Opinions of the Late Dr. Nott Respecting Books, Studies, and Orators

DURING the summer of 1833, several professional gentlemen, clergymen, lawyers, and educators were spending their vacation at Saratoga Springs. Among them was Dr. Nott. He was then regarded as a veteran teacher, whose long experience and acknowledged wisdom gave a peculiar value to his matured opinions. The younger members of this little circle of scholars, taking their ease at their inn, purposely sought to “draw out” the Doctor upon those topics in which they felt an especial interest. They were, therefore, in their leisure moments, constantly hearing and asking him questions. One of them, then a tutor in Dartmouth College, took notes of the conversations, and the following dialogue is copied from his manuscript : —

Mr. C. “ Doctor, how long have you been at the head of Union College ? ”

Dr. N. “ Thirty years. I am the oldest president in the United States, though not the oldest man in office. I cannot drop down anywhere in the Union without meeting some one of my children.”

Mr. C. “ And that, too, though so many of them are dead! I believe that nearly half of my class are dead ! ”

Dr. N “Indeed ! That is a large proportion to die so soon. I think it remarkable that so few deaths have occurred among the members of the college since I have been connected with it. I can distinctly recollect all the individuals who have died at college, and during thirty years there have been but seven. The proportion has been less than one third of one per cent. Very many have died, however, very soon after leaving college. Two or three in almost every class have died within a year after they have graduated. I have been at a loss as to the cause of this marked difference. I can assign no other than the sudden change which then takes place in the student' s whole manner and habits of living, diet, &c.”

Mr. C. “ How do the students generally answer the expectations they have raised during their college course ? ’

Dr. N. “ I have been rarely disappointed. I have found my little anticipatory notes generally fulfilled. I recollect, however, one class, which graduated four or five years ago, in regard to which I have been very happily disappointed. It had given us more trouble, and there were more sceptics in it than in any other class we ever had. But now every one of those infidels except one is studying for the ministry.”

Mr. C. “ What course do you take with a sceptical student ?

Dr. N. “ I remember a very interesting case I had several years ago. There was a young man in college of fine talents, an excellent and exemplary student, but an atheist. He roomed near me. I was interested in him ; but I feared his influence. It was very injurious in college, and yet he did nothing worthy of censure. I called him one day to my study. I questioned him familiarly and kindly in relation to his speculative views. He said he was not an atheist, but had very serious doubts and difficulties on the subject, and frankly stated them to me. I did not talk with him religiously, but as a philosopher. I did not think he would bear it. I told him that I felt a peculiar sympathy with young men in his state of mind ; for once, during the French Revolution, I had been troubled with the same difficulties myself. I had been over that whole ground ; and would gladly assist his inquiries, and direct him to such authors as I thought would aid him in his investigations after truth. As he left my study, I said, ‘Now, I expect yet to see you a minister of the Gospel ! ’ He returned to his room ; he paced it with emotion ; said he to his roommate (these facts his room-mate communicated to me within a year), ' What do you think the President says ?’ ' I don’t know.’ ‘ He says he expects yet to see me a minister. I a minister ! I a minister !' — and he continued to walk the room, and reiterate the words. No immediate effect on his character was produced. But the prophetic words (for so he seemed to regard them) clung to him as a magic talisman, and would never leave his mind ; and he is now a pious man, and a student in divinity.”

Mr. C. " Doctor, we have been seeking amusement and profit by some exercises in elocution. Mr. G — and myself have been trying to read Shakespeare a little ; but some gentlemen here have had some qualms of conscience as to the propriety of it, and have condemned the reading of Shakespeare as demoralizing. What is your opinion, sir ? ”

Dr. N. " Why, as to that matter, sir, I always say to my young men, ' Gentlemen, if you wish to get a knowledge of the world and of human nature, read the Bible. The Bible is the first and best book that can be studied for the exhibition of human character; and the man who goes out into the world expecting to find men just such as Moses and Paul have represented them will never be disappointed. If you are contented to read nothing but your Bibles, well, you have it all there. But if you will read any other books, read Homer and Shakespeare. They come nearer, in my estimation, to Moses and Paul, in their delineations of human character, than any other authors I am acquainted with. I would have every young man read Shakespeare. I have always taught my children to read it.’ Ministers, as a class, know less practically of human nature than any other class of men. As I belong to the fraternity, I can say this without prejudice. Men are reserved in the presence of a respectable clergyman. I might live in Schenectady, and discharge all my appropriate duties from year to year, and never hear an oath, nor see a man drunk ; and if some one should ask me, ' What sort of a population have you in Schenectady ? Are they a moral people ? Do they swear ? Do they get drunk ? ’ for aught that I had seen or heard, I might answer, ' This is, after all, a very decent world. There is very little vice in it. People have entirely left off the sin of profaneness ; and, as to intemperance, there is very little of that.’ But I can put on my old great-coat, and an old slouching hat, and in five minutes place myself amid the scenes of blasphemy and vice and misery, which I never could have believed to exist if I had not seen them. So a man may walk along Broadway, and think to himself, ' What a fine place this is ! How civil the people are ! What a decent and orderly and virtuous city New York is ! ’ — while, at the same time, within thirty rods of him are scenes of pollution and crime such as none but an eyewitness can adequately imagine. I would have a minister see the world for himself. It is rotten to the core. Ministers ordinarily see only the brighter side of the world. Almost everybody treats them with civility ; the religious, with peculiar kindness and attention. Hence they are apt to think too well of the world. Lawyers, on the other hand, think too ill of it. They sec only, or for the most part, its worst side. They are brought in contact with dishonesty and villany in their worst developments. I have observed, in doing business with lawyers, that they are exceedingly hawkeyed, and jealous of everybody. The omission of a word or letter in a will, they will scan with the closest scrutiny; and while I could see no use for any but the most concise and simple terms to express the wishes of the testator, a lawyer would be satisfied with nothing but the most precise and formal instrument, stuffed full of his legal caveats and technicalities.”

Mr. C. “Which do you think excels in eloquence, the bar or the pulpit ? ”

Dr. N. “ The bar.”

Mr. C. “ To what causes do you ascribe the superiority ? ”

Dr. N. “ The superior influence of things of sight over those of faith. The nearness of objects enhances their importance. The subjects on which the lawyer speaks come home to men’s business and bosoms. Some present, immediate object is to be gained. The lawyer feels, and he aims to accomplish something. But ministers have plunged into the metaphysics of religion, and gone about to inculcate the peculiarities of a system, and have neither felt themselves, nor been able to make others feel. It has long been a most interesting question to me, Why is the ministry so inefficient ? It has seemed to me, that, with the thousands of pulpits in this country for a theatre to act on, and the eye and ear of the whole community thus opened to us, we might overturn the world. Some ascribe this want of efficiency to human depravity. That is not the sole cause of it. The clergy want knowledge of human nature. They want directness of appeal. They want the same go - ahead, commonsense way of interesting men which lawyers have.”

Mr. C. “ Ought they not to cultivate elocution ? ”

Dr. N. “It seems to me that at those institutions where they pay the most attention to elocution they speak the worst. I have no faith in artificial eloquence. Teach men to think and feel, and, when they have anything to the purpose to say, they can say it. I should about as soon think of teaching a man to weep, or to laugh, or to swallow, as to speak when he has anything to say.”

Mr. C. “ How, then, do you account for the astonishing power of some tragedians ? ”

Dr. N. “ Ah ! the speaking in the theatre is all overacted. There is no nature in it. Those actors, placed in a public assembly, and called upon to address men on some real and momentous occasion, would utterly fail to touch men’s hearts, while some plain countryman, who had never learned a rule of art, would find his way at once to the fountains of feeling and action within them. The secret of the influence which is felt in the acting of the theatre is not that it is natural. Let a real tragedy be acted, and let men believe that a real scene is before them, and the theatre would be deserted. No audience in this country could bear the presentation of a natural and real tragedy. Men go to the theatre to be amused. The scenery, the music, the attitudes, the gesticulations, all unite to fix attention and amuse; but the eloquence, so called, of the theatre, is all factitious, and is no more adapted to the real occasions of life than would be the recitative in singing, and it pleases on the same principle that this does.”

Mr. C. “ But, Doctor, why was it that, when Cooke or Kean appeared on the stage, he engrossed all eyes and ears, and nothing was heard or seen or thought of but himself? The acting of Kean was just as irresistible as the whirlwind. He would take up an audience of three thousand in his fist, as it were, and carry them just where he pleased, through every extreme of passion.”

Dr. N “ Because these actors were great men. Cooke, as far as I have been able to learn, (I never saw him,— I had once an engagement to meet him in Philadelphia, but he was drunk at the time, and disappointed me,) was perfectly natural. So I suppose Kean to have been. So Garrick was, and Talma. And the secret of the Influence of these men was, that they burst the bonds of art and histrionic trick, and stood before their audience in their untrammelled natural strength. Garrick, at his first appearance, could not command an audience. It was first necessary for him entirely to revolutionize the English stage.

“ Ministers have, very often, a sanctimonious tone, which by many is deemed a symbol of goodness. I would not say it is a symbol of hypocrisy, as many very pious men have it. One man acquires a tone, and those who study with him learn to associate it with his piety, and come to esteem it an essential part of ministerial qualification. But, instead of its being to me evidence of feeling, it evinces, in every degree of it, want of feeling; and whenever a man rises in his religious feelings sufficiently high, he will break away from the shackles of his perverse habit, and speak in the tone of nature.

“ The most eloquent preacher I have ever heard was Dr. L-——. General Hamilton at the bar was unrivalled. I heard his great effort in the case of People versus Croswell, for a libel upon Jefferson. There was a curious changing of sides in the position of the advocates. Spencer, the Attorney-General, who had long been climbing the ladder of democracy, managed the cause for the people ; and Hamilton, esteemed an old-school Federalist, appeared as the champion of a free press. Of course, it afforded the better opportunity of witnessing the professional skill and rhetorical power of the respective advocates.

“ Spencer, in the course of his plea, had occasion to refer to certain decisions of Lord Mansfield, and embraced the opportunity of introducing a splendid ad captandum eulogium on his Lordship, —‘A name born for immortality; whose sun of fame would never set, but still hold its course in the heavens, when the humble names of his antagonist and himself should have sunk beneath the waves of oblivion.’

“ Hamilton was evidently nettled at this invidious and unnecessary comparison, and cast about in his mind how he might retort upon Spencer. I do not know that my conjecture is right; but it has always seemed to me that his reason for introducing his repartee to Spencer in the odd place where he did, just after a most eloquent and pathetic peroration, was something as follows : — ‘I have now constructed and arranged my argument, and the thread of it must not be broken by the intervention of any such extraneous matter. Neither will it do to separate my peroration from the main body of my argument. I must, then, give up the opportunity of retorting at all, or tack it on after the whole, and take the risk of destroying the effect of my argument.’

“ He rose, and went through his argument, which was a tissue of the clearest, most powerful, and triumphant reasoning. He turned every position of his opponent, and took and dismantled every fortification. But his peroration was inimitably fine. As he went on to depict the horrors consequent upon a muzzled press, there was not a dry eye in the court-house. It was the most perfect triumph of eloquence over the passions of men I ever witnessed.

“ When he had thus brought his speech to its proper, and what would have been a perfect close, he suddenly changed his tone, and, in a strain of consummate and powerful irony, began to rally his antagonist. He assented to the gentleman’s eulogium upon Lord Mansfield. It was deserved. He acknowledged the justice of his remarks in relation to himself (Hamilton) and his ephemeral fame ; but he did not see why the gentleman should have included himself in the same oblivious sentence. His course hitherto in the race of fame had been as successful, for aught he knew, as was ever his Lordship’s. His strides had been as long and as rapid. His disposition, too, to run the race was as eager, and he knew no reason why he might not yet soar on stronger pinions, and reach a loftier height, than his Lordship had done.

“ During the Whole reply, the audience were in a titter ; and he sat down amidst a burst of incontrollable laughter. Said Spencer to him frowningly, (I sat by the side of the judges on the bench, and both Hamilton and Spencer were within arm’s length of me,) ' What do you mean, sir ?’ Said Hamilton, with an arch smile, ' Nothing but a mere compliment.’ ‘Very well, sir, I desire no more such compliments.’ ”

Mr. C. “What was the difference between the oratory of Hamilton and that of Burr ? ”

Dr. N. “ Burr, above all men whom I ever knew, possessed the most consummate tact in evading and covering up the arguments of his opponent. His great art was to throw dust in the eyes of the jury, and make them believe that there was neither force nor sense nor anything else in the arguments of the opposite counsel. He never met a position, nor answered an argument, but threw around them the mist of sophistry, and thus weakened their force. He was the prince of plausibilities. He was always on the right side (in his own opinion), and always perfectly confident.

“Hamilton, on the other hand, allowed to the arguments of his opponent all the weight that could ever be fairly claimed for them, and attacked and demolished them with the club of Hercules. He would never engage in a cause unless he believed he was on the side Of justice ; and he often threw into the scale of his client the whole weight of his personal character and opinion. His opponents frequently complained of the undue influence he thus exerted upon the court.”

Mr. C. “You have heard Webster, I suppose.”

Dr. N. “ I have never heard him speak. I have the pleasure of a slight personal acquaintance with him, and, from what I know of him, should think he would have less power over the passions of men than Hamilton. He is a giant, and deals with great principles rather than passions.

“ Bishop Mcllvaine will always be heard. He has an elegant form, a fine voice, and a brilliant imagination, and he can carry an audience just where he pleases.”

Mr. C. “ You, of course, have heard Dr. Cox.”

Dr. N. “ Yes, often. He is an original, powerful man, unequal in his performances : sometimes he hits, sometimes he misses ; sometimes he rises to the sublimity of powerful speaking, and at others sinks below the common level.”

Mr. C. “ Have you read his book on Quakerism ? ”

Dr. N. “ As much of it as I can. Some Presbyterians like it. For my part, I confess I do not. He carries his anti-Quaker antipathies too far. It is perfectly natural he should do so. Men who go over from one denomination to another always stand up more than straight, and for two reasons ; — first, to Satisfy their new friends that they have heartily renounced their former error ; secondly, to convince their former friends that they had good reasons for desertion. Baptists who have become such from Presbyterians are uniformly the most bigoted, and vice versa.

“ I am disgusted and grieved with the religious controversies of the present age. The divisions of schools, old school and new school, and the polemical zeal and fury with which the contest is waged, are entirely foreign from the true spirit of Christianity. The Christianity of the age is, in my view, most unamiable. It has none of those lovely, mellow features which distinguished primitive Christianity. If Christianity as it now exists should be propagated over the world, and thus the millennium be introduced, we should need two or three more millenniums before the world would be fit to live in.”

Mr. C. “ Why do you judge so, Doctor ? ”

Dr. N. “ By the style of our religious periodicals. If I had suddenly dropped down here, and wished to ascertain at a bird's-eye view the religious and moral state of the community, I would call for the papers and magazines, and when I had glanced at them I should pronounce that community to be in a low moral and religious state which could tolerate such periodicals. A bad paper cannot live in a good community.

" I have been especially grieved and offended with the recent Catholic controversy. I abhor much in the Catholic religion ; but. nevertheless, I believe there is a great deal of religion in that Church. I do not like the condemnation of men in classes. I would not, in controversy with the Catholics, render railing for railing. They cannot be put down so. They must be charmed down by kindness and love.”

Mr. C. “ I have been much amused by reading that controversy.

Dr. N " My dear sir, I am sorry to hear you say so. You cannot have read that controversy with pleasure, without having been made a worse man by it.”

Mr. C. " Why, I was amused by it, I suppose, just as I should be amused by seeing a gladiator s show.

" Dr. N. " just so ; a very good comparison. — a very accurate comparison ! It is a mere gladiatorial contest ; and the object of it, I fear, is not so much truth as victory.”

Mr. C. “ But Luther fought so, Doctor.”

Dr. N. " I know it; and I have no sympathy with that trait in the character of Luther. The world owes more, perhaps, to Martin Luther than to any other man who has ever lived ; and as God makes the wrath of man to praise him, and restrains the remainder, so he raised up Luther as an instrument adapted to his age and the circumstances of the times. But Luther’s character in some of its features was harsh, rugged, and unlovely ; and in these it was not founded upon the Gospel.

" Compare him with St. Paul. Once they were placed in circumstances almost identically the same. Luther’s friends were endeavoring to dissuade him from going to Worms, on account of apprehended danger. Said Luther, ' If there were as many devils at Worms as there are tiles on the roots of the houses, I would go.’

" When Paul’s friends at Cæsarea wept, and besought him not to go up to Jerusalem, knowing the things which would befall him there, ' What mean ye,’ said he, ' to weep, and break my heart ? For I am ready, not to be bound only, but to die also at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.'

" Many a bold, reckless man of the world could have said what Luther said. None but a Christian could have uttered the words of Paul.”

Mr. C. " Was it not in part a constitutional difference ? Peter and Paul were very different men; so, if Luther had not been a Christian, he would have exhibited the same rugged features of character.”

Dr. N. “That is just the point, sir. These traits in his character were no part of his Christianity. They existed, not in consequence, but in spite, of his religion. I want to see, in Christian character, the rich, deep, mellow tint of the Scriptures.”