The College on the Hill

It is a small college, sir, and yet...

It is a small college, sir, and yet…

Dartmouth College is unique among its peers in the Ivy League, not simply because of the myriad cultural differences, but due to one, simple word: “College.” Unlike the other Ivy Leagues and almost every other top-tier center of higher education in the world, Dartmouth does not hold the title of “University.” Many incoming students and outsiders are perplexed by this, often incorrectly calling us “Dartmouth University.” The name has been known to cause confusion in countries where the word “college” means high school or technical school. Former Interim President Carol Folt even claimed that this simple word is to blame for Dartmouth’s perceived lack of international recognition and prestige. The Dartmouth recently reported that 37.9% of the (admittedly small number of) faculty they surveyed are in favor of renaming the College “Dartmouth University.” This measure is nothing new, and the change has been attempted numerous times in the past, though it has always faced fierce opposition.

Freshmen (and upperclassmen who have not been reading their history) may be wondering why this issue is so controversial. The answer lies in a Supreme Court case that took place almost two centuries ago, Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. In 1779, Eleazer Wheelock’s son, John Wheelock, was a colonel fighting against the British. Returning home to Hanover to assume the presidency, John proved himself vastly less popular than his father. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, the Board of Trustees underwent a transformation. More traditionally-minded members were replaced by those who saw the College in a more independent light, and resented John’s leadership. When a dispute erupted between John and the local church, the Trustees refused to back him. Incensed, John published a scathing and nominally anonymous letter concerning the Trustees. After more escalations, John (a Whig) went to the Federalist governor of New Hampshire, William Plumber, for assistance. The two men joined forces, and the State of New Hampshire asserted ownership of Dartmouth based on its British charter and the defeat of that nation in the American Revolution, renaming the College “Dartmouth University.” The Trustees refused to acknowledge the State of New Hampshire’s claim, and a standoff ensued. Both groups claimed ownership of the institution and her grounds, turning Hanover in to a virtual battleground. The Trustees and most of the students occupied a number of the buildings, while John Wheelock, a few loyal students, and new students sent by the State occupied others.

To rectify the situation, The Trustees of the College brought a suit against the president of the Board of the University, William Woodward. The College retained an alumnus, Daniel Webster, as council, and the case progressed through the New Hampshire courts. Due to the Federalist bias of the courts, the College repeatedly failed in its attempts to rid themselves of the University, until the case was accepted by the Supreme Court of the United States, then under Chief Justice John Marshal. In 1819, the Court ruled in favor of Dartmouth College, returning it to the full control of the Trustees, but not before Daniel Webster had what was arguably the greatest speech of his career. An eyewitness gave this account of his words, reprinted below from the archives of Dartmouth College:

“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 the case of every eleemosynary institution throughout our country – of all those great charities founded by the piety of our ancestors to alleviate human misery, and scatter blessings along the pathway of life! It is more! It is, in some sense, the case of every man among us who has property of which he may be stripped, for the question is simply this, ‘Shall our State Legislatures be allowed to take that which is not their own, to turn it from its original use, and apply it to such ends and 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 our 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!”
Here the feelings which he had thus far succeeded in keeping down, broke forth. His lips quivered; his firm cheek trembled with emotion; his eyes were filled with tears; his voice choked; and he seemed struggling to the utmost, simply to gain that mastery over himself which might save him from an unmanly burst of feeling. I will not attempt to give the few broken words of tenderness in which he went on to speak of his attachment to the college. It seemed to be mingled throughout with the recollections of father, mother, brother, and all the trials and preventions through which he had made his way into life. Everyone saw that it was wholly unpremeditated — a pressure on his heart which sought relief in words and tears. Recovering himself, after a few moments, and turning to Judge [John] Marshall, he said, “Sir, I know not how others may feel (glancing at the opponents of the college before him), but for myself, when I see my Alma Mater surrounded, like Caesar in the senate house, by those who are reiterating stab upon stab, I would not for this right hand have her say to me, ‘Et tu quoque, mi fili!’”

Webster’s words reportedly brought tears to the Chief Justice himself and the words, “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it!” are heard often in every facet of campus discussion. Those who would change this unique aspect of Dartmouth need not look any further for the best argument against their machinations. As Webster remarks, Dartmouth is not special because of its prestige. It is special because those few who pass through its halls love it. Truthfully, a name change may have no effect on either the reputation of the college or its vaulted traditions. What it will mean is that we have, at long last, capitulated our fierce individuality to the forces that be.

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