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Revolution and Retrenchment
James L. Leloudis
Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


The University of North Carolina was born of revolution. When the American colonists declared their independence from Britain in 1776, they embarked upon a radical experiment in politics and government. They rejected the long-established authority of monarchs and hereditary aristocrats, embracing instead the ideal of a republic: a society of citizens, not subjects. But how was such a society to be governed? And how could it best protect itself from the ever-present dangers of tyranny at one extreme and anarchy at the other? The answer, argued the revolutionary generation, was to be found in education, which alone among all social institutions had the ability to strip away the pretensions of inherited privilege and to produce what Thomas Jefferson described as a "natural aristocracy" of gentlemen rulers. Thus it was in the new republic that higher education came to be a concern of government. The revolutionary era witnessed the founding of numerous new colleges throughout the former colonies, but most notable of all was the appearance of a novel institution: the public university, tied not to religious denominations, but to the secular needs of a republican polity. North Carolina's constitution of 1776 anticipated that development by calling for the creation of "one or more universities" in which "all useful learning shall be duly encouraged and promoted." Lawmakers in Georgia were the first in the new nation to charter a public college. They did so in 1785, followed in quick succession by their counterparts in North Carolina (1789) and Vermont (1791). The University of North Carolina admitted its first students in 1795, well ahead of the University of Vermont (1800) and the University of Georgia (1801). On that basis, Carolina has long claimed pride of place as the nation's "first public university."1
Carolina's trustees established the campus and surrounding town in 1792 on land donated by local planters. The site straddled the intersection of important north-south and east-west trading roads, which within the town limits were dubbed Columbia and Franklin streets in honor of the new nation and its most celebrated gentleman patriot. The location had been marked earlier by an Anglican church, from which the community took its name: New Hope Chapel Hill. On October 12, 1793—the anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World—the University's trustees laid the cornerstone of Carolina's first building, a two-story brick structure that later came to be known as Old East . For two years, that building alone constituted the University campus. Person Hall , used as a chapel, was completed in 1797. A year later, construction began on Main (now South ) building, but a lack of funds delayed its completion until 1814.
When the first students—fifty-one in number—arrived in Chapel Hill in the spring of 1795, they encountered an institution that bore the imprint of a revolution of ideas as well as politics. The markings of the Enlightenment—symbolic and substantive—were apparent at every turn. The trustees had laid out the campus on an east-west axis, so that it was oriented toward ancient Egypt, whose priests Enlightenment thinkers celebrated as the first masters of scientific knowledge of the heavens, and the rising face of Apollo (often equated with Helios, god of the sun, and master of the muses), whose image adorned the University seal. Likewise, the curriculum reflected the influence of English and French freethinkers and an Enlightenment faith in the capacity of human reason to know and transform the world. That course of study was the handiwork of William Richardson Davie , a former officer in the Continental Army, freemason, deist, and author of the University's charter. Under Davie's plan, science and modern languages stood on an equal footing with the classics of ancient Greece and Rome, and students were free to pursue their choice of two diplomas. One was the traditional Latin diploma, for young men who wished to master an ancient tongue; the other was in English, for those who concentrated on science, modern literature and politics, and who read the classics only in translation. Bemused by those offerings, one critic quipped that here in a rural backwater, "the age of reason" had surely dawned.2
The University's experiment in Enlightenment pedagogy survived for less than a decade. By the opening years of the nineteenth century, it had been swallowed up in the tide of reaction that was sweeping across Europe and America in the wake of the French Revolution. The troubles here broke to the surface in 1799, when students rose up in open rebellion. A sparse archival record makes details hard to come by, but the revolt seems to have started with the expulsion of an especially popular young man for disobedience to college rules. Other students rallied to his defense, and in the week of rioting that followed, they horsewhipped the president of the University, "waylaid and stoned" one of the professors, and harassed the others with threats of similar harm. Samuel McCorkle , a Presbyterian minister and one of William Davie's harshest critics among the University's trustees, blamed the unrest on what he described as Chapel Hill's "Jacobine system of education."3 With its emphasis on the contemporary world and elective studies, he argued, the University's Enlightenment curriculum cultivated an excess of liberty together with disrespect for tradition and all forms of established authority. (Here were the culture wars of the eighteenth century, in many ways not so different from the culture wars of our time.) McCorkle warned that unless abandoned, Davie's plan of college studies would soon perpetuate in America the same forces of infidelity, freethinking, and moral decay that had corrupted France's revolution and unleashed the Reign of Terror. Shaken by McCorkle's warning, and fearful of anarchy, the University's trustees beat a hasty retreat to the classics. By 1804, they had abolished the English diploma together with Davie's system of electives and had restored Greek and Latin as the twin pillars of instruction.
At first glance, Chapel Hill's return to the classical fold seems to have placed it well within the mainstream of American higher education. The student riot of 1799 was one of many such upheavals that rocked campuses across the nation as sons of the American Revolution tested the limits of a democratic society. From Harvard and Yale to tiny Transylvania University in the backwoods of Kentucky, college leaders responded with a common antidote. They administered heavy doses of classical learning and evangelical piety—one to discipline the mind, the other to tame the passions. 4
James K. Polk , a student at Chapel Hill and later President of the United States, explained his teachers' suspicion of the unfettered intellect's capacity for speculation and abstraction. "Invention, that ennobling faculty of our nature," he observed, "has by progressive steps enabled man to soar from his earthly habitations and view the magnificence of creation, to explain phenomena that astonished nature's son, and deduce such natural laws as declare, 'The hand that made him was divine.'" But that same quality of mind could just as easily inspire "a Paine, a Hume and a Bolinbroke as the harbinger of infidelity." It was against such misuse of the mind's "inventive powers" that the classics were mobilized. The ancient languages were difficult to learn, and therefore left students with little time for mental idleness and temptation. By the same token, the "writers of ancient Greece and Rome" supplied impressionable young men with "the purest precepts of . . . morality, delivered in the most concise and emphatic manner." Doubters might have questioned the wisdom of attempting to construct a Christian republic on a foundation of pagan texts, but proponents of the orthodox curriculum were armed with ready answers. "By the study of [the classics]," declared a North Carolina student, "we see the folly of [Greek and Roman] Gods and we are enabled to comprehend more clearly the superiority and omnipotence of our own." Just in case such lessons failed to register, he added, "every piece of immorality is carefully excluded from our text books."5
The architects of this retrenchment to the classics belonged to a transatlantic community of conservative thinkers who felt at odds with the age of revolution in which they lived. They distrusted popular democracy and defended the authority of the "best men" to govern. Over the next half century, their views shaped the political sensibilities of successive generations of college students. Robert H. Cowan , a member of the University of North Carolina's class of 1844, was one of them. His junior oration demonstrated how easily the ancient past could be turned to traditionalist purposes. Before an audience of classmates transfixed by his rhetorical skill, Cowan praised patrician Rome as a model of civil society. "As long as the relation between patron and client was recognized, as long as the plebeians acknowledged their dependence upon the higher order," he declared, "so long did peace and prosperity reign throughout the State. . . . But when the days of [Rome's] democracy drew nigh, 'Oh what a fall was there!' . . . A Barbarian chieftain [was] soon seated upon the throne of the Caesars . . . Light, learning, civilization, and refinement fled the land, and eternal night shrouded the whole world as in one universal pale of deep, dark, and dismal ignorance." That reading of Roman history was—to say the least—creative, but such quibbling was beside the point. Rome's tragedy was undeniable, and to Cowan's way of seeing, it offered ample evidence that "the people, swayed as they are by prejudice and passion . . . must be governed by an aristocracy."6
Robert Cowan spoke to broad ideological principles that crossed regional lines and informed higher education throughout antebellum America. But such commonalties can hide as much as they reveal. They obscure the fact that by the late 1830s many southern colleges had begun to steer their own course. The rise of abolitionism in the North gave a new twist to old arguments for the stabilizing influence of classical learning. In Chapel Hill, faculty and students charged anti-slavery activists with committing the same sin as the French philosophes: they had elevated human reason above divine revelation, and, in their arrogance, had unleashed the demons of anarchy. Southern collegians viewed the abolitionist crusade as the leading edge of a false doctrine of perfectionism that denied the innate depravity of mankind and promised the world a redemption that only Christ could deliver. That misguided philanthropy, they argued, had spawned a host of other dangerous impulses—Mormonism, free love, feminism, spiritualism, and socialism—that threatened to burst the "ties of nature" and undermine all forms of established authority. "Unless checked by some contrasting force," William Waightstill Avery warned in his senior oration, "this impetuous current" would soon "engulph in its whirlpool our government, our law, and even civilization itself." Avery and his teachers found their only promise of safety in "communion with departed ages," rejecting the contested truths of the present for the comforting certainties of the past. In making that choice, they revealed just how far the University had strayed from its founders' vision. By the time of the Civil War, the college had become less a national institution than a provincial outpost, set apart by a festering ambivalence toward free thought.7

Endnotes:

1. On the founding of the University of North Carolina, see Kemp P. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina (Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1907 and 1912), I:1-70. The University of Virginia was chartered in 1819 and enrolled its first students in 1823. The account that follows is adapted from James L. Leloudis, Schooling the New South: Pedagogy, Self, and Society in North Carolina, 1880-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), chapter 2.

2. John H. Hobart to Joseph Caldwell, November 30, 1796, in Robert D.W. Connor, comp., A Documentary History of the University of North Carolina, 1776-1799 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953), II:79.

3. For McCorkle's views on Davie's curriculum, see Samuel E. McCorkle to John Haywood, December 20, 1799, series 1, folder 27, in the Ernest Haywood Collection #1290, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and McCorkle, Work of God for the French Revolution (Salisbury: Francis Coupee, 1798).

4. Steven J. Novak, The Rights of Youth: American Colleges and Student Revolt, 1798-1815 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977).

5. Address of James K. Polk, n.d., folder 24; address of M. F. Taylor, March 9, 1861, folder 28; inaugural address of Thomas B. Slade, September 10, 1819, folder 25; and junior speech of E. B. Withers, 1858, folder 30, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records #40152, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For other student defenses of the classical curriculum, see address of [William Bingham] Lynch, n.d. (ca. 1858), folder 15; address of Iveson L. Brookes, September 1818, folder 2; and address of Angus C. McNeill, April 17, 1839, folder 20; and unsigned address, July 17, 1852, folder 27, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records.

6. Address of Robert H. Cowan, May 19, 1843, folder 4, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records. Novak, Rites of Youth, and Miller, The Revolutionary College: American Presbyterian Higher Education, 1707-1837 (New York: New York University Press, 1976), pp. 259-93, place events in Chapel Hill in a larger national and international context.

7. Senior oration of Edward T. Sykes, [1858], folder 27; "Progress of Humbuggery," address by David G. Worth, April 9, 1853, folder 28; "Progress: Moral & Material," senior oration of Thomas Conway, August 20, 1857, folder 4; "The American Union a Failure," senior speech of E. B. Withers, November 7, 1858, folder 30; address of A.C. McNeill, July 28, 1838, folder 20; address of W. W. Avery, n.d. (ca. 1837), folder 1; senior oration of James A. Wright, October 29, 1853, folder 30; valedictory address of Peter King Rounsaville, June 5, 1844, folder 24; valedictory address of Belfield W. Cave, May 1848, folder 3; and address of R. M. Roseborough, February 1832, folder 24, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records. For a faculty perspective, see Elisha Mitchell, Other Leaf of the Book of Nature and the Word of God (N.p.: n.p., 1848).