|Chapter 1 The Background|
THE General Assembly of Pennsylvania, on September 9, 1783, enacted a charter for Dickinson College. Six days later the trustees named therein organized in Philadelphia, at the home of John Dickinson, then President of the Supreme Executive Council of the state. Seven months later college work began in Carlisle. The college charter was thus granted seven years after the Declaration of Independence, nine months after the signing of the preliminary articles of peace with Great Britain, three days after the signing of the final treaty, four months before the ratification and proclamation of the treaty by the United States, and eight months before the formal exchange of ratification of that treaty.
Whether Dickinson was the last colonial college to be established, or the first college of the new nation, depends upon the answer to the question "When did colonial life cease and national life begin?" Whatever be the answer to this question, it is certain that high courage was required to take the action that resulted.
There was neither strong central government nor stable currency, and business and industry were prostrate. Good judgment, even ordinary prudence, might have suggested delay in the founding of a college whose support at best could be but meager. On the other hand, as stated in the charter, there was special need to instil "virtuous principle and liberal knowledge ... into the minds of the rising generation," and there was felt the challenging obligation to do so out of gratitude for the peace it had "pleased Almighty God to restore to the United States of America." Most important, however, was the fact that there were men for this emer-
gency, men brave enough to meet the obligation they felt to promote Christian education. These men, despite conditions which might have discouraged those of less courage, proceeded to erect a college on the scanty educational foundations already existing in Carlisle.
In the old Cumberland County court-house is recorded a patent or deed from the Penns, the Pennsylvania Proprietaries, to nine Carlisle patentees for land to be used for the erection of a grammar school. This document foreshadowed Dickinson College. The property thus ceded became the site, and the building erected thereon was the college home for more than twenty years. The nine men who received this grant, and others of like purpose, made possible the grammar school and the subsequent college. Seven of these patentees became trustees of Dickinson.
These nine patentees were picked men of the remarkable community of Carlisle, then numbering between 500 and 1,000 inhabitants. Carlisle had become the county-seat of Cumberland County in 1751, one year after the erection of the county to include all of Pennsylvania west of the Susquehanna, except York County, which then embraced the territory of the later Adams County. The agents of the Penns were deliberately trying to make homogeneous communities, and to this end were turning German settlers toward York County and the Scotch-Irish into the Cumberland Valley. Thus Carlisle became the focus of the Scotch-Irish population of central Pennsylvania, as it was by law their civil center.
The county-seat for these Scotch-Irish had previously been in distant Lancaster, and easier access to courts was a great convenience to them. However, the home-feeling growing out of their more intimate association with those of their own race probably meant even more to them than easier access to the courts. To this Scotch-Irish center came some of the influential men of the state, who later became eminent in the nation also. There were many unusual men in Carlisle. Two of the nine grammar school patentees be-
came generals and two were colonels in the War of Independence, soon to follow. One also was a member of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, 1775-1776; another signed the Declaration of Independence, was an outstanding member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and was a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States by appointment of George Washington. Cumberland County had a Committee of Correspondence to secure unity of action in the colonies against British aggression, and five of its nine members were of the grammar school group, as were all three of the county deputies to the Provincial Convention of July, 1774, to prepare for the Congress of September following.
James Wilson was the best educated of these men, and also the most distinguished in his career. Of Scotch birth, and educated in Glasgow, he came to this country in 1766. After studying law in Philadelphia with John Dickinson, he came to Carlisle about 1768, and five years later became one of the grammar school patentees. In 1774 he was a member of the Provincial Convention; two years later, as a member of Congress, he signed the Declaration of Independence; in 1782 he was again in Congress; and in 1787 he was a member of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. McMaster's History says of his service in that body, "Of the fifty-five delegates he was, undoubtedly, the best prepared by deep and systematic study of the history and science of government for the work that lay before him." He was a member of the convention's Committee of Detail, to which its actions were referred for formulation , and lately discovered manuscripts show that the first two drafts of the Constitution were in Wilson's handwriting. His was probably the directing mind of the Committee. As has been noted, he was one of Washington's first appointees to the Supreme Court. He died while holding district court in North Carolina in 1798. In 1906, at national expense and with distinguished honors, his remains were brought from North Carolina and interred at Christ Church in Philadelphia, where he had lived after leaving Carlisle in 1778
General William Irvine, another patentee, was born in Ireland in 1741, educated in Dublin University, and studied medicine. For a short time he was a surgeon in the British navy, but came to America in 1763 and settled in Carlisle the following year. He practiced his profession for ten years, and thereafter almost continuously served the state and nation. A member of the Provincial Convention in 1774, he was also twice a member of Congress. In 1776 he was appointed colonel in the Revolutionary Army, and three years later became a brigadier general. He was commander of Pennsylvania's troops to quell the Whisky Rebellion in 1794. In 1801 he became superintendent of military stores in Philadelphia, where he died in 1804.
General John Armstrong, also a patentee, was born in Ireland about 172o, and about 1748 came to Carlisle, which he is supposed to have laid out in 1751. Here he lived till his death in 1793. He was appointed captain in January and colonel in May, 1756, of the provincial troops west of the Susquehanna., and when Indian depredations on the western frontier became intolerable after Braddock's defeat, he led a punitive expedition of 280 men from Carlisle to punish the Indians. Marching his command hundreds of miles through the forests, he surprised the Indians, destroying their settlement at Kittanning. Their spirit thus broken, their forays ceased. Because of this service, he was the recipient of "thanks, medal and plate from Philadelphia," and Armstrong County was later named for him, with its county-seat at Kittanning, the site of his exploit. Two years later, in 1758, as senior officer of the Pennsylvania troops, he raised the British flag over Fort Duquesne when, by its capture, the French lost their last post in Pennsylvania. For thirteen years he presided over the county courts till the outbreak of the Revolution. Then entering the army, he served a short time in South Carolina. Returning, he acted as major general at the battles of the Brandywine and Germantown. Sensitive to slights, real or imagined, he resigned from the Regular Army, but later commanded militia in the service.
He was highly honored in Carlisle, and in later life was affectionately called "'the Old General."
Robert Magaw, of Irish birth, was a prominent lawyer of Carlisle prior to the Revolution. He was a member of the Provincial Convention in 1774 and of the Legislature in 1781. In 1775 he left Carlisle as major in its first regiment, and in January, 1776, became colonel. On Washington's withdrawal from New York in 1776, Magaw was left with nearly 3,000 men to defend Fort Washington, near Harlem. The Fort was captured by overwhelming British forces, and Magaw was held as prisoner of war for four years, after which he lived in Carlisle till his death in 1790.
Colonel John Montgomery, though uneducated in the schools, was one of Carlisle's most interesting and forceful characters. There is no record of such outstanding and commanding service as that of his associates, notably Wilson and Armstrong, but nearly the whole of his more than fifty years of life in Carlisle was full of public services of various kinds. He was justice of the peace, burgess, and associate judge of the local courts. The port of Boston was closed by the British on June 1, 1774, and Massachusetts appealed to the other colonies for a Congress to consider the matter. On July 12 a mass meeting was held in Carlisle to protest against British aggression. Montgomery presided over this meeting, which appointed delegates to a Provincial Convention to concert measures preparatory to a general Congress. He served in broader fields, however. He was a member of Pennsylvania's Committee of Safety, 1775-1776, including twenty-five men from different parts of the Province, in charge of all the military affairs of the Province. Congress named him one of the commissioners to treat with the Indians at Fort Pitt in July, 1776. During this year he was colonel of a regiment from Cumberland County and of a battalion of Associators in the Jersey campaign of 1777. He was also a member of the Continental Congress in 1782-1783.
There were other outstanding men in Carlisle at the time, one of whom must be named, especially as he became an early
trustee of the College. Ephraim Blaine, an ancestor of the eminent James G. Blaine, of Maine, was born in Carlisle in 1741, an outstanding man in many ways. He was colonel in the Revolutionary Army, but was early assigned to the department of army supplies, and in 1778 became commissary general of the northern department. His energy, wealth, and extensive credit did much to keep the army from the absolute want which would have caused the collapse of the patriot cause. The scope of his services was indicated by the fact that in 1780 the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania drew a single warrant in his favor for one million dollars, to cover advances made by him and others. Blaine was the host of President Washington for his stay in Carlisle in 1794, during the Whisky Rebellion.
Such were the men who fostered the educational ferment in Carlisle. They seem to have opened the Grammar School at once in 1773 on the grant of the site. The school was so prosperous that in October, 1781, approach was made to the Donegal Presbytery, meeting in Carlisle, for its support in the enlargement of the school to the rank of an academy. The record says: "A number of Gentlemen, viz., Col. John Montgomery, Robert Miller, Samuel Postlewaite, Doctor Samuel McCoskry, William Blair and others, who have the oversight of a Grammar School in this town ... represent their desire that the Presbytery would take the said school under their care.... They further represent that it is their design to enlarge the plan thereof and to apply for a legal charter for it as an Academy under proper regulations.... The Presbytery heartily approve of the proceedings and laud the intentions of the gentlemen and agree to countenance the school as far as they can, to appoint a committee twice in the year to examine, to concur with them in every proper measure to advance the same to the most useful and respectful condition."
The academy never came into being. The movement under the influence of a single individual was turned toward a college, whether wisely or not was questionable for many years.