Documenting the American South Logo

Overview: 1820-1829
Erika Lindemann


Establishing a University involved more than locating a site, constructing a building, and hiring a few teachers. It also required developing relationships among citizens, politicians, clergymen, faculty members and tutors, parents, and students. These groups formed a network of social connections whereby the institution gained its authority and received its financial support. Building these sustaining relationships was especially difficult in the 1820s.
The state of North Carolina was perennially caught up in sectional controversies between citizens living in the eastern part of the state and those living in the west. Influential eastern planters, most of them slaveholders, were principally interested in protecting their property and maintaining their control of the government. They routinely defeated legislative initiatives supporting tariffs or requiring additional property taxes—including taxes on slaves as property. The small farmers in the west, on the other hand, saw "internal improvements"—roads, bridges, canals—as crucial to improving their lives economically. Without such improvements, commerce with markets in the east would continue to be limited. With little industry, few banks, and a single port in Wilmington, North Carolina would remain a poor, ignorant agricultural state. By the 1820s North Carolinians also were beginning to struggle with the moral and economic evil of slavery, which consumed resources in the east that might otherwise have improved agriculture and developed industry in the west. The North Carolina delegation to the US Congress split its vote on the Missouri Compromise (1819-20), the east supporting the extension of slavery, the west opposing it. Politically speaking, then, the west and east had different priorities, and a college education had value insofar as it supported these goals—in the east, conserving a way of life for a powerful elite, and in the west, serving as an "improvement" whereby people could advance themselves.
If the politicians may have cared too little about the University, religious leaders may have cared too much. Some argued that the University was "too Presbyterian"; beginning with Davie , most of its founders and faculty had been educated at Yale or the College of New Jersey (Princeton). Others, including many Presbyterians, thought that the board of trustees included too few clergymen and that the University was entirely too secular. Periodic religious revivals in North Carolina"produced sharp differences between those who thought that higher education was a function of the church . . . and those who feared that religious institutions might again become a threat to republican government" (Snider 48). Although religious groups petitioned the legislature for a second university, they were unsuccessful. However, their campaigns to promote sectarian higher education eventually resulted in the founding of Wake Forest Institute (Baptist) in 1836 and Davidson College (Presbyterian) in 1837. Back in Chapel Hill, meanwhile, students attended daily prayers and a service in the Chapel on Sunday. They also prepared recitations on religious works for Sunday afternoon classes.
Throughout the 1820s the faculty numbered five professors and two or three tutors. President Joseph Caldwell , a graduate of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), taught moral philosophy and metaphysics. In his absence, Yale graduate Elisha Mitchell, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, served as acting president. When Denison Olmsted , who had joined the University faculty in 1818 as professor of chemistry, left Chapel Hill in 1825 to return to Yale, Mitchell became professor of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. James Phillips was appointed to Mitchell's old chair of mathematics and natural philosophy. William Hooper , a University of North Carolina alumnus, taught Latin and Greek until 1822, when he resigned for reasons of ill health. Ethan Allen Andrews , a graduate of Yale, succeeded Hooper until 1828. The University's first professor of rhetoric and logic Shepard Kollock , a graduate of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), remained on the faculty until 1825, when he accepted a call to a Presbyterian church in Norfolk, VA. At Kollock's resignation, William Hooper was persuaded to rejoin the faculty as the professor of rhetoric and logic. Though Hooper held the position for three years, he preferred teaching Latin and Greek. When Andrews resigned in 1828, Hooper resumed teaching the ancient languages, and Mitchell voluntarily added the duties of teaching rhetoric and logic to his own already significant responsibilities. In 1826 Nicholas Marcellus Hentz was appointed to the professorship of modern languages, teaching primarily French.
The 1820s saw the campus improve in appearance as new buildings and renovations were begun. The University had abandoned the old grammar school in 1819 because several private academies in the area had begun preparing students for college. That same year, however, a shortage of rooms on campus and the prospect of good returns on the sale of Tennessee lands prompted the board of trustees to authorize $10,000 for the construction of a new dormitory. In 1822 an additional $20,000 was borrowed "for repairing the present & erecting new Buildings" (Henderson 84). On July 24, 1822, the cornerstone was laid for Old West, a residence hall facing Old East and completed in 1823. A third floor also was added to Old East, the original "college," and a new chapel Gerrard Hall was begun, though it would not be completed until 1837. The construction was supervised by Capt. William Nichols of New York, the state architect, who also was overseeing renovations of the capitol building in Raleigh.
Despite the trustees' good intentions, Professors Mitchell and Caldwell thought that the building program misdirected funds urgently needed for books and scientific equipment. "The first impression of enlightened strangers is uniformly favorable,"Mitchell wrote to the board. "But when we show them our library and inform them that we have little or no philosophical apparatus, we sink even more than is reasonable in their estimation" (Battle 1:281). In 1824 Caldwell successfully petitioned the trustees for $6,000 to be divided equally between books and scientific equipment. He pledged to supervise their purchase personally, by traveling at his own expense to England, Scotland, and the Continent. In May 1824, he left Chapel Hill and was gone for almost a year. He returned with 979 books and $3,361.35 worth of equipment (Battle 1:294). Though he overspent his budget by $1,238, the trustees later reimbursed him.
As North Carolinians migrated westward, the state's declining population affected enrollments. Between 1790 and 1830, the population of North Carolina dropped from fourth to fifth place nationally, and between 1815 and 1850 one-third of its citizens left the state, the 1830s being the decade of heaviest migration (Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries 249). University enrollments were healthy during the first half of the 1820s, rising to over 170 students by 1823. By 1827, however, only seventy-six students were enrolled, a decline causing concern among faculty members and trustees. Some attributed falling enrollments to a financial panic in 1825 that made money scarce. President Caldwell was inclined to think that economic pressures were only part of the explanation. He believed that the decrease was partly attributable to the establishment of other colleges and universities in the region. South Carolina College and Franklin College (later, the Universities of South Carolina and Georgia, respectively) had opened in 1801, and the University of Virginia began classes in March 1825 with eight faculty members and sixty-eight students. Caldwell and others believed that some of these students might have attended the University of North Carolina were it not for the fact that they now were able to pursue their educations closer to home.