|Chapter 3 Organization of the College|
THE college charter of September 9, 1783, directed the trustees to "meet at the city of Philadelphia on the third Monday in September instant," and accordingly ten of them came together at the Dickinson home in Philadelphia on Monday, September 15. The chartering Act of Assembly was first read. The two justices of the peace, required by the charter, appeared, and before them the ten trustees present subscribed to the required oath or affirmation, in which are many interesting evidences of the troubled times which seemed to make them necessary. The oath follows:
We, the Trustees of Dickinson College, in the State of Pennsylvania, having severally sworn or affirmed that we will be true and faithful to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and that we will not directly or indirectly do any act or thing prejudicial or injurious to the constitution or government thereof as established by the Convention, and that the State of Pennsylvania is and of right ought to be a free, sovereign and independent State and that we do forever renounce and refuse all allegiance, subjection and obedience to the King or Crown of Great Britain and that we never have since the Declaration of Independence directly or indirectly aided, assisted, abetted, or in any way countenanced the King of Great Britain, his generals, fleets, armies or their adherents in their claim upon these United States and that we have ever since the Declaration of Independence thereof demeaned ourselves as faithful citizens and subjects of this or some one of the United States and that we will at all times maintain and support the freedom and sovereignty and independence thereof, do agreeably to the direction of the act of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, entitled "an Act for the Establishment of a College in the Borough of Carlisle in the County of Cumberland in the State of Pennsylvania," hereunto respectively subscribe our names.
The chief business of this first meeting, after taking the oath, was the choice of a president of the Board by ballot. John Dickinson received nine of the ten votes, and James Ewing one. Ewing was Vice-President of the Supreme Executive Council, of which Dickinson was President, and
received the latter's vote. The Board then "Adjourned to meet on Thursday next at six o'clock in the evening at Dr. Rush's house on Second Street." A third meeting was held September 19, "at the State House ... at 5 o'clock." These two later meetings perfected forms for subscriptions, and "Dr. Rush was requested to prepare the books ... and to transmit them with a letter from the President of the Board to the Trustees in each county ... requesting a report ... at Carlisle in April next." General Armstrong and John Montgomery were requested "to engage one of the ministers of the Gospel who is a member of the Board of Trustees to prepare a sermon and prayer to be delivered on the 6th of April, 1784, at the first meeting of the trustees in the borough of Carlisle, in order that the day may be observed with a religious solemnity suitable to the occasion." They then adjourned "to meet in the Court House in Carlisle on Tuesday the 6th of April, 1784.
The trustees named in the charter had thus organized and held three meetings within the week, attended by those trustees who chanced to be in Philadelphia at the time enough for the bare quorum of nine required by the charter at the second, and with ten at the first and third meetings, including eleven individual trustees in all. Henry Hill, one of the five Philadelphia trustees, was present at these meetings, but never met with them afterward, though his interest continued. William Bingham was in Europe when the meetings were held in Philadelphia, and never met with the Board. James Wilson, of Philadelphia, was not present at these first meetings, and though he showed his interest at various times, he never attended a Board meeting. John Dickinson was present at these three meetings in the city and at the first meeting in Carlisle, April, 1784, but never again met with them. Benjamin Rush was present at these three meetings, and at the first and third meetings in Carlisle in April, 1784, and August, 1785. This ended his attendance, but certainly not his interest and service.
When travel conditions of the time are considered, this
failure of even deeply interested trustees to attend meetings of the Board is not surprising. Even "turnpikes" were unknown; the first in the state, from Lancaster to Philadelphia, was opened in 1790, "the wonder of the world," as one enthusiast said. Carlisle is 120 miles from Philadelphia, and it took at least two days of hard travel to barely cover the distance, exhausting even for those of rugged physique, wherefore three or four days were usually taken for the trip. Men of indifferent health, as were both Dickinson and Rush, found serious difficulty in attending. Rush wrote on one occasion that the roads were unfit for a carriage, and he was unfit to stand the trip on horseback. He adds that his diet must be milk and vegetables, which he would be unable to get at the inns on the way. On account of the easy-going business methods of the time, the actual meetings were likely to occupy several days, so that eight or even ten days might be required for men coming from Philadelphia. The result was bad for the College, and Principal Nisbet early complained that the trustees of vision could not attend meetings. Consequently, though there were forty trustees, the College was really managed by the few in and near Carlisle.
The College thus legally organized, the dream of "Bingham's Porch" was one step nearer realization. George R. Crooks, in his centennial oration of 1883, said "To Doctor Rush of all founders belongs the honored name of father of Dickinson College." Dr. Crooks had rediscovered after a century what was quite clear to those who organized the College. Ten days after the charter was granted, September 19, John King, one of the trustees, wrote Rush on the "Happy success of your endeavors yours, I may indeed say." And so it was.
Rush, however, had only begun his service to the College. Most of the other trustees turned to their own affairs after these first three meetings, forgetful that everything was yet to be done; and the few who gave the matter any thought depended largely upon Rush for counsel and even direction.
This was fortunate, for he alone had the needed vision, driving force, and persistence. His attention by correspondence seems to have been constant. Eleven of his letters of this period to Montgomery are on file; and he wrote at least six letters to other trustees, as is shown in the nine responses preserved.
Rush wrote Montgomery eight days after the third meeting: "I cannot wait on the Messrs. Penn without you. They only wait to be asked for a lot of 15 or 20 acres for our college.... I am afraid you are growing careless of the child you have helped to bring into the world." Montgomery replies at once, "I was anxious for our child while in embryo, but since it has come forth and has got such a numerous tribe of godfathers, many of whom ... are fond of it, and although I still love the brat ... at present I cannot give it much attention.... We should not apply to the Messrs. Penn before the election, and when we do, it ought to be as private as possible." As Montgomery was seeking reëlection to Congress, and the pre-Revolutionary claim of the Penns to unsettled land in Pennsylvania was a live issue, it seemed to him to be good political strategy to see the Penns after the election. It did not secure his election, however, for he was accused of being too considerate of the Penn claims.
Again Rush writes Montgomery about getting subscriptions, urging him to help him with them in Philadelphia. He says "Certificates are falling. Now is our time to push subscriptions in Philadelphia. Come to town about Christmas when good eating and drinking open the heart." [This from the ardent temperance man!] In February he announces that the Minister of France had given $200, and that he expected their funds to be £10,000 in a few months. Blessed optimist! He never lived to see the College in possession of so much, but he labored to bring it to pass; and his high hopes were keeping other trustees in good spirits.
Rush's prospect for £10,000, so steadily held out, had its effect on most of the country trustees, with whom money was scarce, though, as shown by their cautious statements,
little could be expected from the country people. William Linn, pastor of the Big Spring [Newville] Church, afterwards pastor in New York City, and first chaplain to Congress in 1789, wrote Rush:
This morning (March 6, 1784) I received in your letter dated January 15th the extraordinary and flattering intelligence of the success of the subscriptions for the College. Much less than the prospect of £10,000 in Pennsylvania alone should have made us persevere, but who after this may not hope that a very few years shall see Dickinson College in a state of eminence and reputation, especially if we are so happy as to secure Dr. Nesbit for a principal? [He used Rush's mistaken spelling for the name, and probably knew of Nisbet only from Rush.].... No money is to be expected from this part of the world except from a few individuals... By reason of taxes and other debts many of them can little more than subsist. Some years hence, however, they can and will contribute something. [People had little money; one man contributed a ton of iron, later sold for $36.].... I fear you will find bad roads in the beginning of April. Mr. Black has been appointed by Mr. Montgomery to prepare a sermon suitable to the occasion.
Rush knew that the College needed money and helpful friends, but he knew also that plans must be made for its organization in a country with no standards for colleges. He knew, too, that its great need was the right man at its head, one who would command the respect of the public and secure, by his name and fame, a supporting constituency. He seems to have turned at once to Charles Nisbet, of Scotland, as the man; there is no evidence that he ever thought of anybody else as first Principal of the College.
There is, however, an interesting statement in a memoir of William Hazlitt, the critic and historian. It says that the father of Hazlitt, also named William, a Presbyterian clergyman, was in America 1783-1787, and visited Carlisle, where the diary of his daughter said "he spent some time and might have been settled, with £3oo a year and a prospect of being president of a college that was erecting if he would have subscribed the confession of faith which the Orthodox insisted on; but he told them he would sooner die in a ditch than submit to human authority in matters of religion." It
is possible that he was approached concerning the vacant pastorate of the Presbyterian Church by members of that church, who were also trustees of the College, and they may have suggested the principalship of the College also as a possibility.
Shortly after the granting of the charter, Rush wrote Dr. Nisbet on the subject of the principalship. He wrote to various trustees, also, suggesting him for the place, and was soon able to make favorable report on this correspondence. Just a month after the charter had been granted [October 9] Rush wrote Montgomery, "I have written Messrs. King, Black and William Linn in Favor of Dr. Nisbet as our president." Black replies on January 1, 1784: "I am happy to find that a correspondence is open between you and Dr. Nisbet.... From such a heterogeneous composition as the body of our trustees ... there will be a variety of sentiment ... on the choice of the Principal. Therefore, some of us should come to an agreement by our spring meeting.... I know that prejudice of mankind in favor of that which comes from abroad. I should on that very account prefer a foreigner." Eleven days later King writes Rush, "Colonel [Montgomery] mentioned that you have a high opinion of Dr. Nisbet of Scotland as very proper to be Principal.... Most of us must be guided by those who are better informed." In February, 1784, Rush writes Montgomery, "I find Dr. Nisbet has many friends in our Board.... The President, Mr. Wilson, Col. McPherson and Mr. McClay," were "all in favor of him [Nisbet]." Apparently, the trustees were ready to follow any reasonable suggestion he might make.
Most of the trustees named in the charter seemed willing to follow Rush, but General Armstrong was of another type. Rush probably knew that he was a doubtful element in the Board, even though Montgomery had assured him that he was altogether changed after he had been put on the Board. Whether Rush knew it or not, difficulties soon developed in the correspondence. He wrote Armstrong on November 7,
and Armstrong's reply on January 6 showed that he had a different but really constructive policy to offer: "A prolific imagination may too often flatter a wise man into error.... You will admit the reasonableness and expedience of the design to be matter of distinct consideration and that in the course of human affairs many common as well as more elevated efforts readily miscarry, or at least lose their lustre, by being unseasonably introduced. Those propositions applied to the object in view hang heavy on my mind, lest at this feeble and embarrassed hour our resources and funds should prove greatly inadequate to the real use and reputation of a new college." He then proposes the following plan: "That moderate academies with not less than two professors in each be erected in every of our back counties, these tutors to be well appointed and the schools inspected, from whence a certain number could yet repair to the colleges that do exist.... In the exercise of this mode of education for a few years we should be more equal to the expense of the institution ... and better know where to erect a college, for even the local situation is not so obvious as could be wished, unless another is designed in the west."
There now seems much prophetic wisdom in the doughty old soldier's suggestions. The first fifty years of its history one could hardly call it life show no great need for the College, while its poverty fully justified Armstrong's fear that the "resources and funds should prove greatly inadequate." The suggestion, too, that "the local situation is not so obvious as could be wished, unless another is designed in the west," was fully justified by the early organization of a college in the west to meet the needs of the growing population beyond the Alleghanies. In his next letter, he calls himself an old man, but he was justifying the adage, "an old man for counsel."
Rush replied February 22, but what he wrote may be only surmised from Armstrong's prompt answer six days later. Rush evidently tried to remove the doubts of Armstrong on the ground of "resources and funds"; and to this
end apparently the large subscriptions received or expected were called into action. The possibility of getting Dr. Nisbet was advanced and the opportunity for active usefulness the College would open to Armstrong was stressed. Armstrong's answer to Rush follows almost in full, because it has bearing on college issues and also gives some of a wise old man's views of old age.
I am at once pleased and surprised at the success you speak of ... for your first meeting.... Such a man [as Dr. Nisbet] would indeed be an acquisition to the church in this county as well as to the proposed institution.... But, dear sir, you are exceedingly out at this time of the day in your expectation from my assistance respecting the College; only consider what a low ebb my activity is reduced even in the yet necessary affairs of life, to which you may add what experience has too often bought, that when a man becomes old, inactive and out of employ, he is easily forgot and the attention even of his friends becomes cursory and superficial. At the period nothing but a large estate can give influence in such business as you have in view that I have not. Indeed, Sir, I have an interesting race to run with the world every day (however little I move abroad) not in collecting it in the pecuniary sense nor in counting its smiles in any sense, but to take my leave of it with as much facility, as of late it appears to do of me. I have not, however, obstinately determined to refuse the honor of a seat in your Board, but be that matter finally as it may, you must not, on reflection you will not, call it desertion.
Armstrong was yet in doubt as to whether he would accept his appointment as trustee. As late as March 25, less than two weeks before the first Carlisle Board meeting, Montgomery writes Rush that Linn, McPherson, Smith, Magaw, McCoskry and himself had taken the required oath and qualified as trustees, but Armstrong had declined. He delayed till the day of the meeting, April 6, when, with several others from a distance, he took the oath.
Rush was thus directing the thought of some of the trustees. He was doing his best to secure the hearty cooperation of the doubtful Armstrong, and was trying to add to the funds of the College. At the same time he was planning to organize the best possible College. He writes Montgomery, "I am preparing some thoughts to lay before the
Board ... upon the spirit of education proper for the College in a Republican State"; and later, "I have at last finished my essay on the mode of education proper in a republic, which I shall request the liberty of laying before the trustees of our College. It has cost me a great amount of severe study." There is no definite evidence that he laid this paper before the trustees. At any rate, he was greatly pleased with the meeting. The paper he had prepared appears as the second essay in his volume of "Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical."
Rush was practically alone in active prosecution of the interests of the College during these early months of its charter life. Even Dickinson, whose name the College bears, appears to have taken only a passive interest apart from his "very liberal donation" cited in the charter. What this donation was will probably never be known, other than the inclusion of "a manor" in York County, and two in Cumberland County one of them incumbered with a mortgage and given on condition that an annuity be paid Mrs. Nisbet. Dickinson gave also a number of books, estimated as high as 1,500, some of which are yet in the college library, with the quaint bookplate of Isaac Norris, father of Mrs. Dickinson. Apart from these books, Dickinson's gifts out of his wealth were probably equaled by the gifts of Rush out of his poverty or his very moderate means.
The first Carlisle meeting of the Board of Trustees, held pursuant to adjournment, April 6, 1784, adopted the plans Rush had been maturing. There were present John Dickinson, John Armstrong, John Montgomery, Thomas Hartley, Robert Magaw, James Jacks, Stephen Duncan, Robert Cooper, John King, Alexander Dobbin, John Black, John Linn, William Linn, Benjamin Rush and Samuel McCoskry. Only fifteen of the forty trustees named in the charter appeared at this first and most important meeting in Carlisle; yet this was probably the largest meeting any one of them would ever attend. Nine of them were from Cumberland County, three from York, one from Lancaster
and two from Philadelphia. Already the Board had become local; nine of the fifteen were from Cumberland County. It was Dickinson's last meeting and Rush's last but one.
The fifteen thus met "went in procession to the Episcopal Church, where a sermon was delivered by the Rev. John Black, suitable to the occasion." They afterward met at Col. Montgomery's, and those not before qualified having taken the oath required by the charter of the College then adjourned to the court-house. Being met at 5 o'clock P.M., "His Excellency, the President," addressed the Board, as here probably first printed:
Gentlemen: At any time it would afford me a very great pleasure to find myself in the company I now have the honor of meeting. That satisfaction is more enlivened when I consider the occasion that has brought us together and the qualifications of the persons now in my view for performing the trust they are undertaking.
We are assembled to begin the execution of a plan originating from such pure intentions and directed by such worthy purposes that I humbly hope we may without presumption believe the oblation of our endeavors will not be unacceptable before the best and greatest of Beings. May His Goodness deign to bless the exertions of us and our successors, so that all their effects may be agreeable to His will. Certain I am that you will cheerfully assent to this inestimable truth that no human pursuits deserve regard but what will ultimately refer to that sealing approbation.
Those who have been principally concerned in setting forward this constitution have been excited to the design by several considerations which shall be mentioned. Other motives indeed have been imputed to them, but through mistake.
In the first place, they found their minds impressed with a warm sense of gratitude to the Supreme Governor of the universe for the many signal mercies manifested to the people of this land through the late arduous conflict and in its conclusion. Secondly, they judged they could not better employ the beginning of the peace so graciously bestowed than by forming an establishment for advancing the interests of religion, virtue, freedom and literature. Thirdly, they thought that they could not confer a greater benefit upon their country than by promoting the good education of others. Fourthly, they were of the opinion that the particular difficulties and discouragements with respect to such education which the western part of this State labored under, called in a powerful manner for their attention. Lastly, affectionate and favorable sentiments with the sanction of a wise and patriotic Assembly produced that organization which the
It would little become me in this audience and after the excellent discourse which we have this day heard to employ many words in recommending the advantages of good education. You, Gentlemen, are acquainted with them and estimate them at their high and just value. As you are sensible of their importance to the character of the man, the citizen and the Christian, I am sure your hearts will be ardently engaged in generous attempts to diffuse their salutary influences as extensively as possible. Nor can it be reasonably apprehended that your diligence and perseverance will not be properly aided by your fellow citizens.
When the inhabitants of this and neighboring counties observe your faithful labors for communicating to their youth the treasures of science collected by the wise and good of all ages and names, what father can be so cruel as not to strive that his children may partake of the distribution. Miserably will he deceive himself by supposing that any inheritance he can bequeath is to be compared with a well cultivated mind. It is betraying posterity to leave them wealth without teaching them how to use it and thus too frequently all the cares and toils of a parent's life prove to be utterly thrown away by his neglecting the great article of instruction.
Your efforts, Gentlemen, will be directed to prevent these and the innumerable mischiefs, public as well as private, that spring from defective education. My best wishes will constantly attend your laudable exertions and I shall be happy at all times and in any capacity to give you every assistance in my power.
The Board requested the President and Dr. Rush to prepare a seal with proper device and motto. Two days later they reported as follows:
Size of seal the seal to be of silver about 1½ inches in breadth and ¼ of an inch in thickness.
Device A Bible open, a telescope and a cap of liberty over each other.
Motto Pietate et doctrina tuta libertas (under the device).
Around the circumference Sigillum Collegii Dickinsonii.
That "the President has provided a seal agreeable to the description in the minutes" is recorded in the trustee minutes of September 28, 1784.
On the following day, April 7, the Committee on Subscriptions reported that "the funds appeared to be £257, 15s. cash, £1381, 17s., 6p. in certificates, £1200 in land, and that so much of this is immediately productive as will raise about £130¹ per annum."
¹ The pound when not given specifically as the pound sterling of $4.86, is the Pennsylvania pound of $2. 66 2/3
It was ordered that all land contributed be sold as soon as possible, and that the proceeds be invested in bank shares. Committees were appointed to solicit subscriptions in various sections; to prepare a petition to the General Assembly for endowment, as well as an address to the Lutherans to secure their coöperation; to negotiate for the purchase of "the public works¹ erected near the Borough of Carlisle and the necessary land adjacent for the use and accomodation of the College." The petitions for aid to the Assembly and to the Lutherans apparently had little result. The Assembly made no grant at this time, and the Lutherans replied in courteous terms that "a committee of two had been appointed to attend to the matter." But that ended it!
The important business of this first Carlisle meeting was the choice of a Principal of the College and the first Professor of the College. Mr. James Ross, already in charge of the Grammar School., was at once elected Professor of Languages. He appeared before the Board and qualified by taking the required oath. "The Rev. Dr. Charles Nisbet of Montrose, Scotland, was unanimously elected Principal of Dickinson College," and it was
Resolved, That £250 sterling or the value thereof in Pennsylvania money be the annual salary allowed to Dr. Nisbet, if he accept the place of Principal of Dickinson College, that his salary commence on the day of his embarkation, that he have a house for the accomodation of himself and family, and that a bill of £50 sterling be immediately transmitted to him to assist in defraying the expense of his passage to this country.
Resolved, That the President be requested to transmit a copy of the above minute with the bill of exchange and a letter of invitation to Dr. Nisbet by the first convenient opportunity, as also that Mr. Hill be requested to furnish the President with said bill of exchange.
Adjournment to September 29, 1784, then followed.
¹ The "public works" used by the colonies for military purposes have had a long list of names: Washingtonburg, one of the early places named for the General; the Public Works, the Works, the Barracks, the Indian School, the United States Government Hospital; and now, in 1933, the United States Field Medical Training School.