This week’s blog post comes from our Bicentennial Metadata Librarian, Amanda Pizzollo:
As avid readers of this blog will know, Amherst College was conceived out of the previously existing Amherst Academy. As Frederick Tuckerman points out in his book on the academy, the founders of Amherst Academy are also the founders of Amherst College. Yet the school’s connection to the foundation of Amherst College is not the only reason that Amherst Academy is worthy of attention. Nor are the school’s connections to Emily Dickinson and Mary Lyon the only highlights of its existence. Though I’m as big a fan as any of Amherst College, Emily Dickinson, and Mary Lyon, I have also thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Amherst Academy for entirely unrelated reasons.
I work at Amherst College as a metadata creator. You know all that information like title, dates, a brief description, and subjects that you see when you look at a digital item in ACDC? That’s supplied by folks like me who get to look at these things and describe them in hopes that it helps you find them. Right now, I’m working on metadata for the Amherst College Early History Collection that we mentioned previously on the blog. It includes items about the history of Amherst Academy as well, and last week I stumbled upon two particular treasures: notebooks of minutes from the Franklin and Platonic Societies of Amherst Academy.
The cover of the Platonic Society administrative notebook looks rather unassuming doesn’t it? Hey, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Both the Franklin Society and the Platonic Society were student literary societies, and they both may have been secret societies (though that’s not entirely clear). In March of 1836 these two societies would merge into one and be renamed as the Washington Society. The notebooks I’m describing include minutes, names of members, and other administrative records from 1833-1835 (in the case of the Franklin Society) and from 1834-1836 (in the case of the Platonic Society). Taking a look at the minutes, I’ve gotten a feel for what their weekly meetings were like. Of course there were variations, but mostly it went like this:
- Review what happened at the last meeting
- Vote on officers (if it was time for that)
- Debate on the question posed at the last meeting
- Decide on the consensus for the question debated (or have the Society President decide)
- Pose a question for the next meeting’s debate and assign members to lead the debate
- Address other society business like proposing new members
There have been lots of interesting things about looking through these notebooks, for instance the first entry in the Platonic Society’s notebook reads:
“And it came to pass in the fourth year of the rain of Alva, A whose sirname is Hurd, the rules of the notoriously courageous family of Plato, that the discrete and scientific disciples of Uncle Plato collected themselves together in the usual place at the sounding of the academical invariable and thunder resounding alarm….”
It goes on to describe the start of the meeting: “soon all arose, and instantly Each by the stealth and fierceness of a Lion, took and guarded the posts of their duty well.”
Later in the same entry, it discusses the meeting’s debate and the leaders of it, society members Stone and Thayer: “..eminently courageous children of the Brother Plato and both remarkably well skilled in fight—These fought well for a season till at length by the stealth and cunningness of a fox, the venerable Sapis which is Stone surrounded Thayer and by the force of Situation and art pulled down by his house and sitt fire to and burned up his riches.”
Alva A. Hurd, mentioned in the first line, was an Amherst Academy student and society member. Sapis, noted later, signs this entry E.J. Sapis as he was acting as secretary and scribe for this meeting. It seems likely that Sapis and Stone (Elijah J. Stone) are the same person since he states “Sapis which is Stone” and since both are E.J. Why he used Sapis in his signature is unclear. Thayer was likely James S. Thayer based on the Amherst Academy catalogs, and of course he and Stone were the society members debating in this meeting. Now, the handwriting can be a bit tough to decipher at times, so I’m not sure of that last word in the “sitt fire to and burned up his riches” sentence. It could be riches, or it could be ricks perhaps, or something else entirely. Most meeting minutes don’t read like this, and it seems likely that Sapis/Stone was exercising his writing muscles and ability for tongue-in-cheek prose with this first notebook entry. It was certainly an enjoyable read for me.
I also enjoyed looking at the officer positions in these societies. There’s the standard President, Vice President, and Secretary roles, and there were also Critics, a Librarian, Prudential Committee members, and Questioning Committee members at many meetings. My favorite position title, though? Definitely the Bell Ringer.
The officer names and positions chosen at the October 15, 1835 Franklin Society meeting
What I’ve found most interesting with these notebooks, however, are the weekly questions debated. Many are a glimpse at history, and some are still debated today. Below is a sampling of questions debated in one or both of the societies. I’ve kept spelling, capitalization, and most punctuation (or lack thereof) the same, but I have added some question marks since these were often omitted in the notebooks. There’s plenty more questions than these in the notebooks, too.
“Ought the man who kills another in a duel to be subject to our criminal laws?”
“Is memory more dependent upon nature than upon habit and Education?”
“Ought ladies and gentlemen to obtain their education in separate academies and seminaries?”
“Which is the more powerful, Education or wealth?”
“Ought Emigration to be encouraged?”
“Ought Foreign Emegration to be encouraged prohibited?”
“Which is the greater Evil, Intemperance or Slavery?”
“Is the manufacturing interest of our Country more important than agriculture?”
“Was De Witt Clinton possessed of greater talents than Alexander Hamilton?”
“Was the revolution of 1830 in France a benefit to that nation?”
“Ought any government to interfere in any religion?”
“Which has the greatest influence in this our country, fashion or Education?”
“Which has the most influence on society, wealth or talent?”
“Which has caused the greater loss of lives war or intemperance?”
“Is celibacy a violation of moral duty?”
“Which enjoys most happiness him who is called a poor man or him who is called rich?”
“Had the conduct of General Andrew Jackson during his administration been commendable?”
“Ought the liberty of the press to be restricted?”
“Which has the greatest claim to our benevolence the Indian or the Slave?”
“Ought capital punishment to be inflicted on convicts?”
“Is phrenology on the whole beneficial to science?”
“Ought the Colonization Society to be supported in preference to the Anti Slavery Society?”
“Should appointments be given in Colleges as rewards of Scholarship?”
“Ought Menageries to receive publick patronage?”
“Ought any person after arriving at the age of discretion to be prohibited from attending any religious meeting they choose?”
“Is deception justifiable in any case?”
“Which ought most to be encouraged, Commerce or Manufacture?”
“Have military heroes been beneficial to the world?”
“Were our forefathers justifiable in their treatment to the Indians?”
“Who was worthy of the more Honor, Columbus or Washington?”
“Which is the most beneficial to community Man or Woman?”
“Ought imprisonment for debt to be abolished from the United States?”
“Which is the most unhappy the Slave or the Drunkard?”
“Which has been the cause of the most Good the Magnet Needle or the Printing Press?”
“Is the influence of females in the affairs of the world greater than that of males?”
“From present appearances is it probable the Roman Catholics will gain the ascendency in this country?”
“Is married life more conducive to happiness than single life?”
“Are rail-roads beneficial to the country?”
“Which is more injurious to the public novel reading or gambling?”
“Ought the poor to be supported by tax on the community?”
“Ought Quakers to be compelled to do military duty?”
“Does fashion exert a greater influence in society than education?”
“Which is the most beneficial to the country Academies or common Schools?”
If you want to read more questions, see how members voted on them, delve more deeply into the life of the Amherst Academy student society Bell Ringer, or hear more of the thrilling prose of secretaries like Sapis/Stone, then never-fear, friends. You can see these notebooks now in Archives & Special Collections as part of the Early College History Collection, and not too long from now you’ll also be able to browse these pages on ACDC.
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