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Early Student Rebellions
Erika Lindemann


Contemporary readers of the documents included in this project may find it difficult to explain the troubles that plagued the University during the first twenty-four years of its existence. Political battles and party spirit certainly were one factor. North Carolina was a new state in a new nation, and its influential leaders, trustees, and faculty could scarcely avoid defining the University without reference to then-current discussions of the relationship between state and federal governments, the responsibility of individual citizens to one another and the state, the United States' relationship to other countries, especially France and England, and the role of religion in American society. Though the University was a public institution, it was nevertheless permeated with religion. Its faculty were Protestant clergymen. Its students attended prayers daily, and profanity was not tolerated. Atheists and those who held unorthodox religious views sooner or later were dismissed from the campus.
Students were not immune from these debates. Battle claims, "The followers of Jefferson were charged with seeking to introduce mob-rule and French Red-Republicanism, while they alleged that their opponents were seeking to change our government into a virtual monarchy. Republican students thought it highly patriotic to insult and worry instructors, who, as they thought, were enemies of the rule of the people, seeking to introduce an aristocracy, if not a king" (Battle 1:158). In their relations with faculty, students often felt constrained by regulations they had no hand in framing. Many came to the University academically unprepared and with no intention of graduating. A few years of advanced schooling was sufficient, the value of a college education consisting in the social contacts formed with like-minded students from the same social class.
In the early years of the University, faculty minutes record numerous disciplinary hearings and the sanctions imposed. Students came before the faculty for disorderly conduct, stealing money from fellow students, drawing pistols, "Disorders committed with powder," drunkenness, insulting professors or townspeople, gaming, hitting a student with a stick, putting a calf in the chapel (Person Hall), writing an indecent composition, stealing a beehive, barring doors to prevent students or faculty members from leaving class or going to prayers, and overturning outhouses. Penalties ranged from private admonishment in front of the faculty to public reprimands in front of the student body to suspension for three to six months to expulsion. Expulsion, the severest penalty, often resulted in a student's impeachment in his debating society as well as the president's sending a report of the student's crime and punishment to every college in the United States.
A sincere letter of apology, however, could ameliorate or reverse a student's punishment. Atlas Jones , for example, was suspended on November 2, 1802, for throwing stones at a house in the village, threatening its owner, and failing to respond to repeated admonitions concerning lesser offenses. He was reinstated ten days later after submitting a letter of apology.
Apart from individual cases of student misconduct, the early history of the University was punctuated by several student rebellions. The week-long student revolt in Spring 1799 against Principal James Smiley Gillaspie left only about seventy students at the college and led the faculty to tender their resignations. On September 29, 1799, John London reported to Ebenezer Pettigrew , then living at home, that "Our President has got a horsewiping from a boy which he and the Teachers had expelled unjustly and we have been in great confusion in taking his part for he was liked by all the boys but every thing is put to rights again only our president relished the wiping so badly as to retire" (Pettigrew Family Papers, SHC; Connor 2:436). In 1805 students rejected a trustees' ordinance "empowering [student] monitors to preserve order, limiting freedom of speech, and organizing military discipline at meals" (Snider 43). Angry and determined not to submit to the authority of the trustees, students created a series of disturbances, and forty-five of them, a majority, left the University in what came to be called "the great secession." Though the ordinance was repealed in December 1805, the students did not return. The University graduated only four students in 1806.
Despite these rebellions, the faculty and trustees were determined to keep order and to assert the values implied by the curriculum. Quick to forgive misconduct, faculty members nevertheless did not tolerate threats, persistent refusals to submit to authority, or "combinations," students acting in concert to disrupt the institution. They often lamented the students' upbringing and appear genuinely to have believed themselves superior to their students and their parents. And when troubles at the University spilled over into the public, highly partisan press, the institution's reputation was significantly damaged.
The trustees especially might be faulted for micro-managing the institution. Genuinely committed to an educated citizenry, these dedicated influential leaders nevertheless were not especially skilled at building coalitions. As vacancies opened on the largely Federalist board, the trustees nominated like-minded replacements, even though most of the state had become Republican. They created enemies in suing their neighbors to recover revenues from escheated lands. They saw to every detail of University life, from ordering bricks to purchasing books. On reflection, even Davie seemed to recognize a better way to regulate student conduct: "I am now perfectly convinced that the best governed Colleges are those which have the most respectable Faculties, and the fewest written laws, and that we have committed a serious error in making an ordinance for everything, in other words legislating too much. It is now my opinion that after describing the kind of punishment to be used in the Establishment, and reserving in all cases the punishment of Expulsion to be confirmed by the board, the rest should be left to the discretion of the Faculty" (Battle 1:212-13).
Although student unrest persisted throughout the antebellum period, over time faculty gained greater confidence in managing dissent. They enlisted the cooperation of students, especially the leadership of the debating societies, to promote order and, when necessary, issued their own accounts of student rebellions in newspapers and circulars sent to parents to win support for faculty attempts to maintain discipline.