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Common Nonsense: The Surprising Role of Penn, Columbia, and William and Mary in the Atlantic Revolutionary Era
The Other Six Colonial Colleges

The other six colleges in colonial North America during the Revolution, with the exception of the College of New Jersey, were not particularly politically active in the conflict. Harvard (founded in 1636 by Puritans), Yale (founded in 1701 by Congregationalists), the College of Rhode Island (now Brown, founded in 1764 by Baptists), Queen’s College (now Rutgers, founded in 1766 by members of the Dutch Reformed Church), the College of New Jersey (now Princeton, founded in 1746 by Presbyterians), and Dartmouth (founded in 1769 under Congregational auspices) did not possess the Anglican origins that linked the primary leaders of the College of Philadelphia, William and Mary, and King’s College to England. Furthermore, none of these other six colleges (with the exception of Dartmouth) received financial support from the Crown.222 Nevertheless, they may not have contributed as much to the intellectual sparks of the revolution as some may suppose. Harvard did have the more liberal presidents Edward Holyoke who served from 1737-1769 and Samuel Langdon (1774-1780), and famous Patriotic alumni such as John and Samuel Adams and James Otis. But so too did Harvard produce and possess key Tory faculty, such as Isaac Smith who fled to England in 1775, and alumni, such as the infamous Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, who was the victim of patriotic mob violence.223 Queen’s College too promoted some levels of Patriotism, with temporary president, faculty member, and trustee Jacob Hardenbergh and John Taylor, the first tutor at Queen’s, supporting the revolution from the beginning. On the other hand most of the Dutch Reformed faculty members played no recorded significant role in spreading Patriotic sentiments in their teaching to their pupils.224 Next came Yale, which Nathan Hale and four signers of the Declaration of Independence could claim as their Alma Mater. Yale had a patriotic president in Ezra Stiles, but also possessed Loyalists among its graduates and only a few professors brazen enough to protest the Stamp Act and other taxes.225 The College of Rhode Island on the other hand possessed a leadership more akin to the College of Philadelphia, with a president in James Manning who, contrary to some previous interpretation, actually did not welcome the rebellion. Manning hoped for renewed peaceful relationship with the mother country and the re-flourishing of harmony and religion, which thus circumscribed some of his students’ more radical revolutionary drive.226 Finally, Dartmouth was even less patriotic, as its president, Eleazar Wheelock led most of the faculty in expressing tepid responses, constant hopes for reconciliation, and equivocal responses to questions of rebellion. Wheelock, like the first trustees at King’s, William and Mary, and Philadelphia, had used his English connections (especially the patronage of the Earl of Dartmouth) to establish the school, which was situated in one of the most conservative colonies of the future United States.227 As to be expected, few noted Patriots came from this institution. 

The authority of the official British governing class possessed no noticeable influence on these colleges, and so Revolutionary forces and new state governments did not interfere with their charters, leaders, or organization.228 But many faculty members in these colleges were primarily committed to their careers as clergymen, and schools such as Rhode Island and Yale followed in the European tradition of exemption from military service.229 Most important to this analysis though is that from what evidence survives these other colleges offered virtually no contemporary moral philosophical works in their curricula. Queen’s and the College of Rhode Island show no record of any text by leading enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu, or Hutcheson being part of any courses. At the schools that did offer such readings, Harvard and Yale, the emphasis was on ethical rather than political interpretations. Jean Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural and Politic Law, which asserted notions of popular sovereignty and the consent of the governed, was the only profound political reading available for study at Harvard, and at Yale only Thomas Clap’s occasional lectures on British law, justice, history, and commerce provided students with any political instruction. The trustees at Dartmouth refused to adopt a course of study that would offer instruction on “the Spirit of Laws, the nature of Liberty and Civil Government” in 1776, indicating the lack of political emphasis in its moral philosophy course. The more conservative President Wheelock taught this class, and so we can assume with the absence of evidence that he shied away from discussing any political implications of the moral philosophical tracts that were read.230 Thus while these colleges generally harbored little affinity to the Crown in the lead-up to the war, they did not contribute propitiously to the fighting, the revolution’s ideals, or sparking radical political thought in their students or the wider community. Such points have not been emphasized enough even in more contemporary studies such as those done by Robson, Roche, and Hoeveler, who have argued that all nine colonial colleges provided future Patriots with invaluable intellectual material from which to define their purposes and justify their actions of rebellion. Like most institutions at the time, they had produced a good amount of Patriots from their ranks, and yet with such counter-views by some faculty, students, trustees or an absence of strong political moral philosophical teachings (or both) can these institutions really be credited heavily for initiating notions of revolt and independence? Patrick Henry, one of the earliest and most virulent Patriots, was tutored at home and thus received his politicization not from a college but from his own interpretations of important texts and ideas. Most students from these less active colleges probably likewise became Patriots because of personal analysis and enlightenment rather than what their Alma Maters’ leadership was teaching them.

The College of New Jersey can be seen as one exception, as its President John Witherspoon of New Jersey was the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, a prominent Patriot, and a member of Congress from 1776-1782.231 This institution offered a comprehensive curriculum that featured virtually all of the more recent works on moral philosophy (and their political implications), including those of Locke and Hutcheson that would help form revolutionary thinking in America.232 It also produced prominent Patriots such as James Madison and Aaron Burr who were unequivocally influenced by Witherspoon’s and other faculty members’ early lectures and classes.233 This institution not only provided students with radical political texts and courses, most of its Patriot-leaning faculty were mentors for its young scholars. The College of New Jersey too was the only institution whose student body performed large-scale collective anti-British acts such as hanging a British spokesman in effigy and holding their own tea party, by burning the college steward’s tea.234 But even this institution had a Board of Trustees that successfully barred a senior, Samuel Leake, from giving the salutatory oration at his commencement in 1774 for participating in the effigy-burning.235

The author John F. Roche correctly argues that most of these colleges were confronted by Patriot leaders to commit concretely to the Revolution. 236 Thus instead of being sources and drivers of radical political discourse and change, they mainly conformed to the attitudes of the day. Some leaders were patriots at these institutions, and their mentorship most definitely encouraged other students to follow their political convictions.237 But most of these Patriotic leaders did not heavily display or encourage ideas of Patriotism until the war had actually started, turning patriot rather than driving forward revolutionary sentiment.238 Some colleges did offer the tools to form revolutionary ideas, the texts on moral philosophy, but in the schools with more mixed to Patriotic leadership these texts either were not part of the curriculum or were not taught in a manner that emphasized their political implications or republicanism and revolt. Only in the College of New Jersey did most of the leadership (although not all of the trustees) espouse early revolutionary sentiment and teach courses that would unmistakably provoke students to apply moral philosophical texts to their present political situation. The other eight colonial colleges did not present this two-step politicization geared to foster ideas of republicanism, revolution, and independence in their students. We therefore see that the supposed distinguished and progressive popular legacies of many of these institutions, as bastions of republican thought encouraging the revolution in their communities and student bodies from early on, may not be entirely accurate as well.


222. Roche, 3-4, Stoeckel, 45.

223. Samuel Eliot Morison, Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942), 90-91; Hoeveler, 250-251.

224. Robson, 114, 120.

225. Brooks Mather Kelly, Yale: A History (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974), 83-88.

226. Hoeveler, 273-275; Rueben Aldridge Guild, Early History of Brown University (Providence: Printed by Snow & Farnham, 1897), 286-287.

227. Paul W. Wilderson, Governor John Wentworth and the American Revolution: The English Connection (Hanover, N.H.: Universit Press of New Enlgand, 1994), 63, 222.

228. Stoeckel, 55.

229. Roche, 76.

230. Robson, 81-83.

231. Ibid., 50.

232. Robson, 81-82.

233. Hoeveler, 302.

234. Humphrey, 152-153.

235. Roche, 54.

236. Ibid, 133.

237. Robson, 88.

238. With the exception of New Jersey and possibly some at Queen’s College and Harvard.