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THE FOUNDING OF YALE COLLEGE.
By CHARLES HENRY SMITH, LL.D.
[Read May 20, 1901.]
At the present time it appears to be a comparatively short and easy matter to found a great institution of learning. A rich man, with generous impulse and honorable ambition, says to himself, “Go to, let us found a University,” and forthwith land is purchased, a quadrangle is erected, president and professors are engaged, a full curriculum of studies is put forth, students gather in the several classes and departments, a football team is organized, a yell is adopted, and behold, a University stands forth in full and vigorous life.
Not so was the founding of Yale. Its beginning was small, and, in the retrospect, somewhat uncertain in point of time. For a while it was hard to say what it was, or where it was, or how long it would last. At one time, like Biela's comet, it was divided by opposing attractions into two parts. The successive acts which made it Yale College were separated from each other by considerable intervals of time. In the first year of the eighteenth century it was chartered by the Colonial legislature as a Collegiate School, and began a somewhat migratory exist
Seventeen years later it was lodged in New Haven, with a single College Hall of its own to which was given the name of "Yale.” Not until a quarter of a century after that did the institution become “Yale College” by legislative enactment, and enter with assurance of continued life upon its well-known career. There was therefore a period of about forty-five years during which the foundations of the college were being laid. It is this period which will claim our attention this evening as we consider “The Founding of Yale." The occasion for this
paper is the near approach of the two-hundredth anniversary of the day when the charter was granted. It is fitting at such a time that a restatement of important events be made, even though we may be already familiar with them.
Our sources of information for the beginning of the formative period are some manuscript documents, mostly letters by different writers, and a work by President Clap, entitled “The Annals or History of Yale College.”
The unpublished documents, about fifteen in number, bear date of September, October, and November, 1701. The earliest of all is a scheme for "A University in Connecticut" in the handwriting of Cotton Mather. This
This is not dated, but President Clap endorsed it 1700, though in the Annals he referred it back in 1698. This scheme was not used, and in fact it was quite unlike the one afterward adopted. But another document is a draft of “An Act for founding of a Collegiate School,” and this, with some alterations, was presented to the General Court and passed. The draft is in the handwriting of Addington, Secretary of the Province of Massachusetts. Among the letters is one from Judge Sewall of the Massachusetts Superior Court. Another was from Increase Mather, who was president of Harvard College until a few days before the letter was written. Three letters were from Connecticut men -Gershom Bulkley of Wethersfield, Eliazur Kimberly, Secretary of the Colony, and John Elliot of Windsor-all important men. Another letter was from Rev. James Noyes of Stonington to Rev. James Pierpont of New Haven. This letter had a somewhat special importance, as will be seen later. We have also the letter in which Major Fitch offered land, glass, and nails, from which President Clap quotes, as will be seen.
Professor Dexter has made a careful study of these docilments, and little if anything can be added to what he has already said about them in his paper on the founding of Yale College, read before this Society in 1882. I wish to acknowledge my obligations to Professor Dexter for his valuable paper, for several items of information given orally, and for courtesies in the library.
The main fact brought out by the letters is that the ministers who were thinking of starting a college in Connecticut were careful to take counsel of some of the leading men in New England. The point upon which they particularly sought advice was, whether the chartering of a college would be likely to attract hostile notice of the authorities in England. Hence their questions addressed to Crown officials and leading lawyers. The first letter of which there is any trace, (the letter itself is not extant,) was addressed to Secretary Addington and Judge Sewall, two of the higher Crown officials in Massachusetts, asking their advice as to the best form in which the project could be brought before the General Court. In answer to this letter, and another one, also lost, which appears to have substantially outlined the charter desired, there came the draft already referred to. This was drawn with special reference to escaping the notice of the Crown. · An accompanying letter said, “We on purpose gave your Academy as low a name as we could, that it might better stand in wind and weather.” Nor was precaution uncalled for. The charter of Harvard had lapsed when that of the Colony was annulled in 1684, and during the first eleven years of King William's reign, five efforts to get a new one had all failed. This might mean that the Crown looked with disfavor upon higher institutions of learning in New England. It therefore behooved Connecticut to be careful, for if she gave offence, King William might not be so tender of her liberties as King Charles of blessed memory had been, and the hated days of Andros might be revived.
Gershom Bulkley said, "I should think that it would be much better to petition his majesty to grant a liberty, ratified by act of Parliament, for the founding of a college
I think this is the most likely way to prevent a future defeat, if it can be obtained.” John Elliot, a lawyer and a leading member of the General Court, thought otherwise, but at the same time saw the importance of taking precautions. He said, "I think such a school may be erected which cannot be overthrown by law regularly executed." The last two words were underscored, intimating that the danger lay in arbitrary ineasures. Then in answer to specific inquiries he said, “As to the title of the master of said school, it seems to me to be of no greater consequence than this, that which shows least of grandeur will be least obnoxious. As to your fourth query, I am much at a loss in my own thoughts, yet I'll offer, that, not standing on a royal foundation, we cannot give authentic or legal degrees. Something instead of them of good use and encouragement amongst ourselves we may, but without a great deal of prudence in that matter, our enemies will take advantage to injure us.” In keeping with these suggestions, evident efforts were made in the charter to minimize the importance of the undertaking. The institution was named a "collegiate school;" its head was called a "Rector;" its power to confer degrees was mentioned in few words at the close as if incidentally; and the degree itself was explained as being equivalent to a mere "license.”
We turn now to President Clap's Annals. This is a small book, its printed page being 534 by 31/2 inches. It has 89 pages of text, followed by 35 pages of catalogue, containing names of officers, benefactors, and graduates for the first 65 years, and the undergraduates for the year 1766. In addition to printed copies, the College has two manuscript copies written at different times. On the title page of the printed book the work is described as follows:
“The Annals or History of Yale College, in New Haven, in the Colony of Connecticut, from the first founding thereof, in the Year 1700, to the Year 1766: With an Appendix, containing the present State of the College, the method of Instruction and Government, with the Officers, Benefactors, and Graduates. By Thomas Clap, A. M., President of the said College. New Haven, MDCCLXVI.”
Since President Clap is our only authority for much which he records, it becomes important to consider his relation to events as they transpired. From his birth in 1703 to his settlement at Windham in 1726, he probably knew little if anything about the Connecticut college. He was born in Scituate, was brought up in Massachusetts, and went through Harvard College. It is not likely that he then took any interest in, or !
gave any thought to the small and far off school at Saybrook and New Haven. From 1726 to 1739 he was a resident clergyman in Connecticut. During these years, which he spent at Windham, he of course knew about Yale, and doubtless heard from time to time what was going on within its walls. In 1739 he was chosen President of Yale, and became of course an original authority on the College history between that date and his resignation in 1766.
Concerning his sources of information for the period when his knowledge was not at first hand, he speaks as follows in his preface:
“At the desire of the Trustees of this college, in the Year 1744, I compiled the Substance of this History, to that time; which was read and accepted by them. It was collected principally from the records and original papers; but several circumstances, tending to set the whole in a clear light, I received from sundry Gentlemen, who were contemporary with the facts related; among which were some of the Founders of the College, with whom I was personally acquainted in the Year 1726.” It should be said with regard to the date 1744, that Professor Dexter has shown it to be incorrect. It should be 1747, and will be referred to hereafter as corrected.
As to records and original papers, President Clap had access to those already referred to, and to no others so far as we have any knowledge. As to his relations with some of the Founders of the college with whom he says he was personally acquainted in 1726, Professor Dexter has pointed out that five of the early trustees were living at that time, but owing to advanced age, or probable little intercourse with Windham, their usefulness as sources of information is open to question. As to the other “sundry gentlemen” whom he consulted, "who were contemporary with the facts related,” we know nothing more than is contained in President Clap's statement. The presumption of course is that they were intelligent men, but who they were or how they obtained their information or indeed what it was, we do not know.
President Clap's account of what preceded the granting of the charter needs to be carefully scrutinized. These events