“It Is … A Small College … Yet, There Are Those Who Love It”

PrintPrintEmailEmailSpring had found its way to the valley of the upper Merrimack, and petals were falling from the apple trees, lately in full bloom. The streets of Concord, New Hampshire, were no longer full of soldiers, the three years of war with Great Britain and Canada having ended that winter. Instead, the capital was beginning to bustle with the usual June crowd of men from out of town. Lawmakers and their hangerson were arriving, to meet from day to day in the long, low, cupolaed wooden building that doubled as a town house and a statehouse.

This year—1815—they came together in an atmosphere that was unusually tense, despite the return of both spring and peace. State politics were beginning to be stirred by a campus quarrel brought over from the village of Hanover. Before long, this quarrel was lo attract attention far beyond the boundaries of New Hampshire and would leave its mark indelibly upon the Constitution of the United States.

The trouble arose from the sinister scheming of a few men—if a certain anonymous pamphlet going the rounds in Concord that June was to be believed. This pamphlet made more exciting reading than was suggested by the wordy title: “Sketches of the History of Dartmouth College … with a Particular Account of Some Late Remarkable Proceedings of the Board of Trustees from the Year 1779 to the Year 1815.” From the pamphlet’s eighty-eight pages, pedantically yet vigorously written, it appeared that the wicked trustees of the college were interfering with the work of its virtuous president. Worse, they were misapplying college funds. Worse still, they were plotting somehow to extend their tyranny to the entire state.

 

The anonymous author of the “Sketches” was present in Concord among the legislators and lobbyists. Over sixty but still very erect, he walked with slow and measured steps and with exaggerated dignity. He wore old-fashioned clothing—a dun-colored coat, knee breeches with buckles, white stockings, and a threecornered beaver hat. From time to time he lifted his hat and bowed and smiled. He could be gracious enough, in his way, but he was not here for a social visit. The writer of the pamphlet was none other than its hero, John Wheelock, president of Dartmouth. He was here to launch a fight to the finish against his rebellious trustees.

Wheelock expected to need legal as well as legislative aid. To help him in court he counted on the services of a young man of growing reputation, a thirty-three-year-old congressman and lawyer named Daniel Webster, now living in Portsmouth. Wheelock had sounded him out, and Webster had promised to be in Concord. Wheelock kept an eye out for his prospective attorney.

He would know him when he saw him. The older people of Dartmouth and Hanover could recall Webster from the day of his arrival, back in 1797, to enroll as a student at the college. He was dressed in homespun which his mother had made and dyed: he had ridden through a hard rain, and the color had run. As he dismounted at the Hanover Inn, the bystanders had smiled at his streaked and mottled appearance. They had also wondered at his swarthy complexion. Surely this boy must be an Indian. Evidently Wheelock —after a lapse of several years during which the college enrolled none of the aborigines for whom it presumably had been founded—had finally brought one in!

To Webster, as to the townspeople and to other students, Wheelock himself was a figure no less memorable. Often enough they had observed him as he made his way, slowly, stiffly, across the college green. The boys would snicker and repeat their stock joke: Wheelock’s profile, with that tremendous nose, they said, made a perfect quadrant.

In the chapel, when he officiated, they found additional cause for amusement. He possessed no training as a minister, and he prayed in unconventional ways. One day, after having attended a chemistry experiment, he fervently addressed the ceiling: “We thank ihee, O Lord, for the oxygen gas; we thank thee, O Lord, for the hydrogen gas: we thank thee, O Lord, for the nitrogen gas and for all the gases.” (He spoke in a sanctimonious falsetto, which young Webster had learned to mimic perfectly.)

Wheelock taught history and theology to the seniors. In the classroom he would ask, textbook in hand, what the author said on stich and such a page. If a curious boy raised questions of his own, Wheelock would shut him up with sarcasm. In his office, students invariably discovered him with a tome he had been poring over; he was the most indefatigable reader that Webster ever saw. Covetous of his time, Wheelock would dispose of a student’s business as quickly as possible, then inquire: “Will you sit longer, or will you go now?” It is not recorded that any boy ever sat longer.

This caricature of a college president had inherited his job. His father, Eleazar Wheelock, was Dartmouth’s founder and first president. Ky the terms of (he original charter granted by King George III in 1769, Eleazar could name his own successor, who was to hold office “until such appointment” should be “disapproved by the trustees.” He named his son John.

When Eleaxar died, the trustees hesitated to approve John’s appointment. John was only twenty-five, a devil-may-care army officer. Though a Dartmouth graduate, he hardly seemed to qualify as a Dartmouth president. Hut the trustees could not very well pick and choose. They lacked the wherewithal to provide a salary, and the younger Wheelock, like the elder, was willing io serve (at least for the time being) without pay.