|Chapter 16 John McKnight 1815-1816.
The College Hibernates
WITH but one exception [in 1788] the college classes had graduated in September, and the vacations of the year were the months of May and October. Atwater left at the close of the college year, in September, 1815. The College should have formally closed when he left. There were no resources for meeting its expenses. The endowment had disappeared four years before, and students had dwindled to a handful of 27 after the graduation of the class in 1815.
The lack of harmony in the College, in the Board of Trustees, in the Faculty, and between trustees and Faculty everywhere, in fact, where lack of harmony could exist had done its work. There appeared no hope for the future, and closing the College was the only reasonable thing to do, yet there was not enough harmony in the Board for them to agree even to this. If they were to continue the College the only reasonable course was for them to do something heroic, something quite different from anything they had ever done. They should have secured a strong man to win victory in the face of present defeat, and should have given him full support in every way.
Nothing of the sort seems to have been thought of. On the contrary, they elected John McKnight as Principal. He was born in 1754, graduated from Princeton in 1773, and had received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Yale in 1799. After some years in the pastorate he had retired to his farm because of poor health. This man of little vigor they set to cope with a situation much worse than those which had been too difficult for strong men to master. To make a bad matter worse, after they had elected such a man for almost certain failure, they themselves discredited him. With Pecksniffian care for the reputation of the College, they refused him the title of Principal. He was allowed to sign the diplomas of the six graduates of his one class as Acting Principal only. He seems to have had but little support in faculty assistance. Only Owen Nulty of the old Faculty remained, as teacher of mathematics; and there is no account of the election of anybody to fill up the depleted Faculty. The books of the Treasurer, however, show that Jno. McClure was paid for teaching languages from November, 1815, to May, 1816, and that Gerard E. Stack was paid for like services from July to October, 1816. These are the only notes on McKnight's Faculty.
It is difficult to write of these trustees' conduct without saying things hardly fit for print. Their financial conduct of the time, previously detailed, would further justify almost anything one might say of them. McKnight, of course, could not succeed. The College was dead, but was not aware of it. He spent a year in preparation for the obsequies, and in 1816, at the close of that year, its death was conceded, and the funeral followed.
There was no sign of resurrection for nearly four years, until, on May 23, 1820, on request of the trustees, the Burgess of Carlisle then announced in the local Republican that a public meeting would be held in the court-house to consider college conditions. The Republican supported the call in a long and labored editorial. The meeting was held on May 26, and was presided over by Dr. G. D. Foulke, the
Burgess. He presented the case from the standpoint of the town, and Andrew Carothers spoke for the College. Suitable resolutions were adopted and committees were appointed to canvass the community for funds.
The newspaper report of the proceedings shows that they were all aware of the real troubles of the College, and knew that internal dissension was at their root. The Republican said: "It is said that a house divided against itself must fall. How long, we pray you, can a town stand, should its inhabitants be prevented by ridiculous suspicions, imaginary jealousies, political dissensions, or any divisions whatsoever, from uniting as a band of brothers in encouraging so important an undertaking as the present and in whose success, one and all have the same common interest."
There is also reference to lack of control of students under old conditions, and the fear that Harrisburg might improve the opportunity to get the College. Quoting:
The resuscitation of the institution on a new and improved system of discipline in college, accompanied with the adoption and enforcement of some strict regulations for the government and conduct of the students out of it, more rigid than those heretofore practised, will, when the College arrives at that degree of eminence, to which it may justly aspire under the fostering protection of the people and legislature, tend more to promote the growth and prosperity of the town, than all the advantages which might arise from having the seat of government. Harrisburg already enjoys all the benefits of the latter, and we should not be surprised if that town, always attentive to its interest, would avail itself of the downfall of the College at Carlisle, and establish on its ruins, a SEMINARY AT THE SEAT OF GOVERNMENT. Such an event would rob our little town of the only hope of giving it celebrity abroad, as a "seat" of learning, and deprive the inhabitants forever of all the benefits which they may justly expect to derive from a flourishing institution within its bounds; an institution which has already cost them so much money, and so much anxiety and pains to found and endow.
The resolutions of the town meeting referred to the college building as "the venerable pile," and to the College as "this ancient institution." The one was "venerable" with its fifteen years, the other was "ancient" with its thirty-six
years. Very young things could then be ancient and venerable; the country was young.
The committees appointed at this meeting secured subscriptions for $3,000, to be paid in five annual installments; and there are indications that about $2,000 of this was paid.
Probably encouraged by these signs of the purpose of the community to do something for itself, on February 14, 1821, the Legislature of the state made an immediate grant to the College of $6,000 for debts and repairs, and $2,000 annually for five years.
The grants from the state, supplemented by the results of the popular subscription, encouraged the Board to reopen the College, and they began to seek a suitable principal. A committee on the subject suggested as their first choice John M. Mason, of New York, with two others in reserve. The Board, however, first chose the other two in succession Dr. Wilson of Philadelphia, and J. B. Hogue of Martinsburg. Both of them declined; the Board then elected Mason, and he accepted.