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1862 Commencement Speech by Claudius Bradford

It was possibly a small, intimate, even somber event, the Antioch College Commencement Exercises for 1862, one perhaps fraught with anxiety and uncertainty about the future, though not by the kind typically associated with graduation. The American Civil War had commenced its second year the season before, and by now no one believed that it would be anything but a long, bitter struggle. Almost to emphasize the point, a newly appointed Robert E. Lee had that very day launched a Rebel counterattack that would repel superior Union forces from the Virginia Peninsula, thwart capture of the Confederate capital at Richmond, make him a legend, and prolong the war for three increasingly bloodier years. Many an Antiochian had already left school to join the fight. None of those gathered for graduation probably knew it at the time, but one of their own, Marion Ross, had been hanged as a spy the week before, captured in the wake of the failed Andrews Raid, about which much has subsequently been written. Horace Mann had died three summers before, his body at rest on Front Campus (a spot marked by a stately obelisk since the 1880s), though not for much longer, for in 1863 his devoted widow Mary moved his remains next to those of his first wife Charlotte Messer Mann in Providence, RI to honor a promise made many years before. Mann’s capable successor, Reverend Thomas Hill, had already submitted his resignation and accepted the presidency of Harvard. As if all that wasn’t enough, the College was paralyzed by debt, riven with denominational strife as a result, and on the verge of closing with no real prospect for recovery. Not the best of times.

Interject in the myriad causes for despair just described a few rays of hope (not to mention a sudden shift to first person voice) from the man I now call my four-greats Uncle Claude, the Reverend Claudius Bradford, then a Professor of Modern Languages at Antioch and author of the lines reprinted below. I recently got to spend a day with his papers, housed at the Drew Archival Library in Duxbury, Massachusetts, while participating in the American Studies Conference at Brandeis University. Lester Lee, class of 1972, had assembled a panel of experts (and me for some reason) to discuss the role of Antioch College in the civil rights movement, particularly the one played by Jewish Antiochians in line with the conference theme: “Blacks, Jews, and Social Justice in America.” Being in the neighborhood, I had to take advantage of my proximity to the South Shore of Cape Cod Bay and see those papers. That I know about them at all is due to Carolyn Ravenscroft, archivist at Drew, who read the 4 Aug 2010 installment ofStacks about Claude and told me that my great-great uncle (Claude’s grandson Gershom) had donated manuscripts along with the 1809 Capt. Bradford House I‘d visited when I was a kid. Antiochiana had almost nothing to document Bradford’s career as a member of the faculty, but we will know so much more, both about him and the times in which he taught, once I transcribe the many Bradford Papers I copied.

The spoken verse excerpted from Bradford’s commencement dinner speech that follows does not at all sound like the ancestor I thought I was beginning to know. The photos I’ve seen, the sermon I’ve read, and the letters I have only cursorily examined, suggest a terribly serious, occasionally severe man of what I might think of as typical Puritan stock. I know that the photographic technology of the time makes it impossible to smile for a portrait, and yet I cannot help but think “grim” when I look at his picture. “The Higher Law,” the sermon he gave in 1851 that cost him his Bridgewater church for exhorting the congregation to “obey God rather than man” in the case of the Fugitive Slave Law, indicates a man willing to subvert legal authority when ethically compelled, which takes more brass than conviction in my book, and I suspect he had both in abundance. I confess that all I have so far gleaned from his letters is how difficult his handwriting will be to decipher, but judging by the many issues of radical journalist William Leggett’s short-lived “locofo” periodical The Plain Dealer (not to be confused with the daily out of Cleveland) preserved in Bradford’s papers, he was a staunch liberal of his day, and probably any other day at that.

Bradford’s light and humorous poem to the class of 1862 belies many of these impressions. He strikes a surely much needed chord of joy, adding some fun to the normally high-minded remarks reserved for these occasions with some word play on the names of the graduates. Since it first appeared in the Gospel Herald, a publication of the founders of Antioch College and one of the very best primary sources on their hopes and dreams for it, it’s been on a shelf somewhere on campus ever since it was published. Bradford died the next year, eventually fading from memory with the exception of three known photographs and this poem, which for all its endearing qualities, to quote Bob Fogarty (Editor of The Antioch Review and one of the experts on that panel I mentioned awhile back), “great poetry it is not.” I might nearly think of Claudius as a rather silly person if it was the only evidence I had (and it was until recently). Thanks to great-great Uncle Gersh and my friends on the Cape, we know he was anything but.

 

ANTIOCH COLLEGE

 

 

            The following lines formed part of the speech of Professor Bradford at the Commencement Dinner of Antioch College, June 25th 1862. In order to understand some of the allusions, it may be necessary to say that, among the names of the graduating class, were those of Appelget, Armstrong, Little, Doolittle, Flowers. and White.

Its parts all spoken—all its labors through—

Now takes its leave the class of sixty-two!

And soon, how soon, each well remembered face,

Like shadows, will have vanished from the place!

Gone from their studies, those lofty halls,

Gone from the shadow of those loftier walls!

As fellow-students, never more be seen,

In Recitation-room, or College-green;

And Memory and the photograph be all

That’s left us then their features to recall.

But,—all the sweeter that it cannot last,

And grateful for the pleasures of the past,

The parting blessing, fond affection claims,

We now would try to find among their names.

First, in the bright career before them set,

For golden prize may each an apple-get,

Fairer than that which once the Shepherd Boy

To Venus gave upon the plains of Troy.

In battling for the Right against the Wrong,

Like Armstrong, may their arms always be strong.

May both the Littles contradict their name,

And win a station on the Hill of Fame:

Doolittle prove, as he has proved before,

That he can do, not only much, but more!

In filling up usefulness the hours,

Their future path of life be strewn with Flowers;

And each and all, after the moral flight,

A record leave immaculately White.

Meanwhile, old Antioch, sending out each year,

Class after class, upon their Life career,

And, as a mother, anxious for their good,

Proud of her sons and daughters, always should,

Feeling she educates them but to lose—

Sitting at home, her annual grief renews.

And yet, mid all her losses, all her gains,

That never-dying spark of Hope remains,

That tho’ she lost her Mann, and lose her Hill,

She hopes to gain an elevation still,

For learning’s votaries still spread wide her wings,

And make renowned the name of Yellow Springs!

(From the Gospel Herald, Volume 19)