Richard Hofstadter, “The Great Retrogression”

Richard_HofstadterRichard Hofstadter (1916-1970)



[From Richard Hoftsdter, “The Age of the College,” in Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger,  The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (1955), 209-222


During the last three or four  decades  of the eighteenth  century  the American colleges had  achieved  a notable  degree  of freedom,  vitality, and public usefulness  and  seemed  to  have  set  their  feet  firmly on  the path to further  progress. The opening decades of the nineteenth century, however, brought a great retrogression in the state of American collegiate education, a decline in freedom and the capacity for growth that  universally afflicted the  newer institutions  and  in all but  a few cases severely damaged the older ones. While advances had been made in curricula and teaching methods from 1730  to about 1800,  the succeeding forty  years, despite much educational unrest and considerable experimentation,  could show only modest improvements  in the  best institutions,  to  be weighed against the inadequate  and unprogressive system of collegiate education that was being fixed upon the country at large.

Perhaps the root cause of the retrogression  was the pervasive national reaction from the Enlightenment.  But one of the primary factors in  the backsliding  of the collegiate system was that  the  sponsors  of collegiate education,  instead  of developing further  the  substantial  and  altogether adequate number of  institutions  that  existed in 1800,  chose
to establish new institutions far  beyond the number  demanded  by the geography of the country. Although it was partly a consequence of the physical growth of the young republic and of its feverish local rivalries, this multiplying and scattering of  colleges was  primarily  the result  of  denominational sponsorship and sectatian competition.  The gains of the colonial colleges had depended in part upon their tendency to break free from the sectarian limitations  that  men like Thomas  Clap  would have imposed upon them and their impulse to move into the mainstream  of intellectual  life. The most advanced educational thinkers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth  centuries  hoped  that  the interdenominational pattern  of the later colleges would presage the development  of larger,  well-financed institutions, basically secular in their mode of operation,  where some advanced studies and allied professional education would be available. Instead,  the intellectual  and  religious reaction  fostered  a host of little institutions in which  doctrinal  and  sectarian  considerations  were  rated  above  educational  accomplishment.  Where  serious  attempts  were made  to  achieve the  university ideal,  notably  in the “state  universities” chartered  in the South,  these  attempts  were defeated  by sectarian  rivalries.  Throughout the country  educators  who had  carried  into the  nineteenth  century the liberal  habits  of  mind  of  the  eighteenth-men like  Samuel  Stanhope Smith at Princeton,  Asa Messer at Brown, and still later, Thomas Cooper at South  Carolina, found themselves  out  of  harmony  with  their  new environment.

From the outset the severely denominational institutions neither aspired to nor pretended  to foster  academic freedom;  and very commonly  -al­though not universally- their teachers lived and worked placidly within this framework.  In  a certain sense the problem of academic freedom as it is understood in the modern university did not yet exist in these colleges, or existed only in a rudimentary form. This fact itself elicits a few further observations.  Perhaps  the most significant is that the general absence of what we consider  academic freedom  was associated  in the old colleges with a lack  of advanced  work,  with certain  severe limitations  upon the colleges’ educational  achievement and their public value. In this chapter we will attempt to show how really advanced university studies failed for a long period to develop in American  education,  and, further,  that this failure occurred  not simply because the old denominational  colleges existed as an alternative  to real universities, but because the same cultural conditions that fostered such colleges operated  to stultify the efforts that were made to achieve all the conditions of true university work, including the necessary condition of freedom. The worst thing that can be said of

the sponsors and promoters  of the old colleges is not that they failed to foster sufficiently free teaching  and  research  in their  own  colleges, but that when others attempted to found freer and more advanced institutions the denominational forces tried to cripple or destroy their work. In the contemporary  American  educational  system  the  great  universities  and leading colleges call the tune, and even the smaller church-related  institu­tions (the  heirs of the old denominational  colleges)  very often share to some degree their ideals of academic freedom. In the denominational era, the small denominational  colleges set the pattern,  and even the would-be sponsors of universities were hamstrung  by that circumstance.

When we speak of American  colleges down to 1780  we are speaking of only nine institutions, which varied in size and fiscal strength but which  had roughly comparable goals. When we look  at  the college system in 1799, we find that sixteen more institutions  had been added. In this period of nineteen years the area of the country had also grown, however, and such regions as the South Atlantic states, the growing areas of Tennessee and upstate New York, hitherto lacking in such educational  centers, had begun to be served. Thus there had been no more than a moderate extension of the earlier system. But when we total the number  of colleges in 1830, we find, counting  only those that  were strong  enough  to survive, that another twenty-four  had  been added;  and  by 1861,  it is clear, the situation had gotten completely out of hand, for there were by then an ad­ditional 133-a total  of  182   permanent   colleges  had  been  founded throughout  the country down to the eve of the Civil War.

This figure itself is enough to give one pause, but it is trifling as compared ­ with the number of colleges founded  in the same period that failed survive. Donald G. Tewksbury has found records of 516 colleges that were established before the Civil War in  sixteen states of the Republic, and of those 104, or only 19 percent, survived! The further one looks into West or South the worse this record becomes. Of 36 colleges founded New York State,  15 survived. In Ohio it was 17 out of 43; in North Carolina, 7 out of 26; in Missouri, 8 out of 85; in Texas, only 2 out of 40. Physically, the great continental settlement of the United States in the pre-Civil War era was carried out over the graves of pioneers; intellectually,  over the bones of dead colleges.                                                                 !

     The experiences and findings of Philip Lindsley, one of the best educators of the first half of the century, illustrate the process of diffusion and fragmentation  that went on in American collegiate education. A graduate of Princeton  (1804), Lindsley had preached for a time and served as tutor, professor, librarian, vice-president, and acting president of his alma mater. After declining several presidencies, he finally yielded to the call from Cumberland  College, soon to be rechartered  as the University  of Nashville. It appears that he accepted chiefly because he was attracted  by educational  needs and opportunities  to be found in the lower Mississippi Valley. He was impressed,  when he first went to Nashville in 1824, by the fact that in the immense valley of the lower Mississippi, which had at least a million inhabitants, there was not a single college. But within less than twenty-five years thereafter he found that thirty small, competing institutions  had been founded  in a radius of 200 miles of Nashville and nine within a radius of 50 miles.  Colleges, he protested

rise up like mushrooms on our luxuriant soil. They are duly lauded
and puffed for a day; and then they sink to be heard of no more. . .
Our people, at first, oppose all distinctions whatever as odious and
aristocratical; and presently, seek with avidity such as remain
accessible. At first they denounce colleges; and then choose to have a
college in every district or county, or for  every sect and party-and to
boast of a college education, and to sport with  high sounding literary
titles-as if these imparted sense or wisdom or knowledge.


Only a few of these denominational schools were equal to good second-rate grammar  schools,  Lindsley  charged,  and  he  scorned  their  “capacious  preparatory  departments  for A, B, C-darians and Hic, Haec, Hoc-ers —  promising to work cheap; and to  finish off and graduate, in double quick time.”   Although Lindsley was able to accomplish a good deal in his years at Nashville, he was perpetually plagued by the competition of these fly- by-night  colleges, as was every educator  in the  newer  regions who tempted to maintain serious educational standards.

This fragmentation of higher education  was devastating in its conse­quences both for the quality of academic work and the position of the professor, but it was an all but inevitable response to the conditions of American life. The area of the Union was, of course, extensive, and travel was uncomfortable  and  costly.  No doubt  a country  such  as the  United States needed a certain geographic dispersion of its colleges and universities. But geography alone hardly accounts for the extreme  diffusion and wastefulness of educational effort in the denominational era. Travel in Europe was difficult in the Middle Ages and early modern times, and yet when men were sufficiently moved by a hunger for knowledge they traveled hundreds of miles to sit at the feet of a great master-often, incidentally, by­ passing a nearer and lesser university-and wandered  from university to university when they thought it would help them. In the American milieu the expense and inconvenience of travel loomed larger in the minds of most parents and students than the quality of the education to be received. Some educators complained bitterly that   Americans  expected to come by their collegiate education far too cheaply. The cost of traveling a considerable distance to college and back was often higher than the tuition fee.  One student who came to Amherst in the 1820s from a distance of 300 miles spent $60 a year in transportation at a time when tuition ran about $25 a year in such colleges and a student could get a year’s board for consider­ ably less than $60.

Other popular attitudes militated against concentrating  the educational effort in a few colleges: there was the notion that it was better for a young man’s morals that he be educated in a country college than reside in the city, and the feeling that the social atmosphere of some of the older colleges and the more recently chartered state “universities” was excessively aristocratic.

     The two factors that  were far more important  than  geography in determining  that American education should be fragmented were denominational sponsorship of colleges and local pride. The multiplicity of colleges a product of the multiplicity of Protestant  sects compounded  by the desire of local bodies, religious or civic, to promote all kinds of
enterprises that gratified local pride or boosted local real-estate values. Counting only those institutions that he classed as permanent, Tewksbury listed 49 insti­tutions founded  under Presbyterian  auspices, 34 founded by the Metho­dists, 25 by the Baptists, 21 by the Congregationalists, 14 by the Roman Catholics, 11 by the Episcopalians,  6 by the Lutherans,  and 20 by miscellaneous sects; there were as well 21 state institutions, 3 semi-state institutions, and 3 municipal ones.

     The denominations  not only desired to educate their ministers locally and inexpensively, but  wished to keep their  co-sectarians  in colleges of their own lest they be lured out of the fold. They entered, accordingly, into an intense rivalry to supply every locality with a cheap and indigenous institution that would make it possible for local boys who desired degrees to get them easily. This denominational fervor was supplemented by civic loyalties, the measure of which can be taken by the pall of gloom that sometimes  spread  over a community  at the  news that  its neighbor was about to become the seat of another country college.

     A fact that  confronts  every student  of American  educational  history is that the American  system of collegiate education  was qualitatively almost as heterogeneous in the first half of the nineteenth century as it is today, and that the name “college” was given to a multitude of institutions ranging from those that respectably  upheld the name of college to some that would not quite honor the title of high school. What was mischievous in all this  was the  competition  that  enabled  the low-grade  institutions, backed by the political strength of denominational sponsors, to offer “college” degrees.

     The great retrogression in education which we are considering did not occur only where this vast proliferation  of third-rate  and fourth-rate colleges was most extreme. It occurred in varying degrees almost universally, although at different times. It tainted the older colleges as well as the new, the East as well as the West and South. It was in good part the outcome of the epidemic of revivals, the rise of fundamentalism,  and the all but un­checked ragings of the denominational  spirit. Along with revival meetings and a growing counterattack against skepticism came a concerted effort on the part of the Protestant churches to expand their influence and tighten  their control over spiritual  and intellectual  life. New colleges were kept under tight supervision; old ones were infused with new piety. Theological seminaries were founded to train  an abler and more combative ministry, and their work was kept free from the corrupting  influences of ordinary undergraduate life. Sunday  schools, Bible societies, and missions were founded, and the influence of piety was brought into the newly settled regions of the West. The barbarism of the age was softened by humanitarian reforms espoused by the pious. Morals, too, were tightened: dancing, horse racing, card  playing,  and  liquor  were  frowned  upon,  and  the  zealous energy of “temperance” was set in motion. Puritan  earthiness and realism gave way to Victorian prudery, as throughout the country the little candles of the Enlightenment  guttered or failed.  Between 1790 and 1830 the intellectual and moral temper of the country was drastically transformed.

     An excellent illustration of the impact of the great retrogression upon enlightened scholarship in an older college is the later career  of Samuel Stanhope Smith at Princeton. A graduate of Witherspoon’s Princeton, the son-in-law and protege of the Scottish educator, Smith tempered his piety with a certain amount of speculative boldness and independence of mind. He had been a tutor and professor in the college, and in 1795, after Witherspoon’s  death, the trustees unanimously elected him to the presidency, an  office whose  duties he  had  in fact  largely  fulfilled for  seven years. An  outstanding  personality,  Smith  had  formulated  educational  policies that, as Professor Wertenbaker  remarks, were far ahead of his time. Had he been given the same magisterial powers that the trustees had allowed his father-in-law, the progress Princeton  had long been making might well have gone on. But the tide of trustee sentiment had turned and Smith was treated  in a way that would have been unthinkable  had he been Witherspoon. Not only did the trustees turn  a deaf ear to most of Smith’s proposals for improvement, but they began to assert their own powers of government obtrusively and in small matters as well as large. They had grown increasingly concerned with sectarian considerations, particularly with the fight  against  Episcopalianism.   Some  of  the  more  eager  watchdogs of orthodoxy among them became far more interested in establishing a
Presbyterian theological seminary than in maintaining the college, which they anticipated  could not be linked in harmony  with the seminary and might actually be a rival.  A few of the trustees, notably Ashbel Green, became impatient to get rid of the ill and aging president. Green,  who was head pastor  at  the Second  Presbyterian  Church  in  Philadelphia,  a figure of much influence in church politics and a leader in the movement for establishing the seminary, took the initiative in undermining Smith’s authority. He set a tutor and some of the divinity students to informing on him, and the word was spread  about that the President  of Princeton  had endorsed polygamy, recommended  Arminian  essays, expressed doubts  about the efficacy of baptism, and inspired among the divinity students an open denial of the doctrine of total depravity.

In spite of such molestations, Smith did manage to improve scientific instruction and restore the college after the disastrous fire that destroyed the college hall in 1802. But the usual differences with trustees over student discipline and the decline in enrollment  finally led to drastic  faculty  retrenchment; and at the dawn of the second decade of the century Princeton stood about where it had been thirty years before. The resources  of the Presbyterian church  were thrown  behind the  newly founded  theological seminary at  Princeton,   whose  clerical  trustees  soon  began  to  domi­nate the college. In 1812 the trustees, by suggesting that a vice-president was needed to run the  college, succeeded in provoking  Smith’s  resigna­tion; they replaced  him with Ashbel Green,  who was far  less equipped than he to solve Princeton’s  problems in the new milieu. The college continued to decline under Green and his successor,  and might have had to close its doors altogether  had it not been rescued  by some of its alumni during the 1830s. Thus the institution that had flourished under Wither­ spoon’s direction during the full tide of the Enlightenment  was nearly de­stroyed in the ebb of the great retrogression.

     The early history  of Dickinson  College,  another  Presbyterian  institu­tion, founded in 1783  at Carlisle,  indicates  that  any  attempt  to repeat Princeton’s fortunate   experience   with  Witherspoon   was  likely  to  be doomed. Benjamin Rush and the other early trustees made such an attempt when  they  brought  to  Carlisle  the  Reverend  Charles  Nisbet,  another learned  Scot from  whom they  had  no  doubt  similar expectations.  Both Nisbet and the trustees  were bitterly  disappointed.  Some of the  reasons were purely personal, but the breach caused by the president’s dislocation and his shock at first seeing an American  college was made  hopelessly wide by the continued  interference  of the trustees in Dickinson’s  affairs. Rush,  who had  plenty of excellent ideas that  he was in no wise ready to  try  to  put into  practice-among them the  belief in  a great  measure of  faculty government -was no less ready than  some of the less celebrated trustees to condemn Nisbet; and it was long before the institution achieved any significance. One  of the  most  remarkable  episodes in the history  of higher  education  occurred  at Dickinson in the  years 1799-1801  when, after the students’  demand  that  the entire college course be completed  in one  year  had  been  denied  by the  president,  the  trustees reversed his decision and permitted  the travesty. Maladministration by the  trustees  continued  at  Dickinson  for  many  years.  As late  as 1815 the  entire  faculty  resigned in  protest,  and  the  college was temporarily  closed.

      While it was being demonstrated  in the opening decades of the nineteenth  century  that  the  Princeton  tradition  could  neither  be  sustained in New Jersey nor  reproduced  in Pennsylvania,  the rest of the colonial colleges were for the most part  marking time or actually losing ground. The  exceptions  were  Yale,  which  was  laying  the  foundations  of   its scientific  eminence   under  presidents  Dwight  and  Day,  and  Harvard, which was beginning to  achieve the  literary  stature  which was so long to be the source of its reputation.  William and Mary,  which had never recovered  from  the  removal of the  capital from  Williamsburg, was hit again  by  the  creation  of  the  University  of  Virginia,  and  sank to the level of the small country colleges. The University of Pennsylvania, never altogether  prosperous,   went  through  her  lowest  ebb  during  the years from 1791  to 1828,  when the obtrusions  of the trustees  upon all facets of college life reached a point that “would have been incredible except  for the testimony of the written  records.”   Until the 1820s  Pennsylvania’s graduating classes remained pitifully small. Columbia College was described  by  its  trustees,  in  a  petition  to  the  New  York  legislature  in 1814,  as  “an   Object  of  Curiosity  and  Remark   to  Strangers  … a Spectacle mortifying  to its friends,  humiliating  to  the  City,  and  calculated to inspire  opinions  which it is impossible  your  enlightened  body wish to countenance.”    It was only in the 1840s  that  it ceased to present this pathetic aspect, and only in the post-Civil War period  that  the effects of the trustee  changes of the late 1850s  were sufficiently felt to lay the  groundwork  of its  modern  distinction  in  American  education. Rutgers carried  on in the state  of half -existence that  had  characterized it almost from the beginning. In 1816  it was for the second time closed for lack of funds,  and it did not reopen  for  nine years.  Brown  under the presidency  of Asa  Messer, who  served  from  1802  to  1826,  fared better than  most of its sisters,  but  even  there  the  president  eventually ran into trouble with the trustees for his Unitarian  opinions; after several years of harassment  by his  religious opponents  in  the  community  and the Corporation,  he resigned.

     At Dartmouth,  the last of the colonial colleges, there  began a quarrel that was destined  to have an important  effect on  the  history  of higher education in the United States. The school had been founded and maintained during its earliest days by the immense exertions  of Eleazar Wheelock, and  its presidency  had  been  bequeathed  by him to  his son John. This singular  dynastic  procedure  had  aroused  little  comment  or objection,  and  for  some  years  the  Wheelock  autocracy  continued   unmolested by the  by the  trustees  or  the  community  precisely  because  the  college itself was an institution  of such little significance that  no one  who lacked the personal stake of the Wheelocks cared to contend for it. But by 1814 Dartmouth had become a thriving country college with a faculty of three professors and two tutors, a well-regarded little medical department, and students drawn from all the states of new England. Toward the  closing years  of  John  Wheelock’s  administration   began  a  quarrel whose  central  issue  was whether  the  college was to  remain  under  the control  of the Wheelock  dynasty or to  be governed by its trustees.  Al­though  there  seem  to  have  been  no  serious  theological  or  political differences between  Wheelock  and  the  trustees,  the  conflict took  on a political  character  because  the  president’s   cause  was  opportunely  es­poused by the local Democratic politicians while the Federalists  generally stood by the trustees.   In 1816,  the Democrats,  who had captured the  the legislature,  passed  a law modifying the  Dartmouth charter  and changing the institution  from a college to a “university.” The college trustees refused  to  accept  the  change,  and  for  more  than  a year  both  the old college and the  new university  functioned  side by side in Hanover  until the propriety of the legislation was finally passed upon by the SupremeCourt  in  the  famous  Dartmouth College  Case.  The  Court,  of course, decided in favor of the college, and the  university was disbanded. This decision, which occupies  a celebrated  place in the history of American constitutional  law  for  its  sweeping  protection  to  corporations  and encouragement  to  corporate  business,  was  of  comparable  importance in the history  of American  higher education;  it offered to the founders of private colleges the assurance that once they had obtained a charter from a state legislature they were secure in the future control of the institution.

Athough  the  proliferation  of small  colleges was already  well underway in 1819,  the  Dartmouth College  decision provided  a secure legal  base  for  the  host  of  private  and  denominational   colleges that  were about to emerge.

      As the  American  educational  system expanded  throughout  the West and South,  the most pervasive influence upon  its character  was the de­ nominational  affiliations of the small colleges and the struggle of these in· stitutions  and the churches  that  supported  them  against the larger non· sectarian  or  intersectarian   “universities”   or  colleges  that  occasionally appeared.   This  struggle  took  on  a  somewhat  different  aspect in the Southern  states,  especially  those  of  the  seaboard,   than  it  did  in  the West. In  the South  several  state  universities  were  chartered  at  a  time when the liberal  thought  of the Enlightenment  was still widely current, especially among planter  and merchant  aristocrats,  and when denominational  colleges had  not  yet  taken  a  foothold.  There  the  story, as we shall later  show, is one of persistent  struggles  between  sectarian forces and  the emerging  church  colleges  on  one  side  and  the  educationally  more ambitious  state institutions  on the other.  In  the West the denominational  colleges,  except,  notably,  in  Michigan,  generally  took root quickly and were often established by the time the state universities were chartered;  and  here  the  principal  type  of  institution  before  the Civil War  was  represented  by  such  private  colleges  as  Illinois,  Kenyon, Antioch,   Knox,  Beloit,  Denison,  Shurtleff,  De  Pauw,   Wabash, and Lawrence.  The  dominant  educational  influences  were those  of the Presbyterians and Congregationalists,  who, despite  gestures  toward  union, did not  always get along too well. Western  educators  carried  with them preconceptions  derived from such eastern  schools as Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth,   Union,  Amherst,   and  Williams.  Many  of  them  also brought the Puritan  temper  which in the pre-Civil War period  so often found its  expression  in  reform  agitations.  Thus,  while  sectarian  controversies and  repressions  were by no  means  absent  from  the  Western colleges,  some  of  the  most  interesting  academic  controversies  arose out of abolitionism. The implications  of these will be treated  later.  But first it  is necessary  to look  at the  old college as a whole  and  attempt to understand  some of the internal  institutional  factors bearing upon intellectual freedom.


2 Responses to Richard Hofstadter, “The Great Retrogression”

  1. Richard Leong says:

    I’m curious about why students went to college in the retrogressive years described by Hofstadter. It seems that denominational differences, and a sense of local pride caused the explosion of colleges, but what about the students who went to these colleges? 

    On our first day of class we discussed the various reasons students might go to college, such as intellectual curiosity or preparation for the job force. I’m interested in how that differed during this time.

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