Solomon’s Wisdom: A Portrait of Albany, New York’s Original “Self-Made” Man

For Solomon Southwick’s biographers, the vast, lopsided mind of one of Albany’s most fascinating characters typically pierced through his harrowing countenance. In his day, after all, the emerging science of physiognomy could tell a great deal about man.

From a distance of almost two hundred years, however, it appears that physiognomy is a remarkably elastic science, and its practitioners leave us conflicting evidence of the contradictory character traits 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 average height, with a countenance beaming with benignity, and expressive of an enthusiastic, fiery, sanguine temper, a countenance, indeed, indicative of the many active virtues of his heart.

In Worth’s Albany Recollections, on the other hand, he is remembered as having “the most beautiful eye and forehead that ever belonged to a mortal man, but every other feature of his countenance was 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, considered the classic self-made man of this town for much of the 19th century. He arrived at Albany in 1792, bringing with him little more than a peculiar pedigree and a great measure of talent, drive, and imagination, though, as is the case with many “self-made men,” a few more advantages came to him from outside sources. . sources that stories tend to emphasize. In any case, in the space of only fifteen years he became one of the most prominent citizens of the city, both as a major force in the newspaper business here and as 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 Henry Homespun); the National Democrat (a body that went a long way in advancing his unsuccessful bid for state governor as a maverick 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 area political and business interests in such roles as state printer, Clerk of the Assembly, Albany County Sheriff, City Postmaster, State University Regent, and President of the Mechanic’s and Farmer’s Bank. . .

Indeed, for the first forty years of the century, Solomon Southwick was a ubiquitous presence in Albany, writing, politicking, doling out charity, and, perhaps his favorite pastime, lecturing on the virtues of self-education and self-sufficiency. (Other favorite lecture topics of the popular and busy speaker included temperance, a hot topic in the days of Southwick and in which he shared a passionate commitment to the first of several Erastus Cornings, and the Bible, a hot topic in the day of any).

It was as a public speaker that Southwick left what would be his most enduring mark on the community, touching and inspiring countless young men, that is, men, white men, through eloquence and living testimony.

“Himself, emphatically a self-made man, one of nature’s nobles…” wrote one admirer, “owing all knowledge, mental and moral culture, success in life, honor, fame, distinction, and usefulness, to his toil and perseverance, it was the predominant desire – the main passion, as it were, of his mind – to communicate with others, and especially with the working classes – the destitute, the dark, and the homeless. friends – and in general to young people in all conditions of life, that knowledge of their powers and faculties which should make them independent of strange circumstances and accidental aids, in the development of their minds and the advancement of their personal and pecuniary interests.

However, Gorham Worth, who was, under the pseudonym Ignatius Jones, the most wry and perhaps the most entertaining scribe in Albany, viewed his old friend’s passion for self-education somewhat differently. Southwick’s writing style, reported Worth, was “redundant in epithet, inflated and declamatory”, his language, “on the whole loose and inelegant”.

Without the finishing touches of a formal education, Worth thought, Southwick was “exceedingly gullible, and even superstitious … He was extremely fluent and even eloquent in conversation. But he had very little knowledge of the world, [leaving] their judgment fails too often.”

Then, too, despite his emphasis on education, “I read very little, and only out of necessity,” Worth said.

Perhaps classically educated Mr. Worth was right about Solomon Southwick and the inescapable gaps in a home education. Or perhaps Southwick was simply way ahead of both his own time and Worth’s imagination. In 1839, just a few months before his death at the age of 66, Southwick unveiled a proposal for the creation of a “literary and scientific institute” in the city of Albany. The institute, to be run by Southwick himself, would be designed, he said, to provide “necessary facilities for young people desirous of pursuing a course of self-education.”

Southwick’s unexpected 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 20th century and now lives, one imagines quite comfortably, in the offices of Empire State College and Excelsior College. , two state-created universities based 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 though his legend highlights his single-handed rise to the top, he clearly started life with more of an advantage 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 member of the Rhode Island General Assembly. Then, too, when young Southwick came to Albany in 1792, he went to work for his brother-in-law, John Barber, the original owner of the Albany Register. Before long, he became a partner in the business, then 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 elder Southwick was enrolled in that prestigious institution for several years, but left before graduating.

“Despite this early departure, the minutes of the trustees of Penn record the award of an honorary Bachelor of Arts degree to ‘Solomon Southwick of Rhode Island, who without the usual foundation of critical learning and languages ​​discovered a worthy aptitude in Mathematics and some Branches of Philosophy.’ Since he had been actively enrolled in the university 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 on a website. which explores “Penn in the 18th century”.

in their own words

We can sample Solomon Southwick’s oratory and glimpse how successful he was, or not, in his course of self-education from the extensive writings he left behind, including a famous 4th of July speech excerpted here. His mixture of politics and piety could be seen as belonging to his time, if the politics of our day had not revived that way of thinking (although nothing like eloquence). To Worth’s charge that Southwick had “very little knowledge of the world,” well, put one down for Worth for Solomon’s attribution of the printing press to “Faust”; Yet on the other side of the coin, how many contemporary college graduates can cite, or identify, Salmacius and Filmer? “Thus we see that the MONARCHY flowed at the beginning of the wrath of God: And so we are not surprised, despite all the sophistries of its defenders, from the foolish sons of Samuel, to sages like Filmer and Salmasius, that although it has inflicted countless curses, has seldom, if ever, bestowed a solitary boon on mankind: it has been, still is, and always will be, no matter what form it takes, the bane of the earth, until the mercy of Returning God, who has already fallen upon the United States, deliver the human race from its cruelties and oppressions, and banish it back to its native regions of darkness.For a period of two to three thousand years, MAN Worked under this curse of the Monarchy, when GOD… saw fit to lay the foundations of their liberation. HE inspired FAUST with the sublime idea of ​​the invention of printing, and COLUMBUS, soon after, with the even more sublime conception, if that is possible, of the existence and discovery of a new world; a vast new theater of action for the human race: And in that vast theater, of which ‘our own, our native land,’ constitutes so fair a portion, . . . . Here, in due time, our pilgrim fathers came, 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 on the creation, nature and destiny of MAN, his relationship with God, his duty to that Supreme Being and to himself . the government that best suited him in this world, and the means by which he should find his way to a better one. Here, independent of vain, pompous and arrogant Hierarchs, tyrannical and despotic Kings and Princes. . they breathed and fully enjoyed the pure atmosphere of freedom. Here, without hindrance or hindrance, they opened, read and understood for themselves, the Sacred Volume; and from that one true source of spiritual, moral, historical and political light, they were more and more confirmed in their preconceived views, that Liberty was Heaven’s original gift – that Monarchy was afterwards inflicted as a curse – and that by Therefore, rebellion against tyrants was obedience to God.”

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