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ARTHUR LATHAM PERRY, CLASS OF 1852

From OnCampus, June 2008
 
By Mark E. Rondeau
 
Arthur Latham Perry, Class of 1852, was a prominent economist in his day, a passionate advocate for free trade in the second half of the 19th century.

He was a nationally known figure, his speeches written up in The New York Times. The free trade position — about which Perry had an almost religious zeal — did not reflect that of either President Mark Hopkins, Class of 1824, or of most alumni. Yet academic freedom prevailed.

The son of a minister, Perry was born in Lyme, N.H., in 1830. After graduating from Williams and teaching for a year at an academy in Washington, D.C., he  came back to teach political economy at Williams at the urging of Hopkins.

"Many sources make clear his dedication to teaching, deep commitment to Christianity, passionate opposition to tariffs, and interest in local history," Williams College Economics Professor Roger Bolton writes in a 1997 paper about Perry and his reaction to the economist Henry George.

After teaching political economy for about a decade, Perry decided to write a textbook on the subject.

"Perry's Political Economy, published in 1865, became the Bible of the free trade movement," writes Williams History Professor Frederick Rudolph ’42 in his book Mark Hopkins and the Log. "At Yale, where President Theodore Dwight Woolsey taught from it, 75 percent of Yale's senior class were reported in 1871 to be free traders."

Then-Congressman and later President James A. Garfield, Class of 1856, said in 1870 that the Library of Congress could not keep up with demand for the book. Perry noted later in life that the book went through 22 editions and sold 19,000 copies. The college appointed Perry to a newly endowed professorship in political economy that same year.

Perry's "reputation as a free trader was further enhanced by a barnstorming lecture tour beginning in 1869 as far west as Detroit and St. Louis, by public debates with Horace Greeley, the arch-protectionist, and by activities of the American Free Trade League," Rudolph writes.

Greeley was the famous editor of the New York Tribune, a friend of Abraham Lincoln and a presidential candidate in 1872. He is best remembered today for his exhortation, “Go west, young man.”

Students attested that Perry fairly presented the protectionist position in his classes, but that did not prevent controversy from arising. Rudolph writes that Perry “symbolized a real threat to the stability of American manufacturing, an area of activity which was attracting an increasing share of Williams alumni.”

In 1870 a committee of the junior class persuaded John G. Goodrich — a cousin of Hopkins and a college trustee — to give a series of protectionist lectures to counteract Perry. Most of the faculty refused to attend and many students resented the implication that he was a dishonest or inadequate teacher, Rudolph writes.

In 1873 a group of businessmen, some of them alumni, gathered in Cleveland to discourage young men from attending Williams. An even larger and more distinguished group of alumni in that city rushed to Perry’s defense.

In addition to political economy, Perry taught history, government and other subjects. He frequently preached in chapel, and from 1875 to 1883 was the acting pastor of the South Congregational Church in South Williamstown. And there was his ever-growing interest in local history.

"While these responsibilities showed his erudition and range, they had opportunity costs, including more advanced and specialized work in economics," Bolton writes.

Perhaps Perry’s devotion to local history arose because he married into it. His wife, Mary Smedley, was a Williamstown native whose great-great grandfathers Colonel Benjamin Simonds and Captain Nehemiah Smedley fought as officers in the Battle of Bennington during the Revolutionary War.

Arthur and Mary had seven children, six sons and a daughter. One son died in infancy and was the first person buried in the Williams College cemetery, which Perry had suggested be set aside when the college developed Mission Park.

Two sons, Bliss, Class of 1881, and Lewis, Class of 1898, later taught English at Williams.

Bliss and his brother Carroll, Class of 1890, who became a minister, wrote about their father after his death with affection and with honesty, noting his foibles as well as his many virtues.

"His friendships were deep, tolerant in the main, and exceedingly varied. What interested him, both as preacher and teacher, was the problem of the moral life, and what he believed Christianity had to say about it," son Carroll writes in his 1923 book about his father, A Professor of Life. "He spoke out with deep earnestness, engaging frankness, and an unconventionality positively bewildering."

For instance, preaching the funeral of a woman who had died in the Williamstown poorhouse, Perry could say little but noted with enthusiasm that "it was her great-great grandmother who brought the first rag carpet to Williamstown."

Perry's devotion to history led him to plant an elm at the site in North Adams where Fort Massachusetts once stood and to lobby government officials for "a lofty monument of native dolomite" to commemorate the Battle of Bennington.

By the time Mark Hopkins had died in 1887, times were changing and Perry had trouble changing with them.

Bliss Perry, in his memoir And Gladly Teach, writes about coming home to teach at Williams in 1888 and finding his mother worried about her husband.

"He was only fifty-eight, but he had aged perceptibly during my absence and was unable to reconcile himself to some of the changes introduced into the college by President [Franklin] Carter," Bliss writes. "Accustomed to the old ways, he was violently prejudiced against the elective system, which was then gaining ground everywhere."

Still Perry worked on, writing a new economics textbook, Principles of Political Economy, published in 1891. Retiring from the college that year, he concentrated on compiling local history.

Perry self-published Origins in Williamstown, 649 pages, in 1894 and Williamstown and Williams College, 847 pages, in 1899. The latter caused a furor because of his very frank and at times unfair criticism of his academic colleagues.

Despite its wordy style and lack of documentation, Williamstown and Williams College  is "a basic book to a student of the college," Rudolph writes. The book "is more trustworthy than has often been supposed."

Another testament to Perry's contribution to local history is that he is cited as either the primary or a major source in nine of the 13 chapters of Williamstown: The First 250 Years, 1753-2003, published by the House of Local History and the 250th Anniversary Committee.

After several years of ill health, Perry died in 1905 at age 75. He is buried in the College cemetery with several family members, including sons Carroll and Bliss. Both sons concurred in this summation of their father's life in A Professor of Life:

"He loved truth and honor and fairness; but mostly he loved friendship and little children. He cared nothing for riches, and only a little for fame. Some measure of the last he gained, and he knew what to do with it. He forgot it."
 
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