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Common Nonsense: The Surprising Role of Penn, Columbia, and William and Mary in the Atlantic Revolutionary Era
Final Addendum: a Comparison with South America

After analyzing these North American colleges and their roles in the Revolutionary War, we find that they are analogous in many respects to conservative Latin American institutions. The historians John Roberts, Águeda M. Rodríguez Cruz, and Jurgen Herbst in their chapter, “Exporting Models” in the larger book, Universities in Early Modern Europe, argue that the defining difference between Latin American colonial colleges and those of North America was that a typical Latin one was generally “an orthodox institution whose main task was to provide society with an oligarchy wedded to the purposes of church and state.”239 According to these authors, British North American colleges on the other hand possessed a diversity of structures and goals, considerable tolerance of expression, visible academic and intellectual creativity, and a prodigious level of autonomy from the metropolis.240 In light of such observations, one could easily but mistakenly draw the conclusion then that the leadership and faculty of North American colonial colleges would distance themselves from the Mother Country much more so than did Latin American institutions, and that each group overall would have different political legacies during their respective independence movements.

While perhaps not widely known, from 1538-1800, the Spanish, whom William Smith derided as “our feebler neighbors” developed almost thirty colleges in modern day Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Cuba, Venezuela, Paraguay, and Panama.241 Interestingly, the Portuguese never founded an institution of higher learning in their colonial territories, the first university in Brazil being that of Rio de Janeiro in 1922. The Spanish implanted the traditions of the European university model into their New World institutions, and the Spanish Empire’s pattern of intense ecclesiastical and metropolitan control remained the norm throughout the colonial period.

Running parallel to the history of many of the North American colleges, the Spanish founded these institutions to train prospective clergymen and offer criollos the same honors and prerogatives as men born in Castile. Developing new clergymen was also essential to the conversion and hispanization of the native population, a key step in integrating natives into the profit-making settlements and communities of the New World. In some matters these colleges were directly subject to the Holy See. For instance, many had to apply to Rome for permission to institute chairs of theology and canon law. Other institutions had Dominican, Jesuit, or Augustinian founders, overseers, and teachers. Needless to say, the Catholic Church possessed a tremendous influence over these colleges, many of which were scrutinized by the Inquisition.242

Just as the Church of England went hand in hand with British royal authority, so too did the Catholic Church and the power of the Spanish Crown. To an even greater degree in the Spanish world, loyalty to the church meant loyalty to the state. As the author Carlos Tünnerman states (my translation), “The majority of the colonial universities were at the same time ecclesiastical and royal,” monitored and controlled by church and state officials.243 Spanish colonists generally encountered greater cultural resistance by the local native populations (with such peoples as the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans demonstrating a great degree of cultural sophistication and sagacity) than English settlers did, and so naturally wanted to place firm controls against such intellectual and religious counter-traditions with their own closely monitored institutions. Besides relying on the watchful eye of the church, the state itself took a direct role in overseeing these colleges. Most of the new institutions required royal authorization, and the Council of the Indies (a body located in Seville) closely supervised the actions of many of these schools. For example, the Council required compulsory tests to check academic adequacy in teaching in the first year of the University of Lima’s existence. The King would often grant essential funding to such universities and might even institute curriculum reform, as Charles III did in 1771.244 Such officious behavior according to Tünnerman was done “to serve the interests of…the church and of the higher classes of society together with reinforcing the ties of dependency to the metropolis” (my translation and emphasis).245 The Spanish Crown aspired to as total as possible domination over their colonies, and colleges that were obsequious to royal power were an excellent means of doing just that.

Similar to many of the North American colleges, those in Latin America generally played not a very significant role in their respective independence movements. Certainly there were some, such as the Universities of San Marcos, Chuquisaca, Mexico, and Cuzco whose professors made “dangerous” lectures or whose alumni were part of the various Constitutional Congresses.246 In many of these institutions the ideas of the Enlightenment seeped into the classroom and formed some independent conscience in various students. But for the most part, these colleges kept to the margins during the intellectual debates preceding the wars for independence.247 It is not surprising that new ideologies were not formed or overtly encouraged in places that had such strict monarchical and ecclesiastical management and origins. Most instructors, of whom the majority were clergymen, like Smith, Camm, and Cooper, turned out to be faithful to their Mother Country as well as rigid and traditional forms of ecclesiastical scholasticism.248 Thus we see that perhaps North American colleges as institutions were not so different from Latin American colleges. During this revolutionary era throughout the Americas most institutions of higher learning possessed leadership that either kept to the side of the conflict or promoted the traditional loyalties to church and state. Thus Roberts, Rodríguez Cruz, and Herbst’s notion that North American colleges were more politically autonomous than were Latin ones was not a large causal factor in these British colonies’ earlier independence movement. Most North American colleges similarly did little to drive forward revolutionary efforts or sentiments.

True, there were many differences between British North American and Latin American colleges in terms of their levels of connection and control of the metropolis, strong link to a unitary church, and, some might argue tolerance of expression and visible academic and intellectual creativity and ingenuity. But this final section of the essay has sought to break down some of the potential stereotypes in terms of the level of involvement by colonial institutions of higher learning in their countries’ independence movements. Three out of the nine British North American institutions of higher learning exhibited high initial levels of loyalism and devotion to the Monarchy from their leaders, a trend quite in line with the actions and stances of many of their counterparts in Latin America. The other six, with the noted exception of the College of New Jersey, demonstrated a listless attitude and an existence on the sidelines during the War of Independence that also ran parallel to the actions of most of the Latin American universities. Neither group of institutions, for the most part, sparked revolutionary thought or action. Most of these colleges let radical political movements penetrate and eventually alter them, rather than initially spread provocative philosophies inside their halls or out into their tumultuous world.


239. John Roberts, Águeda M. Rodríguez Cruz, and Jurgen Herbst, “Exporting Models,” in Universities in Early Modern Europe, ed. Hilde De Ridder-Symoens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 281.

240. Ibid.

241. William Smith, “To the Friends of Religion and Patrons of Liberty and Useful Knowledge,” January, 1772, UARC, UPA3, Box 33, Folder 1939; Roberts, Rodríguez Cruz, and Herbst, 266.

242. Roberts, Rodríguez Cruz, and Herbst, 256-257, 262-270.

243. Carlos Tunnerman, Historia de la Universidad en America Latina: De la epoca colonial a la Reforma de Cordoba (San Jose, Costa Rica: Editorial Universitaria CentroAmericana, 1991), 37-38.

244. Roberts, Rodríguez Cruz, and Herbst, 258-259, 261-270.

245. Tünnerman, 38.

246. Ibid., 89.

247. Ibid., 88.

248. After independence, local governments forced many of these institutions to nationalize and modernize, establish a professional emphasis and institute a separation of different schools, as well as promote the political unity and stability of the state. The College of Philadelphia’s 1779 transition displays a similar trend, i.e. the new government appropriating a traditional institution of higher learning and converting it to serve the political interests of the new regime. Ibid., 91-92.