The University of Delaware: A History – Chapter 1
Chapter 1: Francis Alison’s Academy
On November 24, 1743, a Philadelphia newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, carried this brief announcement:
“We are informed that there is a Free-School opened at the House of Mr. Alison in Chester County, for the Promotion of Learning, where all Persons may be instructed in the Languages and some other Parts of Polite Literature, without any Expences for their Education.”
The opening of Alison’s “Free School” was an event of importance both for the school’s impact in its time and for its eventual development into a much larger and more comprehensive institution. In its time Alison’s school supplied a desperate need for higher education in the middle colonies. “At my arrival here,” Alison wrote, apparently referring to 1735, when he came to America, “there was not a College, nor even a good grammar School in four Provinces, but on the other hand all that made any pretensions to learning were branded as letter learned Pharisees.” After he undertook what he called the “desperate cause of promoting learning…success was beyond our expectations…and Learning became reputable.”1
This free school changed its location several times, settling eventually in Newark, Delaware, roughly eight miles from where it began. And it changed its name many times, becoming the Academy of Newark in 1769, when first incorporated by a Penn charter, and then Newark College in 1833, Delaware College in 1843, and the University of Delaware in 1921.
The founder, Francis Alison, a Presbyterian minister, was born in 1705 in County Donegal, Ireland, of the breed of men called Scotch-Irish, being the descendants of Scots who had settled in Ireland in the previous century. He attended what was apparently a good grammar school in the county of his birth and eventually went to the University of Edinburgh, where he was graduated with the M.A. degree (the normal degree in course at Edinburgh) in January 1732 (Old Style). By this time he was twenty-seven years old, which means that somewhere in his youth, probably between school and college, there are years of his life that are a mystery to his biographers.2
So are his activities in the two years immediately following his graduation, which was in early 1733 by the Gregorian calendar. Probably he devoted this time, in part, at least, to study for the ministry, for he was licensed in June 1735 by the Presbytery of Letterkenny, in Donegal and soon after being licensed he left for America. Depressing economic conditions were prompting great numbers of young Scotch- Irishmen to desert Ulster (the northern province of Ireland) for America at this time, and their most popular destination was the valley of the Delaware River. Here, at New Castle, Alison landed in 1735. It has been said that he then served briefly as a tutor in the family of Samuel Dickinson, of Talbot County, Maryland, though no contemporary evidence of this is known. The most famous member of this family, John Dickinson, was only three years old then, but Samuel Dickinson had two older children at home and was wealthy enough to employ a tutor, as he certainly did later.3
By 1736 Alison had become affiliated with the Presbytery of New Castle, a regional organization of many Presbyterian congregations spread over a large area southwest of Philadelphia, including counties in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. After some temporary assignments he was ordained and installed in 1737 as pastor of the Presbyterian church at New London, in southern Chester County.4
While Alison was busy with congregational cares, a movement was under way among Presbyterians to improve the educational opportunities of their young men, with the particular aim of perpetuating a learned ministry without depending entirely on immigrants who were graduates of schools in Ireland and Scotland. Calvinists of New England had met a similar problem by the establishment of Harvard (in 1636) and Yale (in 1701). From New York southward no comparable school existed except for the College of William and Mary (founded in 1693). In the Middle Colonies the Quakers believed that divine revelation made a learned ministry unnecessary, while the Church of England required candidates for the ministry to be ordained by a bishop, and since there was no Anglican bishop in America, a candidate must travel to England, where he could then complete his education.
A former Anglican minister, William Tennent, who on coming to America had switched back to his native Presbyterianism, established the first Presbyterian seminary in the Middle Colonies, a simple school at Neshaminy, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that had few physical elegancies. At this “log college,” as it was derisively called, Tennent, who was also a graduate of Edinburgh, though a generation older than Alison, sought to prepare young men quickly for the ministry, laying more stress upon enthusiasm and inspiration than upon instruction in all the branches of learning commonly required abroad. Approximately forty ministers were trained by Tennent before he retired in 1742.5 “To me,” wrote George Whitefield, the traveling evangelist, “it seemed to resemble the School of the old Prophets,”6 but some American Presbyterians thought the school was substandard.
The Presbytery of Lewes, Delaware, complained in May 1738 that “this part of the world labors under a grievous disadvantage for want of…universities and professors” and proposed that candidates for the ministry lacking degrees from colleges in New England or Europe be examined by a committee appointed by the Synod of Philadelphia, the governing body of all the Presbyterians in the Middle Colonies and the upper South, to assure that each candidate was “well skilled in the several branches of philosophy and divinity.” The synod, accepting the suggestion, appointed two committees, one to examine candidates from the region south of Philadelphia and one for the region north of Philadelphia.7
Meeting in November 1738, the committee for the southern region, of which Francis Alison was a member, recommended establishment of a school or academy. When the synod met the following spring it accepted this idea, but only after the friends of William Tennent’s “log college” had walked out of the meeting, feeling the recommendation was a reflection on their school. The Presbytery of New Brunswick (New Jersey), which was dominated by William Tennent, his sons, and their friends, began licensing ministers as they chose. The schism begun then was widened in 1741 when this presbytery was expelled from the synod, thus creating a division among American Presbyterians that lasted nominally until 1758 but continued to create discord in Presbyterian circles for several decades thereafter.
Alison stood with the majority in the Synod of Philadelphia, a group denominated the “Old Side” because they insisted on old standards of clerical education and decorum. The Tennents and their friends of the “log college” faction were called the “New Side” and emphasized zeal, enthusiasm, and an emotional response to the opportunities for evangelism in the New World. Soon the members of this New Side helped form a rival synod called the Synod of New York and joined enthusiastically in support of a new college in New Jersey, chartered in 1746, opened in Elizabeth in 1747, moved in a short time to Newark (New Jersey), and finally established in Princeton in 1756. The Presbyterian schism disturbed the harmony of many individual congregations, minority groups generally seceding and forming churches of their own. The New Side, producing ministers quickly, grew rapidly in the period of schism.
Meanwhile the Synod of Philadelphia found its plan for the establishment of a new academy temporarily thwarted. In 1739 it had appointed a committee of four ministers of whom at least two were to go abroad to solicit gifts for the planned school that would augment collections to be taken up in every presbytery in America. But before the solicitation began, Britain became involved in a naval war with Spain (called the War of Jenkins’ Ear), and the Synod decided the time was inopportune for a fund campaign.8
So the establishment of a synodical school was postponed, the schism between Old Side and New Side became definite, and Francis Alison determined to begin a school on his own.
Many American ministers took some pupils in addition to their congregational responsibilities, especially Presbyterian ministers of the Middle Colonies, who, unlike their Congregational brethren of New England or the Anglican clergy of the South, could not look for financial support to political agencies such as the town or the county or a legislative assembly. The Presbyterian minister was, moreover, a learned man (in terms of the university learning of his day) who was able and probably interested in preparing young men for the learned professions, and especially the ministry. Their church was largely composed of immigrants, poor and struggling for a footing in the New World; duty, possibly reinforced by the hope of some monetary compensation, encouraged them to pass on their knowledge of languages and philosophy, as well as of theology.
It is doubtful that Francis Alison was much moved by hope of monetary gain. When a neighbor lost his wife in 1742, Alison welcomed two motherless boys, one eight and one ten, into his home; it is not likely that their father, a ne’er-do-well tavern keeper named William McKean, could do much for his sons Robert and Thomas. Their mother’s family was much more prosperous but was taking care of a younger brother and sister.9
Perhaps Alison had other pupils, maybe even other boarders, at this time. Several writers claim that he began teaching in 1741. But the evidence is that the free school that became famous as Alison’s New London academy opened, as the Pennsylvania Gazette reported, in the fall of 1743. This is the date Alison himself used for the founding of the academy in writing to a friend about it in 1773.10
The academy was then, it seems, kept at Alison’s home, in New London Township, about two miles from the crossroads at the center of the present small village of New London. In the first term he seems to have had about a dozen boys, ranging in age from eight to sixteen, and an usher, or assistant, to help him with the teaching. The first class was a most remarkable one, possibly the most distinguished in terms of the later achievements of its members, taken as a whole, of any class in any school in America. Some became distinguished statesmen (governors, congressmen, signers of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution); others became doctors, merchants, and scholars of reputation. Besides Robert and Thomas McKean, George Read of Delaware was in attendance, as were James Smith of Pennsylvania, Hugh Williamson, John Ewing, John Cochran, Charles Thomson, James Latta, Matthew Wilson, and Paul Jackson.11
In a very short time the school had official sponsorship. The Presbytery of Donegal, covering an area directly north of the New Castle presbytery and west of Philadelphia, had encouraged the movement to erect an advanced school as early as 1739. Tired of waiting for official action, it asked the neighboring presbyteries of Philadelphia and New Castle to send delegates to a conference at the Great Valley Meeting House, in northern Chester County, in November 1743. The delegates decided to leave official action up to the synod at its next meeting, but urged that “in the meantime a school be opened.”12
The school must have been open already, for the announcement quoted at the head of this chapter appeared only a week after the Great Valley meeting. Probably the conferees sought to give some encouragement to what Alison was doing anyway. Official sanction was not long delayed. The Synod of Philadelphia, meeting in May 1744, voted “to take the said school under our care” and called for yearly contributions to it from every congregation. Alison, as master of the school, was allowed twenty pounds a year, and his usher fifteen pounds. Eleven trustees were appointed, representing the three interested presbyteries, with authority to supervise the school and examine the scholars. Most important was the first provision in the synod’s action regarding the school, that it be one “where all persons who please may send their children and have them instructed gratis in the languages, philosophy, and divinity.”13 This synodical academy was, then, to remain a “free school,” as the newspaper announcement had said, and it was not restricted to Presbyterians, though the fact that a Presbyterian minister would be in charge could be expected to affect the attendance to some degree.
The school prospered under Alison’s direction over the next eight years. Probably because of an increase in the number of students–tradition has it that the first class was held in a room above Alison’s spring house14–the school moved from Thunder Hill, the area where Alison lived, to the center of the village or crossroads, and plans were made for further expansion with a new building. Some students continued to live with the Alisons, like the orphan Charles Thomson; others commuted if they had homes nearby.
The Presbyterian resolution by which the synod adopted Alison’s school called for instruction “in the languages, philosophy, and divinity.”15 The languages meant Latin and Greek, with possibly a bit of Hebrew; philosophy referred to practically all branches then known of the arts and sciences. As a former student, Matthew Wilson, later reported, the school was founded “on the most broad and generous bottom, for all denominations of Christians equally.”
Though the popularity of the school brought so many students that two or more assistants were sometimes employed, Alison still gave his own attention to every class and every student. Besides the classical tongues, he taught English grammar by comparing it with the Latin, and, according to Wilson, found time for “every part of the Belles Lettres,” including mythology, rhetoric, geography, and history. Every morning Alison critically examined written compositions by the students, in English and Latin–themes, epistles, descriptions (including some in verse), and abridgements of the Spectator and Guardian essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.16
One student, Charles Thomson, told of walking the forty-five miles to Philadelphia to buy a copy of the Spectator. Of another student, John Ewing, who was afterwards a tutor in the school, it was said that he would frequently ride thirty or forty miles to borrow a book on science or mathematics.17 These stories indicate that books were not plentiful in New London. Probably the majority of those available were from the personal library of Alison.
The pedagogical devices employed included lectures and recitations, as well as oral declamations and debates.18 Thomas McKean remembered studying Greek and Latin, rhetoric, logic, moral philosophy (probably including ethics and political economy), and the practical branches of mathematics. It was, he said, the most celebrated school in Pennsylvania.19 “From Dr. Alison,” wrote another former pupil, “the love of learning `catched a happy contagion of his virtue,’ spread through the new world, and founded all the colleges and academies around.”20
The claim may be a bit extravagant, though it should be remembered that it refers to the totality of his teaching, including his nearly thirty years at the Academy and College of Philadelphia, as well as his shorter period in New London. To Matthew Wilson he seemed a “truly great Man” who “first and most effectually” enlightened the Middle Colonies in both “useful and ornamental” learning.21
While praising Alison, contemporaries noted a sour element in his disposition. Charles Thomson told Benjamin Rush that though he lived in Alison’s home for over four years he never saw his teacher smile.22 (On the other hand, Wilson, who knew him better, said he had a “facetious wit.”23) Many contemporaries agree that he was choleric by nature, prone to anger, unable easily to resist entering a disputation. George Whitefield, the English evangelist, tells how Alison shouldered his way through a crowd Whitefield had just raised to a high pitch of excitement, insisting on debating points that he thought were unsound and irrational.24
An ardent reader who “devoured books,” Alison spurned the enthusiastic performances of Whitefield and the New Side pastors who welcomed Whitefield to their churches. Alison’s solid virtues were recognized at both Yale and Princeton, where he received honorary master’s degrees, and at the University of Glasgow, which awarded him a doctorate of divinity in 1756. “He was without doubt,” wrote Ezra Stiles, who became president of Yale in 1778, “the greatest classical scholar in America, especially in Greek,” and he went on to praise Alison as “a great literary character” for his knowledge of ethics and history and his general reading.25
It was to an earlier president of Yale, Thomas Clap, that the synod appealed in May 1746. “Our poor undertaking has been so blessed by Providence as to exceed our expectations,” they wrote, referring to the school at New London. “We hope that in time we may obtain assistance…to enable us to found a college.” For the moment, however, what they requested was the opportunity for their students to transfer to Yale and take degrees in as little as one year if qualified. They acknowledged the weakness of their school in “natural philosophy,” which meant the sciences, but were eager to use the same books and the same authors that were being read at Yale. Clap’s response was favorable, but no students are known to have transferred from New London to New Haven.26
Meanwhile, the synod, “by appointing trustees and obliging them to give declarations of trust,” was creating a foundation for the receipt of donations.27 It had hopes of raising funds in the British Isles and from well-wishers throughout America, even from Boston, where initial letters had brought words of encouragement. For the time being, however, the members of the Philadelphia synod made this their own responsibility. Each church was asked to take up a collection yearly for the benefit of the school. There was a fair response, even though most Presbyterian churches were small and composed of immigrants struggling to get a footing in the New World. A “School Account” survives that was prepared for a meeting of the synod in May 1748 and shows contributions from the individual churches from November 1743, the date when three presbyteries recommended the school.28
When the accounts for the first four and a half years were summed up, the collections for the school fell somewhat short of the very modest salaries paid the teachers. “Learning,” the synod admitted, “is not in the same esteem in this government as in New England.” The synod decided to charge the students twenty shillings a year, permitting the trustees to exempt some students, poor boys and possible candidates for the ministry. At the same time it raised Alison’s salary and his assistant’s. If student fees and congregational gifts were too small, the synod agreed to make up the difference from other funds.29
Another adjustment was made in Alison’s salary in 1749, possibly in response to his request to be permitted to move to Philadelphia, which was refused.30 What his motivation was is unknown, but when another opportunity arose in January 1752 he seized upon it and asked for approval afterwards.
This opportunity was a vacancy at the new Academy of Philadelphia, which had been opened a year earlier. Alison’s student Charles Thomson was teaching here when the rector died in December 1751, and possibly it was he who recommended Alison for the vacancy.31 At first Alison was hesitant to accept the position–he had always preferred the country to the city, which he looked upon as a nursery of vice–but he agreed to come for a month on trial, and he stayed for the remainder of his life, more than a quarter of a century. The salary may have been an inducement; it was set at two hundred pounds a year in March 1752, exactly ten times his original compensation for conducting the school at New London.32 He also became assistant to the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, and here in the capital of American Presbyterianism he could influence the course of his church more easily than from a rural pastorate.
Alison’s students did not stay in New London long after he left, perhaps just long enough to finish out an academic term. This is clear from a notice in the Pennsylvania Gazette of June 4, 1752, reporting that the school formerly taught by Alison was “now continued, by the Appointment of the Synod of Philadelphia, under the Care of the Rev. Mr. Alexander McDowell, between the Branches of Elk-River” and would “be opened the 25th of this Month, where Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and several Branches of Philosophy, will be carefully taught.”33
So it was that in 1752, either in January, when Alison went to Philadelphia, or in June, when the newspaper announced its reopening, the academy began the second stage of its career, away from New London and away from the supervision of its founder. Neither change was altogether permanent. The academy never did return to New London (though a New London Academy that was founded in 1828 is sometimes mistakenly thought to derive from Alison ‘s school), but it had not yet settled permanently. And though Alison had moved to Philadelphia, the day was to come when his connection with the academy was reasserted.
But for the present the academy was under the direction of another Presbyterian minister, Alexander McDowell. Like Alison he was born in Ireland and educated at Edinburgh. Unlike Alison, he was a physician, and though we have very little that survives from Alison’s hand we have a number of poems and essays, some written in the old country, by McDowell. He came to America in 1737 and after some time as an itinerant missionary among the Scotch-Irish on the Virginia frontier he had settled in 1743 as pastor of two Old Side congregations, one called the Elk Church, near the present village of Lewisville, Pennsylvania, and the other called the White Clay Creek Church, east of Newark, Delaware.34
Moving the academy took no great effort. The students merely left New London for Lewisville, the distance between the two being little more than five miles.35 Many of the students continued to live at home. Perhaps the McDowell family took in some boarders as the Alisons had done, but McDowell’s domestic arrangements were undoubtedly crippled by the death of the young Mrs. McDowell in 1751. Classes are said to have been conducted in McDowell’s home, a mile southwest of Lewisville.36 Probably the school was now at the northern edge of Cecil County, Maryland; it is difficult to be sure where the boundary was because the Mason-Dixon Line had not yet been run. To add to the confusion, the Elk Church moved in the 1760s to a site west of Fair Hill, Maryland, and a bit south of the previous location at Lewisville. Since the late eighteenth century it has been known as the Rock Church.
The synod continued to support the academy for several years, but chances are that the student body was smaller than it had been because a number of the advanced students followed Alison to Philadelphia. Here a College of Philadelphia, with Alison as vice provost and an Anglican minister, William Smith, as provost, opened in 1755. Otherwise the old academy was “nearly the same” under McDowell as under Alison, according to Matthew Wilson, a student under Alison who was appointed by the synod to share teaching duties with McDowell in 1754 when the latter “declined to have the Whole Burden.” 37
McDowell had been allowed an assistant when he took over the school, but either he did not get one or the assistant was too junior to take on much of the load. Wilson was apparently to be regarded as on a par with McDowell, each receiving twenty pounds a year. “From a Sense of the Publick good” McDowell agreed to continue teaching logic, mathematics, and natural and moral philosophy, while Wilson would take the languages. Wilson would also serve as a supply minister, and the presbytery was asked not to assign him to churches so far away that he could not get back for the beginning of the week’s work.38
Possibly McDowell had felt hampered in teaching the languages by a lack of books. He begged some Hebrew books from a friend in Ireland, who answered that he had only one for his own use, but would try to get copies if McDowell would tell him precisely what he needed. Incidentally, this Irish correspondent reported that “we had at our last Synod [Gilbert] Tennent from yr. Country, supplicating encouragement for the erecting & endowing a College at New Jersey.” No one opposed, he said, “tho’ some were of opinion the attempt to found this college was in opposition to the Phila. Synod, & their Seminary of Learning.”39 Knowledge of the synod school clearly had reached Ireland.
But difficult years lay ahead. Matthew Wilson soon accepted a call to Sussex County, where he was ordained pastor of the Presbyterian churches at Lewes and Cool Spring in 1755.40 Just what happened to McDowell’s school after Wilson’s departure is not clear. It may have been closed for a period. It may have been open and run by a succession of hired tutors. The one thing that is clear is that this academy lost its official standing as the synod’s school in 1755 because in that year the minutes of the synod show that its support was transferred to a school run by the Reverend Sampson Smith, at Chestnut Level, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.41 This is also the year when the College of Philadelphia opened, and though it was officially nonsectarian–the only nonsectarian college in the English colonies–since Alison was its vice-provost the Presbyterians expected to be able to exert some influence here.
Diversion of synodical support from McDowell’s school was motivated partly by the opportunity to use some funds set up for teaching Pennsylvania German boys both English and the classical languages. Perhaps McDowell had little interest in such a pedagogical challenge; at any rate Lancaster County was a more likely place to recruit German students than the New London- Lewisville-Newark area.
After losing its status as the synodical academy in 1755, another important development occurred in the history of McDowell’s school within the next ten years–a change of location from near Lewisville to Newark.
The healing of the schism between the Old Side and New Side Presbyterians probably had some influence on this final move of the Alison- McDowell school. The New Side, with its emphasis on emotion and enthusiasm, had apparently attracted more members than the Old Side. So it was with the Elk Church at Lewisville, where McDowell’s Old Side congregation was decidedly smaller than the New Side congregation. When a reunion was finally worked out there, it was the New Side pastor who was put in charge of the reunited congregation, while McDowell had no choice but to resign, as he did in 1760.42
Was it at this time that he moved the school to Newark? The timing is not at all clear. He may have sold his farm at Lewisville in 1754, when he advertised it for sale.43 The year 1760 was certainly a critical one in the life of Alexander McDowell and in the history of the academy because in that year McDowell not only severed his connection with the Elk Church but secured leave from the synod and “a Dismission” from his presbytery (in April) so he could serve as a chaplain with Pennsylvania militia called into service in the French and Indian War.
McDowell was back in the area by December 1760 when he began attending meetings of the New Castle presbytery again. He officially rejoined this body in June 1761, but he took on no permanent church responsibility. Instead, he was given a variety of temporary “supply” appointments, almost all of them convenient to a residence in Lewisville, Pennsylvania–or in Newark, Delaware- -and therefore not difficult to combine with teaching responsibilities in the academy.44
It is likely that he made his home in Newark at this time. His former responsibility for the Old Side White Clay Creek congregation had ended before his service at the Elk Church, but his experience in traveling between these congregations may have attracted him to Newark, which lay between them. This village, incorporated in 1758, with a weekly market and a yearly fair, offered a better location than Lewisville for an unattached clergyman serving as occasional supply and also working as a teacher and as a physician. That McDowell was serving as a physician is shown by receipts for medical supplies purchased between 1758 and 1766 that survive among his papers. An undocumented statement by a descendant claims that McDowell served as clerk of the courts of lower Chester County from 1750 to 1760, when he moved to Delaware, where, according to this same statement, he was clerk of the New Castle County court to at least 1772.45
What had happened to the academy when McDowell went off with the militia? Perhaps it was temporarily closed, but no contemporary evidence indicates that it was. More likely, someone else took charge of it. Young Patrick Alison, a 1760 graduate of the College of Philadelphia, is said to have divided his time between teaching in Newark and in Philadelphia from 1761 to 1763, when he accepted a pastorate in Baltimore.46 Patrick Alison (whose relationship, if any, with Francis Alison is unknown) retained a close connection with the academy, of which, though a Maryland resident, he became a charter trustee; he also later solicited money for it in the South. Another College of Philadelphia graduate, a young Baptist minister named John Davis, who came from the Newark area, is said to have succeeded Patrick Alison at the academy, dividing his time, too, between Newark and Philadelphia.47
If the academy had not moved to Newark by 1761 it certainly must have done so within a year or two. An announcement in the Pennsylvania Gazette of January 10, 1771, declared that the school had moved to Newark “about eight years ago.” Even more conclusive evidence that the school was in Newark in the early 1760s is a passage in the will of the Reverend Alexander Hutcheson, of the Head of Elk (Elkton). Dated January 4, 1765, this will provided a bequest “for the encouragement of the young Seminary of Learning in New Ark in New Castle County.”48
A new prosperity had come to the academy by 1766, when a Philadelphia Presbyterian described it as “our flourishing School at New Ark.”49 It was not only attracting local boys but also drawing young men from dissenting families in Maryland because their fathers did not want them educated in the established church. As an instance of the school’s growth–and perhaps of his increasing medical practice–the presbytery temporarily, as it turned out, freed McDowell of any obligation to supply vacant pulpits.50 In 1764 or 1765 two promising young ministers were attracted to the school to join McDowell on the faculty. One was James Davidson from the University of Glasgow, who came to Newark to serve as principal, and the other was Thomas Read, a graduate of the Academy of Philadelphia who eventually succeeded Davidson as principal when the latter accepted appointment at the College of Philadelphia in 1768.51
McDowell’s exact status in the academy through these years is not exactly clear, especially since the title of rector or principal is used of other men. In May 1767 a correspondent addressed him at near Octorara, but the probability is that he was merely supplying a pulpit there temporarily.52 From this same year until 1773 he is said to have been the supply pastor at Pencader Presbyterian Church, which was only six miles from Newark.53 Throughout this period, however, McDowell was, as he had already been for more than a decade, the important continuing figure in the life of the academy.
He was, of course, active in the plans that were afoot in the late 1760s to expand the old academy and place it on a new footing. Partly this interest arose from dissatisfaction with Philadelphia and the college there.
Philadelphia, the largest city in the English colonies, was an expensive place to reside for poor Presbyterian boys, probably sons of immigrants, coming from rural congregations. As a large city, it seemed to some a dangerous place, too, offering distractions considered vices by the stern Presbyterian pastors.
One special danger in Philadelphia was the influence of the Church of England. The College of Philadelphia was officially nonsectarian, but many Presbyterians thought that the chief executive, Provost William Smith, an Anglican clergyman, was bending the institution his way. “By supporting the College of Philadelphia the Flower of our Youth are every Day perverted by the Intrigues of that designing subtile Mortal Dr. Smith,” wrote one critic.54 Vice-provost Francis Alison agreed, writing, “The College is artfully got into the hands of Episcopal Trustees. Young men educated here get a taste for high life & many of them do not like to bear the poverty & dependence of [Presbyterian] ministers….They are flattered & enticed by their Episcopal acquaintances…to go to London [and be ordained in the established church]. Now two or three of our ablest young men are ready to sail for London for this purpose; this makes parents uneasy, & it gives me pain.”
To add to his pain, he viewed the situation of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, the Presbyterian school founded by the Synod of New York during the schism, with foreboding. It was tainted for Alison by the fact that it had won the support of the New Side faction in his church. “Jersey College is so unfit to make scholars,” he declared, “that we have no great pleasure to send [young men] there.”55 When the presidency of Princeton fell vacant, Alison and his friends offered to come to its aid, but the Princeton trustees stalled until they were able to persuade a Scottish clergyman, John Witherspoon, to accept the vacant post.56
The Old Side and the New in America were incorrigible enemies, Witherspoon was told; “the one may weaken the other, but they will never strengthen one another’s interests.”57 Young Benjamin Rush, urging Witherspoon to accept, showed the virulence of feeling against the Old Side. “Dr. Alison is the only man [in America] who has reputation and scholarship enough for [the Princeton presidency], and who knows but what the Trustees…may proceed imprudently to choose him. How awful would such a step be….He is a man of the most virulent, bitter temper, and has from the beginning of his life showed himself an enemy to vital religion.”58
Alison was indeed bad-tempered in the sense of being quick to anger, but he was a constructive church statesman and worked hard for the Presbyterian reunion, as he also did for an association or understanding between the New England Congregationalists and the Presbyterians of the Middle Colonies. One of his major achievements was carried out in these years, the establishment of a fund for “distressed” ministers and their families, which became known as the Presbyterian Ministers Fund, today the oldest life insurance company in this country, with its headquarters in the Alison Building on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.59
A friend of Alison predicted what would happen if Old Side efforts to strengthen the college at Princeton and influence its course were rejected. “If we are defeated,” he wrote, in November 1766, “we shall immediately turn our Attention to New Ark School & endeavor to make it at least a very valuable Academy.”60 In fact, attention had apparently already been turned to the “New Ark School.” When James Davidson announced at a New Castle Presbytery meeting in April 1765 that he was accepting a position at this school he said he had been invited by its trustees, and in May 1768, still prior to any act of incorporation, Alison himself referred to trustees. The school he had begun at New London, he wrote, “has still been preserved & is now taught in a little Village called New-Ark,” where “it is under the care of some men of note for learning in this Province as Trustees.”61
Who these trustees were is not known, but probably they were Old Side friends of the academy who were interested in its prosperity. These friends soon went to Governor John Penn, seeking a charter of incorporation with power to grant degrees and to control property. He referred them to his uncle, Thomas Penn, the principal proprietor, who lived in England and dallied over the matter for several years. Those who requested the charter, according to him, were five Presbyterian ministers–Francis Alison, Alexander McDowell, William McKennan, John Ewing, Patrick Alison–and two prominent laymen–Dr. Hugh Williamson (who was licensed as a minister but never ordained) and Charles Thomson.62 Of this group four (F. Alison, Ewing, Williamson, and Thomson) were in Philadelphia, two (McDowell and McKennan, pastor of Red Clay Creek Church) were in New Castle County, and one (Patrick Alison) was in Baltimore. It was probably these men, plus some others, who were nurturing the institution in Newark, which was described in December 1766 as “a fine Grammar school…under the Care of 3 able masters, where are more scholars than at Princeton.”63
In carrying their appeal to Thomas Penn, the oldest surviving son of the founder of Pennsylvania, the friends of the academy at Newark enlisted a fellow Presbyterian of the greatest respectability, Chief Justice William Allen, best known today as the projector of Allentown. Since Penn had been generous in chartering institutions for other religious groups, like the Episcopalians and the Lutherans, Allen pleaded with him, “the Presbyterians…are in hope to share your favor.” The Newark school “is a very benevolent one and the persons concerned have great reason to expect some assistance from the Assembly of the Lower Countys [Delaware]….Some nursery of this sort is very much wanted to qualifie our Country people for Justices and Assembly men &, who generally are extreamly ignorant and very unfit to render their country service.”64
Allen’s ambitions for the school seem modest, but a draft charter that was presented to Governor John Penn and transmitted by him to his uncle was criticized for aiming so high, “as to be an Academy or College, and to take possession of Lands, Manors, &, without limitation of sum.” “I do not look upon what is desired in this case to be similar with the Grants to Lutheran and [German] Calvinist Churches,” but, responded Thomas Penn, “I shall be ready to grant your request…for a Grammar school.”65
Allen tried to mollify the principal proprietor, at the same time pushing him to action. “The usual grant for an Academy or College is…all that is wanted,” he wrote, “and is quite sufficient for the purpose.”66 Thomas Penn was obviously not very friendly to the idea of a college, but eventually, with grudging approval, he returned a charter for an academy, probably basically the charter Allen had submitted through the governor. “I think it ill drawn,” Thomas Penn wrote, but when some minor objections were taken care of he permitted Governor John Penn to sign it, as he did on November 10, 1769.67 The Academy of Newark was finally a legal, corporate entity, with a Penn charter that continued in use, modified as time went on, for more than a hundred years.
The operation of the academy was not immediately changed very much by the fact of its having a charter. It probably remained in 1769 and 1770 very much as Francis Alison described it to Ezra Stiles in May 1768, when he wrote that in the school at Newark “the Languages are carefully taught,” along with arithmetic, geometry, “practical branches of mathematics,” and logic. Students planning to be ministers, he said, go on to get a college degree, but those aiming at careers in law or medicine finish their formal education here and begin an apprenticeship with a lawyer or doctor. “Lodgings are cheap,” and so is tuition. “Hence farmers can educate their children so as to fit them for almost any station in life that could not hope for such advantages were they obliged to educate them in this City [Philadelphia].” 68
Allen had pleaded only for “the usual grant for an Academy or College,” and he got the minimum, one like the original charter of the Academy of Philadelphia (which had been later amended to create a college), without the power to grant degrees. The school was permitted to own property worth 700, despite the fact that Thomas Penn felt this was too much. Of the thirteen trustees named in the charter, six (Francis and Patrick Alison, McDowell, Ewing, McKennan, and Matthew Wilson) were active ministers, one (Williamson) was a nonpreaching minister, and six (William Allen and his son, Andrew, Thomas McKean, Charles Thomson, James Mease, and John Evans) were laymen, mainly lawyers or merchants.69 All but five lived in Philadelphia; besides Patrick Alison, of Baltimore, there were two ministers from New Castle County (McKennan and McDowell), Matthew Wilson, of Lewes, and John Evans, a Newark merchant. At least four of them had taught in the academy and, by their own statement, most of them had attended it. Although the minutes of meetings of the trustees before 1783 are lost, it is clear that Alison was elected the first president of this board and remained in this position until his death in 1779. The trustees also elected a secretary and a treasurer; probably Williamson and Thomson were the first persons chosen to these positions.70
In a 1771 newspaper the trustees bragged of the healthfulness of Newark, of its convenient location (five miles from the head of navigation on the Christina and seven miles from the head of the Elk, thus easy of access from north or south), of the cheap lodging available, and of the absence of temptations to the morals of youth. This “small Town,” they claimed, “affords no public Amusement, nor any remarkable Instances of Profligacy or Vice,” and as trustees they were “determined that no Rector, Professor, or Tutor shall ever be supported in that Seminary who is not a Man of decent Deportment and approved Virtue, as well as accurate Learning.”
Besides the languages and the practical branches of mathematics, “the liberal Arts and Sciences” would be taught to all who would take the time for their study. Twice a year the trustees would hold a public visitation and examination and see that students received testimonials to their learning, based on their “genius and industry,” and not on the number of years they spent. Thomas Read, the rector, had two assistants, but the trustees promised “such addition of Tutors or Professors” as might be required.71
McDowell probably was already serving as a professor for advanced students. It was he who prepared in 1771 a list of books in the Newark Academy library–thirty-five titles in forty-five volumes, including Francis Bacon, Descartes, Grotius, Marcus Aurelius, and Locke. He also compiled a list of ten works sent to the academy November 11, 1771, by Francis Alison and Mrs. John Ewing that included tables of logarithms and a book on surveying. McDowell’s own library was apparently much more extensive. An undated catalogue of his books that may have been compiled at the same time as the previous list mentions 117 titles.72
Some time prior to 1770, very probably even before the academy was chartered in 1769, “the Inhabitants of New Ark…by generous Contributions” erected a “commodious” classroom building on the site where the academy building stands today. The building was two stories high, 38 feet by 25 feet, with a shingle roof, and large enough for eighty to a hundred boys. Possibly the “generous Contributions” referred to arose from profits on “the letting of tents, booths and stalls” at the weekly markets and annual fairs (conducted since 1758), for a 1772 statute declared that “at all times hitherto” this income had been paid over to the trustees of the academy. The old market house, source of this money, “stood near the northeast corner of the academy yard,” near where a tavern that is a successor to the Washington House is today.73
The trustees to whom these profits were paid were probably not those named in the 1769 charter but a local group established earlier to receive the market fees and erect the academy building. It was, by permission, built on private land at the south end of the market square, but in 1770 the local trustees bought the one-acre lot for eighteen pounds, ten shillings, Pennsylvania currency, from Jonathan German of Cumberland County, New Jersey. Only one of the six local trustees, John Evans, was also a charter trustee of the academy. He and his colleagues, Dr. Samuel Platt, Henry Darby, Hugh Glasford, James Anderson, and William Armstrong, had other civic projects in mind, for they promised that the property would be used only for the academy and “such other good useful and Public-spirited” purposes as they thought proper.74
Rooms and board for the seventy-one boys attending the academy in 1771 had to be provided in private homes. Complaints about lodging led academy officials in September to rent “a Sort of an house to Shift with `till Spring.” Apparently a “Subscription” from the town provided the necessary funds.75 Since student fees never provided enough money for the school, other sources of funds were needed.
In this same year the Presbyterian synod agreed “cheerfully…to countenance” a collection for the Academy of Newark and recommended it to all their Congregations.76 In 1773 and possibly again in 1775 a lottery was run for the benefit of this academy and some other institutions.77 There were also private gifts, like the one from Alexander Hutcheson in 1765. It has been reported that in 1774 Morgan Edwards, a distinguished Baptist minister, and his wife, the widow of a wealthy Newark-area landowner, gave the academy a tract of land of more than seven acres on Main Street, but according to the county records this was no gift but a sale of land, which the academy trustees resold in 1777.78
As was common with colonial institutions, the trustees also looked for support to distant, richer areas, hoping to profit from the Presbyterian connection. A minister named Robert McMordie “opened a Subscription” for the Academy of Newark in the back country of Virginia and the Carolinas but his efforts were hampered by the fact that people there had already contributed to Princeton and would rather give money to institutions in their own colonies. He did get some subscriptions but met more disappointments, as at the Waxhaw District in South Carolina, “where after preaching to a very large auditory They refused Entirely.”79
A trustee, the Reverend Patrick Alison, went to South Carolina late in 1771 or early in 1772, seeking help for the academy from Presbyterians in Charleston and out in the country. Dr. William Smith had just finished a fund- raising mission there and had collected a thousand guineas for the College of Philadelphia, though annoying some people by his hard-sell, door-to-door tactics. Patrick Alison also found Charlestonians generous and collected a sum that seems to have been over 500 pounds, some of it paid to local agents long after he had left.80
A second trustee, Dr. Hugh Williamson, set off for Jamaica in March 1772 and spent a year riding across the island to Montego Bay and back, visiting the planters.81 Despite the fact that another physician, Dr. John Morgan, was there at the same time soliciting for the College of Philadelphia, Williamson “procured a handsome subscripton,” and as a result he was sent off within the year on another fund-raising mission, this time to the British Isles.82
Most colonial colleges sought at some time or other to raise money in the British Isles, where there was some feeling of an obligation to assist provisions for education in the colonies. The Academy of Newark, whose trustees wished to make it a college, was no exception.
The success of Patrick Alison in South Carolina and of Hugh Williamson in Jamaica encouraged such a mission. So did the great success of two rival college presidents, William Smith, of Philadelphia, and John Witherspoon, of Princeton. The Reverend Morgan Edwards, resident of the Newark area from 1771 to his death in 1795, had also been to England, soliciting for the Baptist college in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1767-68.
Writing at the request of the trustees in October 1773, Francis Alison explained their needs to a New England clergyman whose help he sought in the form of a letter to influential men in Great Britain. The great growth in America called for leaders in morals, learning, and religion, he wrote. Three new counties had been established in Pennsylvania alone in the last four years, and not one yet had a minister settled in it. Two hundred vacancies existed just in the area of his synod. The colleges recently established in New York (Kings), New Jersey (Princeton), and Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) were too few and too expensive. Farmers feared that if their sons were encouraged to live beyond their means in Philadelphia or New York they would refuse to become ministers. And it was farmers’ sons who must become the ministers and magistrates on the frontier.
Our academy, Alison explained, has been continued “since 1743…with great reputation…but with some difficulties.” It is in a healthful country of frugal and industrious people, with cheap accommodations and few temptations to luxury, and it has “produced a number of able and learned men, that make a good figure in their different stations in life.” Now that it has a professor of mathematics and philosophy, a rector, and two tutors, it is ready for a greater degree of usefulness.
“There is no college,” he continued, “in the Government on Delaware…;nor in Maryland, which is the next Province; nor in a wide extended country of about 300 miles to Pitsburg on the Ohio.” Americans have had tax burdens from the French and Indian War and have to build churches, courthouses, bridges, and roads, and perform the tasks needed in a new country, and so could not raise the money needed here. When rich cities like New York and Philadelphia are obliged to apply to Britain “to complete their funds for their Colleges, we are encouraged to follow their example.”83
Alison’s correspondent, who was Ezra Stiles, then of Rhode Island, dutifully wrote five letters to London recommending the Newark Academy.84 Probably other letters preceded the two fund-raisers, who were Dr. Hugh Williamson and the Reverend John Ewing, then pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. They went separately, Ewing via New York, arriving in London in December 1773, and Williamson by way of Boston, where he happened to witness the Boston Tea Party.
The ship that Williamson took was the first to arrive in England with news of this affair, and he was consequently interviewed by the colonial secretary and interrogated by the Privy Council.85 The activities Williamson had witnessed in Boston set in motion a series of events that eventually aborted this mission, but the stormy future was unknown when Ewing and Williamson began their solicitation in February 1774.
Although looked upon almost as rebels, as Ewing confided to his wife, they published a memorial “to the Charitable and humane Friends of Learning, public Virtue, and Religion.” In it they repeated many of the arguments Alison had made in his letter asking Ezra Stiles’s support. America was growing rapidly in population and might have 112 million people after a century, the largest population on earth. Yet colleges were lacking; whole areas lacked ministers and other men of learning and refinement. A disorderly, unpolished people might raise havoc, so it was to England’s advantage to see that the people received a proper training.
Then they spoke of the history and aspirations of the Newark Academy, emphasizing its convenience, its inexpensiveness, its frugal virtues. It has, they said, eighty pupils studying the languages, mathematics, philosophy, and divinity under professors who are “Gentlemen of Piety and Learning, eminent in their Professions, and constantly employed therein.” Though “no Clause in the Charter” gave “the least Preference…to any Protestant Denomination of Christians,” it exists “for propagating the Protestant Religion, and sowing the seeds of Knowledge, joy, and Happiness” among a people of the same descent and the same government as those of Great Britain.
Yet their needs were great: a library, scientific apparatus, and endowment sufficient for the salaries of professors were lacking. With proper aid it could become “a Nursery of Counsellors, Judges, Philosophers and Divines.”
Two appended documents completed the formal appeal, which in general resembled the letters of solicitation that had been published by other fund- raising teams sent out by American colleges. One appendix was a certificate from Governor John Penn declaring that “full Faith and intire [sic] Confidence” could be placed in Ewing and Williamson. The other appendix was a letter from the board of trustees, signed by Alison and Charles Thomson, as president and secretary-treasurer respectively, declaring the purpose of the solicitation was to “build a House sufficient for accommodating the several Schools, and to establish a Fund for paying the Masters, and providing a proper Library.”86
Ewing and Williamson claimed that their mission was handicapped from the start by the enmity of President John Witherspoon, of Princeton, who wrote friends in Great Britain that gifts to the Newark Academy would hurt his institution, that Newark was nothing more than a grammar school, and that its sponsors were unorthodox in their Presbyterianism. (Agents of Princeton had twenty years earlier suffered from similar tactics by their Old Side opponents.) Ewing, at least, never saw any of Witherspoon’s letters: he just heard of their contents from friends. He wrote back to America asking that supporters of the Newark Academy take pains to contradict Witherspoon, to insist that all concerned with the Newark school were fully in accord with the Westminster confession, the standard statement of Presbyterian belief. And as to the quality and grade of education at Newark, he asked for a statement from Alison certifying that the Academy of Newark was older than Princeton, that “the same Branches of Learning, such as Languages, Mathematics, & Philosophy were taught in it from the Beginning as are yet taught, either in it or in Jersey College [Princeton],” and finally that it was recommended by the synod in an action taken when Witherspoon and many trustees of his college were present.87
Traveling north to Scotland, while Williamson, a bachelor, remained in London (entranced, Ewing said, by a wealthy widow), Ewing appealed to the General Assembly and to various presbyteries.88 He received some personal honors in the course of his campaign; notably he was awarded an honorary D.D. by the University of Edinburgh and was made an honorary burgess of Montrose and other cities.89 He traveled to Ireland also to carry his appeal to the Presbyterians of Ulster. “I have gone over Ireland & Scotland,” he wrote home, “& have done as much as could be executed by me in the Time,” adding, “I hate these Politicks, that have ruined our Mission.”90
He met well-known people, like the benevolent aristocrat Selina, countess of Huntingdon, and Dr. Samuel Johnson (who is said to have given him a gold-headed cane), and he achieved one important success in 1775 when he secured a gift for the academy from King George III.91 He failed, however, in another application he was making to the king–for a grant of land which, with other gifts, would have sufficed, he felt, to “establish our Academy upon a permanent & solid Foundation.”
“Our success,” Ewing knew, “depends entirely on…public Measures,” and with the outbreak of war in 1775 the mission’s usefulness was at an end.92 Anonymous letters from Philadelphia, written in July and August 1775, called Ewing and Williamson “fanatic preachers” sent to Britain to preach “sedition and rebellion…through the kingdom…although their pretence is to collect money for erecting a seminary at Newark.”93
Much less is known of Williamson’s part in the solicitation than of Ewing’s because of the scarcity of Williamson letters of this period. He did not return to America with Ewing in 1775–though we hear no more of the entrancing widow. When war broke out he went to the Netherlands, where he had taken his medical degree at Utrecht more than a decade earlier.94 Eventually he found his way to France and apparently with the help of Benjamin Franklin, from whom he may have borne dispatches, found passage on a ship bound for America. The adventures of the voyage are graphically described in a diary kept by young Dr. James Hutchinson, who was another passenger on board. Because of the danger of capture by the British, Williamson and Hutchinson were landed on the Delaware shore, south of Indian River, and made their way to Philadelphia, after visiting the Reverend Matthew Wilson, of Lewes. After they were ashore the ship they had come on fell into the hands of the British, with their heavy baggage still aboard it.95
The Ewing-Williamson fund-raising mission, even though crippled by the advent of war, is thought to have realized at least 1,400 toward the endowment of the Academy of Newark. Though small compared with the 16,289 raised for Princeton, the 19,387 for King’s College (Columbia University), and 23,990 for the College of Philadelphia, it was still helpful, particularly when added to sums raised elsewhere.96
With these funds the trustees set out to develop an educational institution that they apparently modeled on the College and Academy of Philadelphia–that is, a rural and decidedly Presbyterian version of the latter.
Apparently Alexander McDowell, though his title was professor, was the active head of the school. He was addressed as “President of the College of Newark,” and John McDowell, possibly his son but more likely another man of the same name and about the same age who had recently been graduated from the College of Philadelphia, was referred to as rector in a 1773 letter from a fund-raiser.97 There was a succession of young rectors: James Davidson and Thomas Read before John McDowell, and Robert Davidson after him; probably the term applied to the head of the Latin grammar school of the institution. It seems doubtful that there was a “president” any more than there was an official “College of Newark,” but Alexander McDowell did have precedence on the faculty of the institution, besides being himself one of the trustees. It was to McDowell that Alison, the president of the board, wrote when problems arose about property in Newark.98 His is the first signature on the only diploma known to have survived from this period.99 And among his surviving papers we have an “Address to the Students upon their receiving Diplomas” and a poem in blank verse in which he praises
The open, lib’ral, and impartial Plan,
Pursu’d in this Academy with care,
To spread most useful learning, & promote
The gen’ral good….
And he notes that
Here in a rural, quiet, sweet retreat
With Health and Innocence the Muses dwell.
The wild disturbing noise of bustling crowds
And guilty scenes of vice, and dangerous foes,
To unexperienc’d youth are far from hence….
[far from] this pleasing Seat,
Where Science early form’d our youthful minds.100
Its charter placed few restrictions on the Academy of Newark, which apparently came to have three branches by 1772.101 The lowest branch was described in the Pennsylvania Gazette on May 28 of that year in an announcement that “A School is opened at the Academy in Newark…for teaching English Reading with Propriety, Writing, Arithmetic, Geography, Geometry and Algebra, with their Application to the most useful practical Branches as Navigation, Surveying, Dialling, Merchants Accounts, etc.” Here clearly was an English school, preparing young men for “useful practical” careers, probably in business.
Second, there was the traditional Latin grammar school. A public examination in September 1775 was confined on the first day and the next forenoon to the “youths in the Academy,” before the trustees, who were the committee of examination, turned to the students in the advanced school.102 Two years earlier an announcement of a similar event was even clearer; the trustees met on October 28, 1773, it declared, and spent three days “examining the several classes belonging to the Philosophical and Grammar Schools in this Seminary.”103
The “Philosophical” school was the collegiate department, or the nearest thing to a college that it could be, lacking the power to grant degrees. The best that could be done was to present “students of Philosophy in the senior class…diplomas or public certificates, under the seal of the corporation.” There were seven graduates in 1773, and they, and perhaps some other students, exhibited their talents in a “variety of Orations, syllagistic and forensic Disputations, etc.” “The spectators in general,” according to the newspaper account, “were struck with admiration and pleasure on observing how fast a seminary may increase, and how far it may approach towards perfection in the space of a few years.”104
“Philosophical school,” according to Beverly McAnear, the leading authority on the colleges of the Middle Colonies, was “the Philadelphia term for a college,” and he argued that the commencement exercises at the Newark Academy in 1773-75 exhibited all the trimmings of a college graduation–public examination, exercises, and diplomas–except for the awarding of degrees.105 Some other comments support McAnear’s judgment. The Reverend Samuel Miller, in a biographical sketch of his brother, Edward Miller, who became a distinguished physician, writes that at age fourteen (in 1774) “he was sent to a seminary which then enjoyed very high reputation, in the village of Newark,…and which, though not in name, was, in fact, a college.”106 In this same year John Ewing, striving to collect funds in Scotland, was insisting, as already noted, that “the same Branches of Learning, such as Languages, Mathematics & Philosophy,” were taught in Newark that were taught in Princeton.107
At the graduation exercises in 1774 “a numerous polite assembly” heard “the senior class” debate, in Latin and in English, such subjects as the “immateriality of the soul” and “whether persecution for matters of conscience be lawful.” The outstanding students delivered salutatory and valedictory addresses, and a “solemn exhortation and charge” was given by Francis Alison, as president of the trustees. After diplomas were awarded to ten graduates, “a number of entertaining speeches were delivered by other students in the Academy.”108
Announcement of the 1775 graduation distinguishes between “a number of entertaining exercises” offered by “youths in the Grammar School” and the orations and disputations presented by the nine graduates, who received academic diplomas signed by Alexander McDowell and John McDowell, as well as by Francis Alison and seven other trustees. This announcement concludes with a hopeful note: “We are informed, that the Rev. Doctor John Ewing, by application to the King, through Lord North and Lord Dartmouth [the colonial secretary], has obtained from his Majesty, a Royal Donation for this Academy.”109
Alas! the high expectations suggested by the concluding note in this announcement of the 1775 graduation were not to be realized. War had ruined the prospects of further gifts from Britain, and the same war soon dispersed the students and faculty and turned the academy into a factory, while most of its hard-won funds and all of its records were carried off by an invading army.
Possibly there was one more commencement exercise, in September or October 1776, but no record of it survives. Perhaps the boys of college age, those who should have graduated from the philosophical school in 1776, dropped out to join the army or for other reasons after the British landed in New York in the summer of that year. Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, as most of these students were, formed a bulwark for the revolutionary movement in the Middle Colonies. Excepting Chief Justice William Allen and his son, who were not very active in academy affairs, there was hardly a man associated with the academy who was not a rebel.
But the academy had carried on for a time after the war began. James Mease had become treasurer of the board of trustees by the fall of 1775, probably because Charles Thomson, his predecessor in the post, was absorbed by his role in revolutionary politics, which led to his election as secretary to the Continental Congress–a post he held for fifteen years.110 In April 1777 Thomas McKean notified Caesar Rodney of his election to the board of trustees at the semi-annual “public visitation” of the academy on March 26; by this evidence we know that the academy was still functioning in the spring of 1777. McKean named the trustees, and his list demonstrated that three men had already been added to the original board–Dr. John McKinly, a Wilmingtonian recently elected as chief executive of the newly independent “Delaware State,” Joseph Montgomery, a Presbyterian minister, and Samuel Patterson, a miller and militia officer.111 All three, incidentally, lived in New Castle County and therefore might be expected to attend meetings even in these troubled times.
It is not clear exactly when the academy closed, but probably it was in August 1777, when the British army under Sir William Howe landed on the shore of the Elk River. By September 3 this army had advanced to the Welsh Tract, south of Newark, where it skirmished with Washington’s light infantry around Cooch’s Bridge, at the foot of Iron Hill. After camping on the battlefield for five days, the British marched through Newark on September 8 and found the academy empty and the town practically deserted.112 There was a tradition in Newark that shots were fired at the British from the academy building and that in revenge they sent several cannonballs through it, but this is unsubstantiated.113
The closing of the academy, when it occurred, took place in a hurry, as the Reverend Robert Davidson, the last rector, told the trustees after the war: “We were driven from Newark in [such] haste that no tuition money could be collected.” He was certifying the salary owed “to both the Tutors last employed”–James McClean and John Bratton–and noted that he had been promised “near 75” for the last half year.114
Apparently all the records and other valuables of the academy were sent to Wilmington for safekeeping, along with the records of the state and the county. However, after the British defeated Washington just over the state line in Pennsylvania at the Battle of the Brandywine, they sent a detachment to Wilmington that occupied the town so quickly that it seized the chief executive of Delaware, John McKinly, and with him, as one contemporary put it, “all the records and public papers of New Castle County and every shilling of the public money, together with the fund belonging to the trustees of Newark Academy.”115 The original charter and all the books, bonds, deeds, and journals were carried off; only a few of these documents were ever recovered.116
The academy remained closed for three years. Robert Davidson (who later taught at Pennsylvania and at Dickinson) made a vain effort to reopen it: “I returned to New Ark, some time after we left it, [and tried] to collect boys there again–tho’ it was indeed to no purpose, as the enemy was then posted so near us.”117 Some British troops remained in Wilmington for a month, while their army was taking Philadelphia, where they stayed until June 1778–so it must have been in this period that Davidson attempted to reopen the school.
The academy never did reopen to its former grandeur. On October 1, 1777, the building was used as the polling place for all the voters of New Castle County; normally the polls were at the courthouse in New Castle, but with the British in Wilmington and a British fleet on the Delaware River, New Castle was not a place where the voters would want to congregate.118 Then, subsequently, the academy was used for the manufacture of shoes for the army.119
Not quite everything was lost. Some of the endowment somehow survived–perhaps invested in property or mortgages.120 But the great expectations of the friends of the academy were crushed. “What a glorious prospect,” exclaimed Alison’s old student Matthew Wilson, “before a barbarous invasion blasted our expectations!”121
There had indeed been a glorious prospect before the Newark Academy. Funds had been raised from various sources in America and abroad. Recruiting of students had been successfully carried on over a wide area. Twenty-six students were graduated from the philosophical school in three years, 1773-75, more than from the College of Philadelphia in the same period.122 For the two years, 1774-75, when the homes of the graduates are known, well over half, twelve of nineteen, came from outside Delaware. Two students came from North Carolina and three from Virginia, the others from the neighboring states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey. In terms of the geographic origin, as in numbers, this showed a wider appeal than the College of Philadelphia.123
The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, primarily of the Old Side, were responsible, of course, and they hoped to do more for the academy. In 1774 they seriously considered withdrawing from the reunited synod and forming a new one. They intended to make Newark Academy their seminary, “designed as it was,” according to Elizabeth Nybakken, the authority on the Old Side, “to provide the rigorous and inexpensive collegiate education that would qualify farmers’ sons for the ministry.” A proposal made in 1774 to divide the synod was deferred first for one year and then permanently because of the outbreak of war.124
If the year 1777 saw the closing of the Academy of Newark, the year 1779 ended an epoch of its history. On November 28 of that year, at the age of 74, the founder, Francis Alison, died in Philadelphia.125 He was, in the words of a former student, “the Author, first Promoter, & the very Soul of the New- Ark Academy.”126 It remained to be seen what the academy would amount to without him.