August 8, 2010

Verplanck and a young Irish greyhound

Hoping to avoid controversy, the provost of Columbia College struck out a few passages from the speech to be delivered at Commencement on August 8, 1811. The student who was to speak, identified as "Stevenson," included some lines about elected officials being obligated to "obey the will of constituents." Despite being told not to, Stevenson read the lines anyway — and he was privately informed he would not receive his degree that day.

Even so, Stevenson took his turn walking up to the platform and demanded his diploma. A man named Hugh Maxwell (Columbia class of '08, future state attorney general) sprang to the platform and appealed to the audience on behalf of Stevenson. Chaos ensued: shouts, applause, hisses. Finally, Gulian C. Verplanck (of Columbia's class of 1801) appeared on stage and said, "The reasons are not satisfactory. Mr. Maxwell must be supported... the thanks of the audience [should] be given to Mr. Maxwell for his spirited defence of an injured man."

Verplanck, Maxwell, and others were brought to court for causing a riot. The accuser was the mayor of New York (also a former U.S. senator, a state senator, and future governor), DeWitt Clinton, who called the incident a shameless outrage. They were found guilty and each was fined $200 (others involved were fined slightly less).

Verplanck, a future politician himself, was apparently the main target of Clinton's. Verplanck noticed and, using the pseudonym of Abimelech Coody, made Clinton the subject of satirical attacks for years. Clinton was referred to as "a young Irish greyhound of high mettle and exorbitant pretensions." Clinton responded with his own pamphlet, An Account of Abimelech Coody and Other Celebrated Worthies of New York, in a Letter from a Traveller. Clinton also targeted Verplanck's friends James Kirke Paulding and Washington Irving. The anonymous Coody pamphlets were never officially linked to Verplanck, though many guessed correctly.

The original incident, the student not being allowed to speak a few lines, was entirely political. Stevenson clearly had Federalist leanings. Officials at Columbia — and De Witt Clinton — were Democratic-Republicans. A short time later, a group of former Federalists nominated Clinton for President of the United States.

1 comment:

  1. an engaging anecdote; thank you.