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YALE COLLEGE IN SAYBROOK.
BY FRANKLIN BOWDITCH DEXTER, LITT.D.
[Read January 27, 1902.]
We are met to commemorate the establishment in Saybrook, on the 11th of November, 1701, of the Collegiate School of Connecticut, which the intervening centuries have transformed into Yale University. And if the change is great in the University, how greatly also is Saybrook changed with these two hundred years! The statement is commonplace, but I emphasize it, since it happened that the summons to this commemoration found me in one of those charming cathedral cities of Southern England, in the precincts of which "a thousand years are but as yesterday when it is past," while the lapse of these latest centuries has left hardly a perceptible trace.
With us how far different! and as we pause to recall a passage in the older history of Saybrook, we have almost no help from existing monuments or local traditions in reconstructing the picture of those years. It is beyond my powers to describe the Saybrook of 1701 or to repeople the streets of the Point with the life which centered there in that generation. I can only rehearse a twice-told tale of the events which brought the College to Saybrook, and the vicissitudes which marked its passage to a more permanent home.
The beginnings of New England included also the beginnings of the higher education; and Connecticut has the credit of furnishing nearly sixty names to the list of students in Harvard College before 1701. But the long and hard journey to Cambridge, the expensiveness of the course and the need of economy, the demands of local pride, and the influence-conscious or
unconscious of a plan for a College in New Haven urged sixty years before by the leader of that settlement, these with other like reasons prevailed at length to bring about in 1701 a combined movement on the part of a few influential inen in the Colony, which resulted towards the end of that summer in the informal organization of a Board of clerical Trustees, who agreed at Branford, as the tradition runs, "to give books for the founding of a College."
At that moment the political sky was stormy. Enemies were active at the English court against the colonial governments, and the last advices from London had been that the Connecticut charter was in immediate danger of forfeiture by Parliament. With this prospect it was a bold act for the General Assembly, with their own chartered authority imperilled, to stretch their power, as they did, by granting to these founders, with their nucleus of books, a charter for a new institution, the real design of which they endeavored to disguise under the title of a "Collegiate School."
This charter left to the Trustees full power to direct and manage the School which they had founded; and it behoves us to ask who were likely to be the leading spirits among them. The eldest of the group was James Noyes, of Stonington, in his 62d year, and the youngest Joseph Webb, of Fairfield, who was only 35. To Mr. Noyes special deference was given by reason of his age; but the men of most influence in these formative years were Abraham Pierson, of Killingworth, now Clinton, James Pierpont, of New Haven, and Samuel Andrew, of Milford; and of these Pierpont was beyond a question foremost. He was now in his 42d year, of gentle birth and eminent intellectual gifts, while his portrait-the only one that remains of any of the group-shows a strikingly refined and spiritual presence.
The history of Yale College, like that of many another society, has been largely a personal one, dominated that is to say by a succession of individuals in the governing body, who have determined by the strength of their character the channels into which the life of the College has been directed. And the
first in this line of controlling forces was James Pierpont, from 1701 to his death in 1714. After him no one at once succeeded to his full influence; but if I read aright the records of the next quarter-century, during most of that time the leading figure among the Trustees was the Rev. John Davenport, of Stamford. After his death, the College came in 1739 under the strong sway of Rector Clap, who recast it in a material sense-like the great Roman Emperor, he found it of wood and left it of brick-and who as the chief among many great services created the office of the Presidency, and thus opened the way for the legitimate primacy of Stiles and Dwight and their
We see, then, in October, 1701, the future of the Collegiate School committed to a Board of ten Connecticut pastors averaging in age a little under fifty years, among whom the next to the youngest, James Pierpont, had been hitherto the prime mover. Seven of them resided along the coast, from Fairfield to Stonington, and three on the banks of the Connecticut, at Middletown, Hartford, and Windsor, though Samuel Mather, the Windsor minister, was at no time an active member of the Board.
In the three or four weeks which elapsed between the grant of the charter and the first Trustee meeting, the question of a site for the School was of chief interest. The location of the more active Trustees would obviously lead them to favor a place on the coast, and if that place were also easy of access from the river, a workable compromise might be reached. The only bit of remaining evidence of these discussions is a letter from one of the Trustees which argues for New Haven.
An estimate of the number of students likely to come from the various sections of the Colony might have been deduced from the actual numbers of Harvard graduates from these sections down to 1701: in fact, over one-half of these had come from New Haven and Fairfield Counties, and only one-third from Hartford County. With this showing, it was hardly to be expected that Hartford, though the richest and most ancient settlement, could secure the honor of receiving the College; but
Saybrook recommended herself, alike with regard to the old local jealousies between the Connecticut and New Haven Colonies and the probable lines of future development. Additional prominence came from her central position as a post-town on all three of the routes between New York and Boston, and from her historic fort, kept in constant efficiency for defence.
One weighty adviser in the early conferences respecting the College has not yet been noticed, the Rev. Thomas Buckingham, now about 55 years of age, who had been for upwards of thirty years the ordained minister of Saybrook. Reared in Milford in the old New Haven Colony, but early left an orphan, he had failed to get to College, and entered promptly on pastoral work. There is evidence that he was one of the inner circle of intimate friends, with Pierpont and Pierson and Andrew and Noyes and Israel Chauncy, who had promoted the College scheme and were now the most active of the Trustees. And so it was not strange that the first meeting under the charter was appointed at his house on Tuesday, the 11th of November, 1701. What was done at that four-days' meeting is perhaps best told in a letter from Mr. Buckingham to the Governor of Connecticut, Fitz-John Winthrop, son of the founder of Saybrook, as follows:
SAYBROOK, 15.10br. [= Dec.], 1701.
Considering the countenance it hath pleased your honor to afford unto the designe of founding a Collegiate Schoole within this Government, I have thought it no lesse than my duty to informe your honor what proceedings have been made in that affaire since the Court.
Seven of the Trustees mentioned by the honorable assembly had a meeting at this towne 12. Nobr. last and a very comfortable, unanimous meeting was had, very well agreeing upon the person, who under the name of Rector might preside in and take the charge of sd, school (viz.) the Revrnd ̧ Mr. Pierson. Wee also had no great difficultie about the place (viz.) Say-Brook (in case no considerations come in to alter our thoughts), that appearing to be the place for the best accommodation of the Colonie in generall, and adjacent places; whereupon Mr. Nathaniel Lynde by subscription engaged a legall deed of his house in the Town plot with eight or ten acres of land adjacent, and three or four other persons subscribed to the value of fifty pounds in money, provided the sd. Schoole bee at Say-Brook.
A letter from the Trustees was left with mee to the people at Killingworth, and I have been there and offered it to them. I the last weeke received their answer, the summe of which is that they do not see it their duty to consent unto the parting with Mr. Pierson. I doubt if they should persist in that answer it might bee an occasion to worke some hindrance
to and possibly some confusion about that so good and greate a worke: yet our God whom we desire to serve is able to make darkness to bee light before us and unto him wee desire to looke.
The reference to the Governor's interest in the enterprise is confirmed by another letter of Mr. Buckingham's, written ten weeks later to the Governor's pastor, Gurdon Saltonstall, on hearing of Governor Winthrop's dangerous illness, as follows:
"In a letter from the westward [was it from Mr. Pierpont?], I find these sayings which I thinke best to transcribe to yor.selfe verbatim.
"After hearty Condolence to ye. Governors sorrows, and prayers yt. he may bee spared in ys. or. criticall hour; however yt. he and wee may be prepared for the divine good pleasure. These may serve to suggest whether it would not be best to jogge Mr. Noyes and Saltonstall to propose to the Governor. that hee would testifie his regard to the Collegiate Schoole. Hee has under God given it breath, and a tender beginning, his benevolence would doubtlesse norishe it to farther strength, bee an honorable good worke, and doubtlesse acceptable unto God. Its pity hee should forget it, or it loose his kindnesse, for want of a word."
The seed thus sown produced its fruit, in Winthrop's will, dated seventeen days later, which bequeathed £100 to the Collegiate School, "provided the sa School be setled and upheld and while it shall be so upheld, in the town of Saybrook." But the testator recovered from this illness, and not dying until 1707, by that time a distrust of the School's continuance in Saybrook seems to have operated to prevent the payment of the bequest.
To return to the meeting of November, 1701. The matters of most interest are, the selection of a Rector, the location of the School at Saybrook, and the timely gift for its use of a house, so long as the School should remain there. The exact language of the vote for location was:-"Upon mature consideration, that so all parts of Connecticut and neighbours adjacent may be best accommodated, we agree & conclude yt unless further considerations than those now before us do offer themselves, we purpose to erect and form a Collegiate School in the Town of Saybrook."
The reference to neighbours who may be accommodated, concerned mainly, I suppose, Long Island and the Massachusetts towns in the Connecticut valley, though possibly Rhode Island may also have been thought of.
The house in Saybrook which was offered to the Trustees was on the spot on Saybrook Point now marked by a granite boulder