Union’s ‘Unfinished History’

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By Nick DAngelo

I was as ready as anyone for spring break. One may think that after turning in my history thesis my appetite for the subject would be satisfied, at least momentarily, but that was hardly the case. No sooner had I returned home than I had found a new piece of history to devour: a summary of Union’s history, penned by one of our own.

Dixon Ryan Fox was trained as a historian, earning his degree at Columbia and specializing in social history, in particular ethnic conflict. He was a close colleague of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.; penned a biography of his father-in-law, another noted historian (now that’s sucking up to the in-laws!); and taught at his alma mater for over two decades before being called out of the classroom as the nation spiraled into the Great Depression. Appointed the twelfth president of Union in 1934, Fox led the campus through our most perilous decade before his death in office in 1945.

As the first professional historian to become the college’s president, Fox clearly understood the magnitude of Union’s tradition. The centuries-long history of the college was certainly not lost on him, and who better to chronicle the institution’s history? During his presidency, Fox set out to provide a brief overview of the great breadth of Union’s existence, spanning from the years before its official founding in 1795 to the beginning of his own presidency in 1934. It was an ambitious plan that was never fully realized.

Fox’s manuscript, Union College: An Unfinished History was left incomplete when he died on Jan. 30, 1945, cut off midsentence as he discussed the discipline divisions of 1933. The book was published posthumously by his wife, Marian Osgood Fox, and bore a title of dual meaning: an “unfinished history” because Union is still thriving in its third century and also because the work was quite literally unfinished.

Still, Fox’s work provides incredible insight into our college and is written with the great pride that can only be espoused by a Dutchman. Among his most devout claims is that Union’s founding was truly 1785, when instruction began, a full ten years before the college was granted its official charter. Ignited by the flame of the American Revolution, the inaugural trustees set out to do things differently, taking a motto from French instead of Latin or Greek and stressing the radical notion of equality.

Over the next century, Union would experience its golden age. Fifteen Civil War generals were Union alumni, and within several decades six cabinet secretaries, thirteen United States senators, twelve governors and a president of the United States would be added to those impressive ranks.

Moreover, the Civil War was not the only military conflict where Union was well-represented. Two World War II leaders had strong connections to the college: Franklin Roosevelt’s father graduated in 1845 and Winston Churchill’s grandfather in the class of 1839.

Recognizing that the current generation was just as important as the past, Fox dedicated the most substantial piece of his work to Union’s tradition as exemplified by the active student body, a phenomenon still so much a part of the campus.

Of course, I was most interested in what President Fox had to say about the Concordiensis. While the Concordy published three times per week in 1917, its weekly schedule was more appropriate, allowing it to become “a valuable organ of record.” And while he compares my preceding columnists to “a militant crusader riding its jousts and singing its triumphs,” a tradition some may say I proudly continue, his opinion of the paper as a whole is surely positive.

Fox’s greatest reflection is his interpretation of the “living generation,” those who occupy the college in the present. “A college does not belong to the living generation, save that for the time they own its opportunity,” he writes. “It is nearer to the mark to say that the living generation of students and teachers belongs to the college.” And while every member adds to the strength of mighty Union, “its glory is the luster reflected by all its graduates who have justified its education by accomplishment.”

There was, perhaps, nothing more sentimental to read before beginning my final term at Union. Each of us carries this legacy with us, feeling, as Fox would say, “ a responsibility to sustain it.”

I can only hope we have. For those of you preparing to graduate and those who have time left, read Fox’s work and contribute to the unfinished history.

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