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Solomon’s Wisdom – A Portrait Of Albany, New York’s Original "Self-Made" Man
For Solomon Southwick’s biographers, the large, asymmetrical mind of one of Albany’s most compelling characters usually entered through his bare face. In their time, after all, the emerging science of physiognomy could tell a lot about man.
From a distance of nearly two hundred years, however, it appears that physiognomy is a remarkably resilient science, its practitioners leaving us with conflicting evidence of the contradictory traits of character they found revealed in the face of the Albany Renaissance man.
In Joel Munsell’s Annals of Albany, for example, Southwick is described as “somewhat below the middle size—with a countenance glowing with benevolence and expressive of an enthusiastic, ardent, and sanguine temperament—a look, indeed, indicative of the virtues numerous and active of his heart”.
In Worth’s Recollections of Albany, on the other hand, he is remembered as having “the finest eye and forehead that ever belonged to mortal man, but every other feature of his face was either indifferent or defective. His face was therefore an indication of the character of his incongruous, mixed, and contradictory mind.”
Southwick, born in Rhode Island on Christmas Day 1773, was, virtuous or not, held up as the classic self-made man of this town for much of the nineteenth century. He came to Albany in 1792, bringing with him little but an eccentric pedigree and a great deal of talent, drive, and imagination, though—as is the case with many “self-made men”—some other advantages came to him. from outside. sources than narratives tend to emphasize. However, within just fifteen years he had become one of the city’s most prominent citizens, as a major force in the newspaper business here and as a shrewd political operator.
At various times in his career, he served as editor and publisher of the Register (“The Political Bible of the Western Region”); Plow Boy (under the unlikely pseudonym of Henry Homespun); National Democrats (a body that served primarily to further his unsuccessful bid for governor 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 in such capacities as state printer, clerk of the Assembly, Sheriff of Albany County, city postmaster, regent of the state university, and president of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank. .
For the first forty years of the century, in fact, Solomon Southwick was a ubiquitous presence in Albany, writing, politicking, distributing charity and, perhaps, his favorite advocacy—lecturing on the virtues of self-education and of self-reliance. (Other favorite lecture topics for the popular and busy orator included temperance, a hot issue of Southwick’s day, and one in which he shared a passionate engagement with the first of several Erastus Cornings, and the Bible, a hot issue in anyone’s time.)
It was as a lecturer that Southwick made what would become the most enduring mark on the community, touching and inspiring countless young men—white men—through eloquence and living testimony.
“Himself, emphatically a self-made man – one of nature’s noblemen …,” wrote an admirer, “to whom he owes all knowledge, mental and moral culture, success in life, honor, fame, distinction and usefulness. his efforts and perseverance, was the prevailing desire—the chief passion, as it were, of his mind—to communicate with others, and especially with the laboring classes—with the poor, the unknown, and the friendless—and generally with youth in all conditions of life—that knowledge of their powers and abilities which should make them independent of external circumstances and occasional assistance, in the development of their minds and the advancement of their personal interests and monetary”.
However, Gorham Worth, who was, under the name of Ignatius Jones, Albany’s most sardonic and perhaps funniest writer, saw his old friend’s passion for self-education somewhat differently. Southwick’s writing style, Worth reported, was “excessive in epithets, inflated and declamatory,” his language, “in the main, loose and inelegant.”
Without the completion of a formal education, Worth thought, Southwick was “tired to excess, even superstitious… He was remarkably fluent and even eloquent in conversation. But he had very little knowledge of the world. [leaving] his judgment is too often at fault.”
Then, too, despite his emphasis on education, “He read but little, and only out of necessity,” Worth said.
Perhaps the classically educated Mr. Worth was right about Solomon Southwick and the inevitable gaps in a home-grown education. Or perhaps Southwick was simply way ahead of Worth’s time and imagination. In 1839, just months before his death at the age of 66, Southwick unveiled a proposal to establish a “literary and scientific institute” in the city of Albany. The institute, which would be directed by Southwick himself, would be designed, he said, to provide “the necessary means for young people who wish to pursue a course of self-education.”
Southwick’s sudden death put an end to that plan, but it is interesting to note that his spirit returned to Albany in the second half of the twentieth century and now lives, we can imagine quite comfortably, in the offices of Empire State College and Excelsior College. , two state-chartered colleges built on a commitment to “lifelong learning.”
Who made the self-made man?
Solomon Southwick was born into an old and prominent Rhode Island family, at least the third Solomon in the line. And while his legend highlights his unassisted climb to the top, 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 patriotic cause during the Revolutionary War and as a member of the general assembly of Rhode Island. Then, too, when the younger Southwick arrived in Albany in 1792, he went to work for his brother-in-law, John Barber, the original proprietor of the Albany Register. Before long, he became a partner in the enterprise, then sole owner when Barber died in 1808. In an interesting foreshadowing of the boy’s commitment to self-education, University of Pennsylvania archives show that the elder Southwick was enrolled at that institution. prestigious for several years, but left without graduating.
“Notwithstanding this early departure, the minutes of the Penn Trustees record the award of an honorary Bachelor of Arts degree to ‘Solomon Southwick of Rhode Island, who without the usual foundation of critical and linguistic learning discovered an ability worthy of encouragement in mathematics and in some branches of Philosophy.’ Since he was actively enrolled in the college 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 a website entry which explores “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 not, in his course of self-education from the extensive writings he left behind, including a famous Fourth of July speech fragmented here. His mixture of politics and piety might be seen as distinctive of his time, if the politics of our day had not revived that way of thinking (though nothing like eloquence). For Worth’s charge that Southwick had “too little knowledge of the world,” a chalk to Worth for attributing Solomon’s printing press to “Faust”; on the other side of the coin, however, how many contemporary scholars can cite—or identify—Salmacius and Filmer? “Thus we see that MONARCHY flowed at first from the wrath of God: and therefore we are not surprised, notwithstanding all the sophistry of its advocates, from the foolish sons of Samuel, to the sages like Filmer and Salmasius, that though it has caused curses innumerable, has seldom, if ever, given mankind a single blessing: It has been, is still, and ever will be, whatever shape it may be given, the calamity of the earth, until the mercy of return of God, which has already dawned upon the United States, will free the human race from its cruelty and oppression, and drive it back to its native regions of darkness. For a period of from two to three thousand years, MAN labored under this curse of Monarchy, when God . if he is possible, e existence and the discovery of a new world; a new and great theater of action for the human race: And in that vast theatre, of which ‘our earth, our mother earth’ forms so fair a part, . . . . Here, in due time, came our pilgrim fathers, flying 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 that Supreme Being and to himself— the government which suited him best in this world, and the means by which he was to find his way to another and better. Here, independent of vain, pompous and arrogant hierarchs, tyrannical and despotic kings and princes. . they breathed and enjoyed in its fullness the pure atmosphere of freedom. Here, without permission or hindrance, they opened, read and understood for themselves, the Holy Volume; and from that one true source of spiritual, moral, historical, and political light, they were 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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