The Storied History of Dartmouth

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 a matter of legend, at the center of which lies one man’s unlikely vision, for a small school among 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

Wheelock’s sense of divine mission, which guided him to found Dartmouth, also 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 thereafter, 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.

Reverend Eleazer Wheelock

Reverend Eleazer Wheelock

One of Wheelock’s first pupils was Samson Occom, a young Connecticut Mohegan who was converted in heat of the Awakening. Wheelock helped him prepare for college until Occom’s weak eyes forced him to abandon his course of study. Occom established himself as a schoolteacher in New London, later becoming a preacher and schoolmaster to the Montauk tribe of Long Island. He sustained himself and his large family through the manufacture and sale of wooden spoons, cedar pails, churns, and leather books, as well as his missionary work.

It was his efforts in this later role that led Wheelock to conceive of a language and missionary school, for Indian as well as white students, in the heart of the Colonies. After receiving a £500 bequest from two young Delawares, 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. To make matters worse, colonial interest in educating Indians was declining as a 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 of England 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. Because he was a well-received novelty there, Wheelock was convinced the Indian minister would be successful at raising funds. Wheelock’s inklings were confirmed when, together with Reverend Nathaniel Whitaker, Occom collected approximately eleven thousand pounds. It was an impressive figure for the time, especially given the 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. As 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 was also a key player in Dartmouth’s founding. As a recent appointment as Royal Governor of New Hampshire, he was 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 domicile shortly thereafter.

Reverend Samson Occom

Reverend Samson Occom

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 had come to an end.

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 constituted 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 graduates of the College. Dartmouth has produced a class every year since, the only American college to do so, as the Revolution, the War of 1812, and other conflicts periodically disrupted studies at other institutions.

Daniel Webster and The Supreme Court

Wheelock appointed his son, John Wheelock, to succeed him upon his death in 1779. John was only twenty-five, and seemed insufficiently qualified for the presidential office. 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 his efforts to govern the school, alienating students and the trustees. By 1809, opposition to Wheelock’s presidency took hold of the board, and slowly converted a majority of the professors to their point of view. After impeaching Wheelock in 1815, the trustees elected Reverend Francis Brown as his successor.

Daniel Webster, Dartmouth's favorite son

Daniel Webster, Dartmouth’s favorite son

Wheelock, having no desire to yield, however, 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 a republic like the United States. In 1816, these Democrats, 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 sides of 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 original trustees were defeated in the Superior Court of New Hampshire, but had their grievances elevated to the federal judiciary. They then appealed to the Supreme Court, though their prospects in that body were uncertain. Webster, for a fee of $1,000, agreed to represent them against the state. 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 Dartmouth v. Woodward, before Chief Justice John Marshall. 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. A decision was postponed for a year as some of the justices pondered 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 magisterial 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 further encouraged their very establishment.

Wheelock’s Early Successors

Webster’s fiery orations brought renewed calm to Hanover. The College, its very character once endangered, entered into a period of normalcy. A pair of short, inconsequential presidencies was followed by Nathan Lord’s ascension. Serving for thirty-five consecutive years, Lord expanded enrollment and constructed Thornton and Wentworth Halls, the buildings flanking Dartmouth Hall. His open endorsement of slavery, however, provoked an eventual backlash against his leadership. In 1863, faced with the prospect of removal, Lord opted to resign his office.

Rev. Asa Dodge Smith was appointed as his 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 also saw the establishment of an agricultural college in Hanover. After struggling financially for twenty years just south of East Wheelock Street, the institution subsequently relocated to Durham and later became the University of New Hampshire.

Asa Dodge Smith’s successor, Samuel Bartlett, established a pattern frequently imitated by administrators to follow. 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. Serving until 1893, Bartlett would oversee Rollins Chapel’s construction and pushed the endowment past the million-dollar mark.

Safeguarding Dartmouth’s continued survival in the face of an unforgiving wilderness and physical isolation was the great triumph of early college leaders. Yet, succeeding leaders would facilitate even loftier 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 twentieth century, when stakes were highest, that the greatest of Dartmouth 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 among the highly antiquated facilities. While other American colleges fared little better, Dartmouth’s leaders understood the direction the future necessitated.

President John Sloan Dickey

President John Sloan Dickey

Assuming the office of the presidency 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 twenty buildings was undertaken, and the steam plant was erected. Wood stoves on campus thus became relics of the past. The curriculum was also 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 affected further secularization at Dartmouth. His tenure was also notable for the founding of the Dartmouth Outing Club and Winter Carnival. In particular, The Carnival became the stuff of lore and was later termed the “Mardi Gras of the North.” The setting of a 1939 motion picture and the 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 Dartmouth’s facilities, Hopkins introduced selective admissions in the early 1920s. After almost thirty years at the helm, he was succeeded by John Sloan Dickey. Though previously an attorney and high ranking State Department official, Dickey was a man of breadth and his skills were apparent not only in Parkhurst, but also in full exertion among New Hampshire’s wilderness. He sought to hone his own mind, body, and spirit, and made the same far-reaching demands of every Dartmouth student. Under his watch, the ideal of the Dartmouth Man as a well formed, balanced, and vigorous being, reached its fruition.

Dickey further aimed to make his students cognizant of the world at large. In this vein, he 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, “The world’s problems are your problems … and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.”

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

Construction of Baker Tower, 1927

Construction of Baker Tower, 1927

Replacing Dickey as Dartmouth president was John Kemeny. Co-creator of the BASIC computer language, Kemeny brought technology to the forefront of the College and worked to give students ready access to it. He would also preside over co-education’s controversial beginning in 1972. To meet the needs of an expanded student body, Kemeny instituted the D-Plan, a year round schedule of operations that exists to this day. It was, in the words of some, a means by which to fit 4000 students into 3000 beds. Yet, even into the 1980s, men continued to fill as many as eighty percent of the residence halls.

The Modern Era

David T. McLaughlin succeeded Kemeny, and was himself followed by James O. Freedman. These members of the Wheelock Succession 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 wished 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.”

With these words, Freedman set out to cultivate a student body that was a far cry from Dickey’s ideal, substituting balance for academic lopsidedness. The expansion 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. In the end, Freedman’s legacy was one of the superficially academic, as best exemplified a few years ago by a valedictorian who invoked the “Greek” poet Catallus in his commencement address. (See TDR 5/14/07).

James Wright, Freedman’s successor, and presdient from 1998 until his retirement 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 resistance from students and alumni alike and was ultimately defeated before it could be implemented. Wright also generated controversy with his mismanagement of the College’s finances, his expansion of the administrative bureaucracy, and his inability to address class overcrowding issues in certain departments.

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 critcized 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 went so far as to set up websites designed solely to discredit this unendorsed challengers.

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 legal battle against the school and alleged that the College had breached a governance contract that stemmed from an 1891 agreement between the Board of Trustees and the 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. His first two years saw the balancing of the College’s budget and the reduction of bureaucratic bloat through administrative restructuring. President Kim also brought national attention to the College with the establishment of the Center for Health Care Delivery Science and other related medical initiatives. He no doubt drew the most eyes to Hanover when he was selected by President Obama to head the World Bank in March 2012.

Unfortunately, this meant the rest of Kim’s third year was spent outside of Hanover as he tried to drum-up support for his candidacy. His absence was felt as major campus events—including a nationally-reported hazing scandal—rocked the administration. This distance from the College’s affairs led many students, faculty-members, and alumni to criticize his leadership style and question his commitment to the insitution he presided over.

President Phil Hanlon, the  eighteenth member of the Wheelock Succession

President Phil Hanlon, the eighteenth member of the Wheelock Succession

On July 1, 2012, Kim formally left the College in the hands of Provost Carol Folt, a serial administrator who began her tenure at the College as a biology professor in 1983 and held a number of positions in the Wright administration. After a year blighted by scandals, protests, and campus controversy, Interim President Folt departed for the chancellorship of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. President Phillip Hanlon, a graduate of the Class of 1977 and the eighteenth member of the Wheelock Succession, has since succeeded her and promises to pursue new policies that will end “high-risk and harmful behavior” and promote experiential learning on campus.

The fate of Dartmouth, then, is not simply defined by its past. Rather, it is actively being shaped 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. These are words that the incoming class would do well to keep close as they begin to write the latest chapter in Dartmouth’s storied history.

This set piece to the Review‘s Dartmouth Guide was written by Aziz G. Sayigh, Boris V. Babson, A.S. Erickson, Charles S. Dameron, Adam I.W. Schwartzman, and Nicholas P. Desatnick.