Chapter Six - Nisbet in Limbo and Among the Blest
Previous Section ] Table of Contents ] Index ] Next Section ]


FOR fifty years after the enactment of its charter, Dickinson College was, substantially, a state-supported institution. From the very first, Dr. Rush had counted upon public money, while planning to begin operations and to expand them by private benefactions. He and others expected an era of prosperity to follow the war, a mood of national optimism grievously disappointed. Grievously disappointing too was Nisbet, who attracted students but not gifts. Yet Rush, while he had done his project great harm by involving it in ridiculous controversy, had also made himself a leading spokesman for republican education, that patriotic hope so enduring and so dear to every loyal citizen. His essays on the subject, read everywhere and greatly admired, served to stimulate and direct an acknowledged obligation to the future. Direct church support was not asked, nor given. Nonetheless, this was a Presbyterian college, and he had wisely urged Presbyterians—so long a political power—to think less of capturing offices and more of education. Granted that a majority of his Board of Trustees attended its meetings rarely or not at all, yet they had been selected as men of influence over a state-wide regional pattern, and they valued the distinction. The state responded early to the needs of Dickinson College, first with sporadic grants, then regular income, then income with the first elements of public control.



In its opening "Whereas," the Act for the Present Relief and Future Endowment of Dickinson College, passed on April 7, 1786, quoted in full that clause in the constitution of 1776 enjoining that "all useful learning shall be duly encouraged."1  It was a duty which later state constitutions would reaffirm. The provision for an endowment had been withdrawn from the act of incorporation, September 9, 1783, but only with the intention of applying for one later. Now, on the eve of Nisbet's reelection, this maneuver was justified to the tune of £500 ($1,333.33) and ten thousand acres of land (then valued at about 20¢ per acre). The grant, furthermore, gave substance to a viewpoint long to be cherished by Dickinson's trustees, that by enacting its charter the state had assumed a measure of responsibility for the solvency and continuing operation of the College.

Four years later, this beginning was followed by an act authorizing a lottery which was to raise $8,000 toward the building of Philadelphia's city hall on Independence Square and $2,000 "for the use of Dickinson College."2 Boldly, the trustees purchased fifty of the $4 tickets, investing what was then a quite substantial sum in their hope of gaining, perhaps, the $3,000 top prize.3 This brought them only a loss of $140, a warning not to accept implicitly Dr. Rush's confidence in the "peculiar care of heaven."4 Even before the drawing, they were voting to petition the state for "some further assistance," and this was received by an act of September 20, 1791: $4,000, to be applied to faculty salaries and other needs.5 Thus heartened, and eagerly anticipating further legislative aid, they appointed a committee at their next meeting to examine the charter for amendments "proper [to be] made by the Assembly."6 In 1794 an act authorizing a lottery to raise $7,500 "for erecting a suitable College-House"7 failed to pass, but in the next year $2,000 was granted outright for the payment of debts, with $3,000 to be invested for permanent income.8 With the "College-House" their main objective, the trustees set up a legislative lobby, September 28, 1797, of their three most influential members, Dr. Rush, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Thomas Smith and General William Irvine.9 When the building, completed by prolonged and varied effort, burned down on the



eve of occupancy in 1803, the assemblymen responded as promptly as private donors were doing, and voted $6,000 to replace it.10 Three years later, with the new building "nearly finished," they passed a supplement authorizing $4,000, "to be applied to the purchase of suitable books and philosophical apparatus."11  Both sums were loans, free of interest for two years, and secured by the lands granted in 1786. Both sums were to come from the arrears of state taxes owed by Cumberland County, so that the trustees by no means received prompt relief. The trustees on their part never paid any interest, and the mortgage was cancelled in 181912—a merciful and reasonable measure, as the College had been closed since 1816 for lack of funds.

That gesture of 1819 encouraged a local movement to re-open, underway in 1820. By an act of February 20, 1821, the state assigned $6,000 to clear the institution of debt and repair its building, taking in return full title to the College lands.13 In addition—and as a first step toward that state endowment expected by Rush—$2,000 was to be paid each January 1 for the next five years, without condition, for the "support of the institution." This was continued in the act of February 13, 1826, establishing an annual subsidy of $3,000 under closer state supervision and control.14

Of the two universities and fourteen colleges chartered by the legislature in this half century, the lion's share of state aid went to the college at Carlisle.15  In all, Dickinson received $56,193.33, almost a quarter of the total. It was an experience significant in the development of public higher education. The grant of 1795 had carried a condition that the sum provided for endowment be used for the education of not more than ten boys in the three R's, for two-year periods—standing as a somewhat indirect support of higher education. State aid and the hope of it tended to keep tuition fees low. The fees alone never met expenses. There was always an annual deficit, and the appeals for private gifts were increasingly in competition with those of other institutions. In its act of 1826, the state at last sought to secure fundamental premises of public education. One clause repealed the charter's provision that every clerical member of the Board of Trustees should be succeeded by another of



the same profession. Only one-third of the membership could be clergymen. At each payment of the annual subsidy, the Board was required to report in detail upon operations of the year before. This was a not unreasonable provision, considering what had happened to previous state aid. It was unfortunate, however, that the reports must be made not to a knowledgeable education department, but to active partisan politicians, whom the trustees, on their part, tended to cajole and extol as if they were individual donors.16

The famous Dartmouth College case, 1815 to 1819, establishing a college charter as a contract with the state, not to be altered except by mutual consent, had stimulated college founding and discouraged state support of private institutions. In Pennsylvania, however, the Dickinson trustees were ready to agree to anything, and were approaching the point at which they would willingly hand over the whole operation to others. The state officials on their part were coming to realize—and in the end would clearly see—that appropriations had been far in excess of benefits derived, and that the long-envisioned state system could only succeed as a full and coherent public responsibility.

That was a responsibility for which the voters at large were not yet ready. Later, it would be remembered with delight how Governor George Wolf's old father, back in 1785, had been asked to contribute to one of the new academies and had replied darkly, "Dis ettication und dings make rascals." Reminded that his own son, with such an advantage, might become governor he had only extended the doubt: "Vell den, . . . ven my George is Gofernor it vill be queer times."17 Queer times there would be indeed in George's tenure, 1829 to 1835.

So much for Dickinson's early days as a state college. Look now at the strange patterns of internal conflict in the midst of which—somehow—this success with the political system had been achieved. The perennial aims and conflicts of a college community can be seen on this early campus, bare and raw. Here are trustees following their narrow path of ideal, compromise and expediency ("expedient," the most frequently recurrent word in Dickinson's and other minutes of the time).



The need for money is always on their side of the balance, while the value of the degree is on the faculty's. Here we have Principal Nisbet, who put the academic standard above all else and saw it as the true key to financial stability, and Vice-Principal Davidson, with that warm spirit of accommodation.

A spirit of accommodation was a necessity in almost all business dealings in the America of this day. Nisbet was outraged by the late and partial payments of his salary. But his salary from the Church and Davidson's church and college salaries all were in arrears, and professors elsewhere suffered the same.18 Money was short, and credit must needs be long. So also with subscriptions from private donors to the College. Speculation was rife. Dr. Rush, as College money came his way, was tucking it hopefully into the state certificates based on soldiers' pay, an investment related to the great land speculations which would reach their peak in the 1790's. That land fever undoubtedly did influence Philadelphia and Baltimore donors, as it had John Armstrong and Robert Morris, though Morris's $1,000 subscription may never have been paid. A college in the west would bring settlement, development, rising values. Publicity was essential to spur the thing along, and Rush, who had done so much to damage the good name of his "brat," was keenly promoting it. Davidson gained a warm accolade for his Baltimore visits and collections, 1785 — "Show me a man that loves and serves our College, and he is my brother"—and he may have written the publicity which ran in Philadelphia newspapers and magazines through the winter of 1786-87.19

This statement, drawn up "By Order of the Board" and printed over the signature of John Armstrong, President pro tem, seems reasonably factual. The College building (which Nisbet did not hesitate to describe as a "hogpen") is precisely pictured as sixty feet by twenty-three, with three rooms for classes and a fourth, still unfinished, for the Library (2706 volumes in "Greek, Latin, English, French, German, Low Dutch and Italian ") and the philosophical apparatus ("a complete Electrical machine, a Camera Obscura of a new construction, a Prism, a Telescope, a Solar Microscope, a Barometer and Thermometer upon one Scale, and a large and elegant set of GLOBES"). In this milieu, "The Senior Class, consisting of



twenty students, are studying Natural and Moral Philosophy, having already studied the Classics and Mathematics, and other Branches usually taught in other Colleges."

Compare this, however, to some excerpts from the Principal's report to the trustees, drawn up at about the same time, November 13, 1786:

The mean Appearance, the small Dimensions, & dirty Entries to the Building proposed, but not yet prepared, for the Accommodation of Students, must create a considerable Prejudice against this College in the Eye of the Public, who are commonly led by Appearance . . . .

If one Master continues to have the Care of Forty, or a greater Number, entering at different times, the utmost Capacity, Care & Vigilance on his part can not enable the Boys to make that Progress which their Parents will naturally expect, and which is attained in other Seminaries by the help of more Masters & better Accommodation.

If the Trustees expect that this Seminary should thrive, or increase, the Grammar School must be separated from it, & put under the Care of a proper Master, under the Inspection of the Professor of Languages, that the Noise of the inferior Classes may not distract the Attention, & hinder the Progress of those that are farther advanced, and able to read the Greek & Latin Classic Authors.

Besides those that belong to the Grammar School, only twenty attend the Professor of Mathematics, and have begun the Study of Natural Philosophy.

The same twenty attend the Professor of Geography, Chronology & History, as much as their Attendance on the other Classes will permit, & have lately begun the Study of Logic & Mataphysics as a Preparation for that of Moral Philosophy.

The Students are generally in great Want of Books, as none fit for their Use are sold here, and to commission them from distant places is impracticable & precarious. This Want must be supplied, either by commissioning a proper Assortment, or engaging some Person who is willing to take the Risk of their Sale.

The Library, which might already be of some Use to the Students, is shut up & rendered useless, no Keeper being appointed to take Care of the Books, or to take Receipts for Books borrowed out of it, and of late a Communication has been opened, that admits the Boys to go in and out of it when they please, so that the Books are in danger of being totally spoil'd or lost.


He adds a suggestion that College administration by regular Board meetings is not efficient:

Besides their stated meetings, it might be proper for the Trustees to appoint a small Executive Committee of their Number, residing in or near this Town, fully empowered & enabled to make due Payments at stated Times, to give necessary Orders, & transact incident Business in sudden Emergencies.20

It should be noted that in the press release the twenty select students are a "Senior Class," while in the report they are given no such designation. They are Seniors by trustee fiat alone. Here, as at other new colleges, trustees ("the trusties," as Colonel Montgomery invariably and engagingly spells it) had been pressing the faculty to have a commencement—a formal culmination and exhibition of young talent which was sure to be echoed widely in the papers and (so they believed) to attract new students in greater numbers than the departing group. Here, as in most American colleges, there were two month-long vacations, in May and October (planting and harvest), with commencements most often, appropriately, in September. In their impatience to make progress, the trustees resolved on November 16, 1786, "that a number of the students in the Philosophical Class [i.e., those studying for a degree] be separated according to the Judgment of the faculty in order to be prepared for a Commencement against the second Wednesday in May next & that a public examination of the said Class be held on the second Wednesday of April." However, on April 10, the day before the examination, Nisbet and Davidson reported the impossibility of awarding any degrees after less than a year of college classes.21 Davidson would certainly have managed the thing, but Nisbet was obdurate, and remained so, in his contempt for trustees who would graduate students by a mandamus based only on their own sense of expediency.

Yet he held them off for only four months. On Wednesday, September 26, 1787, the first commencement of Dickinson College was held. Nine young men, rather than the "Senior Class" of twenty, delivered their orations and received their honors before the rustle of ladies and gentlemen sitting it out in the



Presbyterian Church. The affair lasted all day, with morning and afternoon sessions. The salutatory was in Latin, on the "Advantages of Learning." Orations in English extolled the "Excellency of Moral Science," "Taste," the "Greek and Latin Classics," on the "advantages of Concord especially at the present crisis of the United States of America" (surely an allusion to the Constitutional Convention which had been meeting in Philadelphia all that summer) and more. Steel Semple, a grandson of old John Steel, spoke on the Nature of Civil Liberty and the Evils of Slavery and Despotic Power. Robert Duncan, who had done so well in that poetic dialogue between Philemon and Eugenius, August, 1785, delivered the valedictory, pouring libations upon "Science," and on "the worthy patrons of literature" seated there beside him.22

Within this conventional framework, however, the first commencement held rumblings of disaster. Few of the worthy patrons of literature had taken the trouble to come. Only the familiar—to Dr. Nisbet too familiar—trustee faces were there, and in his commencement address he drew the students' attention to the fact:

Your further progress in learning, and especially your good behavior, may recommend this infant seminary, now abandoned by the far greater part of its pretended friends and those who made the greatest noise about its establishment. Though greatly deficient in funds, payments and accommodations, it may yet flourish, if it abounded in students.23

Next day, the trustees would be buzzing like hornets over this, writing to Rush, discussing "a process in the nature of a summons" which would force their absent colleagues to appear or face removal.24

But there was more. Dr. Nisbet told the commencement throng that he had no further hope of state aid, and enlarged upon this in a personal vein, saying that he and his family had been "made the song of the drunkards, and the mob of the Capital of this State were entertained with feigned stories of our behavior, and our pretended enmity for a country for which we had long suffered persecution . . . . When I forget thee, O America, for whom I have already suffered so much, may my tongue



cleave to the roof of my mouth and my right hand forget its office! "

Yet he would continue, he told them, to champion its learning and culture. Himself reared "in the most learned nation of Europe," he knew how it had risen to that stature from a beginning not unlike that of America, and in America he stood prepared to shine a guiding light. But to the few listening trustees no gleam appeared. To them, Rush's repeated "All will end well" had become an ironic jest. To Rush, John King was writing, November 5:

The College is becoming a painful business. Instead of having our hopes realized, our fears are more & more increased. I see certain ruin before us—we are sinking every year, and must fall ere long. The gentleman on whom we depended so much, is accumulating debt upon us by so high a salary—we cannot possibly support him. It is said he supports himself with the hope of recovering off our private fortunes. No subscriptions can be collected. All is darkness—& if it should yet end well, it will be strange indeed.25

Look now for a moment at this campus in its setting of local, national, world events. The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in that summer of the first commencement. Dr. Rush's Address to the People of the United States urging a "Federal University" had been favorably discussed. The proposal was omitted only in a belief that no constitutional authorization was needed.26 That winter, Carlisle's respectable minority planned to celebrate Pennsylvania's ratification with salutes of cannon in the public square. Rioters spiked their gun and hanged James Wilson and Chief Justice McKean in effigy.27 Frontiersmen had little regard for the new national order and, more, looked darkly upon the College as a cradle for Federalist tyrants of the future.28 Nevertheless, a new state constitution followed in 1790, including those conservative provisions for which Rush and Wilson had fought so long. The University, too, was returned to its original foundation, though the hated Ewing remained as Provost.

All this while, to the west, Indians were on the warpath again, and troops were mustering at Carlisle. Harmar's campaign of 1790 was a failure, and St. Clair's of 1791 a disaster of blood



and horror. Nisbet had seen enough to express highly uncomplimentary opinions of both general officers, and to predict what occurred. The prospect of transforming the Works into a campus vanished, and in 1793 the trustees moved their Principal to a house in town. He now averred that the change in his residence, made "under Colour of Friendship," had been delayed from spring to fall "in a hope that the foul air of the Marsh might have an opportunity of working its proper Effects on us."29 He seems to have guessed what had long lain in the mind of Benjamin Rush, "that God will change his heart or take him from us."30

Not so. The Almighty Disposer of Events kept Charles Nisbet in his place, meeting his classes day by day, watching Carlisle and the world afar from under angry brows. News of France in turmoil brought him obsessive apprehensions of reechoing revolution, the rise of satanic powers. The French declared themselves a republic in the fall of 1792, their victorious armies on the march, and the brooding Principal could hear the bells of Carlisle ringing in jubilant response.31 Carlisle, neglectful of its college, raised money and a cargo of flour for France. George Kline of the Gazette reprinted Paine's Rights of Man. Vice-Principal Davidson, readily identifying France's humbled prelacy with the Beast of the Book of Revelations, shared his parishoners' joy.32

In August, 1794, Wayne's victory over the Indians at Fallen Timbers on the Maumee relieved Dr. Nisbet's anxiety for his daughter, who had been living with her husband near the Ohio line. Yet all that summer the whole country from Cumberland to the west was in a ferment of insurrection against the whisky tax. Carlisle's "whisky or Liberty Pole" stood, gaunt and idolatrous, on the public square. A caustic sermon brought upon Nisbet imminent danger of tarring and feathering.33 Then, like an avenging host to his rescue, came the massive federal army. Soldiers and rebels rubbed elbows in the crowded village. For two weeks, Washington was the guest of his friend John Armstrong in Carlisle. He sat in the Presbyterian Church with the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey at his side and heard the Blessed Peacemaker preach on "order and good government, and the excellency of that of the United States."34 It was well



received by all, but Dr. Nisbet's homily in the afternoon, on the "Guilt of Rebellion," nearly provoked a riot.35

Spring came, with federal power vindicated and secure. The paved turnpike from Philadelphia to Lancaster had just been completed, stimulating like improvements elsewhere and lessening the provincial remoteness of Carlisle, as in mid-twentieth century the completion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike would do. A move was afoot to bring the state capital from Philadelphia to Lancaster, with Carlislers pressing for a location still farther west.36 The Presbyterian General Assembly met at Carlisle in this spring of 1795, with John McKnight presiding. It had met here three years before, on each occasion the College shining brightly in a piously convivial setting.37 Yet this period shows a weakening of the church relationship. At trustees' meetings the legal, medical and businessmen were taking over from the once-dominant clergy. This changed Board would succeed in the long-sought goal of constructing a new building, but first must deal with a new and formidable crisis, long in the making—student power.

It was not, alas, student pressure for a curriculum such as Benjamin Rush desired, more relevant to American life, but for that other object of student partiality, the quick and easy degree. It culminated in what has been called "one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of higher education"—the Dickinson College student strike of 1798.38 The boys knew that without their presence, and tuition fees, the institution would collapse. Trustee and faculty discord must also have encouraged their own partisanship. One can trace the origins of the trouble back to the commencement of 1792, when thirty-three young men had been graduated—not by class standing or examination, but by selection and vote of the Board. This apparently prosperous commencement was then played up fulsomely in the press. Nisbet was furious. He tried to entice a friend in Philadelphia into publishing a correction.

We had so many Students at our late Commencement, that we are much at a loss for Recruits. Our Trustees gave a great many Degrees by Mandamus, to whom they chose, but concealed this Circumstance in the Account they gave in the Papers, to throw the whole Infamy of the thing on the Masters .... They never deign to talk with me of

Business. How miserable it is to be subject to the meanest of Men! The Insolence of Office is more discernible here than in Great Britain. Could you venture to cancel this in Mr. Dunlap's Paper by a Note . . . ?39

For the next two years the Board kept no minutes, Davidson apparently managing affairs by occasional consultation with trustees as he found them in town. When they finally met, April 16, 1794, General Irvine had succeeded Armstrong as President pro tem, and their minutes foreshadow the crisis to come. The students were in rebellion against prelection.

It has been represented to the Board that the Institution is likely to suffer very much by the Complaints of many of the Students who have had their Education here on account of the Labor of writing so great a number of Lectures on the various branches of Literature, that the Dread of this Circumstance has deterred many Young Men from coming to this place, and occasioned their going to other Colleges for compleating their Education, and that an ungenerous use has been made of the Copies of these Lectures in some Instances, which have been communicated to others to be written out under the care of private teachers so [as] to obviate the necessity of attending any public seminary.

Five charter trustees were present then—King, Black, Dobbin, Samuel Waugh, John Linn—with two newly-elected colleagues, Robert Cathcart and Nathaniel Randolph Snowden. All were Presbyterian ministers. General Irvine had brought his friend, Johnston, late of the faculty. Dr. McCoskry and lawyers John Creigh and Samuel Laird were there. These gentlemen met the crisis very much as administrators of a century or more later might have done. They held a conference with the faculty, urging that the students' burden be lightened "without abridging the Plan of Education, or the Time of Attendance in College," and appointed a committee to review and regularize the situation. The committee reported a year later, May 26, 1795, with a code of laws, duly adopted, printed and distributed, the first of a long series of published Rules and Regulations. Prelection ends. There are no more volumes of student notes on Nisbet lectures. The tacit yielding on this is balanced by stated requirements. Before the May and September vacations every student



must stand examination before the faculty (as always, viva voce), and professors were permitted to examine classes quarterly if deemed proper. The largest emphasis, of course, is on discipline, though the roster of offenses and prohibitions, when compared for instance to that at Yale, shows either less inclination to mischief or, more probably, a greater indulgence. For the rest, students were to be admitted only after examination by the faculty, and none would graduate "untill the Faculty shall certify that he hath made sufficient progress in the course of his Studies, and shall have paid all Demands due to the Institution. "40 There had been some laxity, as this last implies, in collecting tuitions.

Irvine stepped down as President pro tem of the Board in 1795, and old John Montgomery, staunch champion of School and College through so many years, took the chair. Also made Treasurer two years later, he would be, till his death in 1808, the dominant figure in Dickinson affairs. Here the Board is changing. The meetings of 1796 had only two clerics faithful in attendance, John Linn and Samuel Waugh. With them were Dr. McCoskry, Dr. James Armstrong, son of the General, businessman Charles McClure, Michael Ege the ironmaster, and then the gentlemen of the law, Creigh, Laird, Thomas Duncan and James Hamilton. Judge Hamilton since his election in 1794 had been typical of the new trustee spirit. He, as Dr. Nisbet saw it, "torments us with Meetings, Prospects of Innovations, Speeches & Examinations, & other mechanical Modes of Education."41

Linn and Waugh brought in a "Regulation of Classes" in 1796—an attempt again to form three clearly-defined classes above the Grammar School with specified studies for each.42 It was discussed with the faculty, and Dr. Nisbet had an opportunity to speak again on the effect of students being awarded degrees without full and well-founded faculty approval.

Appeals to the legislature continued. Tuition was raised from £5 to £6. These practical men were themselves coming to that sense of desperation which the clerics had felt. Sixteen resolutions passed on June 21, 1797 reflect "this period so alarming to the interests & existence of the College." They are a mélange of good intentions thrown in from around the table, focused on that hope of legislative aid. An annual library budget



is here, and a determination yet to achieve that goal set at the first meetings of 1783, "a proper edifice." Most significant of all, there is a warm appeal to the faculty for cooperation, and especially to Nisbet, not as a money-raiser (they had given up all thought of that), but for his advice to them and his greater intervention in the conducting of classes and examinations. Here was a vindication of the Principal's view at last, a brief moment in which one can imagine the unschooled old Indian fighter and the "walking library" from "the most learned nation of Europe," advancing together.

In Dr. Nisbet's report to the Board meeting of June 20, 1798, we have a glimpse of the student body whose predecessors had rebelled against prelection and among whom trouble was brewing and soon to break out again:

This Seminary now consists of Seventy Six Students, a greater Number than it has had at any time hitherto . . . . 

The Philosophy Class [i.e. degree candidates] at present contains Twenty Seven Students, of whom four & twenty have attended the other Classes, & the Lectures on Criticism, Logic & Metaphysics. The remaining three have been permitted to join the Class at the Beginning of the Lectures on Moral Philosophy, but cannot expect to receive a Degree at next Commencement, as they have neither attended the other Classes, nor the former Lectures delivered in the Philosophy Class.

A few Students decline entering on the Study of Languages & Philosophy & apply themselves only to Mathematics & Geography, an Account of whom will be given by the Masters whom they attend.

Some Students are negligent in their Attendance on the public Lessons, & take the Liberty of absenting themselves when they please, for which some silly excuse is never wanting. On Monday last five were absent from the Philosophy Class. Others show an Inclination to trifling & Indolence, which the Masters do their utmost to correct.

It is to be apprehended that Reading & private Study is too much neglected by many Students, tho' Exhortations to that Purpose have not been wanting, but the Masters can not judge of the private Employments of Students, which do not fall under their Inspection.43

"Private study," or homework, could be enforced only in a dormitory, and the Board was working on that. As its final resolution of this meeting, this overwhelmingly lay group passed



a measure in support of sound doctrine—political rather than religious. The Professor of History was enjoined to lecture four times a year on "the preeminence of the Republican Form of Government to all others—to display its virtues and Energies—its moral and intellectual excellence—the Grandeur & Perfections of our Foederal system & State Institutions & to point out any practicable Improvements—to exhibit the defects of the ancient Republicks compared with the enlightened principle of Representation which pervades the American codes, & which now renders this form of Government commensurate with any extent of Territory."44 This was beamed, of course, toward the General Assembly of the state of Pennsylvania. Though cited by Historians as an outstanding example of trustee interference in the academic program, it must be added that Davidson, ever willing, may even have suggested the thing himself.

Conservative patriotic fervor was riding high. Adams had succeeded Washington, an enemy of French radicalism even more to Nisbet's taste. Mary Nisbet Turnbull had moved to Philadelphia, where her father saw her sometimes in vacation, or wrote her at "No. 229 Market Street, Opposite t ho' not opposed to the President of the United States."45 In the war fever of 1798, Dickinson students pledged loyalty to Adams as "the patron of science, liberty and religion," and the President responded with blessings upon them and their college.46 This exchange had taken place at their return from the spring vacation. It was a week after their reassembling from the September recess that the blow fell.

At his home on the morning of Wednesday, November 7, 1798, Dr. Nisbet examined a group of new boys to determine their entrance standing. He then walked down to Liberty Alley to meet his first class, but no class appeared. Something worse than usual was in the wind. Only too well aware that others of the faculty often knew what he did not, he spoke to Thomson in the grammar school room. Professor Thomson knew. The faculty could, if it wished, meet with the students at two o'clock, but the boys had unanimously determined to leave college at once unless the whole degree course be restricted to one year.47

Administration yielded. Nisbet, never reticent in giving an



opinion, endured the "literary quackery" for three successive one-year terms. Classes continued as before, seven hours a day, but he threw at the trustees the absurdity of expecting a student "to read Cicero, Juvenal, Lucian, Homer & Xenophon, & to learn Geography, Astronomy, Chronology, History, Oratory, English Grammar, & Natural Philosophy, Arithmetic, plain Geometry, Trigonometry, Navigation & Algebra, Criticism, Logic, Metaphysics, & Moral Philosophy in the space of ten Months," all this without taking notes in class.48 He stood his ground. It has been said that when Dr. Nisbet had a point to score his whole face would light up, bright and aggressive, with an expression all its own. We may imagine old Colonel Montgomery facing up to this, his gray mouth pulled down at the side, one eye closing slowly as it would have done behind a rifle barrel in the Indian wars.

Time would prove Nisbet in the right. Dickinson graduates lost standing among college men and with employers. This early experience shows well the tie between academic standards and the standing of the alumnus. Some other events were moving his way. Deism had become an influence in American colleges and the Presbyterian Assembly of 1798 (taking its cue from the Methodists) had sounded a warning against the danger.49 Nisbet was reading John Robison's Proofs of a Conspiracy, hair-raising revelations of the menace of infidelity from a learned Scottish source which had become very popular in America.50 When, only a fortnight after the student strike, news came through of Lord Nelson's victory of the Nile, he set a team of boys to ringing the College bell all day long, to serve a notice on Carlisle, "this trifling place," of how the winds of the world were blowing.51 The rye crop in the valley, he reported to Mary, May 13, 1799, had been again attacked by the Hessian fly— "which threatens us with a Famine of Whisky. And if this is taken away, what have we more?"52

As he had foretold, students did not flock in to get the quick degree. The College lost both money and repute, and the trustees must needs return at last to the program they had affirmed so short a time before the rebellion.53 They would find, however, that it is far easier to weaken a standard than to regain it. It would be a long road back, with a lesson learned—for a time—in the necessity of trustee-faculty cooperation.



Desperate yet determined, the Board was now giving its all to the perennial hope and concern of all trustees—its building program. Back in 1784, it had been the opinion of John Armstrong that "there never will be any Building erected at Carlisle that should deserve the name of a College, these seven years to come."54 It would take twenty. Yet this alone could bring unity, status, permanence. Only Benjamin Rush believed that academic intangibles might be a firmer foundation than brick or stone: "It is said that before the time of the Emperor Constantine the churches had wooden pulpits but golden ministers, but after he took Christianity under his protection, the churches had golden pulpits but wooden ministers. The same," he assured his colleagues, "may be said of literary institutions."55

The trustees did not accept this as a necessary alternative. They had still the plans for a building drawn for them by John Keen in 1792.56 Then they had had money from the lottery of 1791 and other sources, £1,700 to be exact. Montgomery had pressed in vain for a start, while inertia and the tides of debt took over.57 But now, with the Colonel both President and Treasurer of the Board, a seven-acre lot was acquired from the Penns, just west of the village across High Street from the house that Dr. Nisbet had bought. Bids were being taken in November, 1798.58 John Dickinson expressed joy that "a proper Edifice" was at last to be erected, trusted that it might have "an elegant simplicity" and prayed for success.59 In response to a suggestion that prayer was not enough, he subscribed $100.60 It was his first gift to the College in many a year. Nisbet had visited him in 1792, perhaps to solicit funds for the building, and would learn on his return to Carlisle that Dickinson had deposited $500 in a Philadelphia bank, subject to his personal order, and in a hope of receiving further visits.61 Obviously, the Principal rather than the College held Dickinson's heart and conscience.

"New College," built of brick, rose slowly above the grass and bushes and outcroppings of the gray native stone. In July, 1799, the beams of the first floor were being laid; in August, the second floor; but money was running low. Periodically, the work would stop while subscribers in the county and the cities were being harried for payment. On May 26, 1800, it was voted to borrow $2,000, with the state land grant as security. It was



the first step in the dissipation of capital held as permanent endowment, with others soon to follow. In 1800, the old Colonel suffered a long illness, prostrated by pain and worry at his home, "Happy Retreat." By 1801, he had a roof on his building, but work was at a standstill again.

Nisbet, who learned of trustee doings only by rumor, wrote John Dickinson on November 21, 1801, of mismanaged funds for which he was blamed, and of a plan to force his return to Scotland upon some pretext—"I am now in the condition of the Lion in the Fable of Aesop who in his Old-age was kicked by the Ass."62 It was only too true, as Nisbet also readily declared, that the one-year course "had taken away two thirds of the Tuition Money & reduced the Reputation of the Seminary more than three fourths"—yet this error does seem to have led on to some improvement in trustee-faculty consultation.63

On December 24, 1802, Colonel Montgomery reported to Colonel Gurney, his aide in the intricacies of finance, "The new Building is so far finished as to accommodate the Proffors and Student."64 Three rooms were in use, but Library and apparatus had not yet been moved in when, on the night of February 3, 1803, disaster struck. Montgomery poured out the terrible news to Benjamin Rush:

. . . was nearly finished had a grand appearance was ornamental! and Elegent had 12 Large apartments but as all things are uncertain in this world and that our Joys and Comforts can not be Compleat or parmient that noble fine house was yesterday red ~sced to ashes by accidence occassioned by putting hot ashese in the Sellar about 11 oClock a Voulant snow storm from the west attended with a Bold wind had Blowen Sparks to Shavaing or other stuff and not Being Decovred in time the whole Building was instantly in flames and thus my friend after all our trouble and Exspence in Erecting an Elegent and Comfortable house for Dickinson College our hops were Blasted in a few minutes my Eies Beheld the Disstroying flames with an ackening Hart . . . . 65

This from the Indian Fighter. The Walking Library turned a cooler eye upon the scene of desolation:

We had been bothered by the Trustees to make our College conform to Princeton College. We have now attained a pretty near Con-

formity to it by having our Building burnt down to the Ground. But it could not stand, as it was founded on Fraud & Knavery. The Trustees in order to procure Money for finishing this Building sold the Certificates that furnished the Salaries of the Masters, cheated your humble Servant out of two thousand six hundred and twenty Dollars.66

The burning of Princeton's Nassau Hall March 6, 1802, had given the Dickinson trustees an example of a dramatic and inspiring swift recovery. Carlisle had subscribed generously to the new building fund at once, and as soon as the spring thaws had come and roads were firm they moved out with their appeal to the surrounding counties and to the cities beyond.67 Dr. Nisbet was dispatched to Philadelphia and New York, where, as may have been anticipated, he did poorly.68 Robert Cathcart covered Philadelphia a year later with better success, though he raised only $500.69 Wisely, they had not sent Nisbet to Washington, where Jeffersonian democracy was now in power. That field went to the Rev. John Campbell, Carlisle's Episcopal minister, and Judge Hamilton, a supporter of the new regime and a reputed free-thinker as well. Their collections of March, 1803, included sums from the President, Vice-President, Chief Justice Marshall, cabinet members and congressmen, even the embassies contributing to the cause of American education.

Hamilton was one of a committee to secure plans for rebuilding and, with things going so well, wrote to his friend, Judge Hugh Henry Brackenridge, then on circuit at Easton, setting off a new chain of responses. The genial Brackenridge rode "with the speed of an express" to Philadelphia, where America's foremost architect and engineer, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, was on the point of leaving to take charge of the building program at the new capital.70 Latrobe responded at once with a letter of advice, preliminary elevations and ground plans—to be followed later with working drawings as his contribution to the cause. The new "college house" would be on the site of the other, but larger. Use stone, not brick, Latrobe advised, "the lime stone of your Valley" for indigenous character and appearance of strength71—advice which has been followed with fair consistency ever since, giving definition to the campus



as the town crept up around it. To accent his design he specified horizontal sill courses of cut stone from York County, a reddish brown in contrast to the gray.72

It was to be a long building, with a tall central chamber in which the whole college could assemble. Some features were new in academic design. Instead of dark central corridors, the corridors would be on the north, while most of the rooms, ranged along the southern front, would gain heat from the sun as well as their fireplaces—reinforced, as Latrobe sagely observed, by "the concourse of students." Latrobe recommended interior walls of brick and an iron roof, a new thing, also adding a safeguard against fire. Reminded that a college must have a cupola for its bell, he brushed through his Stuart and Revett Antiquities of Athens, and gave his simple design of columns and dome something of the aspect of the Athenian Tower of the Winds by adding its figure of a little fishtailed god as weathervane—a feature which the Carlisle coppersmith (ignorant of the triton as a species but familiar enough with mermaids) would alter into the small feminine deity who has turned with the winds over Dickinson College for so many years.73

The cornerstone was laid on August 8, 1803, and in their notice of the event published in the Carlisle Gazette it is clear that the trustees well appreciated their good fortune:

. . . The plan of the building has been furnished by Mr. I.atrobe, surveyor of the Public Works of the U. States, and unquestionably the first architect of the age. The donation is considered invaluable as no price can be set on the efforts of the scientific mind. Simplicity and adaptation to the purposes of the Institution are its excellence. As a public building it will do honour to Pennsylvania.74

On November 4, 1805, students first assembled for classes in the "New College" of Latrobe. Only a bare sufficiency of rooms was finished. Montgomery's jubilant hope of having all the boys living and working together under the one roof brought a stern rebuke from Dr. Rush: "unfriendly to order and hurtful to morals."75 He was alone in this view. Montgomery went right ahead with his plans, writing John Dickinson, November 20, 1805, that in the spring they would be able to employ a steward and board and lodge about forty students—



praying him to come and see for himself what their long labor had wrought: "Built of stone has an Eligent and Grand apparance has a hansome Coupulae."76 Yet long labor still remained, and five years would pass before any students had rooms. The work of flooring, partitioning, plastering went forward, room by room, as money could be found.77 Classrooms, library, laboratory and society halls must come first.

It was in the first winter of rebuilding, January 18, 1804, that Charles Nisbet died of a winter cold turning to pneumonia, his life fading out on a whispered, "Holy, Holy, Holy."78 Trustees, faculty and students wore black crepe on the left arm for thirty days.79 His funeral filled the church where so often he had preached strong doctrine to reluctant ears. There was that sudden looming sense of a greatness that had shone and passed. Rush and Montgomery joined at last in his praise. James Ross, now at Franklin College, published a Latin ode, Charles Keith of Edinburgh his "Monody," and Isabella Oliver, poetess of Cumberland, her laurel wreath from the banks of Conodoguinet:

ALAS ! another luminary's gone!
"Whence rays of truth and science brightly shone."
Great NlSBET'S dead! He too from Scotia came,
His soul inspired with thy sacred flame, O Liberty!80

A learned successor would crown all this with a long epitaph in Latin, spelled out in marble at the center of the Old Graveyard of Carlisle,81 but no successor would have Nisbet's fame for learning or his success as a teacher. Those who follow the minute and regular march of Nisbet's sharply-whittled quill across the page rarely see beyond the mood of pessimism and contempt—unwilling citizen of a nation hastening to ruin, intellectually divided into "two great Parties, the Anythingarians . . . & the Nothingarians."82 Yet he had his own ideal of freedom in the western world, patterned and belligerent though it might be. "O Liberty! "Only a few—the poetess for one—were aware of this. Nor does one see the humanity of the man; so real to his close friends, or his hand in community welfare. Early in his tenure, Nisbet had headed the managers of a school



for the education of the children of slaves,83 and he had responded well to the Earl of Buchan's injunction to found a neighborhood library.84 Under his brash condemnations, too, there lay the terrible humiliation of a father whose eldest son, once so promising, had become a hopeless, notorious drunkard.

As for the trustees, Dr. Nisbet's passing ended the accumulation of arrears of salary, but left them with a well-secured obligation for a very formidable sum.85 It left them also with the problem of finding a successor who would attract students, finish the building, achieve a balanced economy. At the trustees' meeting two days after Nisbet's death, Dr. Davidson had proposed some curricular changes in evidence of his expecting to rise from Vice-Principal to Principal. "O Providence, supply his vacant chair!" Isabella Oliver had exclaimed, perhaps sure that Davidson, her friend, would be the choice. But most of the trustees demurred. At last, it being obvious that no perspicacious educator would take over the task of paying his predecessor's salary at the risk of his own, Davidson, the ever-willing, was given the job under a conditional title, "President of the Faculty."86

As such, he would continue with the College for five years more. The previous years had really been his administration as well, since there had been no effective rapport between Nisbet and the trustees. He would now be running a smooth and undistinguished operation of three professors, forty to fifty grammar school boys, and twenty to thirty degree candidates in a two-year college course, Junior and Senior Classes. William Thomson, whom he had hired in 1794 to replace the young and irreverent Henry Lyon Davis in the key position of Professor of Languages, had left in 1802 for a more comfortable post at Princeton. He was a casualty of the annual commencements, when dwindling attendance forced a reduction in salaries and even the Grammar School could not support an experienced master. John Borland, a younger man, had replaced him, and now, in 1805, Borland was replaced by the still younger John Hayes, who had just graduated with that year's class, a ministerial candidate and (under Davidson's influence) a poet.87

Here was a student with whom Davidson had no trouble; but it must be noted that student opinion, more than any other



factor, had prevented his appointment as Principal.88 Student notes show his lectures on history, criticism, even science, to have been more than a cut above the level of Geography Epitomiz'd, but as poet and pedagogue he stood firm upon the little book, which every boy must purchase, memorize and revere. Woe to him who did not—and one who did not, it seems, was Dickinson's most famous alumnus of later years, now a sandy-haired, blue-eyed six-footer, with a wry neck which was to characterize him for the rest of his life, and a cockiness to be seen later as a sedate self-confidence. In his Junior year with the Class of 1809, James Buchanan enjoyed himself to the full while meeting perfectly every requirement of the college course, as his notes on science and mathematics for Professor McCormick bear witness.89 At the end of that year, he was staggered to receive notice that he would not be permitted to return. So much for the gay life and a spirit of levity toward the author of Geography Epitomiz'd.

Actually, Buchanan's expulsion seems to have been no more than a disciplinary measure set up to have a sobering effect upon him. He was advised to seek clemency from the new President of the trustees, Dr. John King. John King, who had been pastor of the church of Upper West Conococheague, Mercersburg, since 1769, had baptized this boy and watched over him ever since. He delivered an admonitory lecture and sent James, chastened, back for the final year. In this more earnest mood, James made himself again a problem as commencement approached by trying to get both honors, valedictorian and salutatorian, for his own society, the Union Philosophical. Here the faculty saw fit to intervene, taking the decision from the students and awarding first place to Belles Lettres and second to a U. P. boy, while ignoring Buchanan, the top student, altogether. James struck back at this gross injustice with a student protest and threatened a strike—no orations at all from U. P. It was the Blessed Peacemaker, of course, who restored order, if not calm, and Buchanan, seething inwardly, delivered his oration with the others, its title The Utility of Philosopby.90

This was the young man who would move from Congress to cabinet, to the great embassies and to the presidency of the United States, always kindly and tactful, vain and precise, al-



ways seeking solutions first of all by friendly agreement—in statecraft and diplomacy, as his biographer has pointed out, a perfect pattern of the Blessed Peacemaker.91

In 1805, the Rules and Regulations of ten years before were republished with additions to insure due order within the new building—classes regularly seated together, hats removed on entrance and hung on their pegs, no knives, "segars," glass breaking, writing on walls or driving nails into them, no ball playing either in or outside the edifice.92 Judge Hamilton and Dr. McCoskry were appointed a committee to supervise the removal of the scientific equipment and library, and $200 was appropriated for "maps and additions to the philosophical apparatus."93 Since the state grant of that year specified apparatus and library, the trustees' meeting of March 13, 1806, instead assigned the $200 toward the claims of the Nisbet heirs. Dr. McCoskry, who had married a Nisbet daughter, was one of the administrators of the estate, and one can sense the rather desperate maneuvering to hold off that obligation until New College could stand complete and unencumbered. John Dickinson died, February 14, 1808, leaving no bequest to the College. Rush and Montgomery had been hoping to the last that this estate might do something to offset the demands of the other.

Dr. Rush was given charge of spending the state money assigned to laboratory, and in the fall of 1808, with over $1,000 in hand, he added an air pump, "a small chemical apparatus for showing the composition of air and water," and a large static electricity machine built in Germany ten years before, "the most complete and splendid thing of the kind ever imported into our country .... It will add much to the reputation of our College."94 All his old enthusiasm for the College had returned, and his mind was again upon the need for a new Principal, a man of great eminence, but this time an American. To old John Montgomery, who had borne the battle for so long and who was now in the last months of his life, he could close a letter with the old bold assurance, "Adieu! my dear friend. Keep up your spirits. All—All will end well. "

"All will end well. " Upon this confident note a new chapter in Dickinson College history begins. In politics, Jeffersonian democracy had the ascendancy, with Rush, at least, in sym-



pathy with its ideals. Beyond that, Jacksonian democracy would change the face of American life. But in academic life, the reaction against eighteenth-century rationalism and freedom of thought was in full swing through all these years, and would pose problems and forces of which the two old friends seemed unaware. Innocently abetted on both sides by Rush, the College would become a furious battle ground of piety and freedom fought out until it closed its doors in 1832, both sides abandoning the field.


Previous Section ] Table of Contents ] Index ] Next Section ]