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The Gathering Storm: A Campus View

May 2024
3min read

While the battle of control of Dartrr mouth College raged in the New Hampshire legislature and the Supreme Court, the campus itself was tense, as revealed in letters to his brother from Rufus Choate, an undergraduate at Dartmouth through those stormy years. (The quotations and connective notes below are adapted from an article prepared last year by Edward Cannery Lathem for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine .) Choate, who in 1841 would succeed the great. Webster in the Senate when Webster became Harrison’s Secretary of State, quite clearly favored the trustees and President Francis Brown of the College in their battle with John Wheelock and Acting President William Allen of Dartmouth “University.” Following their victory in the elections of March, 1816, the New Hampshire Democrats under Governor William Plumer called for legislative action on the College.

Hanover. June 16th, 1816

… You are aware no doubt that this is a critical moment for D. College “the storm so long gathering seems about to burst, the stroke may be fatal, the seat of science may fall—” & I may have to go to Harvard or Yale College, the legislature is sitting & this session will decide the momentous question. You may well suppose we all feel anxious for the result; Presid. Brown is at Concord to hear his fate. If removed Prof. Shurtliff & Adams & probably Mussey will follow & about ½ of the students.
In December, the legislature provided a supplementary bill that would make possible the formal organization of the University board without the participation of the College trustees, and thus bring Dartmouth under state control.

Hanover. Dec. 16th 1816.

… You may judge better, of the singular state of the College, & of the confusion which pervails from the following circumstance. It is customary for the Sophomore class to take on itself the business of getting the catalogues of the officers 8c students annually printed. It was, as usual, done by my class, this fall, witli this introduction (if I may so express it) “Catalogue of the officers & students of Dartmouth College.” The few democrats & fellows of “the baser sort” amongst us, immediately employed our Hanover democratic printer to strike off an “edition” in this form “Catalogue of the officers & students of Dartmouth University, together with [its] trustees (old & new) & overseers …”!
The New Hampshire Supreme Court heard lhe CollegeUniversity case during the May and September terms. On November 6, 1817, a decision adverse to the College was handed down.

Hanover Nov. 8th 1817.

… I cannot help while my feelings are yet excited sitting down to tell how our expectations are again all blasted by the decis[i]on of the New-Hampshire judges. You have perhaps before this been made acquainted with the result, so that it will scarcely be news to you to be informed that they have given unqualified sentance in favour of the act which established Dart. University, and has been the cause of all our difficulty. In consequence of this most unheard of decision, the Trustees have appealed to the Supreme Court of the U. States as a last (and I am almost inclined to say, a precarious ) resort. We shall of course have another year to pass, more disagreeable if possible than the last.

The distance between the students of the two institutions at this place is most unpleasantly widened, and the command in the Bible seems not to be wholly without its effect on the minds of the College scholars, “come out from among them [and be ye separate].” In the mean time the most unhappy circumstance attending it is, “that such a state of [aftairs(?)] necessarily discomposes the mind, and unfits it for steady & quiet reflection so indispensable [to projgress in science. You may easily suppose that it is impossible to sit down coolly &: composedly [to] books, when you are alarmed every minute by a report, “that the library is in danger or “that a mob is about collecting” or perhaps “that we are all about to [be] fined & imprisoned & it may be, buffeted k scourged for our adherence to men on whom justice herself frowns;”—even when such reports are entitled to no credit whatever it takes sometime to hear them, & also some more to point out their absurdity so that much time on the whole is absolutely wasted.
The case came before the Uniled States Supreme Court in March, 1818, but the Court’s decision, invalidating the New Hampshire acts, was not announced until the following February.

Hanover March 25th 1819

… People in Hanover you may easily enough conceive were all on fire with the news of the triumph of the College. When it reached here (before I came on) the bells were rung cannon fired bonfires lighted up & a thousand other unseemly demonstrations of joy exhibited not especially to the credit of the rabble that did it, or the great men that gave permission; but we are all still at present & Près. Allen (as he is fool enough to call himself) is the only University man on the grou[n]d. Some .] or 5 of their students have joined the College; one of them (Upham brother of him I have told you of) is my roommate. We have the buildings, although the difficulties are by no means settled . What prevents this I confess I know not; things will remain one year more as they are now …

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