerable portion of the best authors. When he left Europe he was supposed to be among the best Greek scholars it contained.... But he was not merely a linguist. There was scarcely a subject or topic in any department of liberal knowledge ... with which he was not acquainted.... In memory and wit I always regarded him as a prodigy.... I never myself have known an individual that could pretend to be his equal (in memory). Everything that he had read, heard or seen seemed to be immovably fixed in his mind, and to be ready for his use,
(even) the incidents in the newspapers of the day, and in other ephemeral publications that fell under his notice, he never forgot.... His wit ... seemed to be instinctive, and to gush out, almost involuntarily, on all occasions." Dr. Green attended a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Carlisle in 1792 and was the dinner guest of Dr. Nisbet. Dr. Green writes that at the close of the dinner "the Doctor indulged his witty and satirical vein beyond anything I had before witnessed. At other times it had broken out by flashes, with distinct intermissions, but it now blazed forth in a coruscation with only fitful abatements for more than an hour. He was a man of as much genuine integrity as I have ever known.... He abhorred and denounced ... all hypocrisy and all disguise. His own sentiments and feelings he disclosed with the simplicity of a child. Had he been more reserved, perhaps he would have been more happy; but he had no talent for concealment."
Matthew Brown graduated from Dickinson College in 1794, received honorary degrees from Princeton and Hamilton Colleges, and in 18o6 became the first president of Washington College at Washington, Pennsylvania. From 1822 to 1845 he was president of Jefferson College at Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. During the preparation of Dr. Miller's life of Nisbet, Dr. Brown, in 1840, forty-six years after his graduation, wrote for Miller an estimate of his old college president. This letter of Dr. Brown, because of his long connection with Dr. Nisbet as well as for the contents of the letter itself, follows in large part.
Canonsburg, June 29, 1840
... Dr. Nisbet was certainly a very extraordinary man. He appeared to have read and studied everything, and to have forgotten nothing. He seemed at home on every subject; to be familiar with all distinguished writers, ancient and modern; and to be extensively and accurately informed on every department of literature. He was master of at least twelve different languages, and could write and converse in most of them with ease and fluency. In Latin particularly he could converse and write with great facility and elegance. As President of the College, when present at the recitations or examinations of the different classes, he appeared per-
fectly familiar with every department mathematics, the natural sciences, and languages, as well as his own peculiar department. He was so perfectly familiar with the Latin and Greek classics usually studied in College, that without book, he could hear a recitation and correct the slightest error. He appeared to have the whole committed to memory. The power of his memory was altogether extraordinary. "The Task," a favourite poem with him, he was said to have committed to memory perfectly by two readings. He could quote and repeat, with a familiarity truly wonderful, most of the great poets, Latin, Greek and English.
In theology and the sacred Scriptures his knowledge was extensive and profound. When I commenced the study of theology under his care, he directed me to read and study the Scriptures, at first "without note or comment"; and when any difficulty occurred, to note the passage and present it to him, at the time appointed for meeting him. The moment he took the paper in his hand he seemed to anticipate the whole difficulty, referred at once to the connection, and commonly repeated literally, and with the utmost readiness, the whole context; and was prepared to throw the most satisfactory light upon it....
After I became familiar with his Scotch dialect and tone, I was delighted with him as a preacher. There was, as might have been expected, in his discourse a rich fund of thought expressed with peculiar vivacity and force of language; and when exposing error and vice, accompanied with a vein of satire for which he was so remarkable. His sermons, you know, were not written; but they were very systematic, and always well arranged. He had a singular command of that exhaustless fund of ideas with which his mind was stored. When I heard him in Carlisle, he seemed to limit himself exactly to an hour, in every discourse, by the watch. But this limitation of himself to the hour did not seem to destroy or even to affect, the proportion or harmony of the different parts of his sermons.
His plan of instruction in college was by lectures, which the classes were expected to write in full. He delivered them with so much deliberation and with such pauses, that, after some practice, we were able to take down the whole. I have a full copy of all his lectures taken from his lips as he delivered them. There were, however, few classes, all the members of which would consent to sustain the labour of doing this. His lectures were thought by some to be too voluminous; but they were exceedingly rich, and excellent in their kind. Besides a thorough and philosophical investigation of his subject, it was always illustrated by appropriate anecdotes, characterized by that wit and vivacity for which he was so distinguished. He seldom finished a lecture without some exhilarating anecdote, and some brilliant flashes of wit and humor, electrifying the whole class.
It had been often alleged that men who are remarkable for memory and wit, are commonly deficient in judgment and the power of close reasoning and investigation. This remark, which has almost passed into
a maxim, was not exemplified in the case of Dr. Nisbet. His lectures on metaphysics, on mental philosophy, and on the most difficult subjects in theology, exhibit a mind capable of the closest reasoning, and the most discriminating and profound investigation, whilst at the same time his lucid style, and striking illustrations throw an interest around those subjects which are usually considered as dry and unattractive.
And here I cannot forbear to give a little specimen of what I mean, extracted from one of his lectures on logic. After treating on several sorts of syllogism and modes of argumentation, he added:
"Besides all the modes of argumentation already mentioned, there is another more ancient and much more in use, than any of the rest. This is commonly called the argumentum baculinum, or club argument, and consists in using force in bringing others over to our opinion. But all other methods of reasoning ought to be tried before this is used; yet in all governments this mode is absolutely necessary for supporting the honour of the laws; and indeed all government is only a jest without it. But it is not only the nerve of authority, but the soul of war. Whence Louis the 14th caused this inscription to be engraved on his cannon 'Ultima ratio regum." There are some men of a nature so stupid that this is the only mode of reasoning that has any weight with them; and others are so stubborn that even this mode of reasoning cannot change their opinion; but it has this convenient quality that, when it is vigorously applied, it either silences or convinces. It has the same property as the dilemma, viz. that it is apt to be retorted; and if the person who uses it, has not a force superior to his respondent, he runs the risk of being confuted; because this mode of reasoning is of all others the most infectious, and apt to be catched by the respondent, the moment that it is used against him, which ought to make young men very cautious in the use of this argument, lest they give their respondent an opportunity of refuting them. But the most warrantable and safe use of this mode of argumentation is when one acts as a respondent; and this is the only justificable use of it in private life. There is no mode of argument in which mankind are more liable to be licentious and disputatious. Young men in particular are very prone to the use of it, though generally forbidden by their teacher; and, indeed, they ought not to be allowed the use of it until they are acquainted with the rules of logic, so as to know its proper place, and the cases in which it ought to be used. Of all modes of reasoning this is, undoubtedly, the most generally used. Hence all history is full of it; on which account it may be reckoned surprising that Aristotle has said nothing about it in his Organon; and it was probably owing to this omission that his pupil, Alexander the Great, was so licentious in the use of it.
"It is remarkable that although, in the common mode of syllogistic disputation, there is nothing so difficult as how to find a good middle term, on the contrary, in this way of disputation, there is nothing so easy. Almost everything has been used as a middle term in this method of
disputation. Hence Virgil says, Furor arma ministrat, because a stone, a stick, a firebrand, or almost anything within one's reach, may be used as a middle term. Schoolmasters make use of their ferula for this purpose, and boys of their fists; and Horace tells us that the Thracians made use of their drinking cups by way of middle terms; and the moderns have imitated their example by using bottles and glasses for the same purpose. As it is necessary in disputation that the same person should not at once act as opponent and respondent, this gave rise to the shield, the helmet, and the coat of mail, which served the same purpose to the disputant as the denial of any of the premises in ordinary logic, the effect of which is to render the argument on the other side useless. But since the invention of gunpowder, a new kind of middle term has been introduced, which renders defensive armour entirely useless. But the argumentum baculinum is safest in the hands of the civil magistrates, because private persons are apt to use it with indiscretion. Young men ought not to be licentious in the use of any sort of argument; but they ought to be especially cautious in the use of the argumentum baculinum."The moderns have introduced into their logic, an argument unknown to the ancients called argument ad crumenam, i. e. an argument addressed to the purse, which however fashionable, has nothing to recommend it, because it has no tendency to produce conviction. It may embarrass a poor respondent, but cannot convince his understanding. Besides this mode may also be retorted."Another mode of argument is the argumentum juratorium, or attempting to demonstrate a conclusion by oaths, instead of premises and middle terms. This kind does not admit of any rule, being really a breach of all rules, and commonly as unfriendly to truth as it is contrary to delicacy and propriety. Besides, swearing in common conversation has been observed to be almost inseparably connected with lying; so that one may pick the lies out of any mixed discourse, without any other guide than the oaths by which they were accompanied. The fact is, when a man is conscious that he is speaking the truth, he will never suspect that it needs to be confirmed by an oath; whereas, when he knows that he is telling a lie, it is more than probable that he will swear to it....
Late in 1791, soon after the death of his father in Dover, Delaware, Miller says:
I repaired to Carlisle and found Dr. Nisbet in good health and spirits, and busily engaged in his labours; as the head of Dickinson College, the winter session of which had, a few weeks before, commenced. I had never until then seen the eminent man whose instruction I sought. I expected (boy-like) to find so much learning connected with reserved and formal, if not repulsive, manners; but was agreeably surprised to find Dr. Nisbet as affable, as easy of access, as simple and unostentatious in his manners, and as attractive in all the intercourse of social life, as any man I had ever seen ... after the first hour [he] placed me as much at my ease as if I had been hanging on the lips of that parent according to the flesh whose loss I had been recently called to mourn.... My practice, in ordinary cases, was regularly, every evening, to sit with him in his domestic circle two or three hours. And on whatever subject I might desire information ... I had but to propose the topic and suggest queries to draw forth everything that I wished.... [His words] presented a constant flow of rich amusement and information, and yet so entirely free from ostentation, dogmatism, or pedantry, that every listener was at once instructed, entertained and gratified. Probably no man on this side of the Atlantic ever brought into the social circle, such diversified and ample stores of erudition; such an extraordinary knowledge of men and books and opinions; such an amazing fund of rare and racy anecdotes; and all poured out with so much unstudied simplicity, with such constant flashes of wit and humour, and with such a peculiar mixture of satire and good nature, as kept every company, whether young or old, hanging upon his lips, and doing constant homage to his wonderful acquirements.
Of Nisbet's teaching Miller says: "Every member of the theological class should commit to writing the whole of each lecture, as it fell from his lips, and this was regarded with aversion and deemed a drudgery too severe to be pursued through several years.... The lecturer well knew that books were extremely scarce, especially in the western parts of our country; and that, therefore, the possession of a complete system of theology, prepared with great care, would be a treasure of permanent and peculiar value."
Justice Hugh H. Brackenridge, of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, was not only a distinguished jurist, but also an author of renown. He was a resident of Carlisle and a trustee of the College, 1803-1816, the first year of his
trusteeship being the last of the life and service of Dr. Nisbet to the College; and Brackenridge gave it as his judgment that Dr. Nisbet's information far surpassed that of any other man in this country or of any other age. While the extreme to which he went in the last part of his statement may somewhat discredit his testimony, the learning of Dr. Nisbet must have profoundly impressed the justice. John Bannister Gibson, another justice of the same Court and for twenty-four years its Chief Justice, a former student of Dr. Nisbet, of the Class Of 1789, gave it as his opinion that as a scholar he had no superior in America.
In a letter of Rush to Montgomery shortly after Nisbet's arrival in America, he tells of a letter brought him by Nisbet from Scotland, in which is the following: "I follow Dr. Nisbet with solicitude across the ocean. Such another man you will not be able soon to select and carry from us. He is a moving library. He is a Greek and Latin scholar to whom we have few to compare. He is still more distinguished for his command of modern languages. His reading is extensive, his memory vigorous, his discernment quick, his judgment sound. In theology he is a sound Calvinist; in politics, a thorough Whig; at heart an American."
He was without question a great scholar, second probably to no man in America., a man of libraries and scholarly circles. His learning was the fruit of a good mind industriously applied from early youth and coupled with a phenomenal memory which let nothing slip. In ready wit he was unsurpassed; he was the life of almost any gathering of congenial spirits. Two stories illustrating this ready wit yet remain., or have been associated with his name as probably his. Miller's biography gives one of them, as a passage between Nisbet and his friend Witherspoon of Princeton. Nisbet complained to Witherspoon that he had an uncomfortable ringing in his head; whereupon Witherspoon replied that the head must be empty. Nisbet asked Witherspoon whether his head never rang, and on being answered in the negative, said, "That means that it is cracked." This story
has been reported also as though between Nisbet and one of the early professors of the College.
Another story current fifty years ago had as its background a meeting of the Presbytery, with Witherspoon in the chair. The usual tankard of beer was produced and was to be passed around, beginning with the chairman. The latter seemed to hold it too long to his lips, when Nisbet moved that the chair be not considered also the mouthpiece of the Presbytery. They were evidently the best of friends. The United States Gazette of June, 1791, records:
Witherspoon - Dill married at Philadelphia, Penn., on Monday evening, the 30th ult. by Rev. Dr. Nisbet, President of Dickinson College, the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, President of Princeton College, to Mrs. Ann Dill, widow of Dr. Armstrong Dill, of York County, Penn., a lady of great beauty and merit.
The Dill family gave name to Dillsburg, York County.
In Scotland, Nisbet sympathized with the Colonies in their struggles and had doubtless made some enemies thereby. It could hardly have been otherwise, as he very frankly expressed his sentiments during the progress of the Revolutionary War. On one public occasion, when he seemed to approach the subject of the Revolution in an objectionable manner, the members of the Montrose town council, attending in a body, left the church, and as they left, Nisbet, pointing to their vacant seats, delivered as a parting shot, "The wicked flee when no man pursueth." A friend asked him to pray for the King and his ministers, and he replied; "Do I not pray for them every Sabbath?" "Yes," was the reply, "but as if they were the greatest culprits in all his Majesty's dominions." Consistently through all the years of the struggle of the Colonies for their rights, he was their friend, and favored the Whig policy of opposition to the successive measures of the British Government. After he had become a part of American life, however, all this was changed; he became a severe critic of the conditions under which he lived for nearly nineteen years. He had idealized
the struggle for liberty at long range, but after he came to grips with American institutions he revolted against their rawness. Chief Justice Taney calls him anti-Republican, and his recently discovered letters, now in the New York Library, show clearly that this was true.
Dr. Nisbet was happy the first month of his stay in America. Three weeks in the hospitable home of the distinguished and popular Dr. Rush in Philadelphia were followed by five days of travel ending on July 4 at Carlisle in an almost triumphal entry. Five miles out of Carlisle, at Boiling Springs, he was met by many of the citizens, and here they all dined under bowers of oaken boughs, likened by Nisbet to the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. John Montgomery writes Rush two days later: "He was met there [at Boiling Springs] by near thirty ladies and above forty gentlemen.... The Doctor was highly delighted. He lodges with me. He is indeed a very agreeable man ... is pleased with his students and their appearance.... P. S. The Doctor is just returned from the Public Works. [Here was to be his home.] He is in raptures with the place. He says it is the most beautiful and extensive prospect he ever saw. Indeed he is pleased with the place and everybody. Mrs. Nisbet is much delighted with her new habitation.... I am sure this place will be exceeding happy with the Doctor. He is a good man.
The idyllic character of this reception and the heartiness of the people in their welcome to the great scholar who had come among them, doubtless made a deep impression on the man they delighted thus to honor. Yesterday's feast under leafy bowers, however, is soon gone, and the silver-throated court-house bell rung in his honor becomes silent; the stern reality of the pioneer work before him and the drab realities of the once idealized democracy soon thrust themselves upon the sensitive scholar in his frontier home. He came to feel himself a stranger and an alien in the midst of the strange new people about him. His letters to his friend Charles Wilson, in Edinburgh, are full of comments on the conditions
of his Carlisle life, and quotations show only too well his critical attitude toward all his American surroundings.
His letters to Wilson, written with great frankness, show that he was not at home in America. He says in September, 1790: "I live alone, and neither pay nor receive visits," and again on August 19, 1791, "As I live very solitary here, a letter from Scotland is a great dish to me.... Selfishness greatly prevails here, so that few can be the better of professed friends. I regret my leaving Scotland with respect to myself, as I live here like a pelican in the wilderness. But I submit to it as a dispensation of Providence. None of the clergy visit me, and the prejudice and ignorance of my neighbors render them no company to me ... though not destitute of the comforts of life, yet almost quite destitute of the comforts of friendship and society.... We endeavor to be contented in the midst of disappointments and inconveniences. This life is a weary pilgrimage and full of troubles but there remaineth the rest for the people of God. The receipt of such letters is one of the chief enjoyments of life that an exile can expect."
We can imagine the situation of the finished scholar, little understanding virile frontier folk, and unable to make proper approach to good fellowship with them, and they in turn holding aloof from the man seeming to them out of touch or sympathy with them. So he wended his way from day to day to and from his house, admired by the citizens, probably revered for his character and the learning to which they were mostly strangers; and so was built up a wall of separation between him and them, because of which he suffered acutely. No wonder that in congenial company he developed "coruscations of wit," or that Rush, none too friendly, should write of a dinner at his home and say that Nisbet's "conversation was unusually interesting and brilliant, and his anecdotes full of original humor and satire." Under these circumstances, in college parlance, he was "making up conditions," was feeding his starved social nature.
With respect to religion and the church, so closely joined
in his thought, he was little better pleased, as shown by these same letters. In September, 179o, he writes, "We have no men of learning or taste, and of religious people fewest of all ... highest degree of virtue and piety procure no respect to its owner. I often imagined that if the Apostle Paul had a congregation in America, he could not keep it six weeks without a miracle.... As to doctrines every one teaches what he pleases, and if he speaks loud enough and does not meddle with morality, his hearers will bear with him., at least till they have gotten three or four years in his debt, and then they will treat him like a dog.... The Methodists are making many converts.... They generally succeed most with the ignorant people, and many here are very ignorant. They have two Bishops, who are among their worst preachers and the best of them are indolent tradesmen or bankrupt farmers." A few years later, in 1797, he again gives vent to his feelings on the same subject. "But you entirely mistake the character of the people of this country, if you imagine that they desire to support gospel ministry or to see them independent. It is this that has divided all our citizens into two great parties, the 'anythingarians,' who hold all religions equally good, and the 'nothingarians,' who abhor all religions equally. And in such a division you may easily believe that the 'anythingarians,' having no fixed principles to rest on, must be put down by the 'nothingarians,' who are the great majority in this country.... Very little learning is required for making a minister in this country, and there are some seminaries which bring men from the plow, the wagon and the loom into the pulpit."
In the same critical tone he evidently wrote his wise old friend, the Countess Leven, of the religious conditions in America, for she replied that the conditions of which he complained existed in Scotland also. "You complain of preaching to a dead people. I wish I could tell you it would be different if you were here." The blunt Earl of Buchan writes him in December, 1790: "How could you expect the spawn of a highly civilized and corrupted nation could do
better? Were you in Scotland, or any part of Europe, do you think you would not discover all the same roguery, etc. Reënter into your own mind and renew your covenant to preach that gospel faithfully. So, here, Doctor, I present you with a Roland for your Oliver. Rest and be thankful."
No less bitterly does he gird at the people, their social organization and democratic government. "Everything here is on a dead level and there is no distinction except wealth, which few people possess here, though many live in luxury. I cannot hear of a man who is rich enough to pay his debts or to keep his engagements.... Our gentlemen are all of the first edition; few of them live in their father's house. In fact it would be impossible to conceive the country more weak and wretched.... I am not a friend to popular elections, and no man who has seen America can be a friend to them.... I cannot boast of many friends here not being a man of that sort that the people delight to honor.... In a republic the demagogue and rabble drivers are the only citizens that are represented or have any share in the government.... Knowledge is very rare in this country and has been the least of our importations. Where is the community so enlightened that the majority of it are wise men.... We are a weak, foolish and divided people.... Americans seem much more desirous that their affairs be managed by themselves than that they should be well managed. I think that the Divine Providence has a controversy with the United States and that neither their union nor their constitution will be lasting, as God is not owned in it. Perhaps it has already seen its best days."
He writes of the Government to his old friend, Dr. Witherspoon, of Princeton: "I have seen the plan of the Federal City [Washington], and agree that it resembles the New Jerusalem in one respect, for, as St. John testifies, that he saw no temple there, so I find no plan or place for a church in all that large draught. But I cannot add what he mentions in the next verse, as I believe that our people will be well enough contented with the light of Liberty and
Equality, together with that of French lanterns and Atheistical philosophy." After twelve years' residence in Carlisle, he wonders that it escapes the judgment of God! He writes a Philadelphia correspondent on the yellow-fever scourge: "I still consider it an extraordinary instance of the goodness of God to this worthless country that neither in 1793 nor this year (1797) did the infection extend itself beyond the limits of the city and suburbs."
Nisbet's statements on college and seminary conditions are equally critical, but may possibly be discounted some what because of his own experience with the trustees of Dickinson College. Of these he speaks not only frankly but severely, and with very good reason. He was almost as bitter, however, with respect to education in general, and unfairly judged them all, apparently by the standards of older countries. He wrote: "The seminaries of this country are upon the worst footing, owing to their being too often under the government of ignorant trustees.... I have more trouble with the old than with the young. The trustees are generally men of small acquaintance with letters ... and can scarcely be made to understand their duties."
These somewhat lengthy extracts from Nisbet's statements are fair samples of his comments on men and things, and there appears no word of genuine praise for anything American in any of them. He seemed to have no sympathetic consciousness of the unfolding before him of the greatest national movement of modern times. He saw the evils about him and they were many but he never sensed the real trend of things, the painful birth travail of a great nation. He missed the real force of the movements about him, possibly in part because of his own fundamental character, certainly because of his previous training and associations. He was unsuited to life in a new and democratic community. So far as his happiness or even his comfort was concerned, the wrong man had come to the wrong country at the wrong time. It is doubtful, however, whether he could have been happy anywhere during the eighteenth century.
His attitude toward America is clearly stated in these letters; his estimate of other countries and of his century generally is fortunately stated with equal clearness in another letter. Samuel Miller, in December, 1800, wrote him that he proposed to preach a sermon on the passing of the old century and the coming of the new, and in seeking material for the sermon he asked Nisbet for his estimate of the period. Nisbet's immediate reply shows his wide reading and intimate acquaintance with the intellectual life and doings of the world, but it shows, too, that he finds in the century nothing good. The letter is profoundly pessimistic ?there is nothing worthy of praise or even of approval. He writes:
Your design of preaching the funeral sermon of the 18th century is pious and rational. It is fit that you should celebrate the Mother that bore you; and her character is large and various enough to afford numerous topics of praise and blame. Perhaps the most distinguishing character of the age is the spirit of free inquiry ... carried almost to madness ... it teems with the most monstrous and misshapen productions; air-balloons, the Rights of Man, the Sovereignty of the People, are the productions of its dotage and decrepitude. The arts of destruction have been improved beyond the examples of former age. Fusillades, Royades, and massacres of six, seven or eight hundred men or women at a time have been among its chief discoveries. Its love of scepticism has only been equalled by its hardiness of decision.... It is not shocked with the grossest contradictions.... And as old people are twice children, the present age in the progress of decrepitude is busy in vamping up old publications, and reviving old exploded errors, such as Atheism, Socinianism, and what seems the last stage of delirium, the indifference to all opinions in religion. Yet this is established by the constitution of the United States and in all our state constitutions. The equality of the opinions of one God, twenty gods, or no god, is affirmed in Mr. Jefferson's "Notes on Virginia," and seems to be becoming the established creed. By the way, I have just heard with sorrow that he has been chosen President of the United States, and Burr, vice-president. God grant us patience to endure their tyranny! You must not forget some of the great "discoveries" ... that the soul of man is material ... that all men were originally beasts ... that the people have a right to change every form of government every hour, if they please ... that Christianity is an imposture ... that the body of a naked prostitute was the supreme object of religious worship ... that there was a Supreme Being ... that the "sovereign people" were the
Supreme Being ... that liberty and equality consist in an unconditional submission to the order of one Supreme Consul ... that government, religion, morality, marriage and property are so many encroachments on the liberties of mankind, and that gratitude is a vice and not a virtue.... The Democrats of America have discovered that it is for the interest of Christianity to elect a president who is indifferent whether the people believe that there is one God or twenty gods, or no god at all. May not this century be denominated the age of discovery?
After referring to secessions from the Church, to revolutions in Europe and America, and to the increase in infidelity and atheism, he continues:
The murder of the kings of France and Sweden and the poisoning of an emperor and empress of Germany, are among the early triumphs of Liberty and Equality, though these things were reckoned crimes in former ages. An ignorance and contempt of antiquity, and a boundless rage for theory and experiment, has been one of the distinguishing features of this age; and though the rage for liberty and equality in France has been obliged to succumb into submission to one person, this circumstance has not in the least abated the same rage in America which may soon, perhaps, lead to a similar despotism, or, what is more probable, in subjection to the despot in France. This century is likely to expire in blood.
Nisbet then turns to the attacks of German rationalism on the accepted faith, and deplores the condition of religion in his time:
The most important of all subjects, to wit, the State of Orthodoxy and vital piety in the Church, I fear you will be obliged to represent it in the Eighteenth Century as everywhere declining and in most places awfully declining.
Few men could have thus summarized the literature and life of the eighteenth century, however mistaken his conclusions. His sharp comments on America have been excused on the ground that he was the victim of unnecessarily hard conditions, as he undoubtedly was, but this letter and others show that his spirit was critical, that he chose to dwell on the unfortunate aspects of the times and did not even suspect those other forces which were making for righteousness.
Certainly Dr. Nisbet was not much of an American, but no one can study his life without admiring him as scholar, preacher and educator, working under very hard conditions. His estimate of educational values, however, will not stand the test of modern standards. He is on record as thinking that education was the better as it had less of the modern and more of the ancient, and while he was master of the languages and cultures of his time, he counted them as secondary and regarded his mastery of the ancient languages and the culture of which they were a part as the substantial part of his equipment. It may be a question whether the training of his logical mind in the perfections of the classic tongues with all their niceties of detail and perfection of production may not have resulted in his habit of criticizing the ordinary conditions of life; whether he had not come thus to a position of intolerance of things falling below these ancient ideals. His life had been largely spent with the great literatures and movements of the past, and he was shaped thereby. In his maturity he failed to consider that those literatures on which he had fed were the best of times so distant that all their poor and petty contemporaries had long been discarded. Nisbet's standards and ideals were based on these ancient products of the march of the race, and he was impatient of things falling below them.
He was not the man for a pioneering task. "The wrong man has come to the wrong country." Nisbet was the man for a stable country and a fixed social order; but for a century and a half America was, above all, the arena of experiment in government and social order. The proverbial English habit of "mulling through" was in full swing all these years. What the democratic Colonies wished seemed too much liberty to the mother country; and what England offered, the Colonies would not accept. During these years, the Colonies, originally royal in their sentiments, had finally become democratic in all their philosophy of government, and responded to the French "Liberty and Equality" in a way that threatened even excess of democracy. So it was when
Nisbet came, and he was an aristocrat in all his fundamental feeling, though while in Scotland he had favored the Colonies. Theoretically and at a distance he was with them, but when he saw them at close range, his fundamental feelings and beliefs asserted themselves, and, as has already appeared, he could but jeer at the institutions under which he was to live. Chief Justice Taney, one of his early students, wrote late in life of his old college principal's railing at the apparent excesses of the democracy of the country, adding that they paid little attention to it, because of their regard for the man and his learning.
"The wrong man has come to the wrong country at the wrong time." The things distasteful to him at any time were at the flood in America when he came. He could have come at no time more unfortunate for himself. The Colonies were not of similar origin or purpose, and had come to some sort of union under the spur of dire necessity for the Revolution; but the war was over, and it was very doubtful whether they could unite in any "more perfect union." The struggle for this was at its height when Nisbet came, and he was to witness fierce political riots in the streets of Carlisle between the friends and enemies of the new Constitution before the question was settled. And even after apparent settlement, he was to see Washington with armed forces of the Union in Carlisle marching westward to suppress the Whisky Rebellion against the new Government. The states were at the same time all staggering under their loads of war debts. There was no stable currency, business was at a low ebb, and credit hardly existed.
Such was the man and such the hard conditions which faced him, and the wonder is that he stayed by his task and did so much, despite the hard conditions. He was, however, a sturdy Scotchman, and with only one wistful look toward home, shortly after his arrival, he set himself grimly to his task, and, despite the bitter discouragements which would have crushed a weaker man, achieved results of which any man might be proud. It is equally a cause for surprise that
the trustees of the College bore with him and endured his attacks upon them for so many years. It is much to their credit that they held his great learning in such honor that they tolerated the peculiarities of their chief so long as he lived, and genuinely mourned him when he died. Their forbearance was both creditable to them and vital to the College.