This week, I’d like to draw your attention to a fascinating collection that was recently digitized and made available in Amherst College Digital Collections: the Amherst College Early History Manuscripts and Pamphlets Collection.
This is a small collection of documents that were donated to the archives by Edward and Ethel Mellon in 1921 (see the finding aid here). The majority of the items in this collection date from the first fifteen years of Amherst College’s existence and they reveal a lot about what the institution was like during this formative time. The college was very small: admissions, financial aid, discipline and the day to day business of the college where executed in a personal and paternal manner by the President and the Board of Trustees. There are many letters in the collection regarding students wishing to attend the college. Admission was often as simple as a letter of introduction sent to the President and a letter of acceptance in return. The college having been founded for the express purpose of educating indigent young men of piety, there are also many inquiries about financial aid.
The college was also rigidly paternalistic in its early years – absolute obedience and unquestioning respect was required of all students and the faculty, president and trustees of the college dictated most aspects of student life. The eleven items relating to student discipline illuminate this dynamic very well. Ethraim Eveleth, class of 1825, was suspended for implying that the faculty had displayed favoritism in student appointments, the collection includes his signed retraction and a statement by the trustees reinstating him as a student in light of same. Another suspension was given to Joseph Goffe, Jr., class of 1826, who left campus without permission and then had the temerity to say that a student has the right to disobey the authority of the College when he thinks his request has been unreasonably denied.
Some of the offenses that student received discipline for make more sense to a modern mind: Charles Upham Shephard, class of 1824 and later a respected professor of Natural History at the college for many decades, was admonished by the president and faculty for what we would now call bullying.
“The Faculty cannot close without expressing their decided disapprobation of every attempt to bring a fellow student into disconduct or make his college life uncomfortable by applying to him any opprobrious epithet whether directly or indirectly, in conversation or in writing. The Faculty wish to have it distinctly understood that no such violation of the laws of kindness and good breeding can be tolerated in this institution.”
Edward Dickinson, class of 1823, who would go on to be a respected lawyer, treasurer of the college and the father of Emily Dickinson, was involved in an incident in November of 1821 with an oyster supper, cherry rum, gin and a “great disturbance in and about the Institution”.
Other items of interest and importance in this collection include:
- Five letters between the Anti-Slavery Society and the Trustees from 1834 regarding the Trustees’ order that the Society disband and the Society’s protest of that decision. These letters and the history of the Society more broadly are explored in another post on this blog, the Amherst College Anti-Slavery Society.
- In February 1822, students presented a petition to President Zephaniah Swift Moore expressing their dissatisfaction with tutor Lucius Fields and their request for a different tutor. In response the faculty passed a resolution that the petition was slanderous and should not be granted. Regarding punishment for the students who brought the petition, the faculty decided to treat the students with “paternal tenderness” but should there be any further disorder or disrespect to the officers of the Institution, the faulty would proceed with all the severity required.
- A letter from Cyrus Grosvenor to President Moore in 1823 discusses his travels in the South Carolina and his attempts to raise money and recruit students for the college there.
- In 1841 or 1842, 10 sophomores agreed to work on the college hill for 10¢ an hour to pay their debts. Presumably this meant manual labor to grade the hill or maintain paths or roads.
- My personal favorite is a letter from the senior class to the president expressing their concern for his health and their willingness to forgo all the rest of their classes with him this term so that he can rest. A wry note by the president is written at the end of the petition indicating that they continued to have class for the rest of the term.
If you enjoy this material, keep your eyes peeled for the Early College History Collection, which is being digitized and will be going up on ACDC in the coming months!