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

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Several weeks later, at home in Hanover, Wheelock received notice that the investigating committee of the legislature would meet in Hanover on August 16. He could not be sure what tack the committee might take. Promptly he wrote to Webster, enclosing twenty dollars and requesting him to come at once. Wheelock waited, with growing impatience. By August 16 Webster had not appeared and had not answered. So Wheelock faced the committee without him. The committee only tried to patch up a truce. Failing in that, the members withdrew and composed a report—which turned out to be more critical of Wheelock than of his foes.

About a week after the committee hearing, the board of trustees held its annual meeting in Hanover. Incensed by Wheelock’s maneuverings, the eight majority members—“the Octagon”—were in no mood to temporize. They voted to remove Wheelock immediately from his positions as president, professor, and trustee. Then they named as the new president the Reverend Francis Brown, thirty-one years old, of Yarmouth, Maine.

Having regained the initiative, the men of the Octagon pressed on to confirm and justify what they had done, publishing a “Reply” to Wheelock’s “Sketches” and collecting affidavits to show that he had been incompetent as Dartmouth’s head. None of the eight was more active than William W. Thompson of Concord. Thompson, a United States senator, was a friend of Representative Webster; during congressional terms the two roomed in the same Washington house.

Before Wheelock could recover from the trustees’ blow, he received another shock when he saw what Trustee Thompson had written to one of the Dartmouth professors, in a letter that must have been opened and copied by a Wheelock ally in the Hanover JX)St office. “I have had a long conversation with Mr. D. W.,” the letter said, “by which it appears that a strong desire prevails that the ‘Reply,’ with the ‘Committee’s Report,’ should effectually put down a certain man.” From this and other sentences, Wheelock could not mistake the unhappy fact. Instead of helping him, Mr. D. W. obviously was taking a big part in the strategy talks of the opposing camp.

A friend of Wheelock’s wrote to Webster to protest. Back came the reply that Webster had heard from Wheelock too late to go to Hanover and aid him at the legislative committee’s hearing. Anyhow, Webster now said, “I regard that as no professional call.” Coldly, if disingenuously, he explained: “On the subject of the dispute between the president and the trustees, I am as little informed as any reading individual in society; and I have not the least inclination to espouse either side, except in proceedings in which my services may be professional.” Webster’s meaning in this bit of doubletalk and his motivation in changing sides in the battle are as obscure today as they must have been to Wheelock himself.

Throughout the ensuing autumn and winter the New Hampshire newspapers argued the Dartmouth question back and forth. The Democrats made Wheelock a martyr and Dartmouth a leading issue in the slate elections of March, 1816. In that year, the voters chose a Democratic governor, William Plumer, and a predominantly Democratic legislature. The trustees and their friends, including Webster, expected a strong counterattack from the Wheelock forces, now strategically placed. It was not long in coming.

This was the year without a summer. In June, 1816, while the legislature was meeting, snow fell in Concord, the ground fro/e, and the young corn was killed. For generations afterward, i8i(i was remembered as “eighteen hundred and froze to death.” Addressing the legislators in the chill statehouse, Governor Plumer condemned the Dartmouth charter as one that “emanated from royalty” and contained, as was to be expected, “principles congenial to monarchy.” It had no reason for existence in a republic like the United States.

Proud of his message, Plumer sent a copy to his party’s founder and patron saint, then in retirement at Monticello. “It is replete with sound principles, and truly republican,” Thomas Jefferson replied. “The idea that institutions established for the use of the Nation cannot be touched nor modified, even to make them answer their end … may, perhaps, be a salutary provision against the abuses of a monarch, but it is most absurd against the Nation itself.”

The Democrats in Concord were as much impressed as Jefferson. In response to the Governor’s message, they passed new legislation that changed the name of Dartmouth College to “Dartmouth University,” increased the number of trustees from twelve to twentyone, and provided for a board of overseers with a veto over the decisions of the trustees. The law gave the governor and his council the power to appoint the additional trustees and the overseers. In effect, it transformed Dartmouth from a private college to a state university.

Governor Plumer called the enlarged board of trustees, the University board, together at Hanover, in August. It was still cold, and morning after morning there was frost on the ground. The Hanover reception for the new Plumer trustees was as chilly as the weather. Somehow no one could find the key to the library room where the board customarily met, and when the meeting was called to order in a college office, none of the eight anti-Wheelock trustees was there. Without the required two thirds of the membership present, the Plumer men could do nothing.

 

The men of the Octagon could not do much, either. They had lost the college charter, seal, records, and account books.