Chapter 4: A College Opens

From almost the beginning of the movement to establish a center of higher learning in Rochester, it was supposed that the institution would occupy buildings specifically designed for educational purposes. Various sites were suggested in the city newspapers and the number swelled while hopes of acquiring Madison University were still green. Two properties on high ground to the east of Mt. Hope cemetery were strongly recommended because of their natural beauty or because of their proximity to the graveyard in which students could ramble or repair for meditation.

On behalf of a third possibility -- the Wadsworth tract, embracing the Pinnacle hill -- it was urged that it was easily the most suitable, since a macadam road led to it, sidewalks had been laid down, the ground was level, and the owner would sell at a reasonable price or maybe even donate the land. "A becoming situation," a correspondent to the press wrote prophetically would be "on the southern boundary of the city... on a range of bold and picturesque hills, commencing on the banks of the Genesee and running eastward for more than a mile." He went on to say that this area "invited" the erection of university structures -- the invitation was rejected in the mid-nineteenth century, but seized upon in the 1920's, when the River Campus was constructed.

Critics countered that all these sites were too remote from the city, where students presumably would live, and would necessitate an inordinate amount of walking every day. Another suggestion was to lay out a university center on municipally-owned land at the edge of Brown's Square which was considered both beautiful and central. An enterprising real estate operator implored a non-resident client to increase his subscription substantially to the university fund in the belief that in that way a property in which he had an interest would be chosen as the site and land values in the vicinity would shoot up. Promoters of the university project dutifully examined the areas recommended, but on September 16, 1850 the trustees decided, instead of building a university home, to hire the United States Temperance Hotel. Financial considerations apparently blasted the vision of wholly new academic edifices. 1

Solidly constructed about 1826, the Hotel was a rectangular brick and stone pile of four stories with a frontage of a hundred feet on the north side of Buffalo (later West Main) Street close to Elizabeth (later Clarissa) Street; a stone wing of three stories, attached to the rear on the west end, extended fifty feet. Hallways were spacious; molded casings lined the walls and carved corner blocks decorated the doors. Stairs led up to the roof, where a lookout was available.

Altogether the United States Hotel was an impressive structure in the young Genesee city, erected to attract the patronage of Erie Canal travelers who wished to break their journey, but it was never a financial success. Ceasing to be a hostelry in 1846, the building was used successively in whole or part, as a manual training school, a young ladies seminary, the Tonawanda railway station, and a Methodist chapel.

The University trustees engaged the former hotel at a rental of $800 a year and placed orders for necessary alterations and repairs and for modest furnishings, which involved an outlay of $1,500. Purchased were five pine tables, over a hundred chairs (a few with arms), thirty wooden settees, boxes to hold wood for fuel, lamps, and wall-to-wall carpeting for the rooms, very desirable in the cold months. Trustee Frederick Whittlesey donated a reading desk for the chapel, and a loud-voiced bronze hand-bell, that would serve for generations, was procured for $2.75 to summon learners to classes.

The facade of the structure was painted dark (nearly but not entirely obscuring the lettering of the United States Hotel) and planks were laid over the sidewalk. This was the college "campus" in the midst of busy commercial traffic and hard by the Canal towpath, radically different from the wide-open spaces and the picturesque Chenango Valley so many of the original students had known in blissfully tranquil Hamilton. Friends of Madison University gleefully called attention to the contrast between the environments and the facilities of the rival institutions,

The ground floor of the University building was partitioned into a library and reading centers, a recitation hall, quarters for undergraduate literary societies, and, at the back, a large chapel, once the dining room of the tavern, with a carpeted rostrum, reading desk, and a row of chairs for the professors, visiting trustees, or guests; for morning prayers and evening lectures, hard wooden benches (or settees) were provided for the students. A dozen areas on the second floor were converted into recitation rooms for the college and the theological school, trustee meetings, and the like. Nine windows on each level at the front (and the roof lookout) enabled the curious to obtain clear views of boats passing picturesquely along the Canal and of noisy horse traffic on Buffalo Street below.

Notwithstanding the antipathy to dormitories that had been so frequently expressed in trustee circles, the upper floors and the wing to the rear furnished lodgings for sixty-five or more learners who cared to hire them, and they might take their meals in a spacious cellar refectory, which was conducted by the janitor and his family; the latter lived and cooked there at a huge, brick fireplace, and washrooms were also fitted up in the basement. Ladies of the community helped to furnish student rooms. Barns at the back of the hotel were made into wood-sheds. Such was the modest home of the aspiring U. of R. during the first eleven years of its existence. 2

So satisfied (or so hard up) were the trustees that within a few months after the opening of the college, it was decided to buy the hotel for $9,000, two-thirds of it a mortgage--a real bargain since the original cost was nearly triple that sum, and a little more than $3,000 was appropriated for further alterations. Affixed to the legal documents in the transaction was a temporary corporate seal of the university which was hurriedly devised by an unknown hand. On the seal were the motto "Meliora," probably proposed by Professor Kendrick, an American half dollar, curiously enough, and "1851;" on the recommendation of the faculty a hand pointing forward and upward was soon added to the seal. Men dearly love dates, of course, and are apt to be extremely fussy about the year when their particular college started, pushing it as far back as the slightest evidence may suggest. However, "1851" was obviously inaccurate for the U. of R., yet a good deal of water flowed down the Genesee before "1850" appeared on the official seal. In an advertisement stating that the University would open its doors in November 1850, the trustees proudly asserted, "Ample provision has been made for society, study, and recitation rooms... A valuable philosophical apparatus is at the service of the University until its own is ordered. The [Rochester] Athenaeum Reading Room and Library, 4,000 to 5,000 volumes, the leading foreign and domestic reviews and principal secular and religious newspapers of the United States and also a large Law and Miscellaneous Library belonging to the State, will be open to students."

Several professors installed their personal libraries in the University building. Calls were published for donations of books, and, in keeping with professorial recommendations, orders to buy books were hastily dispatched to New York and Europe. The initial purchase was a quarto Bible, costing five dollars, for use in chapel exercises, and the second, Logic by John Stuart Mill. By the end of the first year a university library of over a thousand volumes was accumulated, and placed in charge of Kendrick, who had filled the same office at Hamilton. As was customary, the library was looked upon as a rare treasure, neatly classified and kept under lock and key. It was likely to be open only at inconvenient hours and frustrating restrictions were imposed upon borrowing books by undergraduates.

A university museum was contemplated, though not realized until 1862. Yet a small geological "cabinet" was available at the very beginning, as were primitive experimental apparatuses for physics and chemistry and equipment for Dewey's weather observations; a benevolent donor presently turned in a human skeleton. The trustees very much wished to get funds to acquire a collection of Indian relics, to be chosen by Lewis Henry Morgan, a young Rochester lawyer, who made a scholarly hobby out of studying the way of life of the redmen. By mid-1851, the trustees valued the college property at nearly $18,000. Despite all that was accomplished, a Senior sadly lamented that "the want of libraries and scientific apparatus hindered investigations and requirements. 3


The announcement that classes would begin in November drew students to the Flour City. Admission requirements were comparatively simple: demonstrated intellectual talent; unimpeachable morals and a reputation for piety; and a minimum age of fourteen. In the spring of 1850 professors at Hamilton, who intended to cast in their lot with the Rochester adventure, urged undergraduates to accompany them and the recommendation produced impressive results. "...Many of our students are on the tiptoe of anxiety," Richardson wrote, "to know assuredly that Rochester University will open next fall without fail..." He reported that Madison youths who planned to transfer to Rochester were greatly concerned over the fate of the possessions of their literary societies. 4

Toward the end of October, students began trickling into Rochester, finding accommodations in the University building. Three-quarters of the Madison Seniors, over half of the Juniors, and many Sophomores, a Senior emigre remembered, advanced upon the city "by railroad, canal, stage, private conveyance or on foot...." 5

About sixty undergraduates answered "present'' at the first class meetings (twenty-five more enrolled in the school of theology), and before the academic year ended, eighty-two men had been in attendance. At least twenty-eight had moved from Madison, others came from New England, Canada, and New York state, fewer than a quarter of all from the Rochester area. Forty-five of the original students intended to enter the ministry, a considerably larger number than in any other Baptist-sponsored college in the eastern United States; among colleges in this category only Brown boasted a higher enrollment than the U. of R. Of the eighty-two enrollees, five of them "Eclectics," fifteen withdrew during the year: seven were "honorably discharged," five were obliged to leave because of "defective literary standing," and three left for unknown causes. 6

Forgetful of the normal Rochester calendar, Tuesday, November 5, 1850, resembled a beautiful summer day. With his usual care Professor Dewey recorded on his weather chart: "Temperature 59 degrees at 7 a.m., 74 at 2 p.m., 62 at 9 p.m. The wind was southwest." The university family focused upon the inaugural ceremonies of the institution, but the interests of Rochesterians in general, it may be safely imagined, lay elsewhere -- in workaday chores, and entertainment, for example.

And November 5 was also election day when a governor, congressman, and lesser public officials would be chosen. Eligible males in the nine wards of the community, who were concerned about politics, strolled to polling booths in strategically located taverns to register their preferences. Challenging and vigilance committees (William N. Sage on one) were on the alert to make certain that the balloting and the tabulation were conducted fairly and with honesty. State-wide results of the election would quickly be reported by a newly devised miracle -- telegraphy -- the press commented.

Newspapers on University opening day carried a clarion call to a public meeting to denounce the hateful Fugitive Slave Law, with Frederick Whittlesey, Oren and William N. Sage, Professor E. Peshine Smith, and several other persons connected with the University among the signers. The Central Medical College and a Dancing Academy proclaimed their particular virtues in the press. Column after column listed railway schedules, auction sales, general merchandise, and medicinal preparations for sale, the last conspicuously. Brant's Purifying Extract, for instance, bought by the quart bottle promised more therapeutic value than ten bottles of Sarsaparilla (advertised glamorously in an adjoining column). The Brant product was plainly a panacea, guaranteed to conquer "Cancer, Cancerous Scrofula, Fever Sores, Liver Complaint, Female Weaknesses and Complaints, Change of Life, Dyspepsia, Sour Stomach, Sore Mouth, Luccorhoea (whatever that might be), Mercurial Diseases, General Debility of the System and Salt Rheum (as if a casual after thought)." No need for Rochesterians of 1850 to trot from medical specialist to medical specialist to have his aches and pains remedied!

Vaughn's Lithontripic Mixture was given a full spread, Turkish Opium could be bought "low and in any quantity," and a cough medicine, Bryan's Pulmonic Wafer, paraded its allure in verse:

Let fortune flame with honor, fame or wealth,
Yet where's enjoyment if devoid of health?
The old philosophers agree in this,
That health alone is man's imperial bliss.

For the diversion of citizens whose constitutions were in good working order, an ''ad" directed attention to "a band of Ethiopians -- real darkies, performing every evening.... They bring good credentials." Better still would be a visit to the new Corinthian Hall, capable of accommodating at least 1,200 patrons, and "pronounced by competent judges the most splendid and commodious in the United States... for Concerts, Lectures, and Public Meetings." Not only was the Hall, which was to be intimately intertwined with the early history of the University, well ventilated and brilliantly lighted with gas, but the seats were comfortable and convenient, "gently elevated from the center, all cushioned." As its current showing the Corinthian advertised "Calyo's Mammoth Panorama of the Connecticut River," described as the "most faithful mirror of nature and unquestionably the largest painting in the world. Admission twenty-five cents."

For the more sophisticated Rochesterian the Concert Hall offered "Dubufe's Celebrated and Original Paintings of Adam and Eve in Paradise." Created for King Charles X of France, these artistic pieces were billed as the finest specimens of painting ever exhibited in America, and they had already been seen by two millions. Gas lighting made it possible to admire these wonders by night as well as by day.

But the press of early November, 1850, chronicled much more politics than merchandise, and fun. An advertiser, for example, promised a liberal reward for the recovery of his "small, four-year old red cow, strayed from 97 South Fitzhugh Street." It would be easy to recognize the wandering creature, for she had short horns, looked like a buffalo, and yielded milk from only three teats.

Sandwiched in between political news and advertisements were stories on the opening of the University. Exercises, conducted in the chapel in the afternoon of November 5, were short but interesting with faculty, students, and a few trustees and townspeople in attendance. Professor Kendrick led off with an invocation, the Rev. Henry W. Lee, rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, read a passage from the Scriptures, and the Rev. James B. Shaw of Brick Presbyterian Church followed along with a prayer. Inasmuch as Chancellor Harris could not be present, the principal address was delivered by the president of the trustee board, John N. Wilder. It was a forthright message expressing gratification for what had been achieved, now that the university structure had been readied for service. Students were reminded that their quarters were well furnished and in good condition (unlike the dormitories at Madison University), and they were assured that they would be treated as gentlemen and not subjected to the kind of faculty espionage that so commonly prevailed in American colleges.

Underscoring the breadth of the new enclave of learning in the area of religion (further illustrated by the affiliations of the participants in the ceremonies), Wilder asserted that "the elements of a common Christianity would pervade and sanctify the whole course of instruction," devoid of denominationalism. As spokesman for the community, a prominent attorney, E. Darwin Smith, who had put a lot of heart into higher education for Rochester, warmly congratulated the Baptist promoters for what had been brought to pass. Professor Maginnis prayed once more, the audience united in singing the Doxology, a venerable Baptist divine, Alfred Bennett, pronounced the Benediction, and the U. of R. at last was ready to go to work.

"We are grateful," recorded a sympathetic newsman," that the University has opened with such favorable prospects. The city owes a debt of gratitude to the gentlemen by whose energy and liberality this result has been accomplished. There was nothing which Rochester lacked that could have contributed so largely to her elevation and well-being as this invaluable institution.

From the faculty corner, Raymond, who resided temporarily in the "princely domicile" of Wilder, voiced joy that the college was "a reality, substantial, visible, alive. Student registration had outrun expectations and the University structure was "really comfortable and nice...There is not a college in the country so fitted up." He found the townspeople and visiting celebrities whom he encountered delightful and charming; regrettably, no president had been secured, yet ''we get on very comfortably in our state of maiden expectancy or despondency...."7


"The University is working, " it was said optimistically at the beginning of 1851, "as perfectly as if it had two centuries of growth and nurture." Under the chairmanship of Kendrick, the faculty at weekly sessions decided administrative arrangements, largely reflecting the Madison heritage. The college operated on the conventional three-terms of thirteen weeks each, and students were obligated to attend three recitations of an hour's duration each weekday morning, except Saturday when there was but a single session. Attendance was taken at each recitation, and undergraduates were seated in alphabetical order in class and in the chapel, where morning devotions were held for about ten minutes, commencing at 8:45. While the prayer was being pronounced, students stood; faculty members as well as undergraduates were required to appear at the chapel exercises.

Exact daily accounts were kept of attendance, recitations, and behavior of each undergraduate. Summaries of the records, giving a rounded profile of every student, were preserved in permanent form.

Undergraduates organized literary societies for self-culture and a bit of diversion and the faculty examined and approved their constitutions and by-laws with some alterations. Several--perhaps many--meetings of the professors were spent in revising the curriculum--ever a hardy perennial in the faculty garden. Though no detailed accounts of the discussions have survived, the net result was extensive modification in "Mr. Kelly's Plan," in which the trustees acquiesced. It was voted that a thorough examination should test student achievement in each class at the close of every term and that a senior comprehensive examination should form the climax and crown of the college experience. In the first recorded instance of disciplinary action, four undergraduates were admonished by Kendrick for absenting themselves from recitations so that they might watch a fire engine at work and their parents were informed of the dereliction.

Anticipating the first graduation exercises, set for the second Wednesday of July, 1851, the faculty prescribed that the valedictorian should be chosen by the Seniors, the Latin salutatorian by the faculty, and all other members of the graduating class should deliver orations in English, except one who would speak in Greek. Orations should not exceed ten minutes in length and had to be presented to the faculty for scrutiny two weeks before the Commencement season began. Sophomores would display their intellectual wares in declamations at Commencement time. 8

In actual practice, the studies taken by all candidates for the Bachelor of Arts degree were as follows: Freshmen: Greek, Latin, Algebra, Geometry, and Ancient and Modern History; Sophomores: Greek, Latin, Geometry, "Mensuration of Surfaces," Rhetoric (to cultivate the art of effective speech and writing), and something in Natural Philosophy called Mechanics; Juniors: Greek, Latin, Logic, Elements of Criticism, Chemistry, Optics, Botany, Astronomy, and Political Economy along with weekly lectures on Greek or Roman Literature and observation of the heavenly constellations for five evenings; Seniors: Greek and Latin Philosophers, Intellectual and Moral Philosophy (which embraced ethics, religion, psychology, logic, aesthetics, politics, law, economics, and a dash of natural science possibly)--the personality of the teacher was of cardinal importance in giving this branch of learning a sense of coherence--Chemistry, International and Constitutional Law, and the History of English Literature, garnished with frequent lectures on the last subject and more rarely on the others. Elective offerings were listed in the first catalogue as Evidences of Natural and Revealed Religion, Hebrew and German, Calculus, Descriptive Geometry, Zoology, Botany, Physiology, Mineralogy, and Civil Engineering and Construction.

For aspirants to a baccalaureate in science, Latin and Greek courses were omitted. Instead, as Freshmen they studied French, in their second year German and Trigonometry, as juniors, Spanish, Chemistry, Electricity and Galvanism (a puzzler), and in the last year they chose studies from the melange of the listings in science. On payment of small fees, "Eclectic" students, not degree candidates, might pick any subjects that suited their tastes. 9

If they liked, students might listen to special lectures to which the general public was also invited. Kendrick, for instance, presented a lecture on "The Importance of Thinking and Reflection, " which elicited warm applause in the Rochester press, and a Dr. James Webster gave a series on anatomy and physiology, much appreciated by undergraduate commentators.

There was more. In connection with the discipline of the intellect, the professors strove "to inculcate a pure morality," to which was presently added "and the great truths and duties of Evangelical Christianity." Since professorial supervision of undergraduates was limited, parents who did not reside in Rochester were advised to place their sons, young ones especially, under the care of guardians. To encourage undergraduate piety "weekly prayer meetings are held in all classes," a missionary society promoted the cause of world evangelism, and students were expected to attend divine worship at a church of their choice on the Sabbath. 10


Undergraduate literary societies formed a characteristic and significant feature of extracurricular diversion in American colleges of the time. Two societies were founded at the U. of R., lineal descendants of Madison University groups, the older Adelphian being known first as Olympia and definitively as the Delphic Oracle; Madison's Aconian emigre membership organized the Pithonian Society. Delphic held its first session before the formal opening of the college and adopted " Sophia Kai Logos" "Wisdom and Reason"--as its motto while the Pithonians chose "To Kalos Kagathon" -- "The Beautiful and the Good." Each society was assigned a large meeting room in the University building. Almost all the undergraduates belonged to one group or the other and for years lively competition prevailed in pledging candidates; professors, some trustees, and interested townsmen were admitted to honorary membership.

The literary clubs were regarded as adjuncts to instruction and discipline and were calculated to satisfy student appetites not appeased in classrooms--cultivation of literary grace and facility in speech along with a modest measure of social fraternalism. No undergraduate secular honor was more coveted than election as an officer of Delphic or Pithonian; elections were conducted not less than twice in an academic year, and it was customary for a new president to read an inspirational inaugural message. "Sons of Pytho" acquired classical pen-names like Senex, Orion, Alpha, Vero, and Clio; to cover expenses a small tax was levied.

Meetings, lasting three hours or longer, were held on Friday evenings or Saturday mornings and were strictly governed by parliamentary rules and followed a stereotyped pattern: call of the roll, prayer, and, most important, presentation of essays, speeches (invariably termed orations), and sometimes debates, a recess, followed by the reading of the minutes of the previous meeting, and odds and ends of club business. Subjects of essays and speeches ranged widely over the intellectual and -- surprisingly -- the international panorama; for example, "Subconscious Immortality: its Influence on Intellectual Efforts;" "The Beauties of Nature Triumphant;" or "Is the Advancement of Civil Liberty more Indebted to Mental Culture than to Physical Suffering?" Debaters grappled with themes like "Ought Women Vote?" or "The United States as a free nation was bound to aid Hungary in the late struggle [1848-49] for Independence," or "The interests of Freedom require that Louis Napoleon be Crowned Emperor of France."

Each Society compiled a publication for circulation within membership ranks -- the Delphic Oracle and the Pithonian Caduceus -- which incorporated proceedings at meetings and literary efforts: speeches, the essence of debates, letters, poetry, short fictional stories, love ditties, and witty parodies on everything from Mother Goose tales to Shakespeare.

A dozen volumes of these records have been preserved and they furnish invaluable insights into the undergraduate mind, interests, and manners--often remote from routine recitations in college rooms.

Resorting to rhyme to express his fraternal sentiments, the ecstasy of a Pithonian brother rose to lyrical heights:

A year has passed since thou didst deign
To have us christianed [sic] by thy name,
Again fair goddess now we meet
To pay our homage at thy feet.

and on to the climax:

May thy fair name Pithonian
In golden letters still remain.
Till Gabrael's [sic] silver trumpet's sound
Shall through the dying world resound.

Literary societies made much of Junior Class Exhibitions, at which carefully picked and drilled speakers of each club competed for prizes, and of anniversaries, similar in format, both affairs with snatches of music interspersed. At the first of these functions, to illustrate, orators talked on such topics as "The Spirit of Music, " "Mental Improvement," "The Mission of Genius," ''The Tyranny of Enthusiasm," "Moral Purity Essential to Poetic Excellence," "Revolutions and Constitutions," and "Vision of the Millennium, " a poem. Invitations to Exhibitions were extended to the Rochester public and the exercises were normally staged in the regal Corinthian Hall or a church large enough to accommodate a crowd. Reviewing the first Junior Exhibition, held in Corinthian Hall, a journalist dwelt upon the audience enthusiasm evoked by by the addresses and by the choral singing. All of which confirmed the oft-repeated prediction that the beneficent influence of an institution of higher learning in Rochester would not be confined to students alone.

Upon the literary societies devolved responsibility for choosing a poet and the principal orator for graduation exercises. The aim was high for the initial Commencement, invitations to give the address being dispatched in turn to Senators William H. Seward 11 and Salmon P. Chase, to Rufus Choate and Caleb Cushing--all outstanding personalities on the national political stage--in the end the societies had to be content with a renowned young Brooklyn preacher, Henry Ward Beecher. As the poet, the services of Park Benjamin were obtained, after declinations by James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Until their demise in the era of the Civil War, the Delphic and Pithonian societies encouraged qualities of mind and creative literature and effective speaking that had only limited scope in the college classrooms. 12

Within the academic orbit little opportunity, other than the literary clubs, existed for student activity unrelated to recitations. Yet a remarkable degree of freedom prevailed, for many petty and absurd restrictions traditional in the American college were discarded, and the Rochester authorities risked the experiment of regarding their charges as men, not boys. When morning classes were over, students were on their own, and, "half asphyxiated, were glad to escape into the fresh air and to give place to the theological students in the afternoon," an undergraduate remembered. As for sports, a second student tells us, "Any restless student who tried to practice athletics or any out-door games, or to reach his room by the back-yard after an evening call, without disturbing sleepers, was in imminent danger of being entangled or thrown down by thickly drawn clothes lines." 13

Candidates for the ministry--or some of them--mingling with all classes and conditions of men, made Rochester a sort of sociological training ground, as partisans of removal from Hamilton had prophesied; they called upon the poor and the sinful with "the blessed gospel on their tongues, " and managed to worm their way into some homes of "prejudiced Catholics. " They distributed religious tracts, taught in Bible schools, and preached sermons in the underprivileged sections of the community. 14 To quicken student concern for the evangelization of unbaptized multitudes bowing down to wood and stone "from Greenland's icy mountain to India's coral strand," a Judson Society of Inquiry was brought into being; twice a month the members came together for prayer and to listen to reports on work in mission fields. Like kindred groups in other Baptist colleges, the Rochester society commemorated the recently deceased Adoniram Judson, the very beau ideal of the self-sacrificing missionary. 15

Costs of gaining a college education at the U. of R. were pleasingly small. The tuition charge amounted to thirty dollars for three terms with an additional six dollars to cover incidentals; full tuition scholarships were available for forty aspirants to the ministry (only twenty-seven were granted the first year). Presently, the trustees created three tuition free scholarships annually for graduates of Rochester secondary schools; when the plan was in full operation twelve beneficiaries would be in attendance at the college every year. Awards were made on a competitive basis by public examinations and were forfeited if the winners failed to demonstrate academic superiority, diligence, and exemplary moral character; only New York City among communities in the state boasted similar scholarships.

If a student preferred to live in a private family instead of in the University structure, he could obtain meals, lodging, and laundry for between two and two and a half dollars a week. Some men chose to have their meals brought to their dormitory rooms, which entailed an expense of sixty-three to eighty cents a week! Even so, partisans of Madison University pointed out that the minimum cost of a year of study at Rochester exceeded a hundred dollars, at least thirty dollars more than at Hamilton. During the first year of the existence of the U. of R. (and perhaps later), several devout Baptist families fed and sheltered young men in their homes, free of charge. 16


From the beginning, the U. of R. Commencement season stood out as the supreme festival on the academic calendar. Oratory flowed in full spate, the literary societies put on their finest performances, trustees convened for annual decision-making, and prizes and diplomas were handed out amidst a panoply of pomp and circumstance. An Albany engraver designed a plate for the University diploma, after no little bother as to exactly how "Rochester" should be rendered in Latin; graduates forked over six dollars for the parchment; the money was in turn placed in a fund to enlarge the library resources.

No copy of the original diplomas for the bachelor's degree has been found, but the diploma of a master's candidate proclaimed to all the world:

Universitas Rocestriensis
omnibus has literas lecturis
S. P. D.
quum cursum studiorum disciplinaeque in hac
Academia praescriptum feliciter confecerit
ad gradum (Artium Magistri) et ad omnia
privilegia ubique gentium eodern pertinentia
haec Universitas nunc admisit
Cujus rei haec membranula cum sigillo
Academico chirographisque nostris testimonio sit
Ex AEdibus Academicis....

A translation of the document, prepared by Professor Alfred Geier, reads:

The University of Rochester
to all who will read these words
sends most cordial greetings
Inasmuch as
has successfully completed
the prescribed program of studies and education
of this Academic Institution, this University now
admits (him) to the degree of Master of Arts
and to all privileges pertaining thereto everywhere
in the world.
This parchment together with the Academic seal
and our signatures attests to said admission.
From the Academic Halls...

Understandably, the University authorities wished to make an impressive showing at the first Commencement -- and they succeeded. "An immense throng of townsfolk attended" served as the stereotyped phrase of journalists in reporting the various events, most of them staged in Corinthian Hall. Festivities got underway on Sunday, July 6, 1851, with a service and sermon arranged by the Judson Society of Inquiry. On Monday evening, a "brilliant audience" overcrowded the Hall -- hundreds were turned away -- to hear prize-seeking Sophomores reproduce speeches of distinguished orators of the English-speaking world. Press commentary remarked in a bit of detail on each of the ten participants, some of whom seemed too anxious, some enunciated well, others in a slovenly manner; high praise was showered upon the delivery of "The Last Words of Robert Emmett," silver-tongued Irish revolutionary of an earlier generation who had swung from the gallows as a traitor.

As the star performer on Tuesday evening, the literary societies proudly presented Henry Ward Beecher, who gave an oft-repeated lecture on "Character," regarded by the press as a brilliant, erratic, sophisticated, and witty oration making up in satire what it lacked in logic." In driving home the points that many individuals possessed a good reputation without being truly sound in character and that for some men it was the other way around, Beecher indulged in inappropriate digressions, yet cleverly demonstrated that he had "dipped deep into the fountains of human nature."

Somewhat less benevolent was the newspaper treatment accorded to the poet of the day, Park Benjamin, a caustic New York literary critic and a versifier of inferior quality, who was guilty of reading the same rhymes, with slight variations, that he had presented to a Rochester audience the preceding winter; nonetheless, he held the attention of the closely packed company until a late hour. His effort, which was "eminently satirical" and contained more of the philosophy of kindness and charity than the Beecher address, was "frequently interrupted by bursts of applause."

Yet all this formed merely the prelude to the major and absorbing occasion of the week, the graduation of the first college class on Wednesday, July 9. The rites began at ten o'clock, but for an hour and half before that time the elite of the Genesee community streamed into Corinthian Hall; the first hour after the doors were opened was reserved for the fair sex to find places. Additional chairs, supplementing movable settees and rising tiers of sofas, increased the seating capacity to 1600. While waiting, the audience could gaze at the plain stage, flower-bedecked, at the rear of which stood two ornate Corinthian columns patterned on standards at the tomb of Lysicrates, an Athenian choragus of the fourth century before Christ. Among the interested onlookers was the editor of a New York Baptist weekly, Martin B. Anderson.

When the great moment for the entry of the University procession arrived, the Hall bulged with "a brilliant assemblage... the fair forms and elegant costumes of the ladies, surrounding the center, which was entirely occupied by men, formed a unique and beautiful border, like a fringe of flowers around the walls ...."

The academic entourage, meanwhile, had been lined up at the University building. Thousands of spectators watched as the lengthy parade, the largest spectacle ever witnessed in the Flour City, marched dramatically east on Buffalo Street, passed through an arcade, and into the Corinthian rendezvous. Entering by a stairway, the company proceeded across a long hallway to staircases leading right and left into the hall itself. Many a glittering affair would be held in this amphitheatre -- concerts by Jenny Lind, performances by the Siamese twins and other oddities collected by P. T. Barnum, and by theater stock companies, and, in its final years, burlesque extravaganzas -- but none of them eclipsed the first graduation ceremonial of the U. of R.

Leading the marching throng was Scott's Brass Band at its superb best, and following along, presumably in an ascending order of dignity, were the University janitor, pupils from Rochester secondary schools, men of the three lower classes at the college, theological seminary students, teachers in the common schools, representatives of the Athaneum and the city Board of Education, Rochester's Mayor and his top lieutenants, officials of county and state governments, strangers and invited guests, founders of the University, gentlemen of the cloth and printing room, court judges, trustees of the theological institution, the ten U. of R. Seniors and candidates for honorary degrees, University professors and trustees, the Chancellor and trustee President, and, bringing up the rear, as if to furnish protection if the need arose, the high sheriff of the County of Monroe. Whether this massive assemblage could be decently seated on the Corinthian stage, the evidence fails to disclose.

Once the band had ceased its labors for the time being, Professor Kendrick offered an Invocation; then the graduating men, averaging twenty-four years of age, exhibited in turn their forensic talents in Greek, Latin, or English orations, the last exploring varied subjects like "The Permanent in Philosophy," "The Utility of Poetry," and "Jenny Lind." Certain of the speakers displayed all the appropriate emotions, pressmen observed, and were nervous, as though feeling the weight of responsibility resting on the pioneer class. For the most part, they spoke effectively and what most of them said seemed acceptable; yet in some cases "a narrowness of intellect and a dogmatic spirit of denunciation towards the several professions" showed through. That accent was in bad taste, and even worse were iconoclastic slurs on American journalism, which recalled the annoying, barbed rebukes of the two foremost British analysts of the American style of life, Charles Dickens and Mrs. Frances Milton Trollope.

Unflattering diatribes by graduating orators were gently dismissed, however, as youthful indiscretions, which greater maturity would undoubtedly correct. Tutor Albert H. Mixer delivered an address for the master's distinction, which, praises be, was "elegant, pleasing, healthy, and Christian-like." Mixer was the only man, it seems, to obtain an earned master's degree at the University before 1900. Resounding musical selections by Scott's hearty fellows "afforded a pleasing variety during the exercises."

Before distributing the diplomas, Chancellor Ira Harris, resplendent in academic costume, presented the major address. He rose to heights of florid eloquence, then very much the vogue, but contrived to utter some telling cadences that might have been invoked by a Commencement speaker a century and more later. Graduates were cautioned that dire perils beset life's pathway and were told that conscientious application and unremitting toil would assure worldly success. The Judge counselled the young men to employ their abilities for the common weal and to "cherish a lively interest in everything that relates to human welfare." The present company, Harris remarked in a pious peroration, would never meet again on this earth, but "in another and better world, and there, having passed our last examination," would "receive our last degree, a crown of immortality. "

Honorary degrees, a subject in which certain trustees had taken a keen interest, were next, conferred: doctorates in law to Governor Washington Hunt, a Whig, and, balancing the scales, to a Rochester Democrat, Addison Gardiner, Judge of the Court of Appeals, the highest judicial body in New York State. Divinity honors were bestowed upon the Rev. Henry M. Lee, a Rochester Episcopalian, and in absentia upon William Dean, a Baptist missionary toiling in faraway China. Four unearned master's degrees were likewise handed out, one going to Lewis Henry Morgan, Rochester lawyer and sociological student, and another to Henry Everard Peck, ministerial son of a University trustee, who soon made a name for himself at Oberlin College. The venerable Professor Dewey brought the protracted ceremonies to an end with the Benediction.

A Chancellor's evening party at the University building concluded the unforgettable day. Heavy showers fell just when townspeople were getting ready to sally forth, but rain put no damper on the attendance, which was "immense," or on the enjoyment, aided by music and sober refreshments. A meticulously minded treasurer totted up the cost of the Commencement festivities; hiring Corinthian Hall and flowers, $54.63, the band, $52.00, Poet Benjamin, $70, but only $25 for the Rev. Mr. Beecher, and $177.41 for the elegant Harris levee. It was worth all the expense and entirely befitting for a college, as a Pithonian enthusiast chronicled, "possessing in its infancy the vigor of manhood, bidding fair to compete with the first in our land." 17

Half a century later, an 1851 graduate rehearsing the life-work of the members in his class -- which he unblushingly described as the best that had graduated from the University up to that time -- revealed that four of the men became clergymen, three were lawyers, one settled in Texas (as a college executive and author) and fought under the Confederate flag in the Civil War, one turned into a business executive, and the tenth combined teaching with a commercial career. 18


To the Regents of the University of the State of New York, the U. of R. trustees tendered a detailed and informative accounting of the first year of their stewardship, and for many years reports of that nature were dispatched to Albany annually. After listing the officers and faculty of the college with their salaries, the initial summary contained information in depth on the subjects of study, the books that were used, and instructional techniques. It was a matter of peculiar pride that no student had been guilty of wilful damage to the University building and that "scarcely a single case of severe discipline'' had occurred during the collegiate year. This happy circumstance was attributed to the absence of a rigid written code to regulate undergraduate manners and morals; "the Faculty rely chiefly on example and personal association and intercourse," the Regents were told, "to secure... propriety of conduct and gentlemanly behavior..." Casting up a financial balance sheet, the trustees rapturously hailed a surplus of $801 for the year. 19

It must have been sweet music to the ears of the University authorities to learn that Heman Humphrey, long-time president of Amherst, although not much of an educational experimentalist himself and not one of the most esteemed executives of that college, had pronounced the Rochester program of higher academic training the finest in the Republic, and the University itself "a model institution." 20

More interesting, though, are the reflections on the Genesee enclave of scholarship of the "Plato of Concord," Ralph Waldo Emerson, optimistic essayist on self-reliance and philosopher of democracy -- in something of the same sense that all Americans are philosophers. On a western tour in 1851, Emerson stopped off in Rochester and lectured at Corinthian Hall on "English Character" to a large and fascinated audience; the press carried copious accounts of the discourse. With John N. Wilder as cicerone, Emerson inspected the University halls, and made shrewd observations on the college, mixed with Yankee humor, which in distorted or quite inaccurate versions wove themselves into U. of R. folklore. Whatever Emerson's actual comments to Wilder may have been, his inner sentiments, jotted down in the voluminous Journal at the West for February 7, 1851, read this way:

Mr. J. A. [sic] Wilder made me acquainted with the University of Rochester, which was extemporising here like a picnic. They had bought a hotel, once a railway terminus Depot... turned the dining room into a chapel by putting up a pulpit on one side, made the barroom into a Pythalogion [sic] Society's Hall, and the chambers into Recitation rooms, Libraries and Professors apartments, all for $700 [sic] a year. They had brought an Omnibus load of professors down from Madison bag and baggage Hebrew, Greek, Chaldee [sic] Latin Belles Lettres Mathematics and all Sciences -- called in a painter put him up a ladder to paint the title "University of Rochester" on the wall, and now they had runners on the road to catch students. One had come in yesterday; another, this morning; "tho't they should like it first-rate" and now they tho't themselves ill-used if they did not get a new student every day. And they are confident of graduating a class of ten by the time green peas are ripe.

Evidently, Emerson took note of the ongoing progress of the University, for on a later occasion he remarked, "I watched over it in its cradle, I am certain that I shall never follow it to its grave." Emerson was right. 21

Waiving factual niceties and freely indulging in poetic license, the foremost University versifier, Thomas T. Swinburne, ex-1892, outshone the Concord sage in "Eighteen-Fifty."

A batch of teachers came to town
With heaps of books and knowledge,
And rigged in cap and robed in gown
They opened up our college.

'Twas in an old time hostelry
We first sat down to table,
The seniors with the faculty,
The freshmen in the stable.

When peas were sprouting in the sod
A class matriculated,
And ere those peas were in the pod
A crop had graduated.

Although we started in an inn,
No drinks were served but water;
The students never smelt of gin
In our old Alma Mater.

Footnotes to Chapter 4

  1. R DD, Oct. 3, 16, 23, 1848. Rosenberger, R and C, p. 130. RHSP, XXI (1943), 108 -109.
  2. The Annunciator, Jan. 1, 1851. New York Chronicle, Feb. 22, 1851. RHSP, XI (1931), 286. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (hereafter cited as R D&C), June 15, 1928.
  3. R DA Oct. 21, 1850. Donald B. Gilchrist, "The University of Rochester Libraries," RHSP, XVI (1937), 101-102.
  4. John F. Richardson to W. N. Sage, July 27, 1850. Sage Papers.
  5. Andrew L. Freeman, 1851, "Beginnings, " Interpres, XLII (1900), 55.
  6. The Annunciator, May 14, 1851. Documents of the Senate of the State of New York, 75th Session (1852), II, no. 92, 2.
  7. R DA, November 5, 6, 1850; R DD, November 6, 1850; New York Chronicle, November 30, 1850. Lloyd, op. cit., pp. 256-266.
  8. The Annunciator, Jan. 1, 1851. Faculty Minutes, 1850-1851, passim.
  9. Disparities concerning course offerings exist between the University Catalogue of 1850-1851 and a report on college affairs sent to Albany for perusal by state officials. Documents of the Senate of the State of New York, 75th Session (1852), II, no. 92, 93-104. Cited there are the textbooks that were prescribed, most of which repose in the Rhees Library.
  10. Annual Catalogue, 1851, p. 25; ibid. 1851-52.
  11. To strengthen the student overture, Professor E. Peshine Smith addressed a lengthy letter to Seward calling attention to the political value of cultivating the good will of Baptists by his presence and requesting him to exert pressure on his political allies at Albany to vote favorably on a bill before the Legislature for state aid to the U. of R., destined to become "a great institution and to concentrate the interests of that great [Baptist] denomination more than any other in the country." Smith to Seward, Feb. 17, 1851. Seward Papers, Rhees Library. This letter was uncovered by Professor Glyndon G. Van Deusen, 1925, the foremost authority on Seward.
  12. Records of the Delphic Oracle and Pithonian Societies, passim. Campus, V (1879), 145; Ibid. , April 22, 1889, April 12, 1895. Rolland E. Stevens, "The Delphic and Pithonian Societies, " URLB, IV (1949), 9-12. For an enlightening estimate of college literary clubs in general, see D. Henry Chamberlain, "The Value of Literary Societies in Academical Education," The University Quarterly, IV (1861), 348-361.
  13. U. of R. Alumni Proceedings, 1867, p. 33. Charles A. Dewey, "Recollections of Earlier Rochester," URLB, V (1950), 52.
  14. The Annunciator, January 1, May 14, 1851.
  15. A Brown, University graduate, Judson consecrated his life to carrying the glad tidings of the gospel to Burma; to facilitate the work of conversion he laboriously translated the Bible into the native tongue and compiled a permanently useful Burmese dictionary. Dying aboard ship in 1850, Judson was buried at sea.
  16. RDD, February 19, 1851. The Annunciator, May 14, 1851.
  17. RDD, June 26, July 9, 11, 1851. R DA, July 9, 10, 1851. New York Recorder, July 16, 1851, pp. 83-87,
  18. Andrew L. Freeman, in Addresses at the Semi-Centennial of the U. of R. (1900), p. 112. Cf. General Catalogue, June, 1928, p.1.
  19. Documents of the Senate of the State of New York, 75th Session (1852), II, no. 92, 93-104.
  20. RDD, Jan. 4, 1851.
  21. William H. Gilman, "Emerson: Fact and Myth," RAR, XVII (1956), no. 5,18-19. Professor Gilman of the U. of R. faculty of English is collaborating in preparing the definitive edition of Emerson's journals, RDD, Feb. 6, 8, 1851. Joseph H. Gilmore, An Outline History of the U. of R. (Rochester, 1886), p. 14. Cf. Addresses at the Semi-Centennial of the U. of R. (1900), pp. 97-98. Rhees Library possesses an 1850 edition of Poems by Emerson, inscribed "For the Library of the University with the respects of the Author.'' Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal at the West, by permission of the Harvard College Library.
  22. Memorabilia of Class of 1892, Rhees Library Archives.