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 (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; grading systems 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

2 Responses to Note on the Ante-Bellum College

  1. Daniela Quintanilla says:

    Were students in antebellum colleges still required to serve in the armed forces (ie, War of 1812, Seminole War, Mexican-American War) or were they exempt as students? Was military service or military history offered as an elective after the fixed curricula adapted to include electives? Did classes address such contemporary conflicts as with indigenous populations?

    • Robert McCaughey says:


      Sorry being so long to respond. Nthing like a military draft before WW I except during Civil War in north, when students could (and did() buy themselves a substitute if drafted. Discussions of war and treatment on Indians went on in the ante-bellum literary societies, but likely not in classrooms, where history, political science not part of the curriculum. Some colleges, more in the South, did have “military science” as a kind of extra curricular activity, with marching, camping out and such.

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