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

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At the time he took over, in 1779, John Wheelock must have had a deep I’eeling of inadequacy and insecurity. He was scarcely older or more distinguished than the college boys themselves. Desperately anxious to command the respect that his new office required, he went loo far. He introduced rules compelling the students to remove their hats in his presence and to remain standing until he told them to sit. He took to reading, or at least to looking at, printed pages at all hours of the day and night, so as to give the appearance of diligent scholarship. And he put on a still formality of speech and manner.

Wheelock came to act as if he owned the college— and the village too. Well, he did own them, practically. From his father he had inherited, along with his job, a sizable estate. Through marriage to a well-to-do woman he had acquired additional property. By lending money at steep rates, and foreclosing without mercy, he got still more. He could, and did, contribute much to (he material support of the college.

Dartmouth continued to be pretty much a one man show for nearly thirty years, until 1809. Then, alter the passing, one by one, of older trustees who deferred to Wheelock, the board acquired a majority of newer members who chose to defy him. These men were disgusted by, among other things, the president’s pertinacity in quarrelling with the parishioners of the Hanover church, who resisted his efforts to impose an unwanted minister upon them. Hy vetoing his nominations to the college faculty, the newer trustees soon had a majority of the professors and tutors on their side.

After several years of forced retreat, Wheelock took the offensive. At the board meeting in Xovember, iHi/i, he made a proposal which he thought would put his opponents in a dilemma. A part of his back salary, amounting to about SH,(X)o with interest, had never been paid. He now offered this sum as a gift to endow two professorships—but only on the condition that he be allowed to appoint the two professors. In case the trustees should reject his offer, he would have to demand immediate payment of the $8,000.

His opponents were infuriated. Their first impulse was to demand his resignation. Still, with the college owing him so much money, they hesitated to do that. Perhaps, by humiliating him, they could obtain his resignation without coming out and demanding it. Accordingly, they passed a resolution that, “to relieve the President of some portion of the burdens” weighing heavily upon him, he hereby “be excused from hearing the recitations ol the Senior (Mass in the theology course. I his was considerately worded, yel well calculated to sting the Whcclock pride. The day before, he had met the seniors, as usual, to query then: on sudi matters as the freedom ol the will: the day alter, he was absent, and another man was in his place.

Humiliated though he was, Whcclock had no intention ol resigning. He prepared to strike back, put down the trustees, and regain control ol the college, and when spring came he was ready. He thought of suing the trustees—hence his approach to Lawyer Webster. Whether he sued or not, Whcelock was determined to appeal to the sovereign people and to their representatives in the legislature. So he wrote his “Sketches of the History of Dartmouth College,’ got the pamphlets printed, and sent bundles ol them to Isaac Hill, editor of the Concord New Hampshire Patriot , with instructions (in an unsigned letter) to see that each member of the legislature received a copy. Then, in plenty of time for the 1815 session, Wheelock set out for Concord.

A majority of the legislators, though a very small majority, belonged to the federalist party, and so did Governor [ohn T. Gilman. The Federalists sponsored theocracy and aristocracy, if one was to believe their rivals, the |cllcrsonian Republicans—that is, the Democrats. These men itched to overthrow the Federalist rule and, along with it, the arrangement by which public taxes helped support the Congregational church.

The Democrats had a shrill but effective journalist in the youthful hunchback Isaac Hill (who in years to come was to put his talent lor invective at the service of Andrew Jackson). With Hill and the Patriot in the forefront, the Democrats took tip the cause of Wheelock. In it they saw, or pretended to sec, the cause of religious and political liberty. \ow, Wheelock was in fact no libertarian of any kind. He was a good Calvinist and a conservative Federalist. With Hill and the rest ol his new-lounci lriends he really had nothing in common—except to the extent that they were willing to help him recover his authority at Dartmouth.

When the legislature met, Wheelock got at least a part of what he had come for. He had stolen a march on the trustees: they were not prepared to launch organized opposition to him. Before a sympathetic committee, with no one to refute him, Wheelock stated his case, charging the trustees with misusing college funds, overpaying professors, infringing on the president’s prerogatives, and conspiring to subvert popular liberties. He asked the legislature to look into Dartmouth s altairs. The legislature agreed, meanwhile endorsing neither Wheelock nor his opponents.

 
 

While in Concord, Wheclock also succeeded in finding Webster, who said he would be happy to provide professional assistance.