A History of Dartmouth College


By Aziz G. Sayigh, Boris V. Vabson, Anfin S. Erickson, and Charles S. Dameron

September 24, 2010

What other American college lent its name to a foundational Supreme Court legal decision? Or continued

Governor Wentworth.producing graduates through all of America’s wars, no matter the circumstances? And how did a college that was established as a rough-hewn cabin in the middle of the North Woods in 1769 become one of the country’s best educational institutions? The College’s history is full of conflict and controversy, a tradition that carries down to today. But this tradition merely makes Dartmouth’s story all the more interesting, and its heritage all the more precious.

Dartmouth represents the ninth oldest of America’s Colonial Colleges. Established in 1769, she was the last to receive her charter from England’s Crown. Dartmouth’s founding has since become the matter of legend, at the center of which lies one man’s unlikely vision for a small school deep in New England’s wilderness. In the ensuing decades, Eleazar Wheelock, Samson Occom, and Daniel Webster, Dartmouth’s favorite son, have all emerged as larger-than-life figures. Learning about their journeys is as integral a part to the Dartmouth experience as DOC Trips, Winter Carnival, or the Green itself. We present their stories here, among others, in a fundamental overview of our College’s celebrated history.

Eleazar Wheelock and Samson Occom

A sense of divine mission, which guided Wheelock to found Dartmouth, drove his life’s many other pursuits. Born in Windham, Connecticut in 1711, Wheelock graduated from Yale in 1733, and was subsequently ordained as a preacher. Soon afterwards, he became seized by the Great Awakening, a religious fever spreading throughout New England. The Awakening particularly influenced Wheelock’s sermons, which regularly reduced audiences to tears.

One of Wheelock’s first pupils was Samson Occom, a young Connecticut Mohegan who converted to Christianity in the Awakening’s heat. Occom prepared for college under Wheelock’s tutelage until Occom’s weak eyes forced an abandonment of study. Occom established himself as a schoolteacher in New London, later becoming a preacher and schoolmaster to the Montauk tribe of Long Island. The manufacture and sale of wooden spoons, cedar pails, churns, and leather books, as well as fishing and hunting, sustained Occom’s large family, as well as his missionary work.

His efforts led Wheelock to conceive of a language and missionary school, for Indian as well as white students, in the heart of Connecticut. After receiving a £500 bequest from two young Delawareans, and an equivalent donation of land and buildings from Colonel Joshua More, Wheelock set up More’s (later Moor’s) Indian Charity School, in 1754. The charity school was a pioneering enterprise, and received support from such luminaries as George Whitefield, the famed Connecticut Revivalist, who donated a bell.

A decade after the school’s inauguration, Colonel More died, leaving the institution without its primary benefactor. Furthermore, interest in educating Indians was declining, as consequence of the French and Indian War of the late 1750s. Wheelock also proved unable to obtain a charter for the institution, either from the King or the Connecticut legislature. Financial hardship, meanwhile, only increased in severity.

The Royal Charter and The Earl of Dartmouth 

Wheelock sent his former pupil, Samson Occom, to England in 1764. Anticipating that Occom would be well-received as a novelty in England, Wheelock was convinced the Indian minister would be successful in raising funds. Wheelock’s inklings were confirmed when, along with Nathaniel Whitaker, Occom collected approximately eleven thousand pounds. It was an impressive figure for the time, especially given deteriorating relations between England and the Colonies. 

A number of prominent Englishmen contributed to Occom’s cause. Among them was William Legge, Second Earl of Dartmouth, and Secretary of State for the Colonies. He was an admirer of George Whitefield, and, by extension, of Wheelock and Occom. Becoming president of the London Board for Moor’s School, he eventually secured a £200 gift from the King.

John Wentworth, an American residing in England, also emerged as a key player in Dartmouth’s founding. Recently appointed as Royal Governor of New Hampshire, he was rather eager to have the school relocate from Connecticut. His uncle, former Governor Benning Wentworth, had offered Wheelock 500 acres of land, to which John added the grant of an entire township. Wheelock accepted, and a new charter was finalized in December 1769. Wheelock chose Hanover as the school’s permanent home shortly thereafter.

Wheelock and Occom parted ways in 1768, allegedly over the expenditures of Occom’s family. It is also likely that Occom anticipated the character of Wheelock’s new college, as one primarily for whites, given the failure of Moor’s Charity School. Occom’s affiliation with a cause he had served so well thus ended.

Wheelock originally intended to name the college Wentworth, but the Governor persuaded him to designate it Dartmouth, to gain England’s favor. Ironically, The Earl of Dartmouth, William Legge, lost interest shortly thereafter. He considered Wheelock’s new plan a perversion of the original.

The first building was a temporary log hut “without stone, brick, glass, or nails,” which served as a classroom and dormitory. In 1770, Wheelock was the College’s sole faculty member. John W. Ripley, Bezaleel Woodward, and John Smith joined him as tutors the following year. In 1771, Levi Frisbie, Samuel Gray, Sylvanus Ripley, and John Wheelock all became the College’s first graduates. Dartmouth has produced a class every year since, the only American college to do so, as the Revolution, the War of 1812, and other skirmishes periodically disrupted studies at other institutions.

Daniel Webster and The Supreme Court

Wheelock appointed his son, John Wheelock, to succeed him upon the father’s death in 1779. John was only twenty-five, and seemed insufficiently qualified for the office of president. Hesitant to approve his posting, the trustees eventually relented, due in part to Wheelock’s willingness to serve without salary.

Eager to cultivate respect and support, the younger Wheelock proved too fervent in such attempts, alienating students and trustees. By 1809, Wheelock’s opposition took hold of the board’s majority, and slowly converted a majority of the professors to their point of view. Impeaching Wheelock in 1815, the trustees elected Reverend Francis Brown as successor.

Wheelock, having no desire to yield, convinced New Hampshire’s Democrats to join him in his struggle against the trustees, whom he accused of various offenses against the College. New Hampshire Democrats, led by then-Governor William Plumer, at first condemned the Dartmouth charter as one “emanating from royalty,” and one thus unsuitable for the modern republic. In 1816, these Democrats then, by means of the state legislature, changed the name of Dartmouth College to “Dartmouth University” (calling the College a “university” has been a grave offense ever since), increased the number of trustees from twelve to twenty-one, and created a board of overseers with veto power over trustee decisions. Dartmouth was effectively transformed from a private college to a state university. The resulting controversy would outlive Wheelock himself, who died in 1817.

Daniel Webster, a young Dartmouth graduate (Class of 1801) of growing repute, had been courted by both parties to the dispute, to serve as legal counsel. Some of the college community’s older members recalled Webster’s Dartmouth arrival, in 1797. Webster was then dressed in homespun clothing, dyed by his mother, whose colors had bled upon contact with rain. Such was the humble beginning of a future Senator and Secretary of State.

Webster lodged his support behind the College’s original trustees. He suggested they file suit against William H. Woodward, former treasurer of Dartmouth, demanding return of the charter, seal, records, and account books seized by him. The trustees were defeated in the Superior Court of New Hampshire; they could appeal to the Supreme Court, though their prospects in that body were uncertain. Financial need further complicated the picture: the College’s endowment at the time amounted to only $1,500. Webster, for a fee of $1,000, agreed to represent Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees in Washington. He would argue that New Hampshire’s actions, in impairing the “obligation of contracts,” were unconstitutional.

Webster testified on March 10, 1818, in the case of Woodward vs. Dartmouth College, before Chief Justice John Marshall and the rest of the (mostly Federalist) U.S. Supreme Court. Webster’s four-hour oration stands one of the most memorable in U.S history. At the end of his argument, he famously concluded:

“This, sir, is my case. It is the case not merely of that humble institution; it is the case of every college in our land. … It is more. It is, in some sense, the case of every man who has property of which he may be stripped,—for the question is simply this: Shall our state legislature be allowed to take that which is not their own, to turn it from its original use, and apply it to such ends or purposes as they, in their discretion, shall see fit? …

“Sir, you may destroy this little institution. It is weak. It is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of the country. You may put it out. But if you do so, you must carry through your work. You must extinguish, one after another, all those great lights of science which, for more than a century, have thrown their radiance over our land.

“It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college, and yet, there are those who love it. …”

Webster’s lip quivered and his voice choked as he delivered the final words. Justice Marshall’s eyes were reportedly moist with tears. The decision was postponed for a year as the justices deliberated the case. During the interim, Webster, aware of public sentiment’s influence on court decisions, circulated widely the printed copies of his argument.

In February of 1819, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trustees and the College. Only one dissenting vote was cast. In his majority opinion, Marshall remarked, “Perhaps no judicial proceedings in this country ever involved more important consequences.” Indeed, the case had extended national power at the expense of the state’s, confirmed the charter right of all private colleges of the land, protected business and non-profit organizations, and furthermore encouraged their very establishment.

Wheelock’s Early Successors

Webster’s fiery orations brought renewed calm to Hanover. The College, its fundamental character once endangered, entered a period of normalcy. A pair of short, inconsequential presidencies was followed by Nathan Lord’s accession to Parkhurst. Serving for 35 consecutive years, Lord expanded enrollment, in addition to building Thornton and Wentworth, the structures flanking Dartmouth Hall. Lord’s open endorsement of slavery, however, provoked a rising tide against him. In 1863, faced with the prospect of removal, Lord opted to resign his office. The Reverend Asa Dodge Smith was appointed as Lord’s replacement. The College’s previous annexation of the Chandler Scientific School (America’s first specialized scientific institution) was complemented, under Smith’s mantel, by the creation of the Thayer School of Engineering. This period was also marked by the establishment, in Hanover, of an agricultural college. Wallowing away for twenty years south of East Wheelock Street, the institution subsequently relocated to Durham, later becoming the University of New Hampshire.

Asa Dodge Smith’s successor, Samuel Bartlett, established a pattern frequently imitated by subsequent administrators. Alienating legions of faculty, students, and alumni, Bartlett found his position in serious jeopardy. Unlike future leaders, however, Bartlett also possessed a magical touch, almost seamlessly repairing the rifts he had sown. His critics were left speechless. Serving until 1893, Bartlett would oversee Rollins Chapel’s construction, in addition to pushing the endowment past the million dollar mark.

Safeguarding Dartmouth’s continued survival in the face of unforgiving wilderness was the great triumph of early College leaders. Yet, succeeding leaders would facilitate equally lofty achievements. Under their guidance, Dartmouth would not merely endure, but rise to the very pinnacle of education in the New World. 

The Twentieth Century

It was throughout the early 20th century, when stakes were highest, that the greatest of Dartmouth’s presidents came to power. The College, at that juncture, constituted little more than a finishing school. Its student body numbered 300, with serious scholarship in short supply, and facilities antiquated. While contemporaries fared little better, Dartmouth’s leaders understood the direction the future necessitated. Assuming the presidential office in 1893, William Jewett Tucker was the first seeking to bring Dartmouth into “the modern era.” His storied accomplishments included an overhaul of the physical campus. Construction of over 20 buildings was undertaken, and the steam plant was erected. Wood stoves on campus thus became relics of the past. The curriculum also was targeted for change, as it was “broadened” and somewhat secularized. The student body’s size expanded to 1,100. Tucker, like his contemporary Charles Eliot at Harvard, was a persistent advocate for progress in American education. He wished for America’s academic institutions, particularly Dartmouth, to befit the country’s greatness. 

In 1909, Ernest Fox Nichols entered the presidency in Tucker’s stead. The first since John Wheelock to not belong to the clergy, Nichols effected further secularization at Dartmouth. His tenure was also notable for the founding of the Dartmouth Outing Club and Winter Carnival. The Carnival has particularly entered the stuff of lore, often termed the “Mardi Gras of the North.” The setting of a 1939 motion picture, and scene of countless depravities, it also served host to a drunken F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

1916 saw Ernest Martin Hopkins appointed as president. In addition to developing the physical plant, Hopkins introduced selective admissions in the early 1920s and solidified Dartmouth’s entry to the Ivy League. In many respects, his enduring reign as president of the College — from 1916 to 1945 — ushered in the College’s national recognition as an institution of the first rank. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ’30 memorably told Hopkins at the dedication of the Hopkins Center in 1962, “I came to Dartmouth because of you.” It was Hopkins who, perhaps more than any other, firmly established the ideal of a liberal undergraduate curriculum at Dartmouth.

After almost 30 years at the helm, Hopkins was succeeded by John Sloan Dickey. Previously an attorney and high ranking State Department official, Dickey was hardly a bespectacled academic. He was a man of breadth, to be found not only in Parkhurst, but also in full exertion deep in New Hampshire’s wilderness. He sought to hone mind, body, and spirit, and made the same demands of every Dartmouth student. Under his watch, the ideal of the Dartmouth Man, as one well-formed, balanced, and vigorous, reached its fruition. Dickey furthermore wished the Dartmouth man to be outward gazing, and cognizant of the world at large. In this vein, Dickey strived to develop a curriculum that was international in scope, and established numerous foreign study programs. As Dickey told a Dartmouth audience, while the horrors of the Second World War were still fresh in memory, “The world’s problems are your problems…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” 

When Dickey left Dartmouth in 1970, his was a towering shadow. He left Dartmouth the strongest it ever was. Dickey had instilled great love among Dartmouth alumni for their alma mater. Almost 70% gave funds to the College in any given year of his term, a percentage since unequaled. 

Replacing Dickey as Dartmouth president was John Kemeny. Co-creator of the BASIC computer language, Kemeny brought the College to the technological forefront, and  provided students with regular access to computers. He also  presided over co-education’s controversial beginning, with 1972 marking the first year of female admittance. To meet the needs of this expansion of the student body, Kemeny instituted the D-Plan, a year-round schedule of operations, a College peculiarity that remains to this day. It was, in the words of some, a means by which to fit 4000 students into 3000 beds. Yet, even until the 1980s, men composed as much as 80% of those 4000 spots. 

The Modern Era

David T. McLaughlin succeeded Kemeny, and was himself followed by James O. Freedman. These fellows were rooted at opposite poles of the spectrum. McLaughlin, a businessman by occupation, proved unable to adapt to the world of the academy, and eventually tendered his resignation. Freedman, meanwhile, was an academic, fixated only on the life of the mind, and wishing others at Dartmouth to follow his example. His inaugural address demanded greater representation of the “creative loner” at Dartmouth, and of “students who march to a different drummer….for whom a library is dukedom large enough,”and who would be most at home “translating Catullus.” With these words, Freedman set out to cultivate a student body that was a far cry from Dickey’s ideal, substituting balance for lopsidedness. The raising of SAT scores’ importance in admissions was one consequence of Freedman’s quest. The East Wheelock Cluster, that glorious den of failed social engineering, stands as another monument to his efforts. His quest to impose a more ostentatiously intellectual character on the College succeeded only in introducing a sort of pseudo-intellectualism, best exemplified by a recent student commencement address that hailed the “Greek” poet Catullus. (See TDR 5/14/07)

James Wright, who retired in 2009, was most notable for his efforts to abolish single-sex Greek houses, and effectively do away with the college’s Greek system. This proposal, announced in 1999 as the Student Life Initiative, met fierce opposition from students and alumni. This resistance caused killed the proposal, which is unlikely to figure prominently in the near future. Wright also faced controversy for fiscal mismanagement, for presiding over a bloated bureaucracy, and for ineffectively addressing overcrowded classes in certain departments (notably Economics and Government). 

Such were the grievances aired by four different petition candidates, vying for spots on the Board of Trustees. TJ Rodgers, Peter Robinson, Todd Zywicki, and Stephen Smith by name, these petitioners bemoaned Dartmouth’s abandonment of the ideals of breadth, well roundedness, and balance. Each of these petitioners was subsequently elected — Rodgers in 2004, Robinson and Zywicki in 2005, and Smith in 2007 — by alumni to the board. Their significant margin of victory served as a repudiation of Wright’s tenure. Wright took notice, throwing the College’s whole weight behind the anti-petition candidates, and going so far as to set up websites designed solely to discredit petition candidates. After an uninterrupted string of petition candidate victories, Wright and Trustee president Ed Haldeman announced a board-packing scheme that would minimize the voice of alumni-elected trustees. The College’s own Association of Alumni thereafter waged a high-profile lawsuit against the school, charging a breach of contract embedded in an 1891 agreement between the Board of Trustees and body of alumni. Though the lawsuit did not result in a restoration of the old order, it permanently tarnished Wright’s administration. Wright resigned shortly thereafter, leaving his successor, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, with a $200 million structural budget deficit.

Kim’s appointment in 2009 overshadowed the Board of Trustees controversy, and ushered in a more conciliatory era in Dartmouth politics. Kim, who is well-known in international health circles for his tenure at the World Health Organization and for co-founding the renowned Partners in Health, quickly set to the difficult tasks of eliminating bureaucratic bloat and balancing the College’s budget sheets. He managed to do much of the former and all of the latter in his first year in office, raising hopes that — having tackled his inherited problems with aplomb — he will set to work making his own mark on the College. 

Indeed, Kim has publicly stated that he came from Harvard to take his position at Dartmouth because he was inspired by the example of former president Dickey, about whom Kim read in a November 2008 issue of The Dartmouth Review. Kim has announced his intent to reinstate Dickey’s well-regarded Great Issues curriculum to acquaint current students with pressing world problems, and has demonstrated his commitment to a vibrant liberal arts curriculum. Of late, he has also made waves with his establishment of the College’s Center for Health Care Delivery Science, by which he hopes Dartmouth will help to direct emerging public policy questions on health care.

The fate of Dartmouth, that enduring institution, has not only been engineered from the past. Rather, it is also being shaped in the present, by all who attend or associate with her. It is traditional that, at graduation, the president bids the departing senior class “so long,” rather than “good-bye,” the former signifying the graduates’ undying ties to the College. Those who enter Dartmouth, in a sense, never leave. Words that the incoming class would do well to keep close.