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

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

For Solomon Southwick’s biographers, the vast and asymmetrical mind of one of Albany’s most compelling characters was typically entered through his soul-baring countenance. In their day, after all, the emerging science of physiognomy could tell a lot about the man.

From a distance of nearly two hundred years, however, it seems that physiognomy is a remarkably elastic science, its practitioners leaving us with conflicting proofs of the contradictory character traits they found revealed in the face of Albany’s Renaissance man.

In Joel Munsell’s Annals of Albany, for example, Southwick is described as “somewhat under middle size-with a countenance beaming with benignity, and expressive of an enthusiastic, ardent and sanguine temperament-a countenance, indeed, indicative of the many and active virtues of his heart.”

In Worth’s Recollections of Albany, on the other hand, he is remembered as having had “the finest eye and forehead that ever belonged to mortal man, but every other feature of his face was either indifferent or defective. His countenance, therefore, was an index to the character of his mind-incongruous, mixed and full of contradictions.”

Southwick, born in Rhode Island on Christmas Day in 1773, was, virtuous or not, held up as this town’s classic self-made man throughout much of the nineteenth century. He came to Albany in 1792, bringing little with him but a quirky pedigree and a large measure of talent, drive and imagination, although-as is the case with many “self-made men”-a few more advantages came his way from external sources than the stories tend to emphasize. At any rate, within the span of just fifteen years he became 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”); the Plough Boy (under the improbable pseudonym of Henry Homespun); the National Democrat (an organ that served largely to advance his unsuccessful bid for the governorship of the state as a dissident Democrat); the Christian Visitant (a religious paper); and the National Observer (a rabidly partisan publication devoted 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, Albany County Sheriff, postmaster of the city, a regent of the state university, and president of Mechanic’s and Farmer’s Bank.

For the first forty years of the century, in fact, Solomon Southwick was a ubiquitous presence in Albany, writing, politicking, dispensing charity, and-perhaps his favorite avocation-lecturing on the virtues of self-education and 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 commitment with the first of several Erastus Cornings, and the Bible, a hot issue in anybody’s day.)

It was as a lecturer that Southwick made what was to be is most enduring mark on the community, touching and inspiring countless young people-make that men, white men-through both eloquence and living testimony.

“Himself, emphatically a self-made man-one of nature’s noblemen . . .,” an admirer wrote, “owing all of knowledge, of mental and moral culture, of success in life, of honor, fame, distinction and usefulness, to his exertions and perseverance, it was the predominant desire-the master passion, so to speak, of his mind-to communicate to others, and especially to the laboring classes-to the indigent, the obscure and friendless-and generally to the young in every condition of life-that knowledge of their powers and faculties which should render them independent of extraneous circumstances and adventitious aid, in the development of their minds, and the advancement of their personal and pecuniary interests.”

Gorham Worth, who was, under the pen name Ignatius Jones, Albany’s most sardonic and perhaps most entertaining scribe, saw his old friend’s passion for self-education somewhat differently, however. Southwick’s writing style, Worth reported, was “redundant in epithet, inflated and declamatory,” his language, “in the main, loose and inelegant.”

Without the finishings of a formal education, Worth felt, 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 too often at fault.”

Then, too, despite his emphasis on education, “He read but little, and only from necessity,” Worth said.

Perhaps the classically-educated Mr. Worth was right about Solomon Southwick and the inescapable gaps in a homemade education. Or perhaps Southwick was simply far 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, which would be directed by Southwick himself, would, he said, be designed to afford the “requisite facilities to young men 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 its spirit returned to Albany in the latter half of the twentieth century and now lives on, one imagines quite comfortably, in the offices of Empire State College and Excelsior College, two state-spawned 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 lineage. And while his legend stresses his unassisted climb to the top, he clearly started life with more advantages than most. Like our Solomon, his father, also Solomon, was a newspaper editor (The Newport, Rhode Island, Mercury), and every bit 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 Rhode Island general assembly. Then, too, when the younger Southwick arrived in 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 enterprise, then the sole owner when Barber died in 1808. In an interesting foreshadowing of the son’s commitment to self-education, the archives of the University of Pennsylvania show that the elder Southwick was enrolled in that prestigious institution for several years, but left before he was graduated.

“Despite this early departure, Penn’s Trustees’ minutes record the bestowing of an honorary Bachelor of Arts degree upon ‘Solomon Southwick of Rhode Island, who without the usual Foundation of critical Learning and Languages discovered an aptness worthy of encouragement in Mathematics and some Branches of Philosophy.’ Since he had actively been enrolled in the collegiate program, this degree was an A.B. ‘gratiae causa,’ making Southwick eligible for the A.M. ad eundem degree awarded to him by Yale in 1780,” according to an entry on 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 just how successful he was, or wasn’t, in his course of self-education from the extensive writings he left behind, including a famed Fourth of July address excerpted here. His admixture of politics and piety might be seen as distinctly of his time, if the politics of our own day had not revived that manner of thought (although nothing like the eloquence). To Worth’s charge that Southwick had “too little knowledge of the world,” well, chalk one up for Worth for Solomon’s attribution of the printing press to “Faust;” on the other side of the coin, though, how many contemporary college graduates can quote-or identify-Salmacius and Filmer? “Thus we see that MONARCHY flowed at first from the wrath of God: And hence we are not surprised, in spite of all the sophistry of its advocates, from the silly sons of Samuel, down to such sages as Filmer and Salmasius, that although it has inflicted curses innumerable, it has rarely, if ever, bestowed a solitary blessing, upon mankind: It has been, it still is, and it ever will be, no matter what shape be given to it, the bane of the earth, until the returning mercy of God, which has already dawned upon the United States, shall relieve the human race from its cruelties and oppressions, and banish 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 . . . saw proper to lay the foundation of his deliverance. HE inspired FAUST with the sublime idea of the invention of printing; and COLUMBUS, shortly after, with the still more sublime conception, if that be possible, of the existence and discovery of a new world; a new and a vast theatre of action for the human race: And on that vast theatre, of which ‘our own, our native land,’ constitutes so fair a portion, . . . . Hither, in due season, came our pilgrim fathers, flying from their monarchical and hierarchical tyrants and persecutors. And here did they find time, not only to make ” the wilderness blossom as the rose,” but to reflect seriously upon the creation, nature and destiny of MAN-his relationship to 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 another and a better one. 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 let or hindrance, they opened, read, and understood for themselves, the Sacred Volume; and from that only true fountain of spiritual, moral, historical and political light, they found themselves more and more confirmed in their pre-conceived opinions, that Freedom was the original gift of Heaven-that Monarchy was afterwards inflicted as a curse-and that hence Rebellion to Tyrants was Obedience to God.”