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In November, 1826, there came the greatest honour of his life, his election to the Lord Rectorship of Glasgow University, a sunburst of popular favour on the part of the students. In April, 1827, he delivered his inaugural address, which was by some regarded as superior to those of Lord Jeffrey, Sir James Macintosh and Lord Brougham, who had preceded him, and to those of Cockburn, Lord Stanley and Peel, who followed him in the office. We cannot say this, but it must be admitted that, in the “Inaugural Addresses by Lord Rectors” (published by David Robertson), it certainly shows to great advantage: “If but to revisit these courts and to look from the windows of this hall suffice to make the surrounding objects teem, to me, with the recollection of ancient friendships and of early associates, how much more deeply must I be touch to find myself surrounded by the countenances of a young and rising generation, by whose favour I have been invited to the spot of my birth, and to this, our venerated University.” Many passages were worthy of remembrance. “Of all the dangers to which the juvenile student is exposed, I hold those of over-confidence and temerity to be incomparably smaller than those of doubt and distrust.” How true is this! The young never know what is in them and are too readily discouraged.
This on the study of knowledge and the advantages of varied studies: “I cannot believe that any strong mind weakens its strength in any one branch of learning by diverting into cognate studies. On the contrary, I believe that it will return home to the main object, bringing back illustrative treasures from all its excursions into collateral pursuits. A single study is apt to tinge the spirit with a single colour, whilst expansive knowledge irradiates it from many studies with the many coloured hues of thought, till they kindle by their assemblage and blend and melt into the white light of inspiration. Newton made history and astronomy illustrate each other, and Richter and Dalton brought mathematics to bear upon chemistry, till science may now be said to weigh at once an atom and a planet.”
Some of his predecessors had spoken of the evils of intolerance to religion, more common in that day than ours. These are his words on the subject: “The first gold medal which I propose is for the best English essay on the evils of intolerance towards those who differ from us in religion. I use this circuitous phrase from disliking to couple the epithet ‘religious’ with that spirit of intolerance, which, reversing the sublime aim of all religion, bows down the mind from its celestial aspiration to the anxieties of this world, like the Indian tree, which, after bearing its head loftily in the sky, turns down again its branches from the sunshine of heaven to be blended and buried in the dirt of earth.”
In the November following he was re-elected unanimously, and on the occasion 1,400 students crowded the street where he lodged. It was in Great Clyde Street, facing the river, and Campbell in eloquent rapture was exclaiming, “Sooner will this stream cease to flow into the sea than I will forget the honour you have done me,’ when a country woman, happening to pass, and thinking he was bereft of his senses, cried out, “Puir man! can his freends no’ tak’ better care o’ him?” In November, 1828, he was re-elected a third time, an honour of which no instance had occurred for a century.
In 1830 he resigned the editorship of the New Monthly, and some time after took part in the Metropolitan, which did not succeed. His wife died at this time, after a period