J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

John Trumbull’s Entrance Exam

Yesterday I described the accomplishments of young John Trumbull, son of a Westbury, Connecticut, minister. His mother, daughter of another clergyman, taught him from an early age.

Then, as he wrote about himself, Trumbull started to eavesdrop on lessons by his father:
The country clergy at that time generally attempted to increase their income, by keeping private schools for the education of youth. When he was about five years of age, his father took under his care a lad, seventeen years old, to instruct and qualify him for admission as a member of Yale-College.

Trumbull noticed the tasks first imposed; which were to learn by heart the Latin Accidence and Lilly’s Grammar, and to construe the Select Colloquies of Corderius, by the help of a literal translation. Without the knowledge of any person, except his mother, he began in this way the study of the Latin language. After a few weeks, his father discovered his wishes, and finding that by the aid of a better memory, his son was able to outstrip his fellow-student, encouraged him to proceed.
The unfortunate teenager who got to see his tutor’s little son outstrip him was, notes by the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles show, William Southmayd (1740-1778).

In September 1757, the Rev. John Trumbull took his namesake son and his student Southmayd down to Yale to be “examined by the tutors” there. In 1897 Moses Coit Tyler wrote:
What were the requirements at that time exacted for admission to Yale College may be seen in the following statute printed in the year 1759: “Admissionem in hoc Collegium Nemo expectet, nisi qui é Praesidis et Tutorum Examine, Tullium, Virgilium et Testamentum Graecum extemporè legere, ad Unguem redere, ac grammaticè resolvere, et Prosâ veram Latinitatem scribere potuerit; et Prosodia ac Arithmetices vulgaris Regulas perdidicerit: atque Testimonium idoneum de Vitâ ac Moribus inculpatis exhibuerit.”
So that’s a pretty high hurdle.

Yet another teenager trying for admission that year was Nathaniel Emmons. He later claimed that he held little John on his lap during the tutors’ questioning.

The result was remarkable enough to be published in New Haven’s Connecticut Gazette on 24 Sept 1757, according to Henry Bronson’s History of Waterbury (1858). It reported the notable news that the boy “passed a good examination, although but little more than seven years of age.”

At the same time, the newspaper said, “on account of his youth his father does not intend he shall at present continue at college.” Or as the grown-up John Trumbull wrote:
Trumbull, however, on account of his extreme youth at that time, and subsequent ill health, was not sent to reside at college till the year 1763. He spent these six years in a miscellaneous course of study, making himself master of the Greek and Latin authors usually taught in that seminary, reading all the books he could meet with, and occasionally attempting to imitate, both in prose and verse, the style of the best English writers, whose works he could procure in his native village. These were of course few. The Paradise Lost, Thompson’s Seasons, with some of the poems of Dryden and Pope, were the principal.

On commencing his collegiate life, he found little regard paid to English composition, or the acquirement of a correct style. The Greek and Latin books, in the study of which only, his class were employed, required but a small portion of his time. By the advice of his tutor, he turned his thoughts to Algebra, Geometry, and astronomical calculations, which were then newly introduced and encouraged by the instructors. He chiefly pursued this course during the three first years. In his senior year he began to resume his former attention to English literature.
John Trumbull finally graduated from Yale in 1767, ten years after his admission. He stuck around some more years to earn a master’s degree, then a couple more as a tutor. After all, he didn’t want to go home to “his native village,” where he’d already read all the books.

(The photo above shows Connecticut Hall at Yale, built in the early 1750s.)

2 comments:

Chaucerian said...

Not sure I would want to teach this kid. Is there any alternate -- possibly more objective -- description of him and his studies?

J. L. Bell said...

Everything I’ve found eventually comes back to that fine Connecticut scholar and author John Trumbull.