Note on the Ante-Bellum College

Note on The Ante-Bellum College (to 1860):

Colonial (9) and Early Republic (200 or so more)

The local members of a particular denominational branch of Christian Protestantism
Congregationalists – Harvard; Dartmouth
Presbyterians – Yale, Princeton, Dickinson
Anglicans – William and Mary; Columbia; Penn
Baptists – Brown; Colgate; Rochester
Methodists – Randolph-Macon; Wesleyan

Mostly private (all but 20 or so); operated under state-provided charter;
Self-perpetuating board of trustees – community/denominational leaders/earliest ones sometimes with public officials/all external ànot faculty


Declining likelihood of earlier provincial/state subsidies  (Harvard/Yale/Columbia)
Some denominational support  — financial aid via American Education Society
Some benefactions at older schools
Mostly tuition-dependent; mostly financially strained
Yale OK with tuition and gifts; Harvard by 1840s; CC in 1850s on Manhattan rentals

Disperse throughout the settled parts of the country – followed the settlement line
Most located in small country towns; outside of urban areas (CC, Penn, Brown exceptions)

Largest couple ante-bellum colleges well under 500 students; median more likely 70-80 students;
2 or 3 faculty; largest colleges with 3 or 4 buildings; most with just one (as CC until 1857)
CC with 10-125 students and 5 faculty through most of early 19th-centrury

President and Faculty
President sometimes drawn from faculty; as often brought in from the denominational community
Faculty as college graduates drawn from earlier professional starts  (clergy/law/medicine/school mastering);   a few immigrants (Scottish/English);
Performed as generalists, expected to be teaching all parts of the curriculum;
Faculty stayed with a given class throughout the school day and for three years

4-year curriculum
Most  courses taught required by all students – and in a fixed/prescribed sequence (few/ no “electives”
Focused on instruction in Greek and Latin; perhaps half the entire curriculum
some mathematics and some science (astronomy/geology; later, chemistry and physics)
some moral philosophy for seniors (often taught by the president)

15-16 years old on entry; some private preparation to pass admissions examination
Organized into classes of 25-30 students per section
CC with one section per class year; the larger Yale and Harvard with three or four

Classroom Format
Students move from class to class en masse;
Recitation questioning by instructor based on assigned reading of the evening before;
Responses acceptable or not; quantitative grading systems typically not in place

Popularity/Public Standing
Relatively little incentive for ambitious young men of the ante-bellum era to commit
themselves to 4 years of college unless planning on professional career
Medical and legal licensing did not require college or professional training
Astor/Vanderbilt/Carnegie/Rockefeller/Edison fortunes all accumulated by non-collegians
Faculty by no means monopolizing /synonymous with the intellectual/literary  community

Last updated: January 22, 2014


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