Colonial Colleges: Wikis


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The Colonial Colleges are nine institutions of higher education chartered in the American Colonies before the American Revolution (1775–1783). These nine have long been considered together, notably in the survey of their origins in the 1907 The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. Although today most of these institutions refer to themselves as "universities", they are called "colonial colleges" partly because, at the time of the revolution, only Penn called itself a "university". Each had assumed the power to grant academic degrees, a power in Europe only held by universities; several were offering some graduate instruction. (See college for more on American usage of that word.)

The nine colonial colleges are listed below in order of founding under the name by which they were known for the bulk of the colonial period. Also listed are the religious groups that were instrumental in each college's foundation and early history. In most cases the listed religious links, although often strong, were de facto rather than official. (At any rate, all have long since affirmed their secularity.) In addition to the religious/secular boundary, the line between state and private control was also far more blurred than today: as the distinction crystallized over time, some schools became fully independent and others part of their state's higher-education system.

Seven of the nine colonial colleges are part of the Ivy League athletic conference: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Columbia, Brown, and Dartmouth. (The eighth member of the Ivy League, Cornell University, was founded in 1865.) The two colonial colleges not in the Ivy League are now both public universitiesThe College of William & Mary (in the Colonial Athletic Association) and Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey (in the Big East Conference). William & Mary was a private institution from 1693 until just after the American Civil War and has been public since 1906 while Rutgers only became the State University of New Jersey after World War II.

Institution (present name, where different) Colony Founded Chartered First instruction, degrees Primary religious influence Ivy League
New College[1]
(Harvard University)
Massachusetts Bay Colony 1636 1650 1642 Puritan Yes
The College of William & Mary Colony and Dominion of Virginia 1693[2] 1693 Church of England[3] No
Collegiate School
(Yale University)
Connecticut Colony 1701 1701 Puritan (Congregational) Yes
Academy of Philadelphia
(University of Pennsylvania)
Province of Pennsylvania 1740[4] 1755 1751 Church of England but officially nonsectarian[5] Yes
College of New Jersey
(Princeton University)
Province of New Jersey 1746 1746 1747 Presbyterian but officially nonsectarian Yes
King's College
(Columbia University in the City of New York)
Province of New York 1754 1754 Church of England Yes
College in the English Colony of Rhode Island & Providence Plantations
(Brown University)
Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations 1764 1764 Baptist (no religious requirement for admissions)[6] Yes
Queen's College
(Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey)
Province of New Jersey 1766 1766 1771 Dutch Reformed No
Dartmouth College Province of New Hampshire 1769 1769 1768, 1771[7] Puritan (Congregational) Yes

Other colonial-era foundations

Several other colleges and universities can be traced to colonial-era "academies" or "schools", but are not considered Colonial Colleges because they were not chartered as formal colleges with degree-granting powers until after the formation of the United States of America in 1776.

Institution (present name, where different) Colony Founded Chartered Religious Influence
King William's School, Annapolis
(St. John's College)
Province of Maryland 1696 1784 Non-sectarian
Bethlehem Female Seminary
(Moravian College)
Province of Pennsylvania 1742 1863 Moravian Church
Free School
(University of Delaware)
Delaware Colony 1743 1833 Non-sectarian
Augusta Academy
(Washington and Lee University)
Colony and Dominion of Virginia 1749 1782 Non-sectarian
College of Charleston Province of South Carolina 1770 1785 Church of England
Little Girls' School
(Salem College)
Province of North Carolina 1772 1866 Moravian Church
Dickinson College Province of Pennsylvania 1773 1783 Presbyterian
Hampden-Sydney College Colony and Dominion of Virginia 1775 1783 Presbyterian
Union College
Province of New York 1779 1795 Non-sectarian
Transylvania University Commonwealth of Virginia[8] 1780 1780 Disciples of Christ
The College on The Chester
(Washington College)
Province of Maryland 1782 1782 Non-sectarian

See also

Notes and references


^  1. The institution was founded in 1636 by a vote of the legislature of the colony to provide money for "a school or college" at Newtowne (the present Cambridge.) Nothing further was done about actually creating a school until 1638, when in his will John Harvard bequeathed money and books to the yet-uncreated college. Construction began shortly thereafter on a school that was given the name of its first benefactor.

^  2. The College of William & Mary sometimes asserts a connection with an attempt to found a "University of Henrico" at Henricopolis (also known as Henricus) in the Colony of Virginia, which received a charter in 1618; but only a small school for Native Americans had begun operation by 1622, when the town was destroyed in a Native American raid. A page on their website says "The College of William & Mary [...] was the first college planned for the United States. Its roots go back to the College proposed at Henrico in 1619." However, it immediately proceeds to note that "The College is second only to Harvard University in actual operation."[9] Since William & Mary describes itself as "America's second-oldest college" and gives its year of founding as 1693, it does not seem to be suggesting institutional continuity with the University of Henrico, rather, W&M is providing historical perspective. [10].

^  3. In the wake of the American Civil War, the College closed in 1882 due to attendant financial pressures. The Commonwealth of Virginia reopened the institution in 1888 as a teachers' college and later rechartered it as a public, non-sectarian university.

^  4. There is some disagreement about Penn's date of founding. The University of Pennsylvania was established in 1749 as the Academy of Philadelphia (instruction began in 1751), assuming the educational mandate of the Academy and Charitable School in the Province of Pennsylvania. This was part of a 1740 project that had been planned to comprise both a church and school, though due to insufficient funding only the church was built. The church building was conveyed to the Academy of Philadelphia in 1750. Since 1899, Penn has used 1740 as its official date of founding. See also *[11], [12] (Penn) and [13] (Princeton) for carefully phrased and nuanced details. To complicate the picture, Princeton can point to the Log College operated by a Presbyterian minister in Bucks County, Pennsylvania from 1726 until 1746. Although it has been suggested that there is some connection between this school and the College of New Jersey that would enable Princeton to claim a founding date of 1726, Princeton does not officially do so and a Princeton historian says that the "facts do not warrant" such a claim.

^  5. Penn's website, like other sources, makes an important point of Penn's heritage being nonsectarian, associated with Benjamin Franklin and the Academy of Philadelphia's nonsectarian board of trustees: "The goal of Franklin's nonsectarian, practical plan would be the education of a business and governing class rather than of clergymen."[14]. Jencks and Riesman (2001) write: "The Anglicans who founded the University of Pennsylvania, however, were evidently anxious not to alienate Philadelphia's Quakers, and they made their new college officially nonsectarian." Franklin himself was a self-described "thorough Deist." Starting in 1751, the same trustees also operated a Charity School for Boys, whose curriculum combined "general principles of Christianity" with practical instruction leading toward careers in business and the "mechanical arts." [15], and thus might be described as "non-denominational Christian." The charity school was originally planned, and chartered on paper, in 1740, by followers of evangelist George Whitefield, but was not built and did not operate until the charter was assumed by the Academy of Philadelphia in 1751. Since 1895, Penn has claimed a founding date of 1740, based on the charity school's charter date and the premise that it had institutional identity with the Academy of Philadelphia. Whitefield was a firebrand Methodist associated with The Great Awakening; since the Methodists did not formally break from the Church of England until 1784, Whitefield in 1740 would be labelled Episcopalian, and in fact Brown University, emphasizing its own pioneering nonsectarianism, refers to Penn's origin as "Episcopalian"[16]). Penn is sometimes assumed to have Quaker ties (its athletic teams are called "Quakers," and the cross-registration alliance between Penn, Haverford, Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr is known as the "Quaker Consortium.") But Penn's website does not assert any formal affiliation with Quakerism, historic or otherwise, and Haverford College implicitly asserts a non-Quaker origin for Penn when it states that "Founded in 1833, Haverford is the oldest institution of higher learning with Quaker roots in North America."[17]

^  6. Brown's website characterizes it as "the Baptist answer to Congregationalist Yale and Harvard; Presbyterian Princeton; and Episcopalian Penn and Columbia," but adds that at the time it was "the only one that welcomed students of all religious persuasions."[18] Brown's charter stated that "into this liberal and catholic institution shall never be admitted any religious tests, but on the contrary, all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute, and uninterrupted liberty of conscience." The charter called for twenty-two of the thirty-six trustees to be Baptists, but required that the remainder consist of "five Friends, four Congregationalists, and five Episcopalians"[19]

^  7. Dartmouth College began operating during 1768 as the collegiate department of Moor's School (1754) in Columbia, Connecticut. The collegiate department was being described in writing as "Dartmouth College" by January of 1769, when the Township of Hanover, N.H. voted to offer it a grant of land. The institution received a royal charter on December 13, 1769 and its students moved from Columbia to Hanover during October of 1770. The first degrees were awarded in August of 1771. Queen's College, although granted a charter earlier, began operation during 1771, after Dartmouth College began awarding degrees.

^  8. At Transylvania's founding, its original location near Danville, Kentucky was still part of Virginia. Its current location of Lexington, Kentucky was also still in Virginia when the school moved there in 1789. Kentucky separated from Virginia in 1792.


  • Jencks, Christopher; David Riesman (2001). The Academic Revolution. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0-7658-0115-9.   pp. 314-5, " "The Anglicans who founded the University of Pennsylvania, however, were evidently anxious not to alienate Philadelphia's Quakers, and they made their new college officially nonsectarian."

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