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A Southern University
James L. Leloudis
Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


In the antebellum era, the mission of the University of North Carolina was to make young men into masters, in all of the varied meanings of that word. Sons of a slaveholding elite ventured to Chapel Hill from every corner of the South. By the 1850s, nearly forty percent of the student body came from out of state, and with an enrollment approaching five hundred, the University of North Carolina ranked second only to Yale in size. As defenders of human inequality in an age of natural rights, the University's patrons felt uneasy with the ideas of perfection and reform that were spreading throughout much of the western world during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Parents sought for their sons an education that affirmed the fixity of human relations and prepared them to command authority in their households, in their communities, and in the halls of government. Young men came to Chapel Hill to confirm their place in society, not to discover a prescription for remaking their world.1
That purpose was reflected in the routines of the classroom. Faculty at the antebellum University viewed knowledge as a body of established truths, rather than as methods of inquiry and investigation. The course of study was fixed, and recitation—that is, memory work—was the favored method of instruction. By the time of graduation, college men had stored away the poetry of Horace, the orations of Cicero and Demosthenes, and the epic tales of Homer and Virgil. They had learned to seek knowledge in authoritative texts rather than their own interrogation of the world. And most important of all, in a society in which power was exercised primarily by means of the spoken word—in the pulpit, at the bar, in the legislative hall—graduates of the University had acquired the ability, as one alumnus put it, to " speak and act as a man." 2
University alumni fared well in the antebellum world. By the 1860s the school had produced a president and vice-president of the United States, twenty governors, eight U.S. senators, forty-one members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and innumerable judges, state legislators, and justices of the peace. But that record offered diminishing comfort to a society threatened on all sides by growing opposition to slavery and the expanding economic might of the North. The 1850s brought forth new voices on campus demanding measures of individual worth more substantive than personal style.3
A handful of dissenters among the faculty and the board of trustees set out to compete with the North on its own terms. In 1852 they gained approval to establish a School for the Application of Science to the Arts. Conceived as part of a larger effort to modernize the South's slave economy, the program was meant "to prepare young men for professional life, as Engineers, Artisans, Chemists, Farmers, Miners, and Physicians."4 But the Bachelor of Science degree possessed none of the prestige of the B.A. and attracted few full-time students. Many college men simply substituted one of the school's courses for work in the ancient languages or constitutional law during the second term of their final year. Others expressed open opposition.
Although critics of the scientific school gloried in the material progress of the nineteenth century, they distrusted the restless, speculative habit of mind on which those advances depended. In a series of remarkable indictments of the scientific spirit, James McNabb, Thomas Cowan, and David Worth warned their classmates that the "torch of civil war" was about to be lit by "the same genius that originated the railway and the steamship." The powers of inventiveness and imagination responsible for Samuel Morse's "Magnetic Telegraph" and John Ericsson's "Caloric engine," they declared, also stood accountable for the "wild dreams and dangerous speculations" of the "Hell hounds of abolitionism." The young men spoke those words with special urgency in the spring of 1857, in part, because they had recently witnessed evidence of science's pernicious influence within their own institution. During the prior term, Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick , an honor graduate on the University in 1851 and Professor of Agricultural Chemistry, had been driven from campus after admitting his support for John C. Fremont , the Republican antislavery candidate for President of the United States. The doubt and intolerance fed by Hedrick's apostasy—together with the indifference of President Swain , who "bought no books, and provided no apparatus for [laboratory] instruction" —left the scientific school in a precarious position. Without adequate funding or facilities, it limped along from one semester to the next, always on the margins of college life.5
Each student had his own reasons for turning away from a more open curriculum, but given the political climate of the 1850s, apprehension for the future clearly ranked chief among them. At a time when the forces of history seemed to be on the side of the South's enemies, ancient orthodoxies—not science—captured student loyalty. They affirmed the immutability of human inequality and offered assurance that the past was yet alive, that nothing need change. College men found among the Greeks and Romans a society much like their own, a society in which slavery and political democracy coexisted in a purported balance of order and liberty. The senior faculty, too, sought refuge in tradition. By the time of the Civil War, President Swain and his elder colleagues had governed the University for more than a quarter of a century. Their identities had been forged in service to the classical curriculum; they were too old to accept radical innovation. Their only option, as one historian has observed, was "to hold on, perhaps making minor concessions," hoping that they and their institution would survive the assault of a hostile world.6

Endnotes:

1. The account that follows is adapted from James 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. Address of William Hill, October 25, 1843, folder 10, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records #40152, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

3. Kemp P. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina (Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1907 and 1912), I:783, 832-36.

4. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:642-44.

5. "Our Union, Will it be Preserved?," senior oration of James McNabb, March 1857, folder 20; "Progress: Moral & Material," senior oration of Thomas Cowan, August 20, 1857, folder 4; "Progress of Humbuggery," address of David G. Worth, April 9, 1853, folder 30, series, 2.1, Dialectic Society Records; Monty Woodall Cox, "Freedom During the Fremont Campaign: The Fate of One North Carolina Republican in 1856," North Carolina Historical Review 45 (October 1968): 357-83; and Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:780. For more on student concerns over the dangers of imagination and speculation, see "Have Men of Action been more beneficial to the world than men of Thought?" speech by Hugh T. Brown, June 2, 1857, folder 2, and debater's speech of Lee M. McAfee, June 2, 1857, folder 20, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records.

6. Laurence R. Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), p. 9. On the faculty and their length of service, see "North and South Carolina Colleges," Southern Literary Messenger 22 (January 1856): 69.