Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Four real presidents of the Albany YMA, and one really fake president

In 1830, Herman Melville's father Allan lost his business and moved with the wife and kids from Manhattan to Albany, New York. Allan Melville (often spelled Melvill) died in 1832. When the family could afford tuition, Herman went to the Albany Classical School and Albany Academy. For a while in 1835-7, Herman and his older brother Gansevoort also belonged to the recently established Young Men's Association of Albany. The Albany YMA had been founded in December 1833, with a constitution "signed by about seven hundred and fifty names" as recalled in one 1888 retrospective.

via The New York Public Library Digital Collections
The first real president of the Albany YMA was Albany lawyer Amos Dean (1803-1868), a native of Vermont and later the first president of the University of Iowa
J. T. M. “Amos Dean.” The American Law Register (1852-1891) 16, no. 5 (1868): 257–60.
After Amos Dean, Robert E. Ward became the second real president of the Albany YMA. Formerly 1st Vice President, Ward succeeded Dean in February 1835. 

As it happened, Ward only served a few months of his presidential term. Suddenly westward bound "for the Territory of Michigan," Ward resigned his position in April 1835 and moved to the village of Berrien, later Berrien Springs. Ward's unexpected departure for Michigan was acknowledged by the executive committee with "thanks for the able, faithful, and impartial manner in which he has discharged the duties of his office as President of the Young Men's Association" (Albany Argus, April 10, 1835). Ward eventually settled in Detroit where he died in 1847.

After Robert E. Ward, the third real president of the Albany Young Men's Association was Charles A. Hopkins (1802? - 1864). As announced in the Albany Argus, the former 2nd Vice President was elected President at a special "meeting of the Executive Committee of the Young Men's Association, held April 11th, 1835."

Albany Argus - April 17, 1835
via GenealogyBank

The following year, Charles A. Hopkins was elected to a regular one-year term of office. The election or more precisely re-election of Hopkins as president of the Young Men's Association was announced in the Albany Argus on February 5, 1836.

Albany Argus - February 5, 1836

When his presidency ended, Hopkins (like Ward before him) headed out for Michigan (Albany Argus, April 18, 1837), though he would relocate to Buffalo NY. "General" Hopkins died there in September 1864, remembered as a distinguished militia officer and model citizen:
"one of our prominent dock merchants, highly honored on account of his  integrity, and greatly esteemed for his many estimable social qualities." -- Buffalo Morning Express, September 30, 1864
In February 1837 John Davis (1807-1847) became the fourth president of the Albany Young Men's Association.

Albany Argus - February 7, 1837

All past presidents of the Albany Young Men's Association to 1886, including the first four, are named in the Bi-centennial history of Albany (New York, 1886) conveniently accessible via Google Books:

There then are your four real presidents. Now for the fake one....

Gansevoort Melville 
via The New York Public Library Digital Collections

As John Bryant tells it 5x in the first volume of Herman Melville: A Half Known Life (Wiley Blackwell, 2021), Herman's brother Gansevoort Melville experienced a meteoric rise to the presidency of the Albany YMA:
"For a three-year period ending with the Panic of 1837, Gansevoort continued his networking at Albany's Young Men's Association, rising swiftly to become the group's president, probably its youngest to date. He was on track to become a paragon of Albany's youth."  (page 247)

"Gansevoort worked on his networking skills in the fur trade and moved up in the YMA's governing structure: he was listed as part of the executive committee that fall; and in January 1836, following in the footsteps of John Bleecker Van Schaick, he was elected president of the organization." (251)

"At 20, his election to the presidency of the Young Men's Association in January came with the honor of his public oration of the Declaration of Independence during Albany's Fourth of July celebrations." (324)

"Gansevoort had completed his term as president of the YMA in December 1836, had overseen the induction of Herman into the association, and had remained on the executive committee; but given the failure of his business, he had withdrawn in 1837. (360) 

"Two years earlier, he had had the honor of reciting the Declaration of Independence as a representative of the Young Men's Association. Once its president, he had now resigned from the group. In his place, Albany's paragon of young manhood, his distant cousin and the scion of a great Albany family, John Bleecker Van Schaick, would step to the podium to read the Declaration."  (384)

Bryant claims that Gansevoort Melville was elected president of the Albany YMA in January 1836. But Gansevoort was never really president of the entire Albany Young Men's Association. In October 1835 Gansevoort did manage to get elected second vice-president of the Debating Society (Always known as the "Young Men's Debating Society," and not to be confused with the upstart Philo Logos Society whose presidents included Charles Van Loon and his later famous rival, Herman Melville.) 

Albany Journal - October 30, 1835
via GenealogyBank
Gansevoort had joined the Debating Society in 1834, introduced by his good friend Alexander W. Bradford. On January 23, 1836, according to meeting minutes reported by Jay Leyda in The Melville Log (volume 1, page 66), Gansevoort was elected "President of the Debating Society in the Young Men's Association." Evidently, Bryant has confused the Debating Society of the YMA with the institution as a whole. Gansevoort's position on the Executive Committee of the YMA in 1835-7 was only held by virtue of his involvement in the Debating Society--where the officers were often the only persons in attendance, according to "Juvinis" in December 1837, writing to the editor of the Albany Evening Journal. Previously transcribed on Melvilliana:
In early 1835 Gansevoort had tried and failed to get elected to the office of Recording Secretary. Just two days after Herman's admission to the YMA on January 29, 1835, his big brother chaired a Saturday night meeting and got himself nominated for Recording Secretary, as announced in the Albany Evening Journal on February 3, 1835:

Albany Journal - February 3, 1835
When the annual election was held on February 3rd, Gansevoort lost out to Daniel Fry,  as reported in the Albany Argus on February 10, 1835: 

Albany Argus - February 10, 1835
via GenealogyBank
Gansevoort Melville's public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1836 was indeed well received, as Bryant like every biographer after Leyda indicates. The distinction might seem a little diminished, however, if you admit (Bryant does not) that the annual 4th of July reading of the Declaration traditionally preceded a longer speech, formally delivered by another, preferably more distinguished orator. Thus, at the public celebration by the Young Men's Association of Albany in 1836, Gansevoort merely opened for future YMA President John Davis whose 4th of July oration "was a production creditable as well to the author as to the choice of the Association" (Albany Argus, July 8, 1836).

Albany Argus - July 8, 1836
via GenealogyBank

Moreover, by the time Gansevoort spoke, the good citizens of Albany had already heard the Declaration of Independence read earlier in the day by W. H. Fondey, "in an appropriate and effective manner." Fondey's reading took place during the "numerously attended" main event, "customary exercises at the Pearl-street Methodist Church." Fondey opened for a genuine "pulpit orator" in the Rev. Edward Norris Kirk, whose 4th of July speech was duly praised as "vigorous in style and thought, and eloquent and impressive in the delivery." 

Not only that, it rained all day "with little intermission" (Albany Argus, July 8, 1836). As previously reported on Melvilliana:
After the event the arrangements committee of the Young Men's Association published customary resolutions expressing thanks to all concerned, starting with John Davis:
Resolved, That the members of this committee in behalf of the Association, tender to J. Davis Esq., their thanks for his eloquent and patriotic oration, delivered before the Association.

Resolved, That the thanks of the Association be also tendered to Mr. G. Melville, for the prompt and pleasing manner in which he discharged his duty as reader.

Resolved, That the members of the Albany Sacred Music Fund Society for the deep interest manifested by them, in the prosperity of the Association, and for the skill and taste displayed in their performance, deserve and we heartily tender the sincere thanks and appreciation of the committee. 
Resolved, That the soldier-like and gentlemanly bearing of the Albany Union Guards, was highly creditable to themselves and gratifying to the committee.

Resolved, That the committee are under great obligation to Mr. W. R. Bush, for his active and efficient discharge of the duty of Marshal of the day.

J. H. WILDER, Cha'n.  --Albany Evening Journal, July 6, 1836

Featured speaker John Davis would be elected president of the Albany YMA before their next Fourth of July celebration.  

In spite of his meaningful yet modest success as designated "reader" on Independence Day 1836, Gansevoort Melville could never get elected Recording Secretary of the Young Men's Association in Albany. Not even with brother Herman's help in a possibly rigged election. 


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