[ Chapter 3 ] [ Histories ] [ Chapter 5 ]


We will now place before our readers sketches of most of the deceased presidents of Dickinson, with such comments as may seem appropriate. The series begins with Charles Nisbet, who was born at Haddington near Edinburgh, and received his first degree at the university of the latter city in 1760. Even in his first charge his eloquence as a pulpit orator attracted considerable attention. But after the disagreement between the North American colonies and the mother-country became serious, he expressed sympathy with the former, which aroused considerable adverse criticism among his parishioners. His views having become known on this side, had much to do — perhaps everything — with his being chosen for the principalship of the new college. (The term "President" is not applied to the heads of colleges in Great Britain.) Some of his countrymen in America, notably John Witherspoon and James Wilson, the former being president of the College of New Jersey, had kept their transatlantic countrymen informed of the course of events on this side. It is well to recall, in this connection, that Scotland is a small country, especially as that part northwest of the Caledonian Canal hardly counts. In Scotland, as in every other country where the religious revolution gained a firm foothold, it contributed greatly to the general enlightenment. It needs hardly more than a glance at the early history of Pennsylvania to make clear that the latter half of the compound, Scotch-Irish, is of secondary importance, at least in so far as leadership is concerned. We have had occasion, more than once, to speak of this fact in the course of this narrative. These men sometimes carried their maxim, tenax propositi, to an unjustifiable extreme; but they got results. Both their weakness and their strength of character is formulated in a saying attributed to one of them: "I am open to conviction, but I would like to see the man who can convince me."

Dr. Nisbet, with his family of five, landed in Philadelphia on the 9th of June, 1785. In that city he made a very favorable impression upon all who came into contact with him. He was equally surprised and delighted. He arrived in Carlisle on the fourth of July following. He had been met some miles out of town by a large concourse of men and women and escorted to his new residence with almost regal honors. It is probable that the arrival of the distinguished foreigner bad been deliberately planned to coincide with the date that marked the independence of the country nineteen years before. However, soon after the arrival of the new principal his troubles began. Some of the members of his family became ill from the change of climate and the intense heat. Everyone who has had experience with the summer climate of southern Pennsylvania and that of Great Britain, especially with that of Scotland, can testify that the difference is great. In less than four months after the arrival of Principal Nisbet in this country, he handed his resignation to the trustees, with the avowed intention of returning to his native land as soon as possible, – partly, at least, with a view to restoring the health of his family. However, nothing came of the move and the writer of the resignation never saw his native land again. Not long after, other troubles assailed him, some of which were due to his own lack of discretion, while others were caused by circumstances over which he had no control. All the remainder of his days he had a somewhat bouldery road to travel. To some of his friends in Scotland he expressed his dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms. A few of the reverend gentleman's letters were published on the other side of the Atlantic, and the periodicals containing them sent to this country, where they were republished and produced an effect that can easily be imagined. There is room here for only a few brief quotations. In a letter written at Carlisle in 1700, Dr. Nisbet declared that "no degree of vice can make a man infamous, nor could the highest degree of virtue procure any respect for the owner. Most of the people have as little respect for patriotism as for virtue, and many concurred in the revolution merely to avoid paying their debts. The public men are a lot of mean rogues generally, who mind nothing but vice and riot, and please the people that they may live at their expense, but they have no knowledge, virtue or public spirit."

About a year later he writes: "Laws are made against slavery in a state in which there are hundreds of thousands of slaves, and slaves kidnapped by one master are sold to another." The gross exaggeration of this estimate of the number of slaves becomes at once evident when we read that at the first census there were less than four thousand, which number had fallen to below seventeen hundred by the end of the century. Thirty years later there were but sixty-seven. There could not have been less than two hundred thousand slaves, if there were "hundreds of thousands"; hence, if this sweeping indictment were true, about one-half of the population must have consisted of bondsmen. The census of 1790 was not carefully taken, but the figures, 434,373, are almost as likely to be too high as too low. If the scholarly Scotchman thought he was writing the truth, and he certainly did, he ought to have taken the precaution to warn. his over-sea friends against making too free use of his manuscript. Those of us who have looked somewhat minutely into the history of this country have learned that there is often more truth in the hard sayings than in the eulogies we are familiar with, upon the virtues and self-denying patriotism of "The Fathers." Albeit, the prudent man will be on his guard against laying undue stress on the reputed contents of a manuscript to which he has not himself had access, either personally or through some trustworthy agent.

Dr. Nisbet was a scholar of the massive type, but not a profound or original thinker. It may be confidently affirmed that in the former capacity no man connected with the college since his day has been his peer; in the latter, at least a dozen have been his superiors. Dr. Ashbel Green, at one time president of the College of New Jersey, asserted that "Dr. Nisbet was beyond comparison a man of the most learning that I have ever known, and in wit a prodigy. I can truly say that I never myself have known an individual that could pretend to be his equal. Everything he had read or seen or heard seemed firmly fixed in his mind and ready for instant use." Other testimony to the same effect is on record. It is said, among other things, that he was "master of nine languages, could converse in Latin with ease, and was so familiar with Latin and Greek authors that, without the use of a book, he could hear recitations in the classics and correct the slightest mistake." The writer, who has given a good deal of attention to linguistics, takes the liberty to doubt the number of languages in the above enumeration. A man may be fairly familiar with a language, yet be far from having mastered it. Dr. Nisbet seems to have been conscious of his limitations, and published little. "A number of productions of his pen appeared in the magazines and reviews of Britain from 1756 to 1783." "The only detached publication which bears his name is the sermon which he delivered when he was inaugurated president of Dickinson College." His large and valuable library, for the time, was given to Princeton Theological Seminary by two of his grandsons. A story is told of Dr. Nisbet that on a certain occasion a student ventured to quote to him a passage from the Aeneid. When the student stopped, the reverend gentleman said: "Go on, young man. What you have left is as good as what you have taken." He was also reputed to know Thomson's "Seasons" by heart. While the former tradition is highly probable, the latter is doubtless somewhat exaggerated.

Robert Davidson was a native of Maryland and an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania. He was called from the First Presbyterian church in Philadelphia to a professorship in the college and also to the pastorate of the Presbyterian church in Carlisle. He was president from 1804-9, when he resigned in order to devote himself wholly to the service of his church. But his life spanned only the years from 1750 to 1812. He was endowed with a mind of considerable versatility.1

Jeremiah Atwater was a native of Connecticut and a graduate of Yale. After occupying a number of positions in New England, he filled the presidency of Dickinson from 1809 to 1815, when he returned to his native state, where he died.

Undoubtedly the most picturesque, and unquestionably the most bellicose, though by no means the most pleasing personality ever connected with the college, was a member of the faculty during Dr. Atwater's administration. He is the only one whose career can be briefly sketched at this place. This was Thomas Cooper. He never asked, as did the Irishman who happened upon a melee among his countrymen, "Is this a private fight, or can anybody join in?" Cooper joined in whenever, he came upon a fight, and when there was no "scrap" in sight he started one of his own. With the change of a word he could truthfully say what Simon Dach is reputed to have written to Annie of Tharaw: Strife "is my life, my goods and my gold." Cooper was born in London, educated at Oxford, and admitted to the bar. Later he went to France, where he took part in the revolution, because he always sympathized with those who were "furnenst" the government. He succeeded in making himself sufficiently conspicuous to be attacked by Burke in the House of Commons. He came to America and for a time practiced law in Philadelphia. Later he settled in Northumberland county, where Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, had taken up his residence after the mob (always the doughty and daring champion of orthodoxy), had burned his church. Cooper was made a judge of the court of common pleas, and later land commissioner, but was shortly afterwards removed for malfeasance in office. It does not follow, however, that he was guilty; for in those days almost every man who took part in politics was certain to get into trouble. Then he applied himself to the study of chemistry and was appointed professor of physics and chemistry in Dickinson College, a position which he held from 1811 to 1814. He was also tried for libeling John Adams in the Reading Advertiser, sentenced to six months imprisonment and to pay a fine of one hundred dollars. At that time there was no free press in the world. Thomas Jefferson esteemed Cooper highly, as would be expected, and procured for him a professorship in the University of Pennsylvania, and later, at the University of Virginia. He was however soon driven from this haven of refuge by the clergy, who were, almost without exception, bitterly hostile to him. In 1819 he went to Columbia, South Carolina, and a year later was placed at the head of the university of that state, which position he held until 1834.

Cooper was credited with having had a good deal to do with nullification, and indirectly with the secession movement. South Carolina was for a number of years so rabidly and fanatically devoted to slavery that her leading men would condone almost any heresy in a man who was a vigorous champion of the "institution" which we need not specify more definitely. Dr. Cooper seems to have been almost as much of a physical as of a mental phenomenon. In his autobiography, Dr. J. M. Sims, as quoted by Thwing, writes: "President Cooper was never called Dr. Cooper, but 'Old Coot.' 'Coot' is the short for 'cooter,' a name generally applied in the South to the terrapin, and the name suited him exactly. He was less than five feet high, and his head was the biggest part of the whole man. He was a perfect taper from the side of his head to his feet." The physical resemblance of Dr. Cooper to a cooter readily suggested the substitution of a 't' for a 'p' in the proper name. It can be taken for granted that a man whose name was dealt with in this fashion was not held in much respect. Although finally removed, many people wondered why he had been tolerated so long. Probably only a few men understood the true inwardness of the situation.

Probably the most unpopular president Dickinson ever had, at least among the students, was Jesse. T. Peck. Mr. Conway has something to say on this point.2 Although not without his good qualities, he was lacking in tact. Then his portable bay window, his bald pate, his elephantine proportions, and other peculiarities, made him an object of ridicule to which some of the students gave expression in various ways. He sometimes made his large bulk the butt of his own witticisms. One year, when he was at a conference of his own church, he was assigned to a private family to be entertained. When he entered the room in which he was to sleep, noticing that the bed was somewhat frail, he said to his host: "If you don't find me in here tomorrow morning, look for me in the cellar." Dr. Peck belonged to a New York family of considerable note both in civic and ecclesiastical affairs. He was also endowed with no small measure of native ability, as was demonstrated by his later career. He was pastor of a church in Washington, and thereafter served his denomination in California until his elevation to the episcopate, in 1872, which office he held at the time of his death. He was a delegate to the General Conference that led to the schism in the Methodist Episcopal church. He took a prominent part in the debates and made some notable speeches. While in California he was president of the board of trustees of the University of the Pacific, chartered in 1851. He was one of the founders of Syracuse University, chartered in 1870, and president of its board of trustees. He was a delegate to the Ecumenical Council in London in 1888. He was the only president of Dickinson College who rose to the rank of bishop, although the list of its alumni contains the names of about a dozen of these prelates. It was during President Peck's administration that the college bell is said to have disappeared. Some time after its occultation, President Peck happening to be on board a steamboat on the Mississippi, it seemed to him that its bell had a familiar sound. Upon investigation, his suspicions were confirmed, and the bell returned to its accustomed place under the mermaid. This was probably the only time the bell disappeared; the clapper was not so fortunate. One who does not know the risks students will take in order to perpetrate a prank, would say that not only the bell but even the clapper was perfectly safe; that neither could be removed; that it would not even be attempted. A few instances have been reported where irreparable damage has been wrought. A most flagrant case of the kind occurred less than two hundred miles from where these lines are written, and the perpetrators were never found out. To get on the roof was a risky business, especially in the night time, but the leap from a tree on the south side was made more than once. The resourcefulness of boys and young men "on mischief bent" is without limits. What the mermaid on the top of the bell-tower was supposed to represent is one of the things "no feller kin find out." No mermaid has ever been seen, even in imagination, out of salt water, much less a hundred miles inland and not much less than a hundred feet above sea-level. If the story of the "Rape of the Bell" be true, the deed was wisely conceived and judiciously executed It must have been shipped to Pittsburgh by railroad and there sold to some steamboat captain, (was it a confederate?) as there was no through railroad to the west before 1851, in which year the Baltimore & Ohio reached the Ohio river. But the river traffic was brisk and bells for steamboats were much in demand. Although the sound of said bell did not differ much from that of many others, as this particular bell had disappeared, it was probably not difficult to establish a claim thereto by its owner. That "devilment" occupied the thought of not a few students under the old regime, is made more than probable by the appearance of a book or pamphlet about 1860, entitled "Yale College Scrapes." The fact that the librarian of Yale University has no knowledge of the existence of such a volume is no evidence that its existence is a myth.

Dr. Collins, the immediate successor of President Peck, left behind him the reputation of being a careful financier. The legend remained alive on the campus long after his departure, that now and then, when a student called at his office for the final leave-taking, the president would give his parting blessing and sometimes add: "By the way, Mr. X, at different times in the past I furnished you with some postage stamps, for which you have never paid me. I should be pleased to have you attend to the matter before you leave town." For one thing, postage was somewhat higher in those days than it is now. Moreover, the reputation of students in matters financial, is not good anywhere, or at least was not several decades ago. Perhaps no more appropriate parting blessing could be given to many a student than is embodied in the injunction, "Pay your bills promptly." A Dickinson professor once remarked to a group of "boys": "I would rather lend a student a dollar than a dime, as I would not hesitate to ask him for the repayment of the dollar, but I would be somewhat reluctant as to the dime." President Collins seems to have had no such scruples.

The impression prevails among Dickinsonians that President Johnson, who was the immediate successor of Dr. Collins and the head of the college for eight years, after serving as professor of English literature, had an exceptionally hard time piloting the institution over the shoals and through the cross-currents of the war between the states. The Alumni Record does not justify this impression. The number of graduates in 1860 was twenty-four. In 1869 there were three less. During each of four intervening years, the number was thirteen. In 1878 the graduating class was represented by one figure, which was the nadir after 1836, the four following years being blank. President Johnson was not popular with most of the students. But if they had been asked to give a reason for their somewhat hostile attitude, they would probably have been in the same case with Meletus, when confronted with some of Socrates' questions. If they bad been compelled to answer, their answer would have been in the spirit, if not in the letter of the well-known quatrain:

"I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.
The reason why, I cannot tell;
But this alone I know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell."

Another question to which the writer could never get any answer is: Why was he called "Scotch" by most of the students? President Johnson was a somewhat severe taskmaster, a little disposed to be sarcastic, decidedly puritanic, but not hypocritical as was sometimes alleged. He made no secret of his poverty. But some persons asserted that this was mainly due to a needlessly expensive family. Howbeit, this is a matter about which all judgments are subjective. Probably the most serious evil he had to contend with was a highly inflated currency. President Johnson was somewhat inclined to magnify his office, although perhaps not needlessly go. That he was not affable may be confidently affirmed. Yet he was never brusque or uncivil. The effect of the war on the attendance at Dickinson was very slight compared with some other institutions of similar grade. Yale College, which at that date was the largest college in the country, lost in four years nearly one hundred students, the total enrollment in the last year of the war being 438. In one year Princeton dropped from 812 to 221, Dennison (in Ohio) from 68 to 25, Lafayette from 87 to 57. In a few colleges there was an increase in the attendance, a fact that is not easily accounted for. Almost from the beginning of the struggle the southern colleges were virtually all closed, or rather, deserted.

President Johnson published a scholarly textbook on Egyptian Antiquities. His immediate successor was Robert L. Dashiell, the first alumnus to be elected to the presidency. Then followed two alumni of the Connecticut Wesleyan, George E. Reed serving until 1911, and Eugene E. Noble until 1914, in which year the present head was inducted into office, being the first layman to occupy it.

An incident occurred in 1865 which indelibly impressed itself on the memory of the two occupants of the first room to the right as one enters West College from the east. On the morning of the fifteenth of April they were unusually late in rising, and were still in bed when a student named Strickler, who roomed on the third floor, entered briskly and called out, "Lincoln was shot last night." The first remark made by one of the occupants was, "That was the work of some damned Democrat." Political discussion was little engaged in by the students. President Johnson was the only member of the faculty who was outspoken with his sentiments. Some vigorous anti-abolition speeches were made in the city during the McClellan campaign. At New Berlin, where those three young men had been students before entering Dickinson, much more rancor was displayed, some of the students, both male and female, coming to blows more than once. It must be considered remarkable that although Carlisle was for a short time within the war zone, the excitement among both citizens and students was of short duration. Few traces of enemy occupation were to be seen when college opened in the fall of '68. The rise of prices for a while was rapid, yet it does not seem to have caused much embarrassment. A dollar was still one hundred cents. Except after a lost battle, or when a draft was impending, there was little gloom in the Cumberland valley. Bounty-jumping was the favorite theme of jokes. More frivolous than plaintive songs were sung. The chorus of one was: "So fare you well, my Mary Ann, you must get another man, For I cannot jump the bounty any more." The exploits of a man were later reported who had performed this feat thirty times. When board in private families rose to $2.50 per week, at the lowest, nearly all the students formed clubs and turned the basement rooms into kitchens and "dining-parlors." And while some of the students paid the above named sum for that indispensable commodity familiarly called "grub," others paid much more. At this price, board for a year cost, one hundred dollars. In '66 commencement day fell on June 28 and the fall term began on August 30. The college year was reckoned at forty weeks; for the Seniors it was four weeks shorter. They were supposed to employ these weeks in distilling the quintessence from the knowledge they gained during the preceding four years and embodying it in an oration to be delivered in the town ball before an admiring crowd. Compared with the present college year there was a marked difference in length. If the "boys" of half a century ago did not devour any more food for the intellect, they at least sat longer at the table than their successors, male or female, of the present day. Originally the rooms in the college buildings were heated from fire-places. In the early days stoves were a rarity and wood was the universal fuel. Even after coal began to be used it was too costly for general purposes except where it could be delivered by canal or later by railroad. In the sixties coal was burned by the students. It was kept in a dry goods box in their rooms, as it was not safe to leave it where it was not under the watchful eye of the owner. The illuminant was petroleum.

1 It is doubtless a mere coincidence, — at any rate, there was published in New York, in 1803, a Davidson's Virgil. But the reader is given no further Information as to who this Davidson was. On the title page he is informed that he has before him "The works of Virgil translated into English Prose as near the original as the different idiom of the Latin and the English will allow, with the Latin text and the order of construction on the same page; and critical, historical, geographical and classical notes In English, from the best commentators both ancient and modern, besides a very great number of notes entirely new. First American edition." And more of the same sort. The work was printed in Pearl street, New York, for five different men, all on the same street. The two volumes contain nearly nine hundred pages, and the writer's set is in an excellent state of preservation. It must have had more than a century of almost unbroken rest in some private library. As a "pony," its saddle-bags are crammed with illuminating information about the bard of Mantua that is as readily accessible as It was in the day the beast was first "trotted out." The volumes will be placed in the college library. No bibliography of Virgilianna accessible to the writer makes any mention of Davidson's work.

2 In the seventh chapter of the first volume of his autobiography, he tells the story of the trick he played on President Peck. By his own confession he thus does a sort of permanent penance for his misdeed.

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