|Chapter 8 The Early College Faculty|
WHEN Nisbet was reëlected, May 10, 1786, he had a Faculty of three, working mostly with the forty students in the Grammar School, as there were but twenty doing work in the "seminary," as the incipient college was often called. These three, in the order of their election, were James Ross, Robert Johnston, and Robert Davidson.
JAMES Ross was elected in April, 1784, and at once appeared and took the oath of office, thus becoming the first legal member of the Faculty. He had been in charge of the Grammar School for probably three years before the College was chartered, and was on the tax-list of Carlisle as "school master." No mention is made of salary in the minute of his election. In September following, however, his salary was fixed at £180 per year. He served as Professor for eight years, and resigned in 1792.
Ross was a unique character and a great teacher, if the few remaining evidences of his career may be trusted. Second only to Nisbet, he seems to have been the most interesting member of the early Faculty. His greatness, however, was recognized only after he was gone; and while there are many fugitive statements concerning him, they are conflicting, some of them certainly mistaken. Even Dickinson College, which he served, seemed for a time to have forgotten him. No wonder that the Library of Princeton University reports "James Ross ... is a perennial problem." His old College may well attempt to rescue him from oblivion, for Carlisle and Dickinson College associations probably meant more to him than any other. Here he did his first college work, probably preparing the material for his magnum opus, his Latin grammar; here he married the wife of his most active life, and here his remains lie buried by her side.
James Ross, the son of William Ross, a Scotch-Irish
immigrant from Ireland, was born May 18, 1743, in Oxford Township of Chester County, Pennsylvania, and was a pupil at Fagg's Manor in that county. His later academic studies are rather uncertain, though James Powers, in his History of Jefferson College, says that Ross graduated with him from Princeton College in 1766. Contemporary newspaper records of the members of the class do not mention Ross, and Princeton records are likewise silent as to his connection with the undergraduate body at any time. Powers could hardly have been altogether mistaken. He was probably a "non-graduate"" member of Powers' class. Princeton records do show, however, that in 1818 "James Ross of Dickinson College received the degree of A.M., ad eundem," twenty-six years after he had left Dickinson and fifty-two years after his supposed class graduated. He had received this same master's degree from the College of Philadelphia, later the University of Pennsylvania, in 1775, while tutor there. This degree only appears on his Grammar of 1784. His later books and the inscription on his tomb show that he had received the degree of LL.D., but from what source is not known.
He was a teacher all his life. From 1775-1780 he was a tutor in the College of Philadelphia, and soon thereafter he appeared in Carlisle as head of the Grammar School. The Pennsylvania Archives record that one Henry McKinley "taught a classical school in Carlisle. On the 16th of October, 1776, he was commissioned captain. . . the Continental line.... He resigned on the 18th of June, 1778 and resumed teaching in Carlisle." Just when he returned to Carlisle, however, and for how long, is doubtful. He was on the local tax-lists prior to his military service, but not afterward. Ross probably succeeded him in the "classical school" in Carlisle on leaving Philadelphia in 1780, and, as previously noted, he was taxed in 1781 as "school master"; certainly he was Master of the Grammar School in 1784 on his election as first Professor of Languages in the College.
Ross's first wife died in Carlisle, April 14, 1788, and
September 13, 1789, he married Catherine Irvine, twenty years his junior, of the distinguished Irvine family, who survived him more than nineteen years. He apparently remained in Carlisle for a time after he resigned from the College in 1792, for the tax-lists continue him as a taxable, assessed as late as 1795, not only for real estate, but also for a cow and one dozen teaspoons valued at £2. His name then disappears from Carlisle records. He taught a small school in Upper Strasburg, Franklin County, for a time, possibly. while yet living in Carlisle. Later he went to Chambersburg to teach a classical school.
Justice George Chambers of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania writes of Ross in the Historical Magazine of 1862, pages 324,325: ".... He came to reside in Chambersburg in the spring of 1796, on an engagement of somewhere about a dozen of parents, to establish here a classical school. He commenced at once with ten or twelve scholars, of whom I was one. He had resided a short time, I believe, in Strasburg of this County, having there some ten scholars pursuing the study of ancient languages. Immediately after he took up his residence in Chambersburg, he commenced the publication of his Latin Grammar. It was printed at the office of the Franklin Repository.... The stock of type and force was small. It was all the establishment could generally accomplish to get out a small sheet once a week, from their hand press. At this office was printed the grammar of Mr. Ross. It was received by my class in sheets from the press. It was the first and only one we had.... We were made to commit it thoroughly. If the forthcoming of a sheet was delayed from the press, we had to review what we had ... including notes and comments. Its publication occupied six months or more, and my class were engaged that time or more with our study of the Grammar. His school a private one increased considerably by students from the adjoining counties and Maryland. In August of 1797, the Chambersbur Academy was organized by the patrons of Mr. Ross's School and some others. It was incorporated in March
1798.... In May 1799 James Ross was appointed ... Rector of the Academy.... His school increased and was in high reputation"
There was no corporal punishment in the Academy till 1801, when Ross became excited over a comparatively small matter and caned one of the best boys. The latter left the school, and his father threatened Ross with personal violence. Such was the feeling over the matter that Ross resigned, and soon thereafter removed to Lancaster. Judge Chambers continued: "Mr. Ross was an able and faithful teacher of ... Latin and Greek.... He was more thoroughly acquainted with them than any person I ever knew.... He was engrossed with his studies in the Latin and Greek; and his readings outside of these were very limited."
Ross served as Professor of Languages in Franklin College, Lancaster, 1801-1809, and then returned to Philadelphia. Here he lived the remainder of his life, as stated on the title pages of books issued after 1809, as "Professor of the Latin and Greek Languages, in North Fourth St., Philadelphia." "Greek and Latin taught here" was the simple business sign on his house. He was familiarly called "Old Jimmy Ross" by his boys in Philadelphia. Another reports: "He taught nothing but these languages; but taught them better, probably, than they have ever been taught on this continent; and he possessed the rare gift of being able to inspire his pupils with a permanent and enthusiastic love for these studies." He died July, 1827, was buried in Philadelphia, but later his widow had his body brought to Carlisle and placed in the Irvine lot in the historic "Old Graveyard." A simple stone records: "In memory of James Ross, LL.D. who departed this life in Philadelphia, July 6th, A.D., 1827, aged 84 years."
"Full many a flower is born to blush unseen," and is quite as perfect as its more fortunate (?) fellows. James Ross might have been as good a man and apt a teacher without his Latin grammar. But this book brought him fame, and was the leading Latin grammar for many years
from its issue in 1794. The title page of this first edition was as follows: "Latin Grammar by James Ross, A.M., teacher of the Latin and Greek Languages, and Rector of the Franklin Academy in Chambersburg. Printed for the author by Robert Harper, MDCC, XCIIII." There was a second edition in 1802 and many others followed, the earlier ones copyrighted by Ross during his life, and later ones by Thomas Desilver after his death. It was widely used in both schools and colleges. A final edition appeared in 1844, a half century after the first, enlarged and edited by N. C. Brooks, Principal of the Baltimore Latin High School. This edition omitted much of the elementary English grammar of early editions, deemed unnecessary under the school conditions of 1844. The old teacher's grammar was brought up to date in other matters, but his approach to the study of Latin remained valuable after fifty years.
By this grammar, then, Ross became well known to classical scholars for the greater part of a century; and many other books, less widely known, were issued by him from time to time. In 1804 appeared "Translation of Aesop's Fables ... by James Ross, Professor of the Greek and Latin Languages in Franklin College, Borough of Lancaster." The same year, 1804, on the death of Nisbet, he wrote a Latin ode to his old Principal at Carlisle. Nine years later, in 1813, he issued a Greek grammar, of which there was a second edition in 1817. In 1819 he issued a book of Latin selections and his own Latin version of selections from the Greek, all of them alike being of purpose to inculcate high moral principles. For the use of parents concerned for the religious welfare of their children, in 1807 he issued an edition of the "Shorter Catechism done into Latin."
Ross was a patriot and believed in his country and in the hand of God active in its defense. Following the victory of our forces over the British at New Orleans, he promptly composed and dedicated to Thomas Jefferson a Latin poem of twenty-seven stanzas. The dedication runs as follows: "Ad Tho. Jefferson, President Nupercum, Hos Versiculos,
cum Salute Plurima, Mittit Ja. Ross, Victoria Neo-Aureliana, Januerii die octavo, A.D., 1815, Pax Gaudavensis." The first and last stanzas follow:
Philadelphiae, Martiis kal AD. 1815.
Ross's Latin Ode to Nisbet on his death, and his reproduction, in his "Onomasia," of part-of Nisbet's first address to the students, thirty-seven years after its delivery, suggest his admiration for Nisbet, under whom he had served nearly seven of his eight years in the College. There exists another bit of evidence of the possibly good understanding between Ross and Nisbet, that they had like views on some things and were possibly at variance with the two other teachers of the very early years. Rev.John King, one of the original trustees, wrote Rush in October, 1786, "I find that he [Nisbet] and Ross are somewhat cool with Davidson and Johnston. While Dr. D. presided [October, 1785 to May, 1786] ... laws were ... observed. Since that time they rule without them. Ross will not admit an English or writing master in school with him." It seems probable, then, that Ross and Nisbet, the classicists of the early Faculty, had somewhat similar ideas about their college problems, and possibly did not see things as did the more practical Davidson and Johnston. They were the two classical scholars of the Faculty, and probably had common ideals; and the loss of Ross to the College in 1792 may have robbed Nisbet of a congenial faculty companion.
Ross's "Selectae ... Historiae" indicates that he had read the classics very widely and with appreciation, and his whole career shows that he lived in the realm of the classical literatures. He not only read the classics, but he spoke Latin freely, so that he readily made like reply to Nisbet's Latin inaugural address in 1785. He loved to speak the Latin, and his pupils would at times duck around corners to escape his ordinary salutations in Latin with expectation that they answer in kind. They were required to speak much Latin in the classroom, and that doubtless seemed enough to the lusty American youngsters, without such additions on the streets.
Another estimate of Ross says, "He was an erratic man, preëminent as a linguist, and a thorough teacher of the ancient languages." Knowledge of Latin and Greek was his standard of intelligence. The Professor of Mathematics. in Dickinson College was said to know mathematics, but little of the classics; and each was said to regard the other as a very ignorant man! Ross was a unique character, honest, upright, artless as a child, suggesting in some of his traits another great linguist of the later years of the College, Henry M. Harman.
ROBERT JOHNSTON was the second member of the college Faculty, elected June 15, 1785. Colonel Montgomery reported that he and Rush, previously appointed to "secure a teacher of mathematics, had agreed with Mr. Johnston to teach the mathematical school for one year at the rate of one hundred and twenty pounds," which agreement the Board approved. He was reëlected for another year in October, and May following, 1786, was made teacher also of natural philosophy and librarian. His salary was £120 per year, June to October; £130, October to May; and £150 thereafter, following his election for natural philosophy. Unfortunately for him, however, a month later the Board, the Principal, and Dr. Davidson visited his class in natural philosophy, and the next day he was relieved of his new duties, the salary being reduced to the old figure of £130.
The following April Mr. Johnston resigned as Professor of Mathematics, and his resignation was accepted. The ensuing January, 1788, one Robert Johnston, apparently the old Professor, was unanimously chosen trustee, and he served as such for twenty years.
ROBERT TAIT comes next on Board action of June, 1785, to "provide a person capable of teaching to write and read the English language with propriety and elegance," and in August following it is reported that "the Committee appointed to engage a suitable person ... have spoke with Mr. Tait ... and that Mr. Tait has arrived in Carlisle for that purpose." Mr. Tait's case was referred to another committee, which later reported "that they understand the trustees of Carlisle have offered the use of the English schoolhouse in Carlisle to Mr. Tait, that they have conferred with and examined Mr. Tait, that they discover that he has a knowledge of the English language and that he can write a good hand, that he is willing to open an English reading and writing school ... and continue the same at his own risque for one year, but prays the countenance and protection of the Board, and wishes that they will be surety for his house rent for one year." All this was agreed to, "and Mr. Tait is taken under the protection of the Board and is appointed a master of reading and writing the English language in Dickinson College."
Tait was apparently without means of support, for a college order was "drawn on the Treasurer for a sum to be advanced to Mr. Tait." His school did not improve his fortunes, though he doubtless made a brave effort. He advertised in the local paper that he was prepared to teach, the "English and French languages grammatically." He also offered his services to "young ladies who chose to study any of these branches, and have not already acquired them, [each] may [if they please] have separate hours for themselves." Nevertheless, he seems to have been unsatisfactory, for in May of the next year, at the meeting which reelected Nisbet, a committee was ordered "to procure an assistant
to Professor Ross in the Latin School, who is also to teach writing and arithmetic, and to teach English grammatically. Resolved, That in consequence of the foregoing appointment the Board dispense with the countenance of Mr. Tait under their direction." Tait was thus dismissed with scant consideration, and a letter he wrote Rush following his dismissal suggests that there were elements of special hardship in his case. He and his wife had been victims of the everpresent fever and ague; his child had died; they had been forced to live in two wretched rooms at a big rental; and he had been dismissed without any explanation or chance to answer any objections to him. His school, small at first, had grown to 30 but later had fallen to 24, with fees small and poorly paid, some of his pupils having gone to the Grammar School. He reports one item of local interest, that "there were three teachers of English and writing from Ireland, besides women's schools, established for a number of years past in this town." Tait, then, ceased to teach under countenance of the trustees on the return of Nisbet to the College.
To this meeting of May, 1786, which removed Tait, a " committee appointed to confer with Mr. Jones report that Dr. Jones informs them that the state of his health is such as to disable him to accept the professorship of the English language but ... that he will cheerfully render every assistance and service that his particular situation will admit of. Resolved, That the Board ... request that he will render such assistance."
Tait, in his letter, from which quotations have already been made, pays his respect to Daniel Jones, who was to teach English and oratory, as he was informed, and suggests that he is more likely to teach in the next world. A peppery brother was Tait; he had a caustic pen and could write the English language with elegance, propriety, and spice. His Christian name was Robert and that of Jones was Daniel, but Tait's letter alone gives these two names. He was obviously somewhat of a misfit in the Faculty.
The Rev. ROBERT DAVIDSON, D.D., pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Carlisle, was the fourth member of the Faculty, elected in August, 1785, as "Professor of History, Geography, Chronology and Belles Lettres and some account of him will be given later under his administration of the College as Principal pro tem, 1804-1809.
In a letter Rush wrote in 1785 in favor of Davidson's election he broaches another matter of faculty policy, giving new evidence that he was studying the broader problems of the College and planning to make it useful. Who but he could have formulated the following: "I hope we shall not lose sight of a German teacher in our College. The Germans now comprise nearly one third of the inhabi- tants of Pennsylvania . They must be enlightened, or we shall not long enjoy the benefits of that light we are endeavor- ing to spread among our inhabitants of other nations. It is painful to take notice of the extreme ignorance which they discover in their numerous suits in law, in their attachment to quacks in physic, and in their violent and mistaken zeal in government. The influence of our College if properly directed might reform them, and show them that men should live for other purposes than simply to cultivate the earth and to accumulate specie. The temperate manner of living of the Germans would make them excellent subjects for literature, and their industry and frugality if connected with knowledge would make them equally good subjects to quiet and legal government." Rush's vision and purpose in this were wise and statesmanlike, and something of the sort was greatly needed, but the new College having small means, any enlargement along the lines he suggested was out of the question. A very few years later, however, the Germans themselves undertook this task by founding Franklin Col- lege at Lancaster, and Rush was one of its original trustees.
JAMES MCCORMICK entered after the resignation of Robert Johnston in April, 1787, when the Board voted, "It being necessary that a teacher of mathematics be obtained as soon as possible, Resolved, That the Trustees in town be a com-
mittee to agree with the proper person for the position." While there is no record that the committee ever acted, there is other evidence that a teacher was secured, and this other evidence shows that college finances were in a bad way. A trustee minute of December 3, 1788, says: "Resolved, That the Committee of Accounts draw orders in favor of Mr. James McCormick, teacher of mathematics (also, one in favor of a teacher in the Grammar School) to whom the institutions stands indebted, on all or any of the persons who stand indebted for subscriptions or tuition money, and that the said Creditors have their choice, on whom to receive such orders." The unpaid teachers were thus made collectors of what the trustees seemed unable to collect. The amounts are not named, and possibly did not much matter, in view of the medium of payment. Whether Mr. McCormick collected is uncertain, though apparently he managed to live, possibly because he had student boarders eight of them as reported by Taney in 1792, all his house could accommodate. Three years after this order on college creditors, another and better order was drawn in favor of "Mr. McCormick, the teacher of the Mathematics" for £100 on account of arrears in salary. This followed a grant of £1,500 by the state, £740 of which was thus used at once as pay on arrears of salary. Prior to this McCormick had been "teacher" of mathematics, but May 3, 1792, he was elected Professor, salary to be £100 per annum. He continued in the Faculty twenty-six years, the longest term of service of the first century of college history. One of the toasts of a student Fourth of July celebration following McCormick's leaving the College was, "The memory of our late worthy Instructor, James McCormick." This harmonizes with Chief Justice Taney's words of praise soon to follow.
In 1791 and 1792 McCormick issued "The Western Almanack" for the two following years, adapted to the latitude and meridian of Carlisle. It was published and sold by the Loudons, fifty cents per dozen. Later a "Dickinson College Almanac" was issued, doubtless by McCormick.
James Ross resigned as Professor of Languages in 1792, and "A committee of Trustees having agreed the 4th day of October, 1792, with Mr. HENRY DAVIS to teach the languages for one year.... Salary £100," doubtless to succeed Ross. The committee's action was approved by the Board on April 16, 1794. This was a temporary arrangement, however, as the same meeting of the Board elected WILLIAM THOMPSON, Professor of Languages, his work to begin October I and his salary to be £150 per annum. Mr. Thompson continued with the College till 1802, when Dr. Davidson became Professor of Languages in addition to his other work. James Huston, of the Grammar School, also assisted in the college language work.
This appointment of Davidson as Professor of Languages was probably a nominal one, for the work in languages was largely done by JOHN BORLAND. The meeting of the Board which gave Davidson this additional work felt it necessary in consequence of the removal of Mr. Thompson (the previous teacher of languages) to procure some suitable person to teach in the Grammar School," and Borland was secured on a two-year contract, at £100 per annum. He came ostensibly as teacher in the Grammar School, but almost certainly took over much of Thompson's college work in languages; for when he withdrew, three years later, in 1805, he resigned "the professorship of language in Dickinson College." He was treated with singular courtesy on his withdrawal. The trustees appointed a committee to assure him of their "esteem for his character as a citizen and of their complete satisfaction" with his work. He returned as Professor six years later, but for one year only. Borland must have made a very favorable impression, for Montgomery wrote Rush in June, 1803, at the close of Borland's first year, "Our new Grammar Master is a complete scholar and has an excellent method of teaching, and is a decent, goodlooking man, though young. Men are highly pleased with him, and the Trustees feel no loss in the change of his being in the place of Mr. Thompson."
Finally, Dr. Nisbet himself was probably the master teacher during his eighteen years at the College. The head of a college in his time was principally a teacher, and Nisbet was a teacher, and did an amount of work almost beyond belief, as shown by records and the abundant testimony here and there of his pupils.
Samuel Miller, Nisbet's biographer, says that Nisbet "began the preparation and delivery of four coördinate courses of lectures, one on logic, another on the philosophy of the mind, a third on moral philosophy, and a fourth on Belles Lettres, including interesting views, historical and literary, of the principal classical writers, both Greek and Latin. These were all carried on at the same time, and with the greatest apparent ease; the lecture of each successive day being, for the most part, written, so far as it was committed to writing at all, on the preceding evening. But it, was unnecessary for him to write more than the leading outlines of a lecture on almost any subject. His mind was so full of digested and arranged matter, that a little premeditation, and committing to paper a few facts, dates and hints, were all that he required for an ample preparation to meet and gratify his class. But besides the four courses of lectures already mentioned ... (he) delivered a fifth on Systematic Theology ... probably the very first course ... on that subject ... in the United States." These theological lectures, four hundred and eighteen in number, were given only once, October, 1788, to January, 1791. He refused to allow them to be published, as they were largely drawn from other theologians, so that he laid no claim to originality in them. Dr. Nisbet came to America nine years after the issue of Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations," the world's standard on the subject for many years. Nisbet was doubtless acquainted with Smith's great work, and some of his lectures were on economic subjects, and included also much which has later been called Sociology, the first on these subjects delivered in America. In addition to this work of the classroom, Nisbet preached once each Sabbath in the Presby-
terian Church of Carlisle, the church of which Davidson was pastor.
Roger Brooke Taney, of the Class of 179S, for twenty-eight years Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and James Buchanan, of the Class of 1809, President of the United States, 1857-1861, were Dickinson College's most distinguished graduates in political life. These two men prepared biographical material for their early years, Taney's material reaching to the sixth year after his graduation and Buchanan's to the seventh. Thus there exists their own story of their college life, and as first-hand material for a time so far distant is scanty at best, it seems proper that their stories should be given, especially as the distinction of the witnesses gives added value to their testimony. Taney was in college during Nisbet's administration, and his story tells of Nisbet and other teachers of his time. Buchanan was a student during the administration of Davidson, and his college story will appear later under Davidson's administration.
My father was induced to select Dickinson College from the circumstance that two young men, a few years older than myself, were already there, with whose families he was intimately acquainted, and who gave very favorable accounts of the institution. It certainly deserved it while Dr. Nisbet was at its head, and the other departments were in the hands in which I found them.
I went in company with one of the young gentlemen of whom I have spoken, when he returned after the spring vacation in 1792. It was no small undertaking, however, in that day, to get from the lower part of Calvert County to Carlisle. We embarked on board one of the schooners employed in transporting produce and goods between the Patuxent River and Baltimore, and, owing to unfavorable winds, it was a week before we reached our port of destination; and, as there was no stage or any other public conveyance between Baltimore and Carlisle, we were obliged to stay at an inn until we could find a wagon returning to Carlisle, and not too heavily laden to take our trunks and allow us occasionally to ride in it. This we at length accomplished, and in that way proceeded to Carlisle, and arrived safely, making the whole journey from our homes in about a fortnight. And what made the whole journey more unpleasant was that we were obliged to take, in specie, money enough to pay our expenses
until the next vacation. The money was necessarily placed in our trunks, and they were often much exposed in an open wagon in a public wagonyard, while the wagonner and ourselves were somewhere else. But, in truth, we were not very anxious on that score, for a robbery in that day, was hardly to be thought of as among the hazards of travel. But times are greatly changed in that respect, although certainly much improved as to travelling itself. I remained at college until the fall of 1795, when I graduated, and received the diploma of Bachelor of Arts. The difficulties of the journey were so great that I went home but twice, and, upon both occasions, walked from Carlisle to Baltimore with one of my school-companions, performing the journey in a little over two days. We came to Owing's Mill, within twelve miles of Baltimore, on the evening of the second day. The distance from Carlisle to Baltimore was then said to be eighty-five miles. But estimated distances are often overstated, and in this instance the true distance may be less.
I have not a great deal to say of my college life. It was, taken altogether, a pleasant one. None of us boarded in the college, but at different private boarding-houses about town, for the present edifice was not then erected, and the building used was a small and shabby one, fronting on a dirty alley, but with a large open lot in the rear, where we often amused ourselves with playing bandy. After the first six months I boarded with James McCormick, the professor of mathematics. There were generally eight of us in the house, which were as many as it could accomodate. Mr. McCormick and his wife were as kind to us as if they had been our parents. He was unwearied in his attentions to us in our studies, full of patience and good nature, and sometimes seemed distressed when, upon examining a pupil, he found him not quite as learned as he was himself.
I took a letter from my father to Dr. Nisbet, asking him to stand in the place of a guardian to me on account of my youth and distance from home and friends, and the retirement and seclusion in which I had so far been educated. He cheerfully took upon himself the duty, and invited me to visit him often. I did so. And many a pleasant evening have I spent at his house. He did not worry or fatigue me by grave and solemn lectures and admonitions. But although his conversation was always intended, as I afterwards saw, for my benefit and instruction, yet it did not seem so at the time. It was cheerful and animated, full of anecdote and of classical allusions, and seasoned with lively and playful wit. The class under his immediate instruction always became warmly and affectionately attached to him; yet, if he saw conduct that merited reproof, his sarcasm was sometimes bitter, and cut deep at the time. But I never saw it used towards a pupil unless he deserved it.
In my visits in the evening I always met Mrs. Nisbet, who was far advanced in life, but in good health. She, as well as Dr. Nisbet, took an interest in me, from my youth and the manner in which I had been placed under his care; and she never failed, when she had an opportunity,
to give me a regular course of motherly instructions and advice. I always listened to her with feeling of real respect. But, unfortunately, her dialect was so broadly Scotch, that I never understood the half of what she said, and could do nothing therefore but bow in assent. Perhaps I may sometimes have given this sign when she was putting a question that I ought to have answered "No," if I had exactly understood what she was saying.
Dr. Nisbet's share of the college duties was ethics, logic, metaphysics, and criticism. His mode of instruction was by lectures written out and read to the class slowly, so that we might write it down; yet it required a pretty good penman and fixed attention to keep up with him; and with all my efforts, I was sensible that his idea was not always expressed with perfect accuracy in my copy. But it was always sufficiently full to enable me to recall the substance of what he had said, when, in order to impress it upon my mind, I read it over. In addition to these lectures, there was a compendium of each science, in the form of question and answer, which each of the class was required to copy. It was a good-sized octavo volume closely written. But although the answers were written out by him, yet he always showed most pleasure when the pupil gave the answer in different words from those in the book, even if the answer was not strictly exact and scientific. He would, on such occasions, go over what the student had said, comment kindly upon it, and say how far it was correct, and in what respect it was not full enough or diffuse. He undoubtedly succeeded in fastening our attention upon the subject on which he was lecturing, and induced us to think upon it and discuss it, and form opinions for ourselves. These opinions were, of course, greatly influenced by what he had said. But there was one subject upon which the class was unanimously opposed to him. In his lectures on ethics, he, of course, introduced the laws of nations, and the moral principles upon which they should be governed. And political questions, and the different forms of government existing in different nations, were therefore within the scope of his lectures. Upon these subjects he was decidedly anti-Republican. He had no faith in our institutions, and did not believe in their stability, or in their capacity to protect the rights of person or property against the impulses of popular passion, which combinations of designing men might continue to excite. These opinions were monstrous heresies in our eyes. But we heard them with good humor, and without offending him by any mark of disapprobation in his presence. We supposed they were the necessary consequence of his birth and education in Scotland. Yet many, I believe a majority of the class, would not write down those portions of his lectures; and, if the opinion had been expressed by any other professor, the class would probably have openly rebelled.
At this point Taney pays his respects to Dr. Davidson in no very favorable way, and this part of his story will appear
in the later estimate of Davidson as Acting Principal, 1804-1809. Following his account of Davidson, Taney continues:
The only remaining professor in the college, when I entered it, was Charles Huston, and his province was to teach the Latin and Greek languages. There was no teacher of French or any other modern language, nor was there any teacher of the English grammar. We were expected to make ourselves masters of it by the study in the Greek and Latin, and reading the best authors in the English language. I completed my studies of the Latin and Greek under Mr. Huston.
Under these professors I studied the different branches of science which I have enumerated. I studied closely, was always well prepared in my lessons, and, while I gladly joined my companions in their athletic sports and amusements, I yet found time to read a great deal beyond the books we were required to study.
The final examination, which was to determine whether the student should graduate, was public and "generally attended by most of the trustees, or visitors who were in town, and sometimes by other gentlemen of literary taste who took an interest in the success of such institutions ... none [of his class] were rejected, although there were certainly some very indifferent scholars among us.... Each of those who intended to speak [at commencement] had a subject selected for him by Dr. Nisbet, and with it what was called a skeleton, that is, brief notes of the manner in which it might be handled ... about half a page of small letter paper closely written."
The two honors of commencement, the valedictory and salutatory orations, were assigned by the members of the class by ballot, but the election was not free from politics. There were already the two literary societies, Belles Lettres and Union Philosophical. Each was anxious to have both honors, and took them when a majority of the class belonged to one society. Generally, however, this was not the case, and those outside the societies determined the election. Each society presented candidates for both honors, and all its members in the class were supposed to be in honor bound
to support the society caucus nominee. Taney was the nominee of the Belles Lettres Society, and was elected valedictorian, but his society failed to elect their salutatorian candidate, this second honor going to David McConaughy of the Union Philosophical Society.
Taney's oration was a subject of great anxiety, as he wrote, "I had never written a paragraph of my own composition except familiar and unstudied letters to my family. This oration cost me much trouble and anxiety. I took much pains with it, and perhaps should have done better if I had taken less." In this he may have been wrong, for Dr. Nisbet examined it and returned it to him with "only one or two slight verbal alterations." He continues:
But now came my severest trial. The Commencement was held in a large Presbyterian church, in which Dr. Nisbet and Dr. Davidson preached alternately. A large platform of unplaned plank was erected in this church in front of the pulpit, and touching it, and on a level with its floor. From this platform the graduate spoke, without even, I think, a single rail on which he could rest his hand while speaking. In front of him was a crowded audience of ladies and gentlemen; behind him, on the right, sat the professors and trustees in the segment of the circle; and on the left, in like order, sat the graduates who were to speak after him; and in the pulpit, concealed from public view, sat some fellow-student, with the oration in his hand, to prompt the speaker if his memory should fail him. I evidently could not have been very vain of my oration, for I never called on my prompter for it, and have never seen it since it was delivered, nor do I know what became of it. I sat on this platform, while oration after oration was spoken, awaiting my turn, thinking over what I had to say, and trying to muster up courage enough to speak it with composure. But I was sadly frightened, and trembled in every limb, and my voice was husky and unmanageable. I was sensible of all this, much mortified by it; and my feeling of mortification made matters worse. Fortunately, my speech had been so well committed to memory that I went through without the aid of the prompter. But the pathos of leave-taking from the professors and my classmates, which had been so carefully worked out in the written oration, was, I doubt not, spoiled by the embarrassment under which it was delivered.
These memories of Taney's personal associations with Nisbet in his house, the fact that he and others boarded with
Professor McCormick and had very pleasant relations with him and his family, and Samuel Miller's statement that he spent many evenings at the house of Nisbet, all show that some of the students, at least, were welcomed to the homes of some members of the Faculty, show that the Professors were more than teachers in the classrooms, and that they were real mentors of the lads committed to their care, many of them, like Taney, very far from home, by the existing conditions' of travel.
Curiously enough, a letter of the time from Nisbet--- to a student's father has been preserved, and follows:
The various subjects of the college course seem to have been taught about as follows during Nisbet's administration:
Logic, Philosophy of the Mind, Moral Philosophy and Belles Lettres, Economics and Sociology Nisbet, 1786-1804.
Languages Ross, 1784-1792; Davis, 1793-1794; Thompson, 1794-1802; Davidson, 1802-1804; Borland [as tutor], 1802-1804, [as Professor], 1804-1805.
History, Chronology, etc. Davidson, 1785-1809, also Acting Principal, 1804-1809.
Mathematics Johnston, 1785-1787; McCormick [as "teacher"] 1787-1792, [as Professor] 1792-1811.
English Tait, 1785-1786; Jones, possibly, 1786-; Davidson, as he had time.
Natural Philosophy Johnston, 1786, for a time; later Davidson as he had time.
Subjects and departments were not clearly separated, and some subjects not formally provided for were certainly taught, as English and Natural Philosophy. These other subjects were doubtless taken by those whose schedules would permit it, and in 1792 a letter of Nisbet says that "Dr. Davidson teaches ... English Grammar, the Elements of Oratory ... he has got Natural Philosophy added to his department."