The ink was hardly dry on the Definitive Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, signed in September 1783, when the Pennsylvania Assembly issued a charter incorporating the first college to be established in what was then the American West. This was Dickinson College, named for the current president or (as we would say) governor of Pennsylvania, and was to be located at Carlisle, some twenty miles west of the Susquehanna. Until lately Carlisle had been a frontier town, but an academic foundation of sorts already existed there, in the form of a classical "grammar school" under the charge of leading local citizens, especially the Presbyterian clergy of the region. For this was Scotch-Irish country, and amidst all the controversies that agitated Presbyterianism on both sides of the Atlantic, the Scottish respect for education, and most particularly the idea of its equal availability to all social classes, remained a constant.
Within a few weeks a board of trustees studded with distinguished names was formed, and on 5 December Dr. Benjamin Rush, the true begetter of the whole enterprise, sat down in his Water Street home in Philadelphia and addressed a letter to a learned Scottish clergyman, Charles Nisbet, D.D., of Montrose, whom Rush had met years ago when studying medicine in Edinburgh. Nisbet had written to Rush on behalf of a friend who was about to emigrate to America, and Rush seized the opportunity to urge Nisbet to come too. The passage is so revelatory of Rush's mind and style that it must be quoted in full:

Europe in its present state of political torpor affords no scope for the activity of a benevolent mind. Here [in America] everything is in a plastic state. Here the benefactor of mankind may realize all his schemes for promoting human happiness, Human nature here (unsubdued by the tyranny of European habits and customs) yields to reason, justice, and common sense, Come, sir, and spread the influence of science and religion among us. America seems destined by heaven to exhibit to the world the perfection which the mind of man is capable of receiving from the combined operations of liberty, learning, and the gospel upon it.
To cap this, Rush disclosed that the trustees of (the as yet non- existent) Dickinson College were to choose a president, or "principal," at their first annual meeting in April, and that he (Rush) had directed "their attention and votes" to Nisbet as the best candidate. "From the situation and other advantages of that College, it must soon be the first in America. It is the key to our western world."
Rush was without formal authority to make such an overture, but
then, this was his way, and the hyperbolical mode of his expression shows what one was up against in conducting business with him. "John and Mary's College over Susquehanna," which he had in the last several years worked so tirelessly to establish, was as dear to him as a child — he was often to call it his "bantling" or "our brat" — and he was determined that it would succeed, cost what it might in money, effort, public and private controversy, and even some broken hearts.
That story has been told often and well before in a number of places.    
Here the point needs only to be emphasized that Rush's relationship with
Dickinson College, though an extreme case, was like many other chapters in his strenuous life. To understand Rush, no matter from what aspect or aspects one views him, one must try to understand the curious blend of idealism and stubborn self-righteousness that marked his whole character and career. When most eloquent in pleading for a humanitarian cause or a project that would advance his city, state, or country toward the millennium, he was at once both perfectly in earnest about bringing on the millennium (which he was sure Americans could manage to do) and at the same time settling old or new scores with personal, political, or professional enemies. In founding a college at Carlisle he was both bringing learning to the wilderness and avenging himself on the radical Presbyterian leaders who had driven him from his professorship at the College of Philadelphia, newly converted into the University of the State of Pennsylvania under the governance of men he detested. Any number of parallel cases in Rush's contentious life could be cited, but they would divert us from the subject in hand.
That subject is a document written by Rush entitled "Plan of Education for Dickinson College," here printed (to the best of our belief) for the first time from the original in the archives of Dickinson College. The manuscript runs to twenty small quarto pages, with a cover endorsed "Plan of Education," and is almost entirely in Rush's hand but with some blanks left on the pages, a great deal of scoring out, and numerous interlineations, some by Rush and some by others. It is, in short, a much worked-over rough draft, but no fair copy or printed text has been found. It is appropriate to make this document publicly available on this anniversary, because at the very least — blanks, deletions, corrections, and all — it does reveal, if sometimes less clearly or completely than we could wish, what the trustees, with Rush at their head, envisioned for their new college "over Susquehanna." If some questions about it cannot even yet be answered, this is simply another argument for publishing it. Its circulation and study may produce some of the answers wanted.
A good many references to its composition and earliest history exist in the rich documentation on the infancy of the College. In November 1783, soon after the charter was issued, Rush told his chief collaborator in the undertaking, the faithful John Montgomery, that he was "preparing some thoughts to lay before the board of trustees upon the subject of education proper for a college in a new republican state." In the following March Rush reported that he had finished these "thoughts." But although that paper must have embodied views expressed in the Plan (as it will hereafter be designated), the evidence is strong against supposing it to be the Plan. A far more likely supposition is that the paper written in1783-1784 is the germ, at least, of Rush's most ambitious literary effort in the field of education, "Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic," first published in 1786 and reprinted with interesting alterations in hisEssays (1798). From the trustees' minutes of their first regular annual meeting, 6-8 April 1784, it does not appear that this or any other paper by Rush was read to the board. Rather, after electing Dr. Nisbet to the principalship — and thus redeeming Rush's informal proffer made months before — a committee consisting of Montgomery, James Wilson, and Rush was appointed "to prepare a draught of rules for the Government of the College."
The next we hear of these "rules," or the Plan, is in a letter from Rush to the trustees in May 1785, stating that he will miss the annual meeting in June because he imminently expects the arrival of Nisbet and his family in Philadelphia, and that he has not written, or at any rate completed, the "regulations" for the College because he thinks they should first be discussed with Nisbet. Possibly the two men did discuss them at this initial and single happy moment in their relationship after Nisbet had been lured to America. We do not know this, but we do know that in July Nisbet found things at Carlisle altogether different from the way they had been represented to him in Rush's wooing letters. The weather was so hot that meat putrefied overnight; the roof of the Nisbet's house leaked; Mrs. Nisbet fell ill; they were all homesick; the so-called College building (actually the old grammar school) was crowded and dirty, and so forth and so on. Rush was so put out by the complaints of the whole family that he refused to call on the new principal when he attended the board meeting in August, and Nisbet, who had taken to his bed, pleaded for an interview in a note he datelined from "Tomb of Dickinson's College."
Yet it was at this three-day meeting in August 1785 that, according to the minutes, five more members were added on the first day to the committee "for bringing in a Plan of Education," and that when the committee laid its report before the board on the last day, it "was debated by Paragraphs & adopted." It is tempting to conjecture that Rush wrote most if not all of the Plan on the spot, during the second day of this meeting. He of course already had his ideas well in mind and may have brought with him memoranda jotted down in the characteristic form of his lecture notes. We have no way whatever of knowing which among the many deletions and other changes now in the manuscript were made by other members of the enlarged committee or by the trustees in their debate over it "by Paragraphs." For the history of the composition of the Plan was by no means yet finished.
Despite its formal adoption, Rush himself, and evidently others, did not think the Plan ready for public circulation. He proposed later in August to furnish an abstract for the newspapers, but evidently did not do so. Perhaps the intensifying difficulties with Nisbet dampened even Rush's zeal as press agent for the College. At a meeting in October which Rush did not attend, the trustees accepted Nisbet's resignation and and named four of their number "to review the Plan of Education which was agreed to at the last Meeting."
Then silence, so far as the Plan was concerned, for a year. The College had some students enrolled and was running after a fashion during 1786, in what Nisbet (who had withdrawn his resignation in the spring) sometimes called "a corner of the grammar school" and sometimes "a hogpen." But the famous paper, by which Rush and presumably other trustees had set so much store as a working plan for the College, slumbered. In anticipation of the usual autumn meeting, Rush, who could not attend, wrote sharply to the trustees in October 1786:
I was much surprised at hearing that the plan of education agreed to by the trustees in August 1785 has not been adopted by the professors of the College, and that the boys were left without any fixed rules for their government. In consequence of this, I have heard with great distress that some instances of irregular conduct in the young gentlemen have passed with impunity. I hope I need not point out the necessity of redressing these evils as speedily as possible.
He then entered into some detail on how the authority of the several professors should be defined and how, if they failed to exercise it, they should be dismissed. Not a word about Principal Nisbet! But Rush confidently declared the Plan, though "capable of some improvement," to be "best accommodated to the habits, prejudices, and present state of society in America."
So, once more, the trustees at their meeting in mid-November dutifully "read and debated" the Plan, and "after several alterations . . . adopted it." These actions had now become routine, but it is doubtful if they had much meaning. From a long letter Nisbet prepared for the consideration of the trustees at this same meeting, describing actual conditions at the College, one is forced to conclude that the Plan for the most part simply expressed no more than hopes and had little to do with actualities in the College's unceasing struggle for survival during these early years.
Yet hopes are not to be dismissed as inconsequential in the cultural history of a nation or a region. Even a cursory look at Rush's Plan of Education is rewarding and reveals some surprises. Remembering his own training under Samuel Finley at Nottingham Academy and under Samuel Davies at Princeton, Rush gives first and very heavy emphasis to "religious Instruction." His earliest idea had in fact been to establish a strictly Presbyterian institution, "a School of the Prophets," but at some point he yielded on this in order to obtain the wider public support that he soon found was essential. It will be noted that the first article of the Plan was docked of both its provision for teaching the catechism (of any desired denomination) to younger pupils, and of requiring members of the senior class to present public compositions on theological subjects. Dickinson College was from the outset a good deal more secular than Rush's original idea of it.
Article II treats concisely the matter of student discipline, though Article VII is largely an extension of this subject, for the rather extraordinary plan to distinguish members of the various classes and schools by dress anticipates one use of the modern student's "ID" card — easier recognition for the purpose of discipline. Rush's own ideas about the punishment — of children and of others — evolved notably as his own family grew up and he became interested in penal reform. His essay "Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic" when first published in 1786 has a vigorous paragraph beginning, "In the education of our youth, let the authority of our masters be as absolute as possible," in a word just like that of parents. When he reprinted this paper in his Essays of 1798, the paragraph disappeared without a trace.
Article IV, dealing with "the branches of learning," or, as we would say, the curriculum, deserves much closer and fuller study than can be given to it here. It is a true omnium gatherum because, to satisfy others, Rush left in subjects that were then standard but that he thought useless for most Americans (for example, Greek and Latin, against which he carried on a lifelong crusade), but added thereto such comparatively novel and utilitarian subjects as French and German, history, geography, and chemistry (the last struck out at some stage, doubtless for want of a chemistry teacher's salary).
Innovative too is the whole of Article XI on "Gymnastic Exercises," or as we would say, physical education. Too innovative, for his colleagues on one or another of the several revising and reviewing committees first struck out the particular sports he recommended (swimming, skating) and then for reasons unknown expunged the whole paragraph. For Dr. Rush, a strong public advocate of outdoor exercise from the earliest years of his career, this must have been a keen disappointment.
Skipping much else that is worthy of comment, we come to the last two articles of the Plan. Their wording and sequence are crucial. Article XII provides that the principal or any three professors may call meetings of the faculty when they like, and evidently may discuss and vote on anything they like. But Article XIII (and last) promptly deprives the College administration and faculty alike of substantive authority, for whatever they vote at their meetings must be submitted "to the next Metting" of the trustees to be "ratified or disannulled by them."
Yet Dickinson College survived for a generation on this foundation, more fondly and ambitiously formed, perhaps, than it was at first well built upon. Later it was to rise again and grow in strength down to our day. If it did not become "the key to our western world," it did eventually fulfill the hopes of Rush and his colleagues by becoming not only "a nursery of the church and state," but of an ever-widening community.
L. H. Butterfield
Massachusetts Historical Society
July 1972

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