Posted on Aug 1, 2001

The college admissions process was different in 1816, when William Henry Seward came to Schenectady to see if he could get into Union. Here is his description of how he was admitted.

“I climbed the College Hill with a reluctant and embarassed step, to offer myself for an examination at which I feared I might not pass. I called at the office of the register, Mr. Holland, and by him was immediately introduced into the presence of the Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. The college catalog, which I had carefully read, described him as the Rev. Thomas McCauley, Doctor of Divinity and Doctor of Laws. I wondered at my presumption in coming into so high a presence.

“The professor inquired which of the classes I supposed myself prepared to enter. I summoned boldness to answer that I had studied for examination to enter the junior class. He immediately put me through a series of questions for half an hour, in several preparatory
classbooks, and pronounced me more than qualified. He then asked my age, and on
receiving the answer, “fifteen,” he replied that my studies had carried me beyond my years; the laws of the college making sixteen the age for
entering the junior class. …

“I was duly matriculated as sophomore; and these two large words signified, for me, a great deal, because I had not the least idea of the meaning of either.”

Seward offers some insights into college discipline, 1816-style:

“The discipline of the college was based on the soundest and wisest principles. There was an absence of everything inquisitorial or suspicious; there were no courts or impeachments; every young man had his appointed studies, recitations, and attendance at prayers; and a demeanor was required which should not disturb the quiet or order of the institution.

“If he failed or offended, he was privately called into the presence of the president or professor, remonstrated with, and admonished that repeated failure would be made known to his parents for their consideration, while habitual insubordination would be visited with dismissal. …”

Although he praised the College's approach to discipline, Seward was less enthusiastic about its approach to teaching:

“There was a daily appointment of three tasks, in as many different studies, which all pupils were required, unaided, to master in their rooms, the young, the dull, the backward, equally with the most mature and the most astute.

“The pupil understood that he performed his whole duty when he recited these daily lessons without failing. With most of us memory was doubtless the faculty chiefly exercised; and where so much was committed mechanically to memory, much was forgotten as soon as it was learned. It was a consequence of this method of instruction, which, I think, was at that day by no means peculiar to Union College, that every study was not a continuous one, but consisted of fragmentary tasks, while no one volume or author was ever completed.”