The long finger of learning

‘The Dominie Functions’ (1826) by George Harvey.

SIX mornings a week year-round, not counting vacations in the spring and fall, a small column of boys crossed over the Passaic on a low wooden span and headed into the town of Newark. In the lead strode an old Scotsman named Andrew Smith, whose farm east of the river provided them bed and board. Smith could claim all or most of the little band as his pupils at Newark Academy, where he was superintendent and principal from 1818 to 1824.1

It’s uncertain precisely when William A. Whitehead entered the Academy, yet his few years there fall squarely within the period of Andrew Smith’s administration. Classmates or friends of Whitehead numbered among Smith’s boarders, but as Whitehead’s home stood just a few blocks from the school he had no need of lodging. Nor was he counted among Smith’s pupils, as his father enrolled him not in “the Languages” (centered on classical Greek and Latin) but in the “English” department, the jurisdiction of Andrew Smith’s son James.

The younger Smith, called by the boys (though perhaps not in his hearing) “Jamie,” appears to have had oversight not only of his own students, who for $5 per quarter acquired “English Grammar, Writing, Arithmetic, and incipient lessons on Geography,” but also the “three dollar scholars,” whose tuition covered reading lessons alone. James Smith was a born Scot like his father. But while the elder Smith seemed to possess “some literary acquirements,” and a sound reputation as a teacher, James’s “broad Scotch dialect and peculiar pronunciation, saying nothing of his temperament, rendered him,” according to Whitehead, “very unfit.” Interrogated on the first day of class whether his father meant for him to receive lessons in arithmetic, Whitehead was at a loss to respond.2

More than his impervious brogue, James Smith’s tyrannical habits made him legendary. The three-tail leather strap, known in Scotland as a tawse and normally used on the open palm or bare shins, was “Jamie’s” standard accessory and “an ever present terror to the whole school.” But, Whitehead says, these punishments were usually deserved: pupils who escaped did so by cunning more than good conduct. Even Whitehead confessed that his behavior was far from innocent, though he avoided a whipping by ingratiating himself with his teacher. More than once, when the strap had “mysteriously been spirited away,” Smith sent him to a nearby leather worker for a replacement, “which, upon presentation, he would playfully try on me.”3

What formal learning took place paled in interest before the pupils’ extracurricular pursuits. When “Jamie’s” back was turned, the long shared desks proved excellent surfaces for “impromptu games of billiards or shuffle-board” played with inkstands. Some of the more enterprising boys ran a thriving market in books, balls, spruce beer and liquorice water, commodities sold for fluctuating quantities of marbles, pins, buttons and other items that served as the “currency of the school.” Whitehead even purchased a classmate’s used “cyphering book” for the astounding sum of 400 pins, picked out over many weeks from the sand swept off the floors of churches. Overhead, the schoolroom ceiling was festooned with grotesque figures, “dangling from threads attached to balls of chewed paper”; these the boys had launched with such force that they clung “with considerable tenacity,” provoking the teacher’s “outward indignation” but, as Whitehead thought, his “inward amusement.”4

Notice of public examinations in April 1819.

Under such conditions the quality of instruction could not but be “of a very superficial character.” Still, James Smith subjected his pupils to examinations on the same fall and spring cycle as those in his father’s school and in the adjacent female department. These were open to the public. To ready his charges in the weeks beforehand, Smith conducted daily in-class recitations of the very passages on which he was to examine them. So well-drilled were young Whitehead and his peers that “our books, if left to themselves, would all open at the place.” Parsing of sentences and other demonstrations of presumptive achievement were equally well rehearsed. While these public exhibitions were popular, few in attendance felt comfortable posing a question to the examinees. Parents by and large left the exhibition content that the teacher had earned his keep.5

Whitehead remembered one rare exception to the prevailing acquiescence. Samuel Baldwin had been a proud member of the generation that rose up against the King and founded a republic. His Princeton graduating class, in a display of patriotism, wore American-made cloth at its commencement.6 In 1777 Baldwin left his home in Newark, then reeling from a harsh visitation by the British, to attend to the affairs of a brother who had died in South Carolina. He would remain in Charleston, except for a period of exile during its occupation by the King’s forces, at least until 1785. But, “from a persuasion that a colder climate is more favourable to study and application of mind,” he eventually made good on his longing to return to the north.7

Described by Whitehead as “an old gentleman” of whom “all the boys stood greatly in awe,” Samuel Baldwin was only in his sixties when Whitehead entered the Academy. Such veneration must be ascribed less to his age (although he would live on, a bachelor, past his 95th year) than to his Revolutionary associations and advanced learning. Having himself operated a classical school for many years in Charleston, he now served Newark Academy as a devoted trustee.

At one of the semiannual examinations Baldwin, who surely knew young Whitehead was distantly related to him by marriage, spoke up. With “his long finger pointed at me,” he repeated a word the boy had parsed as a noun. “Why is it a noun?” he asked. The lad stood in silent terror. “If he had asked me what was the rule describing nouns, I might have repeated it, as learnt from the book.”8 Alas, “Jamie” Smith’s drilling had prepared him to say no more.

Copyright © 2019-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Among the boys who boarded across the Passaic was John Rutherfurd, a contemporary of Whitehead’s and later the fourth president of the New Jersey Historical Society. See Robert S. Swords, “Memoir of the life and character of John Rutherfurd,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society ser. 2, 2:5 (1872) (197-204) 200.

[2] “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830.” A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; page 8 of the transcription contains the references. The Academy’s fee structure was announced, together with Andrew Smith’s appointment, in The centinel of freedom (Newark, N.J.) 24 November 1818 3:4.

[3] “Childhood and youth” 8-9. Whitehead referred to the strap with poetic license as a “cat o’ nine tails,” but the memoir of a schoolmate corroborates most of his recollections, including the omnipresence of “Jamie” Smith’s strap, “vigorously and indiscriminately applied in preserving order.” William Rankin, “Reminiscences of old Newark,” in Seth Boyden, Newark’s foremost mechanic and inventor. Some reminiscences of old Newark [Newark 1890?] (45-56) 50; cf. the memoir attributed to Rankin in the Newark Academy Archives, Box 1603, Folder 5.

[4] “Childhood and youth” 10-11.

[5] “Childhood and youth” 12.

[6] William Nelson, ed. Documents relating to the colonial history of the state of New Jersey 27. Extracts from American newspapers relating to New Jersey. Vol. VIII. 1770-1771 (Paterson, N.J. 1905) 292.

[7] Letter of Samuel Baldwin to his sister Eunice Brown, 30 February 1785, Manuscript Group 291, Baldwin-Brown-Coe Family Papers, The New Jersey Historical Society, folder 1. A letter of 22 March 1781 in the same folder mentions Baldwin’s departure from Newark “four years and a month” previously. His journal of the siege of Charleston is preserved in Manuscript Group 540, Samuel Baldwin Papers, The New Jersey Historical Society, folder 1; it was published in the Society’s Proceedings, ser. 1, 2:2 (1847) 77-86. See also the obituary reprinted ibid. ser. 3, 6:3 (1908) 150-151, and the biography in Richard A. Harrison, Princetonians 1769-1775. A biographical dictionary (Princeton 1980) 67-68.

[8] “Childhood and youth” 11-12.

Images: 1) The dominie functions, (public domain). 2) Newark Academy, The Centinel of Freedom (Newark, N.J.) 6 April 1819 3:2.

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