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True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina
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Overview
This website takes its title from a comment appearing on an essay written by an antebellum University of North Carolina student. At the top of the first page of Henry Hyrn Watters' essay on Federalism, vying for attention with the title, someone else has written, "A true and candid composition." The comment is unusual for several reasons. First, it was written by a student, not a teacher. Its author John Campbell Williams had been elected by fellow students, members of the Dialectic Society, to review their written work. He held the office of "corrector." Instead of merely signing the essay, as Society correctors customarily did, Williams took the time to write a brief note where Watters would see it straightaway. For composition teachers like me, the notion that students were evaluating one another's writing two hundred years ago is startling; my generation believes it invented draft workshops and peer evaluation.
Second, the note is the earliest I have found among the extant writings by students attending the University of North Carolina. Though Watters' essay on Federalism is undated, it probably was written in 1807 or 1808,1 at least forty years before written comments by faculty members began to appear on students' papers. Prior to 1850, professors commented on a student's writing orally. Though occasionally they also edited compositions by circling, underlining, and crossing out words and phrases that needed revision, evaluative endnotes of the sort that writing teachers nowadays spend evenings and weekends composing (and that today's students dread reading) do not appear until the decade before the Civil War.
Williams' comment also sums up this collection of documents. "True and Candid Compositions" brings together for the first time a selection of writings by students attending the University of North Carolina between 1795, the year in which the institution opened its doors, and 1868, when the devastation of the Civil War closed them for a semester. The documents included here are true in the sense that they are genuine, real, or authentic. They represent a diversity of materials written by students and housed in the special collections of the University of North Carolina Libraries. These writings also are candid because they describe frankly, though not necessarily without bias, how college students lived and worked during the antebellum period. The 121 documents comprising "True and Candid Compositions" depict students' daily activities, their views of academic work, their social and political interests, and their hopes for the future. They give us a glimpse through the doors of the recitation room, dormitory, and debating society halls and help us construct the history of an antebellum university from the students' point of view.
Of the 121 documents included in this collection, 108 were written by students. In twenty instances, a student is represented by more than one piece. Thirteen documents represent the work of nonstudents, primarily faculty members and local townspeople. They comment on the work of students and remind us that, while universities desire to maintain some distance from the distracting outside world, they are never separated from it. Only twelve documents previously have been published, eight in antebellum sources that would be difficult for contemporary readers to consult.
The documents are arranged chronologically in six electronic "chapters," each chapter charting approximately a decade of the University's history. Chapter One covers a slightly longer period, from 1795 to 1819. Each chapter includes a variety of materials—letters, compositions, speeches, creative work, and (after 1840) excerpts from diaries—and each edited document is accompanied by a digital image of the original. Introductory essays for each chapter provide historical and contextual information for understanding the documents. These essays are drawn from such sources as published histories of the University, minutes of faculty and trustees meetings, newspapers, catalogues and directories, alumni records, and writings by relatives and friends of the students whose work is included.
In addition to commenting on the historical context in which the documents were written, the introductory essays also discuss particular topics bearing on the life and work of students in the antebellum University. These topics are suggested by significant historical events—the founding of the University in Chapter One, for example, and the Civil War in Chapter Six—or by "found documents" that help reconstruct particular aspects of students' lives in the academy. The introductory essays comment on the scenes and circumstances prompting students' varied uses of written and spoken language and connect students' individual acts of writing to cultural forces shaping the antebellum University of North Carolina. Among the topics treated in the introductory essays are the establishment of the University, student discipline and faculty authority, the purposes of a university education in the antebellum period, the daily lives of students, the role of slaves and servants, the students' academic writing, their work in the debating societies, and their responses to the Civil War.
Chapter One (1795-1819), encompassing the first twenty-four years of the University's history, focuses on the institution's founding. Establishing a university meant more than locating a site, constructing a building, and hiring a teacher. It also required developing important relationships among trustees and politicians, clergymen, faculty members and tutors, students and their parents—a network of social connections whereby the institution gained its authority and received its financial support. Many of the documents included in the first chapter introduce us to the varied contexts in which students wrote, but the introductory essays also describe the faculty, the early curriculum, and the problems students and faculty encountered in resolving issues of authority. Student rebellions, the resignation of faculty members holding unpopular political views, and the dismissal of a student who refused to deliver his speech as corrected by the presiding professor give evidence that the early University, like the New Republic, exercised its authority amid persistent controversy over who was in charge.
Chapter Two (1820-29) examines the value these antebellum young men assigned to higher education in preparing them for their perceived roles in the larger society. The chapter introduction draws on Archibald DeBow Murphey's 1827 Commencement address to define some of the benefits a college education conferred on students attending the University. Approximately half of the students enrolled during this period would leave the University without a diploma; the rest invariably became physicians, lawyers and politicians, ministers, or planters. The chapter includes documents commenting on the suitability of the antebellum curriculum in preparing students for these professions.
Chapter Three (1830-39) provides details about daily life in the University. The introductory essays use archival materials to reconstruct the students' daily routine, signaled by the ringing of the college bell, that began and ended with prayers in the chapel and that saw most students attending three recitations per day. An essay also describes the role of slaves and servants, who built the campus and made the lives of students and faculty members comfortable. Documents included in this chapter explain how students traveled to and from Chapel Hill, how they spent their Christmas holidays, and what activities engaged them during the week-long annual commencement exercises each June. The chapter also includes a four-speech commencement debate, held in the Dialectic Society Hall on June 22, 1836.
Chapter Four (1840-49) emphasizes school writing, the compositions, speeches, and other academic assignments that faculty considered an important part of the college curriculum. Among other documents, the chapter includes senior speeches, sophomore compositions, and writings intended to fulfill what appears to have been a junior composition requirement. An introductory essay draws inferences from Professor William Mercer Green's 1848-49 grade book about how much and what kinds of writing were assigned to antebellum University students.
Chapter Five (1850-59) focuses on the activities of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies. These organizations, entirely run by students, offered their own parallel curriculum in reading, writing, declamation, and public speaking. They also provided important social outlets for students enjoying few other diversions in a small college town. Drawing on records of these societies, an introductory essay examines students' roles in and regard for these organizations, and the chapter itself includes a complete set of four Dialectic Society speeches delivered as a debate on the evening of June 2, 1857.
Chapter Six (1860-68) traces the effects of the Civil War on the University and its students. Though the institution remained open throughout the war, students found it increasingly difficult to continue their educations amid the growing social and economic upheaval attending the conflict. By the end of the decade, the death of so many promising young men, the financial ruin of many southern families, and the harsh politics of Reconstruction forced the institution to close its doors. The documents in this final chapter depict the initial enthusiasm of young men eager to enlist and the realization for those who survived the war that the future was disturbingly uncertain.

1. Williams graduated in 1809, the same year in which young Watters died. Williams served in the NC General Assembly (1816-17) and on the University's board of trustees (1840-68).