Hamilton Wright Mabie A First Citizen of Summit

by Robert A. Hageman

On Sunday afternoon, February 18, 1917 there was a memorial service at the Lyric Theatre in Summit for one of the community's foremost residents, Hamilton Wright Mabie. It was a widely attended service with international luminaries too numerous to fully mention in this short space.

Two tributes however, both from ex-Presidents, stood out and perhaps as much as anything described Mabie the man, the citizen and his character:

"I wish to express my profound admiration for Dr. Mabie, both in his public and in his private capacities... The more intimately one was thrown with him, the more one grew to appreciate the beauty and fineness of his character... As a friend, and as an American, I mourn his loss." - Theodore Roosevelt

"I wish to join in the tribute to the memory of Dr. Mabie - the Embodiment of the spirit of International Brotherhood...I condole in the loss of so valuable a citizen, so delightful a neighbor and social companion, and so true a man." - William Howard Taft

Hamilton Wright Mabie died of a series of cardiac asthma attacks on Sunday morning, December 31, 1916 (he was seventy years of age) at his home on 3 Fernwood Road in Summit where he had lived since 1890. His service was held January 3, 1917 at Calvary Episcopal Church (the largest ever at the church).

Life began for Mabie in Cold Spring, New York on December 13, 1846. In the fall of 1863 he entered Williams College as a freshman. His biographer Edwin W. Morse wrote in The Life and Letters of Hamilton W. Mabie that "... especially during his junior and senior years, Mabie's development was along three lines, each of which pointed unerringly to fields in which he was to become eminent in later years - literature, public speaking and the spiritual life."

In his senior year at Williams, Mabie was elected President of the Adelphic Union which had been formed as a debating club devoted to literature and art and received speakers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson who had a profound effect on the young student. Mabie later wrote of Emerson that " What he seemed to be anxious to do was to awaken the individual intellectual life and then to leave the man to find his own way."

Serving as the presiding officer of the Aldelphic Union meetings and the debates gave him the experience of speaking on his feet for which he later became famous on the lecture tour. Mabie was editor of the Williams Quarterly which gave him an important foundation for his later position as associate editor of the Outlook.

While in college he began to attend meetings of the Mills Theological Society and later became President. Mabie's interest in religious matters and the identification with a religious organization remained with him throughout life.

Later, when Mabie lived in Summit, he became a communicant of Calvary Church. For sixteen years he was a member of the vestry and was a warden for eleven years. Church work lifted him to an influential role not only in his parish but in the Newark Diocese as well. Mabie's spiritual themes were apparent in his many religious editorials, his essays and his lectures.

When he graduated from Williams College in 1867, Mabie followed the footsteps of a large percentage of his graduating class and the watchful guidance of his father who felt that law or the clergy were the preferred ways to earn a living rather than literature. He entered Columbia Law School, took a degree in 1869, was admitted to the bar the same year and began his legal work in New York.

His heart was not in the law, however, although he practiced until 1879. He would later admit that he read more poetry and literature than law during these years. As early as 1869 he became a member of The Fortnightly Club in Tarrytown, New York where he lived. He prepared literary papers that were read and discussed at the meetings.

In 1876 he married Jeannette Trivett. One year later, their first of two daughters was born. His income was small but adequate to raise a family. However, at 32 years of age, Mabie decided that he must now find a new path, one of a literary nature.

While still retaining his law practice, he was introduced, through some New York friends, to the editor of The Christian Union (later The Outlook) who needed someone for editorial work to give the paper literary quality. Thus began a long time association, until his death, bringing fame and fortune. His first full year on the paper was 1880.

Mabie gradually evolved into the literary editor and by 1884 was appointed associate editor. His reputation as a lecturer began to grow at this time.

In the spring of 1887, Mrs. Mabie's health began to decline and her doctor ordered her to go to the Adirondacks where she spent the next one and one half years with their two daughters. When she returned in the fall of 1888 to their home in Greenwich, Connecticut it became prudent, for the sake of her health, that the Mabies move permanently to Summit, New Jersey on the high ground near the Orange Mountains. They moved to a house on the outskirts of Summit in the fall of 1888. The population was 4,000. In 1890 they moved to their newly constructed home at 3 Fernwood Road.

Speaking engagements from around the world were flowing in at this time and were now an important part of his literary profession. An early indication of how Mabie felt about his future service to Summit and the community could be found when he wrote, "There is no community so small that there is not room in it for the spirit and work of large-hearted and large-minded men and women; there is no village, no remote neighborhood which does not cry out for the inspiration and the help of great service."

Although he was on the Board of Trustees of Barnard College and Williams College, a member of The Academy of Arts and Letters, President of the New York Kindergarten Association for 25 years and President of the National Institute of Social Sciences he found time for great service to Summit. He was always known as a working leader and not just a figurehead.

Besides his extremely active role in Calvary Church, it was through his support, initiative, inspiration and the solicitation of funds from friends such as Andrew Carnegie that Summit was able to form its public library, where he was on the Board of Trustees for eighteen years.

Another focal point of Mabie's in Summit was the development of Kent Place School. He was Second President of its Board of Trustees, holding office until his death in 1916, and spoke at most of its commencements.

An honor which he relished on the international front was his appointment as the Exchange Professor to Japan in 1912-1913 under the auspices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace where he delivered lectures on American Ideals, Character and Life. President Taft said of Mabie that "No one could have been selected who was a better embodiment of the spirit of brotherhood."

As an editor, author and lecturer Hamilton Wright Mabie was a true literary essayist whose educational, religious, ethical, economic, political and social themes had a profound impact on his generation and many to come. He wrote twenty-eight books on literary andcultural subjects, and his service to his community, his country, and the promotion of international brotherhood have lived throughout the years.

He died at what is today a relatively young seventy years of age and is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York. In Summit, the Mabie Memorial Playground located between Elm Street and Summit Avenue was dedicated June 15, 1926 and was modernized by the Junior League of Summit in 1997-1998.