Archives > Historical Features > Exhibits

UNIVERSITY HISTORY

Common Nonsense: The Surprising Role of Penn, Columbia, and William and Mary in the Atlantic Revolutionary Era
The College of William and Mary

The College of William and Mary also was connected profoundly to both Britain and the Church of England. From its founding in 1693, every seven years the Board of Visitors (trustees) of the college elected a ceremonial leader of their institution, the chancellor. In colonial times this was always either the Bishop of London or the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose altruism often helped the school survive during tough times.105 William and Mary’s professors were almost exclusively Oxford trained and ordained Anglican ministers as well. So great was their connection to the Church of England that six of the faculty were in the discussion to be the first Bishop of Virginia. The college also was beholden to royal authority, as some collegiate disputes and appeals found their way all the way to the Royal Privy Council and the King himself. Fundraising campaigns, like Smith’s famous one, also targeted prominent Britons.106 To round off the connections between the Mother Country and William and Mary, the President of the College, who mediated between the visitors and the faculty, was almost always English and a priest of the Church of England.107

On the other side of this battle of control, colonial and local-minded leaders began to dominate the Board of Visitors during the eighteenth century as native-born plantation owners in particular increased their wealth. William and Mary’s faculty members however enjoyed more power than any other group of professors in the colonies, sharing many decision-making abilities with the Board of Visitors, controlling the property of the college, and enjoying representation in the Virginian local legislature (the House of Burgesses).108 The power struggle between the visitors and faculty, the two already vying for more control over the school, was only aggravated by the political events of the 1760s and 70s that separated these two camps even further. William and Mary was set up as a battleground in any conflict that involved the local interests of Virginia versus those of the British Isles.

Notable members from both sides of the Revolutionary conflict associated themselves with this institution. For instance, we find that somewhat remarkably among the graduates of the college were four signers of the Declaration of Independence, including its author, Thomas Jefferson. A young George Washington had obtained his surveyor’s license from William and Mary. But even so, the majority of the faculty and leadership of this institution would try to steer the college and its students in a Loyalist direction until it was forced to reconstitute itself in 1777.109

Primary among these leaders was John Camm. President of the College of William and Mary from 1771-1777, Camm was an Oxford-educated, English-born, and loyal Anglican clergyman, a consistent and ardent supporter of the Crown’s prerogative, and a man who often butted heads with the likes of Patrick Henry.110 Before becoming president, he debated with the House of Burgesses and Henry over the Two-Penny Act, passed by the Virginia Colonial Legislature but vetoed by a young King George III, which limited the salaries of colonial Anglican clergymen. In scorning this act and the local leaders’ neglect of the royal veto, Camm warned that, “If we could destroy the Substance of the King’s Power, or the Rights of the Crown…we should only Sap one of the strongest Batteries, erected for the defense of Liberty and Property.”111  Later he joined many of his fellow faculty members in the deprecation of the violent Stamp Act protests of 1765 and 1766. In 1769, a spirited newspaper exchange asserted that Camm was either unwilling or unable to translate a few lines of Virgil that had a patriotic meaning applicable to Virginia’s quarrels with England, prompting charges that the reverend was un-favorable to the nascent American cause (or incompetent). Camm did little to counter such attacks. For example, he pledged to render the students under his care favorable to the new Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, who constituted the executive branch of Virginian politics. The president also congratulated Dunmore on his completion of the Indian Campaign in 1774 even though Dunmore had just prorogued the House of Burgesses because of its protest against the Coercive Acts. Finally, in 1775 he advocated that it was in Virginia and Britain’s best interest for the colony to obtain no more than dominion status (i.e. not become independent).112 Camm firmly believed that the best path forward for peace, prosperity, liberty, and property rights lay by remaining loyal to royal authority, and desperately wanted those in his school and community to agree.

Many of the president’s fellow faculty supported him, also pledging loyalty to Dunmore. One professor, Thomas Gwatkin, even became the governor’s personal chaplain.113 Gwatkin was also a key supporter of instituting a Bishopric in America, but only if it were to be created by Ecclesiastical power in England, not in America. He argued this point by stating that “no Person is capable of holding a Parish in Virginia unless he receives his ordination from a Bishop in England” and that “Clergymen ordained by a Virginian Prelate cannot exercise their Functions in this Province.”114 Clearly Gwatkin considered religious authority stemming from England to be omnipotent in the colonies. Gwatkin also refused to deliver a sermon to local Virginia legislators during the solemn day of fasting and prayer in response to Parliament’s Boston Port Act after learning that Virginia’s Royal Governor had prorogued the House of Burgesses.115 Gwatkin would not back an institution that Dunmore did not endorse. A year later, in 1775, Gwatkin declared his “Abhorrence of… all unlawful combinations of riots and insurrections” that were occurring throughout the colonies.116 Another Anglican and English-born faculty member, Samuel Henley, penned loyalist articles for the Virginia Gazette. He also preached a sermon before the House of Burgesses in 1772 that in Hobbesian fashion argued that royal authority was essential in “preserving the peace and property of [the State’s] members.”117 When another professor, the Grammar Master James Innes, dissented from this Loyalist policy and joined the local militia in 1775, Camm, Gwatkin, Henley and others tried to dismiss him, only to have their actions countered by the visitors.118 The faculty also banned the possession of arms by the students to try to prevent further defections to the local militia.119 Unlike the College of Philadelphia, none of the more radical moral philosophical essays that often inspired revolutionary sentiment, such as those of Locke, were part of the curriculum. The Loyalist Henley taught the course on moral philosophy, and one can assume no interpretation of the texts was made about the advantages or necessity of a republican government or just rebellion in his classes. The College of William and Mary focused on classical interpretations of Greek and Latin works such as those of Catullus and Horace instead, offering students few collegiate resources or even subtle encouragement to gain Patriotic politicization. 120

Such Tory views and actions provoked outrage and criticism by many local Whigs. Arthur Lee famously derided John Camm as the center of Loyalism in Virginia.121 After the battles of Lexington and Concord and Dunmore’s secret removal of gunpowder from the Williamsburg magazine, such contempt grew when Camm and most of his faculty continued to endorse the Royal Virginian governor. On May 16, 1775, a mob formed outside of Gwatkin’s house and beat ferociously at his door.122 While no one was hurt, the incident spooked Gwatkin so much that he and Henley followed Dunmore back to England a mere two weeks later. Henley later lamented that in America “the peculiar constitutions of our national church [have been] passed by without the least notice.”123 But while some faculty fled, the President stayed on to fight for his political stances.

Camm did not last very long. The Declaration of Independence utterly perplexed and shocked him. His institution operated under a royal charter, he and many of the faculty had strong connections with Britain, the head of the William and Mary hierarchy, the chancellor, was an English bishop, and much of the funds on which the college depended came from notable Britons. Thus in November 1776 he patently refused to drop the King’s name from surveyor’s commissions and other official documents, stating, “I am bound by an oath to perform my duty as a member of the College under the charter of its foundation granted by King William and Queen Mary of blessed memory.”124 Soon after, Camm also brazenly refused to take the oath of Allegiance to the Commonwealth of Virginia and thereby recognize the new revolutionary authorities.125 The visitors easily expunged such sequestered defiance after the departure of royal governors, troops, and many like-minded faculty members. In 1777 they brought formal charges of neglect and misconduct against Camm. Later that year, the visitors finally dismissed him from the college.126 The former president was forced to retreat to his parish in Yorkshire, England, where he died two years later.127

Camm’s replacement, James Madison, the second cousin of the more famous man by that name and virtually the only Whig member of the original faculty, served as president for the next thirty-five years. He presided over a college that looked vastly different from its pre-1777 days, an institution in which the visitors possessed a preponderance of power and where the primary pedagogical goal was to produce Patriots.128 No state-directed take-over occurred here, but the dynamic was similar to that of the College of Philadelphia. William and Mary progressed from an institution primarily directed and taught by Loyalists to one that the visitors compelled to reconstitute and champion the more revolutionary ideals of the day. New divisions would later open up between the more Republican and Anti-Federalist faculty and the more Federalist Board of Overseers, as the visitors would be called. The more radical Republican faculty actually gained a large overall influence over the future direction of the college.129 Yet like the College of Philadelphia, William and Mary was not on the front lines of spurring novel intellectual thought in the early stages of the American Revolution. Even as one looks at a list of the notable alumni that William and Mary produced, one must also note the profound initial Loyalist and traditional tenor of the faculty and president of that institution, and also the fact that at least some of its alumni and students became Tories as well.130 Far from purposefully advancing radical actions and in some ways counter to its common title as “the Alma Mater of a Nation,” many of the leaders and especially faculty of this school worked actively against these notions and in the defense of the Mother Country. Like many of the students of the College of Philadelphia, at least initially those of William and Mary would have to look mainly outside of the classroom, to pamphlets, speeches, newspapers, and their own reading of moral philosophical tracts to gain more iconoclastic beliefs.

 


105. Stoeckel, 46.

106.J. R. Morpurgo, Their Majesties’ Royall Colledge: William and Mary in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Williamsburg: The College of William and Mary in Virginia, 1976), 165-167.

107. The primary dissenter of this Toryism was the native-born Virginian William Stith, President from 1752-1755. When he pronounced clear apathy and criticism of the Crown, however, the Bishop of London severely upbraided him. Robson, 41.

108. Virginia was a royal colony at this time, unlike Pennsylvania, with a royal governor constituting the executive and the local House of Burgesses as the legislative branch. Roberts, Rodríguez Cruz, and Herbst, 272.

109. Morpurgo, 161-165.

110. Robson, 41-42.

111. John Camm, A single and distinct view of the act, vulgarly entitled, the Two-penny act: containing an account of it's beneficial and wholesome effects in York-Hampton parish. In which is exhibited a specimen of Col. Landon Carter's justice and charity; as well as of Col. Richard Bland's salus populi. By the Reverend John Camm, Rector of York-Hampton, (Annapolis: Printed by Jonas Green, for the author, 1763), 24 http://proxy.library.upenn.edu:5495/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/iw.newsbank.com:EAIX
&rft_val_format=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rft_dat=0F3015D1B1AF8738&svc_dat=Evans:eaidoc&req_dat=133796D8C5F145A6AA756665DE10107A 

112. Robson, 104-105.

113. Ibid., 41.

114. Thomas Gwatkin, A letter to the clergy of New York and New Jersey, occasioned by an address to the Episcopalians in Virginia. By the Reverend Thomas Gwatkin, professor of mathematicks, and natural philosophy, in William and Mary College. Williamsburg [Va.], 1772. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale, University of Pennsylvania Library,
http://find.galegroup.com/ecco/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=ECCO&userGroupName=upenn_main&tabID=T001&docId=CB131662245&type=multipage&contentSet=ECCOArticles&version=1.0&docLevel=FASCIMILE

115. Roche, 40.

116. Draft of Resolution, n.d., Gwatkin to his Uncle, March 4, 1775, Gwatkin Papers, Swem Library, William and Mary College.

117. Samuel Henley, The distinct claims of government and religion, considered in a sermon preached before the Honourable House of Burgesses, at Williamsburg, in Virginia, March 1, 1772. By S. Henley, Professor of Moral Philosophy, in William and Mary College. Cambridge, MDCCLXXII. [1772]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale, University of Pennsylvania Library,
http://find.galegroup.com/ecco/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=ECCO&userGroupName=upenn_main&tabID=T001&docId=CW122003592&type=multipage&contentSet=ECCOArticles&version=1.0&docLevel=FASCIMILE

118. Morpurgo, 170-175.

119. Robson, 105.

120. Ibid., 81-81.

121. Roche, 40.

122. Roche, 73-74.

123. Samuel Henley, “A Discourse Delivered in the Chapel of William and Mary College, Virginia on the Anniversary of the College Foundation” (Cambridge, 1776). https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/bitstream/handle/10288/17436/SamuelHenleyDiscourseDeliveredInChapel.pdf?sequence=1

124. “Journal of Meetings of the President and Masters,” entry for 29 November 1776, in Morpurgo, 180.

125. Stoeckel, 51.

126. Morpurgo, 180-189.

127. Hoeveler, 287.

128. Robson, 106-111.

129. Ibid., 158-161.

130. Morpurgo, 174-175.