An address delivered at New Haven, before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Essay

Excerpt:

Mr. President, and Gentlemen,

It is fifty years since I had the honor to address a large and polished assembly from this place. In recalling that event, unimportant to others, but to me deeply interesting, I am reminded of my rapid transit from the morning to the evening of life; and as my health has been uniformly preserved, and my public duties such as I could safely and agreeably perform, I have, on my own account as well as on that of others, abundant cause of gratitude to God for his goodness.

The Phi Beta Kappa society, appertaining to Yale College, was instituted in November, 1780, and a number of my collegiate class (and of which number I had the honor to be one,) were chosen its original members. Here again recollections occur of no common force, and it would be difficult for any person, who had received his classical education at this seminary, and whose heart is capable of being swayed by the ordinary sympathies of our nature, not to partake in some degree of the inspiration of the time and place. These circumstances naturally led me to the train of reflections which I shall now respectfully submit, and they have arisen out of the historical associations that this day awakens. The annals of the state and of the college, contain a striking specimen, of the beneficial influence which the studies and discipline of such a literary institution, are calculated to have upon the morals and manners, the intelligence and public spirit of the community.*

Mr. President, and Gentlemen,

It is fifty years since I had the honor to address a large and polished assembly from this place. In recalling that event, unimportant to others, but to me deeply interesting, I am reminded of my rapid transit from the morning to the evening of life; and as my health has been uniformly preserved, and my public duties such as I could safely and agreeably perform, I have, on my own account as well as on that of others, abundant cause of gratitude to God for his goodness.

The Phi Beta Kappa society, appertaining to Yale College, was instituted in November, 1780, and a number of my collegiate class (and of which number I had the honor to be one,) were chosen its original members. Here again recollections occur of no common force, and it would be difficult for any person, who had received his classical education at this seminary, and whose heart is capable of being swayed by the ordinary sympathies of our nature, not to partake in some degree of the inspiration of the time and place. These circumstances naturally led me to the train of reflections which I shall now respectfully submit, and they have arisen out of the historical associations that this day awakens. The annals of the state and of the college, contain a striking specimen, of the beneficial influence which the studies and discipline of such a literary institution, are calculated to have upon the morals and manners, the intelligence and public spirit of the community.*

The establishment of Yale College formed an era of great moment in the history of the colony. The object was to diffuse the light of knowledge, and by a steady and permanent influence, to lead young men to the paths of wisdom and virtue. The scheme of a literary institution to be located in New Haven, was placed before the Legislature of the New Haven Colony in 1652 ; and again in 1660, by the Reverend John Davenport, who took a noble share in the effort, and this town made a liberal donation in aid of the measure.t Mr. Davenport was an Oxford graduate, and eminent, even among the eminent puritans of his time, as a scholar and a divine, and he was distinguished for the strictness of his discipline, and for the most active and intrepid performance of his duties.} He observed that the college was intended for the education of youth in good literature, and to fit them for public services in church and commonwealth. The proposed plan of a college did not at that time succeed, and it was revived under more favorable auspices in 1698, and the effort resulted in the charter of 1701. The object, in 1698, was to found a seminary for the education of young men fitted for the work of the gospel ministry, and it was to be called the school of the church. But the charter was formed upon a broader foundation, and with more extensive views. It instituted “a collegiate school, wherein youth might be instructed in the arts and sciences, and fitted for public employment both in church and civil state ;” and at the first meeting of the college trustees, they felt and displayed the enlarged spirit of the instrument, and resolved that in the college should be taught ” the liberal arts and languages.” The ceremony of founding this college, by ten of the principal ministers of the gospel in the colony, and who were its first trustees, was simple and interesting. When assembled for the purpose, each person with a number of select and ponderous volumes in his arms, placed them on a table, and declared that he gave those hooks for the founding of a college in the colony. Those select treasures of knowledge answered the purpose of corner stones in the foundation of this fabric of science, and if the learning they contained should at this day be deemed uninteresting, or their style repulsive, yet, as the volumes were dedicated to the noblest of purposes, and on an altar of primeval simplicity, they became deserved objects of the respect and curiosity of a grateful posterity. One of these trustees, the Reverend Abraham Pierson, was an accomplished scholar, and the first rector of the college; and all of them appear to have been learned and pious men, distinguished for comprehensiveness of views, and energy of purpose. With what emotions of gratitude would those venerable 6 men have contemplated the fruits of their zeal, if they could have anticipated, in prophetic vision, the future prosperity and renown of this institution. The college commenced its career with a little flock of less than a dozen scholars, and yet, from a temple of knowledge so retired in its origin, and so humble in its pretensions, there have have issued near five thousand students, who have been crowned with academic honors. Those sons of science have been dispersed over every part of our country, and they have made useful and splendid discoveries in the mechanic arts, and sustained themselves with honor and credit in professional life, and in every department of public duty. They have illustrated the old, and illuminated the dark recesses of the new branches of science. They have equally adorned the history of their country by their genius in the arts of peace, and by their conduct and courage in the exigencies of war. Many of the departed alumni of this college have afforded signal aid and illustrious services, in laying the foundations, and raising the lofty structure of our national greatness.

The character and disposition of the first inhabitants of the colony, and the progress of their institutions and improvements, down to the beginning of this college, were closely connected with its future fortunes.

The interests of education had engaged the attention of the New England colonists from the earliest settlement of the country ; and the system of common and grammar schools, and of academical and collegiate instruction, was interwoven with the primitive views and institutions of the Puritans. Every thing in their genius and disposition was favorable to the growth of freedom Und learning, but with a tendency to stern reg- illations for the maintenance of civil and religious order. They were a grave and thinking people, of much energy of character, and of lofty and determined purpose. Religion was with them a deep and powerful sentiment, and of absorbing interest. The first emigrants had studied the oracles of truth as a text book, and they were profoundly affected by the unqualified commands, the awful sanctions, and the sublime views, and animating hopes and consolations which accompanied the revelation of life and immortality. They were familiar with the rich treasures of human learning, and especially with the classical remains of the ancients. Their minds were strengthened and enlarged by observation and travel, and their zeal was inflamed and their views directed by the unconquerable spirit of civil and religious freedom. The persecutions which they suffered in England under the tyranny of the ecclesiastical tribunals, communicated a lasting impulse to their minds, and exasperated their temper. It rendered them intrepid enemies of popery and arbitrary power, and even hostile to episcopal worship and authority. They had become republicans in their political creed, and severe and intolerant in their religious principles. The avowed object of their emigration to New England, was to enjoy and propagate the reformed protectant faith, in the purity of its discipline and worship. They intended to found republics on the basis of Christianity, and to secure religious liberty under the auspices of a commonwealth. With this primary view they were early led to make strict provision for common school education, and the religious instruction of the people. But they established a severe and uncompromising discipline in church and state, and their jurispru- 8 dence, in criminal matters, was exceedingly harsh, and it would be intolerable at the present day. They extended their injunctions, and severe penal animadversion to numerous breaches of the moral law, not now deemed fitly within the cognizance of human laws.*

The first settlers of Connecticut came from Massachusetts in 1635, and they were men of property and education, and among the most pious, discreet and intelligent of the Puritans. In 1638, the Constitution of Connecticut was formed by a voluntary association of the free planters in Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield, and it was the model of as pure and perfect a democracy as had ever before subsisted among civilized men. All the public authorities rested upon the basis of annual elections, exercised by ballot, by the whole body of the freemen. The tendency of universal suffrage to abuse, was checked by the provision for a previous nomination of candidates for office. The General Assembly was composed of deputies from the several towns, and the House consisted at first of only twelve members. But that small body of men gave evidence of vast compass of thought, and they were found adequate to the purposes of government, and thoroughly instructed in the knowledge of the provisions requisite for the security of the natural rights of mankind. Their first act was a declaratory bill of rights, in which it was ordained that no man should be deprived of his life, or honor, or good name, or personal liberty, or wife, or children, or goods, or estate, unless by authority of some express and duly published law of the Colony, and in default thereof by some plain rule of the word of God.* The latter part of this provision undoubtedly left the rights of the people upon too vague a tenure, but it is to be considered in explanation of such a provision, that the word of God was at that time almost the sole object of their solicitude and studies, and that the principal design in planting themselves on the banks of the Connecticut, was to preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel. This latitudinary provision was not, in point of fact, resorted to, and the civil code soon became amply sufficient. And who can withhold from this first and feeble band of colonists, the unfeigned tribute of honor and gratitude, for turning their earliest attention, even in the midst of the wilderness and beyond the then confines of the civilized world, to such a precise and lucid exposition of the principles of civil liberty? They were so fortunate as to enjoy the presence and guide of one man, who had been early initiated in English university learning, and proved to be one of those superior and decided characters, competent to give a permanent direction to human affairs. No sage of antiquity was superior to him in wisdom, moderation and firmness ; none equal to him in the grandeur of his moral character and the elevation of his devotion. This learned audience will have perceived that I allude to the Rev. Thomas Hooker, whom his distinguished biographer has termed the light of the Western churches and oracle of the Connecticut colony.

The Colony of New Haven was established shortly after that of Connecticut. The founders of it were Theophilus Eaton, John Davenport, and other English emigrants, generally distinguished for talents, learning, piety, opulence and enterprise. The Rev. John Davenport preached his first sermon in 1638, under a large and spreading oak, near the spot where we are now assembled; and those illustrious pioneers prescribed a liberal outline and beautiful form to this city, and it has been filled up with equal taste and elegance by their descendants. The Constitution at first established at New Haven, like that at Hartford, was a pure democracy. The colonists being without any charter or regular commission from England, formed themselves by voluntary compact into a free commonwealth, and to secure the primary religious purpose of their emigration, they surpassed their brethren on the Connecticut in the severity of their zeal. They required as a test of admission to the privileges of freemen, that all burgesses entitled to vote and be voted for, be first enrolled as church members. The business of civil government in that age was deemed quite secondary to the interests of the visible church. The gathering of a congregation was the preliminary and the indispensable step to the organization of a town, for without a church there could be neither freemen nor magistrates.

In the same spirit, the first General Assembly of the Colony declared that the word of God should be the only rule for ordering the affairs of government.* This rigid and intolerant spirit was less to have been expected, inasmuch as Governor Eaton had been greatly honored in Europe, in his civil employments and intercourse with mankind ; and New Haven was settled with commercial as well as with religious views. The Colony of New Haven, says Cotton Mather, was ” constellated with many stars of the first magnitude, and under the conduct of as holy, and as prudent, and as genteel persons, as most that ever visited these nooks of America.” It is probable that the early religious character of the colonists received an impression from the doctrine, discipline, and zeal of the renowned pastor of New Haven, whose object and effort, according to his biographer, was “to settle all matters, civil and sacred, by a stricter conformity to the word of God, than he had seen exemplified in any other part of the world.”

But the judicious and happy consolidation of the governments of Connecticut and New Haven into one colony, under the charter of 1662, gradually led to more liberal and just views of the end and design of civil government. The Charter provided for a semi-annual General Assembly, and for a Governor, Deputy Governor and twelve assistants, to be annually elected. It was an instrument of extraordinary liberality, considering the source from which it came, and though a royal charter, it constituted Connecticut a complete republic in everything but in name. The Colony continued, even down to the American revolution, to possess and exhibit all the essential attributes of a state entirely free and independent. The General Assembly of Connecticut, in 1639, defined and established the privileges of their towns, and invested them with corporate and civil powers of a local nature. The settlement of New England in compact towns and villages was made in the first instance for safety against the incursions of the Indians, and for the accommodation of the inhabitants in respect to public worship and the maintenance of schools. In the abstract of the laws of New England, a hard code compiled by the Rev. John Cotton and printed in 1641, it was ordained that no man should set his dwelling house “above the distance of half a mile, or a mile at the fartherest, from the meeting house of the congregation.”* The law it is said was never legally enforced, but the beautiful towns and villages which adorn every part of the country, and shed a bright and cheering moral aspect to its landscape, show the early and universal attachment to this policy. It was well adapted to promote order and facilitate intercourse, and appears to great advantage when placed in contrast with the sparse locations of planters in other parts of the country, where each individual resides in stately and unsocial seclusion on his own farm. This New England mode of settlement has had a strong and lasting influence on the manners and character of the inhabitants. It has contributed to render them lively, inquisitive, social, humane, orderly and religious. Associations for the noblest and most instructive purposes are easily formed and sustained. There is also in young minds, which are naturally sprightly and fond of romantic fiction, a charm in familiar and playful village associations, which softens the temper, civilizes the manners, and gives ardor and strength to the affections. The fictitious narrative, ” the Woodman’s Ballad,” the song and the dance, the natural, if not the appropriate amusements of many a winter’s evening in early life, spread the vision of enchantment over the mellowed recollections of such periods: over those

“Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease, Seats of our youth, when every sport could please.”

The equity of the first emigrants in their dealings with the natives of the country, is another circumstance that deserves a special and honorable notice. The Indians in Connecticut are supposed to have exceeded twenty thousand, when the state was first colonized ; # and the question as to Indian rights and titles, must have presented itself to our ancestors as one deserving of very grave consideration. The Rev. Mr. Bulkley of Colchester in this state, upwards of a century ago, wrote an able essay t to prove that the Indians had not by the law of nature any title to the soil, except so far as they had actually settled upon it, and subdued it by their labor; and he contended that the country not so occupied, was justly open to the civilized emigrants from Europe. This at the time was not an uncommon theory with the Puritans. Their projected emigration from England to Massachusetts, was originally urged upon them while in England, on vague suggestions of a common right, as sons of Adam, to enter upon and cultivate the waste parts of this continent.* Even the learned Cotton Mather placed the general purchase of Indian titles upon the ground of civility, and he referred to King James’s Patent for the better title, and that Patent was evidently founded on the same assumptions of right. It is happy for this country that the governments and settlers did not, in point of fact, rest their conduct upon these abstract speculations, however plausible they may be in appearance or difficult in discussion. They respected Indian rights and titles from motives of policy if not from a sense of justice, and with the exception of parts of the Pequot country, which was procured by conquest in war, the inhabitants of Connecticut, as well as of the other colonies, uniformly acquired their lands from the natives by fair purchase.

Source Citation:

Kent, James. 1831. An address delivered at New Haven, before the Phi Beta Kappa Society. New Haven: Hezekiah Howe. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006558067

Cite this page:

Kent, James. 1831. "An address delivered at New Haven, before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Essay." History of Higher Education. https://higheredhistory.gmu.edu/primary-sources/an-address-delivered-at-new-haven-before-the-phi-beta-kappa-society/