Wesleyan's First Century: With an Account of the Centennial Celebration

By Carl F. Price | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
AUGUSTUS W. SMITH, MATHEMATICIAN

AUGUSTUS WILLIAM SMITH, fourth president of Wesleyan University, had the distinction of being the first layman to be elected to that office. To choose a layman for an American college presidency was exceptional in that era. The tradition of the superior scholarship of the clergy still obtained. Nearly all of the American colleges had been established by clergymen, and in the case of Wesleyan the nearer Methodist Conferences were then engaged in frequent efforts to raise money to sustain the struggling institution. There was usually no lack of clerical material for the honor, nor of ministerial trustees who felt that it should always be given to one of their own profession.

It was therefore a mark of high distinction which the Wesleyan trustees placed upon Doctor Smith in electing him to the presidency; for that election carried with it a recognition that his solid scholarship, already winning national reputation, combined with his other excellencies of character, outweighed any disability which at the time might have been urged against him as a layman, rather than a minister, and as a man of plain, albeit exact, speech, rather than an eloquent orator.

To his laic distinction must be added also that of being the only member of the Wesleyan faculty ever advanced from a professorship to the presidency of the college. Other Wesleyan professors have served as acting president during interregnums or presidential absences, but only this distinguished mathematician as president.

Born on May 12, 1802, in Newport, Herkimer County, New York, he was the son of Seth Smith, a well-to-do farmer of strong mind and influence, and a Methodist local preacher.

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