VOICES ON THE THIRD FLOOR
Friday, as it has always been at college, was the day to
wait for. Recitations closed at noon, and already the boys were
restless. An hour after dinner, dressed in their best jackets with a
rose-three folds of silk ribbon-pinned on the left lapel, they climbed
the steep stairway of Old Main. At the third floor landing they
separated, Erodelphians with the red rose going into one door,
members of the Miami Union wearing the white rose, into the other.
The doors were closed. At the pound of the gavel the buzz of voices
died. The Literary Halls came to
Around the whitewashed room they sat, responding to roll call, hearing the minutes and the communications, casting their votes for new members, honorary members, library assessments, anniversary and exhibition speakers. Sunlight slanted in the tall south windows, glinting on the glass-front bookshelves, gleaming on the fluted columns that framed the president's rostrum, warming the classic bust in the archway under the carved motto "Scientia, Eloquentia et Amicitia." It was their room, their library, their incorporated Society.
Friday afternoon was for the reading of compositions and declamations. For two hours the walls rang with Paul's Defense of Agrippa, The Roman Soldier, Apostrophe to Mont Blanc, The Trial of Warren Hastings, The Traveler at the Sources of the Nile. The room filled with distant times and places while shadows lengthened on the floor. As long as memory lasted the Hall would bring back pictures of the stately ruins of Rome, the strewn field at Waterloo, Napoleon in exile and Empedocles on the slopes of Etna. Following the criticism and summaries, the gavel rapped again. The Society was adjourned till early candlelight.
Friday evening was for debate. Then the Hall was a spacious highcelled forum, the speakers' shadows moving on the walls and the room filled with disputation. Was Brutus Justified in Killing Caesar? Was the French Revolution Beneficial to Mankind? Should a Republic Support a Standing Army? Would Colonization Benefit the Negro? Should the Government Grant Public Lands to Railroads? Should Congress Assist in the Abolishing of Slavery?
After the speeches and rebuttals, the summations and judgments, the candles were put out. In midnight darkness the members groped down the breakneck stairs. A scuffle of footsteps on the path, voices under the stars, then the doors banged in the old dorms. In cold rooms smelling of apples, wood and cowhide boots the debaters went to bed, their minds still burning with the great questions in the Hall.
"No professor," said Henry Mitchell MacCracken, Miami 1857, chancellor of New York University, "was so valuable to many a student as was his Literary Society; no classroom was so attractive as his Literary Hall; no wit or humor more talked of than that which flashed out during the attrition of Society debates. No position was so sought as an appointment to be one of the four speakers at the annual Exhibition."
These youths were preparing for careers in the law, the ministry, and teaching. The Literary Halls were their bench, their pulpit and their classroom.
In 1825, the second year of Miami University's operation, the two societies were founded. On November 9th, in the second week of the term, thirteen students formed the Erodelphian Literary Society. The coined name shocked McGuffey's sense of linguistic rightness, but the organization got off to a fast start. Before November was past the society had inducted officers, begun the collecting of a library, heard the inaugural address of their first president, and held a debate on the question: "Is the reading of novels and romances productive of moral and intellectual improvement?" On December 14th another group of students, meeting in Professor Annan's classroom, organized the Union Literary Society "for the cultivation of the moral and intellectual faculties of the mind and for . . . mutual benefit." Robert C. Schenck, its first secretary, noted that Caleb Blood Smith was among the first petitioners for membership. Years later these two would be colleagues again, working for the nomination of Abraham Lincoln at the Republican convention in Chicago; soon afterwards Schenck was commissioned brigadier general in the Union army, and Smith served in Lincoln's cabinet as Secretary of the Interior.
In the spring of 1826 President Bishop assigned permanent quarters to the societies, Erodelphians taking possession of the southwest room on the third floor of the Center Building and the Union moving into the southeast room. Both groups furnished their halls with carpeting, sturdy arm chairs, library cases and cabinets for the display of scientific collections. President Bishop encouraged them in the enlarging of their libraries, the publication of their periodicals, the celebrating of their anniversaries, and in their self-government.
During the next decade the societies secured incorporation from the state, thus acquiring an independence which troubled certain of the trustees and the faculty. But Bishop reported in the uneasy year of 1836 that "the Societies have from the beginning been remarkably well conducted, and as a means of intellectual and moral improvement are equal to at least two professorships." By that time the societies had launched Miami's first literary periodicals, held annual public "Exhibitions" and acquired collections of books more extensive than that of the University library.
Each year the two halls vied for new student members and also for honorary members from a distance. By 1835, the Erodelphian roster included the names of Washington Irving, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Lyman Beecher, Daniel Webster, James Madison, and Robert Dale Owen. Honorary membership in the Union had been accepted by some of them same eminent men and many others.
The furnishing of the halls was a matter of rivalry for many years, but the sharpest contest came when the societies were young. In 1830 the Union sprang a triumphant surprise, exhibiting on its wall a full-size oil portrait of President Bishop. With careful secrecy they had engaged Horace Harding, a western painter, and persuaded Bishop to sit for him. Now the craggy president, his strong and kindly features lighting a shadowed canvas, his hands holding an open book of logic, looked on at all the Union declamations and debates. It was a tribute to the man all Miami students revered, and triumph over the rival society.
Week after week the Erodelphians discussed what they could do, and their unhappy decision was to engage the same artist to paint another portrait of the president. It was all but voted when little Charlie Anderson, a sophomore from Louisville, who would be governor of Ohio in years to come, took the floor. This, he declared, was a thing not to do--to have in all the University and town of Oxford but two oil paintings, and those two of the same subject, by the same artist, hanging in the same place in two halls parted by a narrow passage. The Erodelphians agreed; it was a poor idea. But what else?
Then Charlie Anderson remembered something. Passing through Cincinnati on the way to Oxford he had been fascinated by the wax figures in D'Orfeuille's Western Museum on lower Main Street. The artist who had caught those images could make a life-like bust of President Bishop--a classic head to occupy the niche above the rostrum--"to be a witness of all our future proceedings." Anderson's proposal fired the spirits of the Erodelphians. Soon a committee of three boarded the stagecoach for Cincinnati. After a fresh look at D'Orfeuille wax figures they asked for the man who made them.
The artist was Hiram Powers, and they found him in his studio on Fifth Street. As Governor Anderson recalled, fifty-five years later: "Powers himself met us in his muddy apron with his hands also clay-covered . . . I thought then and I think now that he was, taken all together, the handsomest man I ever saw. . . . We at once told him our business. Powers said in his modest manner that he would make our bust for molded into plaster for five dollars more. Although our subscription fund was only some twenty-five dollars we promptly closed the contract."
The Presbyterian Synod convened that year in Cincinnati, with Robert Hamilton Bishop as moderator. Into its meetings slipped a dark-eyed, handsome man with lean strong hands and clay-caked fingernails. Hiram Powers sat through the long synod sessions, studying the subject of his first commissioned bust. Before the year was over the strong lean, kindly features of President Bishop looked down from between the fluted columns in the Erodelphian Hall.
Fifteen years later Charles Anderson on a tour of Italy met Powers in his famous studio in Florence. When Anderson referred to the sculptor's first commission in frontier Cincinnati, Powers' dark eyes lighted. "What?" he said, "Dr. Bishop of Oxford. Were you of that committee of boys? Yes, to be sure. How could I forget you?"
By that time another Powers figure, done in the Florentine studio, had found a place in an older college. The classical "Proserpine" occupied a niche at the entrance to the Christchurch College Library in Oxford, England.
On his return from Italy, Anderson brought another artist to Oxford to make a mold of the Bishop bust. In the process the original was destroyed, but the bronze copy was returned to the Erodelphians. Almost a century later, when memories of the 1830's had faded at Miami, President Raymond M. Hughes led Dr. Robert Hamilton Bishop IV, Miami '03 and director of the Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland, up the long stairs to the third floor of the Main Building. There, decorated with a German mustache and serving as a doorstop, was the Bishop head, still arresting in its strength and dignity. Dr. Bishop took the battered bust to Cleveland and had it freshly cast by the artist Gorham. Now it occupies a window niche at the foot of a curved stairway in Constance Mather Bishop's home at Arrowhead Farm outside of Cleveland. Its duplicate, presented to Miami at the 1924 Commencement, rests over reference desk in the Library reading room, "a perpetual witness" to the changing stream of Miami students.
Another rivalry between the Halls concerned the programs for their Exhibitions. In the fall of 1834 the Erodelphian Society, observing its ninth anniversary, was addressed by a Byronic-looking lawyer, orator and reformer from South Carolina. Thomas Smith Grimke spent a week in Oxford, with whole college gathering around him. Two weeks later, journeying to Columbus, he was stricken with cholera and died in a farmhouse on the way. In Oxford the Erodelphians wore bands of mourning and hung his portrait on their wall, and years after his death his Erodelphian address was read by millions. In 1843 Alexander McGuffey, compiling selections for the Rhetorical Guide, recalled the stirring oration he had heard ten years before in the Erodelphian Hall. In the Reader he used five paragraphs of Grimke's "The Natural and Moral Worlds," reprinted from the collected Erodelphian Lectures: "The same God is the author of the invisible and visible worlds. The moral grandeur and beauty of the world are equally the products of his wisdom and goodness, with the fair, the sublime, the wonderful of the physical creation. What indeed are those but the outward manifestations of his might, skill and benevolence? What are they but a glorious volume, forever speaking to the eye and ear of man, in the language of sight and sound, the praises of its author?" So the idealism that was kindling the minds of Emerson and Carlyle came to the schoolboy in the Fifth Reader, as it had come to the members of Erodelphian Hall.
Other speakers at the societies' Exhibitions included Lyman Beecher, Alexander Campbell, Daniel Drake, Thomas Ewing, John J. McRae and Edward Deering Mansfield.
In 1829 the Union Society announced that General William Henry Harrison would speak at its anniversary. Harrison was just back from his short term as United States minister to Colombia, and illness prevented his appearance. He sent regrets through his son, Carter Bassett Harrison, a leading member of the Union Hall.
Among John Cleves Symmes' disappointments was the death of his two sons in infancy. But he saw five grandsons romping through the Harrison farmhouse at North Bend. Twelve years after his death the youngest of them, Carter Bassett Harrison, enrolled in the college created by Symmes' Purchase.
Carter Harrison was a remote heir to Virginia aristocracy and a direct heir to the frontier West. He was born at Vincennes on the Wabash while his father was marching against the Indians at Tippecanoe. All the currents of the West washed around his boyhood. His oldest brother, John Cleves Symmes Harrison, was the federal land agent at Vincennes. His brother William Henry was married to Clarissa Pike, whose father had discovered the source of the Mississippi and had explored the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. His adventurous and wayward brother Benjamin(uncle of President Benjamin Harrison) went on a trapping expedition with old Jim Bridger to Big Horn mountains and was later captured by Mexicans in Texas. His sober brother John Scott Harrison ran a farm, like countless Western settlers, at North Bend, Ohio.
In 1826, Carter Harrison came to Miami, which had not opened in time for his brothers. The next year his father was appointed minister to the Republic of Colombia, and young Carter, seventeen, packed up for a trip to South America as his private secretary. That Christmas they spent in the sleepy Venezuelan port of Maracaibo; then began a five-week trek by mule-train to the remote high capitol of Bogota. It was a year of revolution for Colombia for Carter Harrison.
Recalled by President Jackson, Harrison came home to North Bend, with a pet macaw in a cage and some exotic shrubs to set out on the Ohio. In Cincinnati the general and his son were honored at a four-hour banquet in the fantastic hall of Mrs. Trollope's bazaar; that evening there was the first talk of Harrison for President of the United States.
That fall Carter Harrison returned to college. He found a new dormitory on the campus and a student body of 130 men. Over a bushel of apples around a wood-burning stove, he had tales to tell--the capture of a privateer in the Leeward Islands, a diplomatic ball with girls from twenty nations, revolutionaries smuggling rifles from the Bogota arsenal, emerald mining in the high Andes, a swirling flatboats journey down the Magdelena River, spies and conspirators in the old walled town of Carthagena. Among all the voices that haunt Elliott Hall, Carter Harrison's is one to remember.
Some of the lines in old General Harrison Face were put there by his sons. There of them were spendthrift and wayward and overfond of whisky. Carter was the youngest, the sunniest, the most promising. When he left Miami in 1833 he studied law in the Cincinnati office of Robert C. Schenck, his comrade in the Union Literary Society, and he helped his troubled father conduct the Court of Common Pleas. In 1836 he married a Hamilton girl and opened an office in Hamilton. But he never found the measure of his talents. Three years later, at twenty-eight, he died.
One of his friends in the Union Society wrote his obituary, including a college attitude that has not changed. "He was not so much a student as a general reader, preferring the standard works of prose and poetry of ancient and modern times to technicalities and seeming uselessness of many of the class books. His mind was chaste and clear and richly stored with knowledge. While in college he sustained himself in the high rank to which he rose, and when we separated we foretold for him no common career."
No common career was ahead of his friends in the Literary Halls. From them came a governor of Ohio, a governor of Iowa, a president of a Mississippi college, two founders of Wabash College, a mayor of Cincinnati, an editor of the Western Citizen, a railroad president, missionaries to Organ and Syria, and United States ministers to Brazil, Russia, and England. The ambassador to England was Robert C. Schenck--lawyer, congressman, general diplomat, and an author too; while in London he wrote a little book with a couplet on its title-page:
Put not your trust in Kings and Princes;
Three of a kind will take them both.