This letter was transcribed directly from the internet where I found it offered for sale on e-bay in July 2011. It was written in 1834 by Rev. John Hunter Fielding (1796-1844), a native of Coleraine, Ireland, who immigrated to the United States at age 18. He was licensed to preach by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1819 and married Sarah Wrenshall (an aunt of Julia Dent Grant) in 1820. He became a professor of mathematics at Madison College (Uniontown, PA) in 1826 and was elevated to the presidency of that Methodist-affiliated institution in 1830 when Rev. Henry Bidleman Bascom resigned to become agent of the American Colonization Society. When Madison College was discontinued in 1832, Fielding found employment with Augusta College (Augusta, KY) as professor of mathematics. It was during his employment at Augusta College that Fielding wrote this letter. In May 1835, Fielding resigned his position at Augusta College to become the first president of St. Charles College (St. Charles, MO) — a position he held until his death in 1844.
The letter was written to Justice John McLean, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Andrew Jackson in 1829. Justice McLean had at least two sons attend Augusta College — John McLean (1815-1872) and his more famous brother, Nathaniel Collins McLean, who became a Brigadier General during the Civil War. Of John McLean, the subject of this letter, little is known. In the first paragraph of Fielding’s letter, McLean’s recent bereavement is mentioned. This probably refers to the death of his eldest child, a daughter named Arabella, who died on 20 December 1833.
The letter is notable for documenting Fielding’s lack of support for Rev. Nathan Bangs appointment to the Presidency of Augusta College — a position he did not find him well suited for. Bangs was poorly educated, had labored most of his career as an itinerant Methodist minister, and for a decade or more had served as agent or editor of Methodist publications. Bangs later accepted the Presidency of Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT) in 1841 but that proved to be a major disappointment (as Fielding predicted) and he was replaced by the Board of that institution the following year.
Of Professor Fielding, Bishop Matthew Simpson remembered him to be “one of the clearest and ablest teachers in that department [mathematics] I ever knew. He inspired students with an earnest love for their works, and took special interest in such as showed aptitude.”
1st Feby 1834
A short time since, it was resolved by the Faculty, that it was our duty, however painful the task, to apprise you of Mr. John McLean’s remissness in his College duties, which we had in vain endeavoured to correct. And as I felt a deep reluctance to make so disagreeable a communication to you, especially in the freshness of your sorrow under your severe bereavement, in which we sincerely sympathized with your family, I determined to make an effort to induce in your son a habit of study. Accordingly I sought a private interview with him, the result of which determined me to withhold from you the knowledge of his past negligence. He avowed an entire reverse of his delinquency & gave me the strongest appearance of amendment; at the same time ardently thanking me for, what he was pleased to term, a great degree of indulgence, and a proof of friendship.
On stating to Mr. [Henry Bidleman] Bascom my confidential expectation that Mr. McLean would now become a diligent student, & saying that I thought we might save his father the pain of knowing anything about it, I regretted to learn that he had already written to you. I hasten therefore to relieve your mind; which I trust the above statement will accomplish. I may add, that our only occasion of complaint against Mr. McLean, relates to his attendance, & his proficiency in learning. Otherwise, his conduct has been exemplary; & his bearing towards his teachers respectful, indeed amiable; & it gives me pleasure to say, that his conduct during the few days which have elapsed since my conversation with him, has increased my confidence that he will fully redeem the assurance he then gave me of reformation.
You are aware of some late occurrences connected with our College; but perhaps you did not know that Dr. [Nathan] Bangs declined his appointment to the Presidency. I was not in favor of that appointment, but the delicacy of my situation forbade my making any direct opposition. The office is once more vacant, & I believe the Board will not again be so precipitate & incautious in supplying it. We want a man, not of mere general knowledge & literary talent; but a scholastic man’ a man familiar with the elements of learning, & the details & process of academic ____ition; in short a good scholar, & an experienced, talented teacher. I say we need such a man; &, as your acquaintance is extensive, perhaps you can direct the Board to such a one. Next week the Semi-annual meeting will occur. I am informed that a person is to be nominated, but if so, I know it will proceed no farther than a nomination; & I feel assured that nothing final will be done.
Perhaps it may not be quite pertinent or proper for me to mention this subject; but I know you to be deeply interested in the success of this Institution; & this knowledge, with the interest I feel in it myself, must be my apology.
I am honored sir, with sincere respect, your humble servant, — J. H. Fielding