Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Life of Union College President Eliphalet Nott

Image of Eliphalet Nott in his later life. From Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Victoria Bohm. 

Eliphalet Nott was born 241 years ago today, on June 25, 1773. He died on the 29th of January, 1866. Between those dates, he was a teacher, a preacher, an inventor, a businessman, and the president of Union College for sixty-two years.

Eliphalet Nott was one of nine children. His family, by the time of his birth, was poor. Much younger than the other son, Samuel, Eliphalet during his earliest years was home-schooled by his mother while living on the family farm in Ashford, Connecticut. Both Samuel and Eliphalet, coming from a clerical family brought down by difficult circumstances -- including a devastating home fire and a robbery of most of the family’s money -- did well for themselves. They both worked hard to get an education, took teaching positions, and eventually became preachers.

Nott earned his M.A. degree in 1794 from Rhode Island College (now known as Brown University), and served as the principal instructor of Plainfield Academy in Plainfield, Connecticut. Under his brother Samuel’s coaching and the guidance of the Reverend Joel Benedict, a pastor in Plainfield, Eliphalet earned his license to preach in the Congregational Church of Connecticut on June 26, 1796. The friendship with Reverend Benedict brought another bonus; on July 4, 1796, Eliphalet Nott married Benedict’s daughter Sarah.

Shortly after his marriage, Nott left New England for central New York, becoming pastor of the Presbyterian church at Cherry Valley and serving as principal of Cherry Valley Academy. His new wife joined him, and it was there that the first of the couple’s four children was born. It was also during this part of his life that Nott met John Blair Smith, then President of Union College. Smith recommended Nott to the elders of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany. The Notts moved to Albany in 1799, and Nott was formally ordained into the Presbyterian Ministry. By1800, he had become a Trustee at Union College, and by 1801 he was named co-chaplain to the State Legislature.

1804 would be a watershed year for Eliphalet Nott, though not a completely happy one. His wife Sarah died less than a year after the birth of their fourth child, shortly before Nott was elected President of Union College. He decided to accept the Trustees’ invitation to become Union College’s fourth President and was officially elected on August 24, 1804.  Also that year, Nott made himself nationally known by delivering a fiery sermon on the subject of the death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr. Not only did Nott accuse Burr of being a murderer, he branded Hamilton as equally guilty, along with any others who allowed the barbarous and bloody custom of dueling to exist.

One of the first things President Nott did for Union College was to relieve its grave financial situation by convincing the State Legislature to allow four lotteries for up to $80,000, starting in 1805. Also, during the first years of his presidency, Nott was able to institute a policy dear to his heart since his teaching career began: the abolition of the customary tradition of harsh corporal punishment and intimidation. Nott’s “moral motives” policy stressed targeted discipline, directed and administered for the most part by him, dealing directly with the “culprit,” done quickly and quietly. Not without a fair amount of opposition, Nott also allowed students who had been expelled from other school to enroll in Union College.

Image of Joseph Ramée's 1813 plans for the Union College Campus. Image from Union College website:

Eliphalet Nott soon married a second time, in 1807. His second wife was Gertrude Peebles, with whom he had a son, Howard Nott. Nott followed through with another of his college-related projects. He purchased 250 acres of land on the edge of Schenectady for Union College and hired French architect Joseph Ramée to design a new campus. As with most construction projects, costs rose well above estimations, so a lottery was held. Unfortunately, the War of 1812 ruined the lottery and Nott ended up borrowing from financier William James. He would borrow again in 1826.

Nott’s third wife, married soon after Gertrude’s death around 1840, was Urania Sheldon (1806-1886), a Troy native and graduate of the Emma Willard School. She was a well-educated woman well able to fill the role of the Union College President’s wife. Urania Nott became in all but officially-granted title Nott’s secretary and public relations agent.

Urania Sheldon Nott. Image from Nott family surname file. 

If Nott might be described as “creative” in his financial dealings, all of the dealings, disagreements, investigations, suits, and various uproars in the ranks of the Trustees never toppled his presidency. Still, in January of 1854, Nott and his third wife Urania were compelled by stern legal advice to set up the Nott Trust Fund giving over half a million dollars directly and unequivocally to Union College. This action estranged two of his sons, who were angry that their father’s fiscal behavior deprived them of an inheritance.

Image of the Nott Stove. This drawing appeared in the Century Illustrated magazine in 1871. Image obtained via Wikimedia Commons

Being president of Union College, surviving all manner of financial controversies, publishing scholastic and moral texts, and teaching various classes in the curricula he was attempting to restructure with plans to make Union College into Union University with a graduate program, did not prevent Eliplalet Nott from being an inventor as well. Nott’s efforts to invent a safer coal/wood burning stove earned him about thirty patents. “Nott Stoves” were famous enough to be mentioned by name in books by such authors as James Fenimore Cooper. In 1827, using sons Benjamin and Howard as managers, Nott set up H. Nott and Company in Albany, often referred to as “the Union Furnace.” By 1831, the company had moved to New York City, though the family lost control in the financial panic of 1836. Undaunted, Nott licensed out his patents to other companies and by the mid 1840’s did business with nationally and abroad, thus continuing to earn money from his patents.

Students pose in front of the structure now known as the Nott Memorial building, around 1880. Construction of the 16-sided building began in 1858; it was completed in 1879. The building was officially named for Eliphalet Nott in 1904. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

In 1859, Nott had the first in a series of strokes, rendering him medically incompetent to be Union College President. However, because the Board was so divided over the issue of having Vice President L.P. Hickok succeed him, he remained in office for another six years until his death at the age of 92. The Nott Memorial on the Union College Campus, the unique campus building most immediately identified with the college, was named in his honor. The names of Nott Street and Nott Terrace close to the campus also serve as a testament to a man who touched the community in Schenectady for over 60 years.

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