It’s safe to say that we wouldn’t still have a Union College had it not been for the efforts of its longest-tenured president, Eliphalet Nott. He was born in 1773 on a farm in Ashford, Connecticut, one of nine children. “There was no neighbor’s house nearer than half a mile, and he was thus much shut out from the society of boys his own age. The school-house of the neighboring settlement was five miles distant,” according to Cornelius Van Santvoord’s memoir of Nott. Taught to read and memorize by his mother, he later lived with and worked in the home of his much older brother Samuel, who was a Congregational minister who favored whippings as discipline and served as a school teacher, having graduated from Yale. Eliphalet studied under his brother and became a teacher himself and before he was 20 was appointed principal of the Plainfield Academy. Preferring his mother’s gentler ways to his brothers, he determined to “substitute moral motives in the place of the rod,” running very much against the current of the time. He also became a preacher in the Congregational Church, married the daughter of the Rev. Joel Benedict, and set out as a missionary, traveling through Albany on his way to Oswego, then coming partway back to the Cherry Valley, where he settled and brought his wife to live in 1796.
His wife, Sarah, became sickly after the birth of their first son in December 1797, and she went to Ballston Springs (Spa) in the summer of 1798 to take the waters, remaining there several months. Eliphalet, traveling to a meeting the Albany Presbytery was holding in Washington County, chanced to stay over at an inn at Union and Ferry streets in Schenectady, and attended a religious meeting conducted by Rev. John Blair Smith, president of Union College, right across the street from the inn. They met, each most impressed with the other, and this led to Smith’s recommendation that Nott take charge of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany at Pearl and Beaver streets, which took place in October 1798. He would also become co-chaplain of the State Legislature. He also, through his friendship with Smith, became a trustee of Union College. He became nationally famous for a sermon he gave on the death of Alexander Hamilton, which became the manifesto of the anti-dueling movement.
As mentioned before, Union had gotten off to a rocky start, with insufficient funds and insufficient students. It relied heavily on State funding and would require even more. With the departure of its third president in only nine years, Union’s trustees asked Nott, who had been trying to create free common schools in Albany, to head the institution. His wife had just died, he had four children to care for, and, as the Encyclopedia of Union College History writes, “he appears to have developed doubts that the ministry was an adequate base for effecting the changes he believed necessary to realize in America the achievement of its divine mission, the one he had made the subject of an inspiring series of sermons.”
Taking the presidency, Nott used his connections to lobby for a lottery that would benefit the college (yes, lotteries and education go way, way back). It was in cutting this deal that a number of State officials first swelled the ranks of the trustees of Union, but he gained approval in 1805 for four lotteries totaling $80,000, nearly half of which was stipulated for buildings. The Encyclopedia says:
“By the end of the decade Nott was certain enough of the success of the lottery to proceed with his plans for a college to match or outdo those well established along the Atlantic coast – Harvard, Yale, Rhode Island (Brown), Queens (Rutgers) and Princeton. Using his own slender assets and the large ones of his second wife, the widow Gertrude Peebles Tibbits whom he had married in 1807, Nott bought more than 250 acres of land on the outskirts of the city, and had a foundation laid for North College. Then in 1812-13 he took advantage of the temporary presence in the area of the distinguished French architect Joseph Ramée, and engaged him to draw plans for an entire college campus on Nistiquona Hill.”
Biting off even more, Nott asked the Legislature in 1814 to approve $274,000 to benefit Hamilton College, New York City’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Asbury African Church, and Union College (which would get $200,000 of that sum). Nott lived in Albany and lobbied full-time to make this happen. He was successful, although ultimately the lottery wasn’t, and in the end Nott borrowed money from financier William James and got Union into some extensive “side deals, speculation in a variety of uncertain ventures, secret agreements, siphoning of receipts into private pockets, tortuous bookkeeping and none at all, law suits, a case in chancery court, and in the end investigation by a hostile legislative committee which besmeared the president with charges of self-dealing and the trustees with equally serious charges of dereliction of duty.” Eventually, all were exonerated, and Nott continued as president of Union College, serving for 61 years until his death in 1866.
He also served as president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in its early years (under other names), from 1829-1845, while simultaneously heading up Union. According to RPI, he “visited the school at least every third week and was compensated with one dollar per visit plus all graduation fees.” It appears not to have been a terribly taxing post at the time, but under his leadership Rensselaer became the first civilian school to graduate civil engineers (in 1835). Union offered a degree in civil engineering after Nott resigned from Rensselaer in 1845. Nott’s memoir, interestingly, mentions this not at all.
In addition to being a man of religion, Nott was a man of science. He worked at inventing, focusing primarily on boilers, but he also famously invented the first stove that could use anthracite coal, which was a big deal at the time. It is said that the acquired 30 patents, but the Nott Stove, which was built by his son’s company H. Nott and Co., was by far the most successful. Nott was also an ardent temperance advocate throughout his life.
In 1859, aged 86, Eliphalet Nott suffered a severe paralytic stroke, but he worked at recovering from that, and proved well enough that he was able to travel to Philadelphia to spend time with his son. He returned to Schenectady in 1860 and continued his duties at the college. He did well, but in 1864 began to decline, and he lingered on until January 29, 1866.