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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

President Stiles

By Abiel Holmes (1763–1837)

[Born in Woodstock, Conn., 1763. Died at Cambridge, Mass., 1837. The Life of Ezra Stiles, D.D., LL.D. 1798.]

PRESIDENT STILES was a man of low and small stature; of a very delicate structure; and of a well-proportioned form. His eyes were of a dark gray color; and, in the moment of contemplation, singularly penetrating. His voice was clear and energetic. His countenance, especially in conversation, was expressive of mildness and benignity; but, if occasion required, it became the index of majesty and authority.

The delicacy of his frame requiring a special care of his health, he was prudently attentive, amidst his multiplied studies and labors, to its preservation. Always temperate, he found it easy, when necessary, to be abstemious. Having carefully studied his own constitution, he was generally his own physician. By regulating his diet, exercising daily in the open air, and using occasionally a few simple medicines, he was, by the divine blessing, enabled, with but very small interruptions, to apply himself assiduously to study, and to discharge the various duties of public and of domestic life. To his prudent care, under Providence, we are much indebted for the prolongation of his successful studies, and of his useful life. During a great part of his life, he was subject to wakeful nights. At these sleepless seasons, he rose from his bed, and repaired to his study, where he either perused some favorite book, or, more commonly, walked an hour or two, absorbed in contemplation. In some such instances, he went abroad, to survey the heavens, and “kindled his devotion at the stars.” He accustomed himself to the exercise of walking in the open air; and often walked within-doors, in a very contemplative manner, especially on Saturday evenings, and on the Lord’s-day.

His passions were naturally strong and impetuous; but he attained an habitual government of them, by prayerful and pious influence. Proofs of this are derived from his particular conduct, when put to the test of temptation, as well as from the general equability of his deportment. On the reception of injuries, he was patient and placable; and took peculiar pains to effect a reconciliation with those, who, having done him an injury, were disposed to alienation. When assaulted with virulence, as he was in some instances from the press, he made it an inflexible rule to offer no public reply; and his private behavior, in such instances, evinced a superiority to insult, and the divine temper of Christian forgiveness. Sometimes he briefly recorded the injury in his Diary, and, without one acrimonious reflection, made it subservient to new improvement in knowledge and virtue; observing, with one of the ancients: Fas est et ab hoste doceri—“It is lawful to be taught, even by an enemy.”

With a rare felicity, he united, in his address and manners, familiarity with dignity. While an ornament to the highest, he was accessible to the lowest, classes of mankind. Communicative, hospitable, and polite to strangers, entertaining and instructive to all, none left his company without delightful impressions….

For his extensive acquisitions of knowledge, he was indebted to a mind at once active and comprehensive; to a memory quick to receive, and faithful to retain; and to a diligence patient and indefatigable. No difficulties, however formidable, deterred him from pursuing, to their extent, whatever researches he judged worthy of a man of science. Though he read with rapidity, he read with heedful attention; and made himself master of the subject. If the book was not his own, and especially if rare and valuable, he copied its most interesting passages into his literary diary. If his own, he wrote in the margin such remarks as occurred to him in the perusal. Here are questions concerning the justness of an opinion; doubts, or denials, of what is alleged as a fact; corrections of errors; and notes of particular approbation. He always carried a pencil in his pocket, and a small quarto sheet of blank paper, doubled lengthwise, on which he minuted every noticeable occurrence, and useful information. When he travelled, he carried several blank sheets, folded in the same manner, and applied them to the same purpose. When these memoranda formed materials sufficient for a volume, he had them bound: and they, collectively, compose four curious volumes of Itineraries, preserved in his cabinet of manuscripts….

Though it was peculiarly the province of the Tutors to visit the scholars at their chambers—a practice which, from the experience of its numerous advantages, was uniformly maintained—yet he often made such visits in person. He made choice of the hours of study, for this purpose, that he might detect and admonish the negligent or vicious; applaud the studious; assist and encourage all.

In the exercise of a discretionary power, he was prompt, judicious and decisive. If he discovered any indecorum, he instantly noticed and corrected it. On the Lord’s-day, he was peculiarly attentive to the preservation of order and decency; and, to this end, strictly enjoined it on the Tutors to visit the chambers of the students on that day. When the Professor of Divinity began his sermon in the chapel, the President rose, and cast his eyes, with minute attention, over all the students, first on one side of the chapel, and then on the other, to see that they were properly seated, and decently attentive. By such vigilant inspection he preserved a stillness and solemnity which the eminent talents of the Professor might not, alone, have uniformly insured.

It was his early resolution to receive no gifts, directly or indirectly, from the students. In many instances their parents sent him articles of provision, as gratuities, for which, as appears by his account-books, he uniformly gave credit in their quarterly bills. He manifested a paternal concern for such of his pupils as found it difficult to defray the expenses of their education; inquired and ascertained their exigencies; and in numerous instances gratuitously discharged their bills for quarterly tuition. The best scholars are, not unfrequently, to be found among the most indigent. Knowing that their future fortunes are suspended on their present diligence, they learn to estimate their collegiate privileges more justly than many others, who, through the indiscretion of their parents, are furnished with the means of dissipation; or, in the expectation of an ample patrimony, seek nothing more than the honor of a diploma. The President coming, one day, out of the Library, and seeing a student, of bright parts and of studious application, walking pensively alone in the college yard, called him, and made some inquiry about his situation. Having encouraged his perseverance, he put a guinea into his hand, and dismissed him with renovated spirits and a brightened countenance. It was done with his usual delicacy. “Make a good improvement of it,” said he; “ask no questions; and say nothing.”

Many of his seasonable and liberal gratuities, to his pupils and others, have been divulged since his decease. Not the result of blind sensibility, nor of mechanical habit, they were at once inspired and regulated by a Christian principle. Intrusted with the bounties of Providence, he felt himself sacredly obligated to distribute them to others, in proportion to his ability. In confirmation of this trait, it is with singular pleasure that I can produce a respectable testimony from my much esteemed friend, President Fitch; without whose information, no one, perhaps, could have done full justice to this eminent part of his character. “I am glad you have undertaken the Life of that excellent man, Dr. Stiles. You have, I presume, all his papers, and will not want materials. I know not that I can give you anecdotes or information that you have not already. One thing occurred to me; but I think it probable you know it. Several instances of Dr. Stiles’s liberality to poor students, which were intended to be concealed, came to my knowledge. I took occasion, once, to hint to him that perhaps the situation of his family made it rather a duty to lay up something for them, than to give so much, as I apprehended he did, to needy students. He gave me indirectly to understand, that early in life he had devoted a tenth of his income to the ‘great Melchizedec’—this was his expression—and he seemed determined to adhere to his resolution. He appeared unwilling to say much on the subject; and I never introduced the delicate topic again. Probably this will appear from his private writings. Whether it should, or not, I believe he had formed such a resolution, and carried it into practice.”