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Solomon’s Wisdom – A Portrait Of Albany, New York’s Original "Self-Made" Man
For Solomon Southwick’s biographers, the vast, asymmetrical mind of one of Albany’s most compelling characters was usually introduced through his soul-baring face. In its time, after all, the emerging science of physiognomy could tell a lot about man.
From a distance of nearly two hundred years, however, physiognomy appears to be a remarkably elastic science, its practitioners leaving us conflicting evidence of the contradictory traits of character which they found revealed in the Renaissance man of Albany .
In Joel Munsell’s Annals of Albany, for example, Southwick is described as “a little less than the middle size—with a countenance radiant with benignity and expressive of an enthusiastic, ardent, and bloodthirsty temper—a countenance, indeed, indicative of the numerous and active virtues of his heart.”
In Worth’s Recollections of Albany, on the other hand, it is recalled that he had “the finest eye and forehead that ever belonged to mortal man, but all the other features of his countenance were indifferent or defective. His countenance , therefore, was an index of the character of his mind: incongruous, mixed, and full of contradictions.”
Southwick, born in Rhode Island on Christmas Day 1773, was, virtuous or not, regarded as the classic self-made man of that city for much of the 19th century. He came to Albany in 1792, with little but a peculiar pedigree and a great deal of talent, drive and imagination, though, as is the case with many “self-made men,” some advantages arose more from the outside. sources that stories tend to emphasize. However, in just fifteen years he became one of the city’s most prominent citizens, a major force in the local newspaper business and a shrewd political operator.
At various points in his career, he served as editor and publisher of the Register (“the political Bible of the western region”); the Plow Boy (under the unlikely pseudonym of Henry Homespun); the National Democrat (a body that largely served to advance his unsuccessful bid for the governorship of the state as a dissident Democrat); the Christian Visitor (a religious newspaper); and the National Observer (a rabidly partisan publication dedicated to the anti-Masonic political party). At the same time, he served the political and commercial interests of the area by serving as state printer, clerk of the Assembly, sheriff of Albany County, postmaster of the city, regent of the state university, and president of Mechanic’s and Farmer’s Bank. .
For the first forty years of the century, indeed, Solomon Southwick was a ubiquitous presence in Albany, writing, politicking, dispensing charity, and—perhaps his favorite vocation—lecturing on the virtues of self-education and self-reliance. (Other favorite conference topics for the popular and busy speaker included temperance, a hot topic in Southwick’s day and one in which he shared a passionate commitment to the first of several Erastus Cornings, and the Bible, a hot topic in anyone’s day.)
It was as a speaker that Southwick left what was to be the most lasting mark on the community, touching and inspiring countless young men – let men be white men – through both eloquence and living testimony.
“Himself, a self-made man, one of nature’s noblemen…” wrote an admirer, “he owes all knowledge, mental and moral culture, success in life, honor, fame, distinction and usefulness, to his efforts and perseverance, was the predominant desire – the master passion, so to speak, of his mind – to communicate with others, and especially with the working classes, with the destitute, the obscure and friendless, and in general with the young of all conditions of life, the knowledge of their powers and faculties which should make them independent of extraneous circumstances and fortuitous help, in the development of the his mind and in the advancement of his personal and pecuniary interests”.
Gorham Worth, who was, under the pseudonym of Ignatius Jones, Albany’s most sardonic and perhaps most entertaining scribe, however, saw his old friend’s passion for self-education somewhat differently. Southwick’s writing style, Worth reported, was “redundant in epithet, inflated, and declamatory,” his language, “in general, loose and inelegant.”
Without the finishing touches of a formal education, Worth thought, Southwick was “credulous to excess, and even superstitious… He was extremely fluent and even eloquent in conversation. But he had too little knowledge of the world , [leaving] his judgment is too often guilty.”
Then, too, despite his emphasis on education, “He read little, and only out of necessity,” Worth said.
Perhaps the classically educated Mr. Worth was right about Solomon Southwick and the inescapable gaps in a home education. Or perhaps Southwick was way ahead of his own time and Worth’s imagination. In 1839, a few months before his death at the age of 66, Southwick announced a proposal for the creation of a “literary and scientific institute” in the city of Albany. The institute, which would be run by Southwick himself, would be designed, he said, to provide the “necessary facilities for young people who wish to pursue a course of self-education”.
The unexpected death of Southwick put an end to this plan, but it is interesting to note that his spirit returned to Albany in the latter half of the 20th century and now lives, one imagines quite comfortably, in the offices of the Empire State College and Excelsior College. , two state-run colleges based on a commitment to “lifelong learning.”
Who made man made himself?
Solomon Southwick was born into an old and prominent Rhode Island family, at least the third Solomon in the line. And while his legend emphasizes his unaided climb to the top, it’s clear that he started life with more advantages than most. Like our Solomon, his father, also Solomon, was a newspaper editor (The Newport, Rhode Island, Mercury), and as politically active as his son would be, in his case in the patriot cause during the Revolutionary War and as a member of the general assembly of Rhode Island. Then, too, when young Southwick arrived in Albany in 1792, he went to work for his brother-in-law, John Barber, the original owner of the Albany Register. He soon became a partner in the firm, then the sole owner when Barber died in 1808. In an interesting foreshadowing of the son’s commitment to self-education, University of Pennsylvania archives show that the The elder Southwick was enrolled at that prestigious institution for several years, but left before graduating.
“Despite this early departure, the minutes of Penn’s trustees record the award of an honorary degree of Bachelor of Arts to ‘Solomon Southwick of Rhode Island, who without the usual foundation of learning and critical languages discovered a worthy aptitude to encourage in mathematics and some branches of Philosophy.’ Because he had been actively enrolled in the collegiate program, this degree was an AB “gratiae causa,” making Southwick eligible for the AM ad eundem degree awarded to him by Yale in 1780,” according to an entry in a website exploring “Penn in the 18th Century.”
In his own words
We can get a taste of Solomon Southwick’s oratory and a glimpse of how successful he was, or wasn’t, in his course of self-education from the extensive writings he left behind, including a famous Fourth of July speech which is extracted here. His mixture of politics and piety might be considered distinctly of his time, if the politics of our day had not revived this way of thinking (though nothing like eloquence). To Worth’s charge that Southwick had “too little knowledge of the world,” well, let Worth have Solomon’s attribution of the printing press to “Faust”; on the other side of the coin, however, how many contemporary college graduates can cite—or identify—Salmacius and Filmer? “Thus we see that MONARCHY arose at the beginning of the wrath of God: and therefore we are not surprised, in spite of all the sophistry of its defenders, from the foolish sons of Samuel, to wise men like Filmer and Salmassi, that although they have inflicted curses innumerable, has seldom, if ever, bestowed a solitary blessing on mankind: it has been, still is, and always will be, in whatever form it may be given, the evil of the earth, until the return of the mercy of God, which has already arisen in America, will relieve the human race from its cruelties and oppressions, and banish it again to its native regions of darkness.During a period of two to three thousand years, MAN will to labor under this curse of Monarchy, when GOD … saw fit to lay the foundations of their deliverance. He inspired FAUSTUS with the sublime idea of the invention of printing; and COLUMBUS, soon after, with the still more conception sublime, if this being possible, of the existence and the discovery of one new world; a new and vast theater of action for the human race: And in that vast theatre, of which “our, our native land,” forms so fair a part, . . . . Here, in their time, came our pilgrim fathers, fleeing from their monarchical and hierarchical tyrants and persecutors. And here they found time, not only to make the desert “bloom like the rose,” but to reflect seriously upon the creation, nature, and destiny of MAN, his relation to God, his duty to this Supreme Being and with himself. the government that suited him best in this world, and the means by which he should find his way to another and better one. Here, regardless of vain, pompous and arrogant Hierarchs, tyrannical and despotic Kings and Princes. . they breathed and enjoyed to the fullest the pure atmosphere of freedom. Here, without leaving a single obstacle, they opened, read and understood for themselves, the Sacred Volume; and from that one true source of spiritual, moral, historical, and political light, they found themselves more and more confirmed in their preconceived opinions, that Liberty was the original gift of Heaven—that Monarchy was afterwards inflicted as a curse – and that therefore, rebellion against tyrants was obedience to God.”
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