V: THE OLD-TIME COLLEGE
THE GREAT RETROGRESSION
[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.