This page conforms to the XHTML standard and uses style sheets. If your browser doesn't support these, you may not see the page as designed, but all the text is still accessible to you.


Bringing the heritage of Schenectady County, New York to the world since 1996

You are here: Home » Resources » MVGW Home » Chapter 106

History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 106: Union College, 1795-1925.

[This information is from Vol. II, pp. 1534-1541 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

Contents | Biographies | Illustrations | Maps | Portraits

Go back to: Chapter 105 | ahead to: Chapter 107

Petition to governor and legislature — Rev. Dirck Romeyn — Gen. Philip Schuyler — Dr. Nott — Dr. Raymond — Rev. Charles A. Richmond — "Mother of Fraternities" — Sir William Johnson promised aid.

By Charles N. Waldron
Secretary Graduate Council, Union College, Schenectady, N. Y.

As early as 1779 a petition was circulated, addressed to the Governor and Legislature of the State of New York, signed by "a great number of respectable inhabitants of the counties of Albany, Tryon and Charlotte", to use the language of the charter, praying for a charter to establish a college to bear the name of Governor George Clinton, the same to be located in the town of Schenectady. The charter was drawn but for some reason was never signed. Some seven years later the movement was renewed but, for reasons unknown, without success and it was left to the Rev. Dirck Romeyn, pastor of the Reformed Dutch Church in Schenectady, to bring to success the wishes of the "respectable citizens" above mentioned. Dominie Romeyn had brought about the establishment of a private academy in Schenectady in 1785 and it was this academy which blossomed into Union College, February 25, 1795, the date on which the Regents granted the charter so long desired. The old academy building housed the college until 1804 and its principal, Col. John Taylor, became Union's first professor of mathematics and natural philosophy.

While Mr. Romeyn and General Philip Schuyler were the prominent leaders in the movement, Union College was the result of a popular movement reflecting the new democratic tendencies of the time and expressing the faith the people of the then frontier community about Schenectady had in the future of their country and their desire to educate their children to care for its needs. The college was given the name "Union" to show its nonsectarian character and as a fitting title for a movement which had received the support of all classes in the community. Its charter made it the first non-sectarian college in the country and its motto, "In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas", reflected the intent of its founders and became a true forecast of its spiritual history.

[Photo: "The Idol" Union College, Schenectady]

[Photo: Library Building [i.e., Nott Memorial], Union College]

The Rev. John Blair Smith, D. D., was chosen as first president, aided by Professor Taylor, already mentioned, and the Rev. Andrew Yates, appointed professor of Latin and Greek languages. Three young men constituted the first class to be graduated, May, 1797.

President Smith resigned in 1799 and was succeeded by the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, D. D., the younger, who died in office in August, 1801. His successor was the Rev. Jonathan Maxcy, D. D., who resigned in 1804 making way for the Rev. Eliphalet Nott, D. D., LL. D., under whose long and able administration the college took form and became famous.

The new president was but thirty years old at the time of his election and had attained local fame as a pulpit orator of rare eloquence. He was a radical by nature and thoroughly in sympathy with the democratic ideals which gave the college birth. His innovations in education often aroused hostile criticism but his skill as an administrator and his remarkable ability to deal with young men brought him early fame and the college success.

Dr. Nott broke away from the classical traditions of education and aimed to train boys not for the ministry primarily but for the wider callings which our new and rapidly developing country demanded. He established a scientific course as early as 1820, a civil engineering course in 1845, and a department of chemistry in 1855. His "boys", as he was fond of calling them, rose to prominence in public life. One of the better known of these, William H. Seward, of the class of 1820, was not an exception in his looking to the old Doctor for counsel and advice throughout his political career. The value of this advice may be judged by a letter Dr. Nott wrote Seward in the late 'forties advising him to pursue his political course, however unpopular it might be with the Whigs, since the time was surely coming when the views he held would be the rallying point for a new party alignment, a prophecy the Republican party soon fulfilled. It was not alone in politics that the liberal training provided by Dr. Nott at Union College produced eminent men. The professions of medicine, law, and particularly education were enriched by his "boys." In education particularly his influence through Union graduates had a wide effect. Francis Wayland at Brown, Leonard Woods at Bowdoin, Henry P. Tappan at Michigan, and John Milton Gregory at Illinois, were all his students and followers while the higher education of women in its early days was largely in the hands of Union graduates with A. W. Cowles at Elmira, John H. Raymond at Vassar, and L. Clark Seelye at Smith. Perhaps the most unique feature of Dr. Nott's educational system was the wide liberty he gave undergraduates. This is well illustrated by the rise at Union of the fraternity system at a time when student secret societies were not tolerated elsewhere. The oldest of these societies, which are now so important a feature of college life, were all founded at Union under Dr. Nott's protection. They are: Kappa Alpha in 1825, Sigma Phi and Delta Phi in 1827. These in turn were followed by Psi Upsilon in 1832, Chi Psi in 1841 and Theta Delta Chi in 1847, giving Union her title, "The Mother of College Fraternities."

Dr. Nott retained the presidency at Union until 1866, dying January 29 in that year. So completely had he become the college that as age enfeebled him, so the institution itself became enfeebled. His failure to create adequate organization to carry on his work left the college very weak at a time when educational conditions generally were difficult. His immediate successor, Laurens Perseus Hickok, D. D., LL. D., stayed but two years. The next president, Rev. Charles Augustus Aiken, D. D., Ph. D., was elected in 1870 and resigned the next year, he in turn being succeeded by Dr. Nott's grandson, the Rev. Eliphalet Nott Potter, D. D., LL. D., who served from 1872 until 1884 when he resigned. The college pulled itself together under Dr. Potter's leadership but bitter dissensions in the faculty and alumni body were aroused which continued during the presidency of Harrison Edwin Webster, M. D., LL. D., who was elected in 1888 and resigned in 1894. The college suffered in every way during these trying years and was at a low ebb when the Rev. Andrew Van Vranken Raymond, D. D., LL. D., was inaugurated president in 1894. The task which Dr. Raymond faced was almost hopeless. The college was heavily in debt, its reputation was impaired, the student body very small. Nothing but his love of Alma Mater and his Dutch courage enabled him to carry on. But carry on he did and with marked success. Leaving the college in 1907, following the death of his wife, he passed on to his successor an institution without debts, with an endowment of more than half a million dollars, buildings in repair and most important of all, an alumni body united and with a faith renewed.

Dr. Raymond was succeeded by the Rev. Charles Alexander Richmond, D. D., LL. D., who was inaugurated in 1909. Under President Richmond's administration the progress has been truly phenomenal. Its faculty has more than doubled, its student body has increased to over seven hundred, its endowment has grown to nearly three million dollars, and at the same time nearly a million dollars has been spent on new buildings and equipment. The educational trend of late years has been towards science. President Raymond established an electrical engineering course in 1895 and, under President Richmond, this department, as well as those of physics and chemistry, has been greatly strengthened owing to the uniquely favorable environment for scientific study provided by the development in Schenectady of the General Electric Company and its great research laboratories. The college, however, has never been one-sided and in spite of this development in science the enrollment today is equally divided between students in the arts courses and those in science. The democratic institutions of the early days are still strong. Student self-government is the most vigorous feature of undergraduate life. Examinations are conducted by the students under an honor system of their own device and there has long been a tradition of close friendship between boys and their teachers. A spirit of union brought the college into being and this spirit still strongly animates all branches of its life.

The following is a brief summary of dates prominent in the history of Union College:

Editor's Note: — The following relative to Union College is of additional interest, in connection with the foregoing sketch of this historic educational institution of the Mohawk Valley.

The present old Union College buildings were erected in 1813 from plans drawn by Joseph Jacques Ramee, a noted French architect. Among the noted sons of Union are John Howard Payne, author of "Home, Sweet Home"; President Chester A. Arthur; Hawley, father of the modern school system; General Halleck, Union commander-in-chief, 1863-4; General Toombs of the Confederate army; William H. Seward, Secretary of State in Lincoln's cabinet — and many others.

Union generally prospered under Dr. Nott's presidency, as previously stated. Because of the Civil war, it suffered a setback from loss of southern attendance and of northern student volunteers. A company of Union students was formed under Elias Peissner, Union professor of modern languages. Colonel Peissner was killed at Chancellorsville and many students were killed in the war.

In 1873, Albany Law School, Albany Medical College and the Dudley Observatory (Albany) united with Union college to form Union University. In 1881 the Albany College of Pharmacy became an added department. Union was a pioneer in progressive educational methods. It was the first non-sectarian American college, the first to introduce modern language and scientific courses, first to establish a school of civil engineering (1845) and first to establish a course in electrical engineering (1895). In 1900 Union had 21 faculty and 192 student members. In 1918 Union College had 46 teachers, 145 students in U. S. service and 657 students attending; in 1920, 45 instructors, 600 students and total graduates numbering 5,900.

The Schenectady Academy first occupied a four-room, two-story building at State and Church streets. The brick Academy building (built after 1785) stood at the corner of Union and Ferry streets, and became the home and property of Union College in 1796, and was used by the college until 1804.

The movement for an academy at Schenectady antedated the 1779 petition to the Legislature, which was drafted but never signed. This is borne out by the fact that in a letter, under date of November 18th, 1771, Sir William Johnson promised aid in the establishment of an academy at Schenectady.

The following account of Union College, in 1810, is from Spafford's Gazetteer of 1814, and describes the institution as it was fifteen years after its foundation in 1795:

Union College, at Schenectady, was incorporated by the Regents in 1794, and took its name from the union of various religious denominations in its establishment, though the Dutch were its most liberal benefactors. It is placed under the direction of 24 Trustees. The principal officers of state are ex-officio members of its board of Trust. This institution is liberally endowed by private munificence, and by that of the state. Its funds, together with the expense of building, and appendages of the institution, exceed 200,000 dollars. There are three college edifices belonging to the institution; one of which is of stone, one of brick and one of wood; affording accommodations for about 150 students. The President, Professors and Tutors, constitute the faculty. There are now a professorship of the Greek language; one of the Latin language, and one of the French, Spanish and Italian languages. Also a Professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy; and one of Rhetoric and Chemistry. The Museum is in its infancy. The Philosophical apparatus is very respectable; and the Library contains about 5,000 volumes; besides which there are two society libraries, containing 2,000 vols. each. The number of students is now about 130. For admission into the Freshman class, it is necessary to read, construe and parse Virgil's Aeneid; Cicero's select orations, the Greek testament and to understand English Grammar and Arithmetic. The studies of the Freshman year are Xenophon, Horace, Cicero's offices, and Arithmetic: of the Sophomore year, Geography, Sheridan's lectures, Logic, Cicero de Oratore, Collectanea Minora et Majora, and Euclid's Elements: of the Junior year, Tacitus, Longinus, Moral Philosophy, Blair's Lectures, Locke, Algebra, Trigonometry, Mensuration, Surveying, Navigation and Conic Sections: of the Senior year, Homer, Kaim's Elements Criticism, Astronomy, Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and Stuart's Philosophy of the Human Mind. The Collegiate year is divided into three sessions, and the annual commencement is on the fourth Wednesday in July. The yearly expense of the students, including books, is about $115. Students under pecuniary embarrassments, are furnished with books gratis, and their tuition is paid from a fund provided by the state. The system of government is strict; the officers reside within the College territory.

The plan of the institution is that of literary seclusion. The youth are secluded from intercourse with the town, nor may they leave the College yard except in hours allotted for recreation. Honors are distributed to meritorious students. Those of a different character are liable to fines, admonition, rustication, suspension or expulsion. Transgressions of the laws, and neglects of collegiate duties, are minuted and copies transmitted to the parents or guardians, at the close of each term. Before any student can become a member of the institution, he must first remain one term on probation. This institution is in a flourishing condition; and it may with just pride be reckoned among the most promising and respectable in the Union.

[Editorial note: see also the Union College section from the 1824 edition.]

The following brief description of Union College in 1840, is taken from Sherman and Smith's "Gazetteer of the United States," published in New York City in 1844. It shows the College as it was forty-five years after its establishment:

"The buildings of Union College, three in number and spacious, are pleasantly situated on an eminence, half a mile east of the city. The institution was founded in 1795, contains a president and eleven professors and other instructors, has had 2,029 alumni of whom 308 have been ministers of the gospel, has 258 students and 13,000 volumes in its libraries. Its commencements are on the 4th Wednesday of July. Its philosophical and other apparatus is very complete. Attached to this college are about 250 acres of land, part of which is designed to be appropriated to groves and walks."

[Photo: Electrical Laboratory, Union College [later Steinmetz Hall]]

Go to top of page | back to: Chapter 105 | ahead to: Chapter 107

You are here: Home » Resources » MVGW Home » Chapter 106 updated March 30, 2015

Copyright 2015 Schenectady Digital History Archive — a service of the Schenectady County Public Library