History Timeline 1790s

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U.S. Timeline - The 1790s

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  • 1795 Detail

    January 15, 1795 - The University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill, becomes the first operating state university in the United States, and the only public university to graduate students in the 18th century.

    University of North Carolina
    There had been those private institutions, Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale, that had come into existence more than or nearly a century prior, but this day, January 14, 1795, would mark the first time a public university would open its doors in the United States. That opening ceremony would happen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    The university would come from an act written by William Richardson Davie in 1789 with four years of planning before the trustees set the cornerstone of two story Old East, the first academic building, on October 12, 1793, on the Chapel Hill campus. Two years later it was ready for the first students to enter with only one other building constructed on campus, the wooden house of the presiding professor. The opening ceremony on January 15, 1795 was held in the middle of a tough winter, with muddy roads greeting guests such as Governor Richard Dobbs Spaight. Three weeks later the first students arrived, February 12, 1795. A total of forty-one entered during the first semester. By 1798, the University of North Carolina held its first graduation with seven students. It would be the only public university that granted degrees prior to the year 1800. The University of Georgia, actually chartered prior to the University of North Carolina in 1785, did not begin classes until 1801.

    So How Did It Start

    When the North Carolina Constitution had been written in 1776, it contained the text calling for one or several state universities. However, it wasn't until 1789 after the American Revolution was over and the United States was beginning to take shape, that the General Assembly of the state established the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as its first. There had been previous attempts, i.e. in 1784 when Samuel Eusebius McCorkle introduced legislation to build the school, but financial constraints would not yet allow it. By December 11, 1789, the North Carolina General Assembly had agreed. The trustees searched for a suitable site among a dozen in Orange and Chatham counties. Chapel Hill was selected.

    Old East was the first academic building, today still in use as a residence hall. Yes, it was built with slave and free labor. And while the first semester only saw forty-one students enrolled, the university grew quickly. One hundred students arrived for the second semester. At first, the college was entirely funded by donations of money and land, without funding from the state.

    The college grew through the first decades of the 19th century, but suffered greatly during the Civil War. Although it was one of the few universities in the South to remain open during those years, its student population dwindled to forty-seven. It could not remain open due to financial difficulties after the war, closing from 1870-1875.

    Full Text - Act Establishing the University of North Carolina, 1795

    CHAP. XX

    An Act to establish a University in this State.

    WHEREAS in all well-regulated governments it is the indispensable duty of every Legislature to consult the happiness of a rising generation, and endeavor to fit them for an honorable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying the strictest attention to their education: And whereas an university supported by permanent funds, and well endowed, would have the most direct tendency to answer the above purpose:

    Trustees nominated and declared a body politic.

    I. Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly of the state of North-Carolina, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That Samuel Johnston, James Iredell, Charles Johnson, Hugh Williamson, Stephen Cabarrus, Richard Dobbs Spaight, William Blount, Benjamin Williams, John Sitgreaves, Frederick Harget, Robert W. Snead, Archibald Maclaine, Honourable Samuel Ashe, Robert Dixon, Benjamin Smith , Honourable Samuel Spencer, John Hay, James Hogg , Henry William Harrington, William Barry Grove, Reverend Samuel M'Corkle , Adlai Osborne , John Stokes, John Hamilton, Joseph Graham, Honourable John Williams, Thomas Person, Alfred Moore, Alexander Mebane, Joel Lane, Willie Jones, Benjamin Hawkins, John Haywood, Senior , John Macon, William Richardson Davie , Joseph Dixon, William Lenoir, Joseph M'Dowall, James Holland and William Porter, Esquires shall be and they are hereby declared to be a body politic and corporate, to be known and distinguished by the name of The Trustees of the University of North-Carolina; and by that name shall have perpetual succession and a common seal; and that they the Trustees and their successors by the name aforesaid, or a majority of them, shall be able and capable in law to take, demand, receive and possess all monies, goods and chattels that shall be given them for the use of the said university, and the same apply according to the will of the donors, and by gift, purchase or devise to take, have, receive, possess, enjoy and retain to them and their successors forever, any lands, rents, tenements and hereditaments, of what kind, nature or quality soever the same may be, in special trust and confidence that the same or the profits thereof shall be applied to and for the use and purposes of establishing and endowing the said university.

    Their power, &c.

    II. And be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, That the said Trustees and their successors, or a majority of them by the name aforesaid, shall be able and capable in law to bargain, sell, grant, demise, alien or dispose of, and convey and assure to the purchasers, any such lands, rents, tenements and hereditaments aforesaid, when the condition of the grant to them, or the will of the devisor, does not forbid it. And further that they the said Trustees and their successors forever, or a majority of them, shall be able and capable in law by the name aforesaid, to sue and implead, be sued and impleaded, answer and be answered, in all courts of record whatsoever; and they shall have power to open and receive subscriptions; and in general they shall and may do all such things as are usually done by bodies corporate and politic, or such as may be necessary for the promotion of learning and virtue.

    Meetings of the Trustees, &c.

    III. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That the said Trustees, in order to carry the present act into effect, shall meet at Fayetteville, on the third Monday in the session of the next General Assembly, at which time they shall choose a President and Secretary; and shall then fix the time of their next annual meeting; and at every annual meeting of the Trustees, the members present, with the President and Tteasurer, shall be a quorum to do any business, or a majority of the members, without either of those officers, shall be a quorum; but at their first meeting as above directed there shall be at least fifteen of the above Trustees present in order to proceed to business; and the Trustees at their annual meeting may appoint special meetings within the year; or in case unforeseen accidents shall render a meeting necessary, the Secretary, by order of the President and any two of the Trustees signified to him in writing, shall by particular notice to each Trustee, as well as by an advertisement in the State Gazette, convene the Trustees at the time proposed by the President; and the members thus convened shall be a quorum to do any business except the appointment of a President or Professors in the university, or the disposal or appropriation of monies; but in case of the death or resignation of the President or any professor, the Trustees thus convened may supply the place until the next annual meeting of the Board of Trustees and no longer; and the meeting at which the seat of the said university shall be fixed, shall be advertised in the Gazette of this state at least six months, and notice in manner aforesaid to each of the Trustees of the object of said meeting.

    Appointment & duty of a treasurer, &c.

    IV. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That the Trustees shall elect and commission some person to be Treasurer for the said university during the term of two years; which Treasurer shall enter into bond with sufficient securities to the Governor for the time being, in the sum of five thousand pounds, conditioned for the faithful discharge of his office, and the trust reposed in him; and that all monies and chattels belonging to the said corporation that shall be in his hands at the expiration of his office, shall then be immediately paid and delivered into the hands of the succeeding Treasurer: And every Treasurer shall receive all monies, donations, gifts, bequests and charities whatsoever that may belong or accrue to the said university during his office, and at the expiration thereof shall account with the Trustees for the same, and the same pay and deliver over to the succeeding Treasurer; and on his neglect or refusal to pay and deliver as aforesaid, the same method of recovery may be had against him, as is or may be provided for the recovery of monies from Sheriffs or other persons chargeable with public monies: And the Treasurer of the university shall cause annually to be published in the State Gazette, for the satisfaction of the subscribers and benefactors, a list of all monies and other things by him received for the said university, either by subscription, legacy, donation or otherwise, under the penalty of one hundred pounds, to be recovered at the suit of the Attorney General, in the name of the Governor for the time being, in any court of record having cognizance thereof; and the monies arising from such penalties shall be appropriated to the use of the said university.

    Monies to be paid to the state treasurer, &c. V. Be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That all monies received by the Treasurer of the said university, shall be annually paid by him to the Treasurer of the state, who is hereby authorised and ordered to give a receipt to the said Treasurer of the university in behalf of the said Trustees, for all such sums by him received; and the said Treasurer shall pay annually unto the Treasurer of said university, six per cent interest on all such sums received by him in the manner aforesaid; which amount of interest paid by the state Treasurer as aforesaid, shall be allowed to him in the settlement of his accounts: and the said Trustees shall on no event or pretence whatsoever, appropriate or make use of the principal of the monies by them received on subscription, but such principal shall be and remain as a permanent fund for the use and support of the said university forever.

    Vacancy of trustees how filled, &c.

    VI. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That on the death, refusal to act, resignation or removal out of the state, of any of the Trustees for the time being, it shall be lawful for the remaining Trustees, or any fifteen of them, and they are hereby authorised and required to elect and appoint one or more Trustees in the place of such Trustee or Trustees dead, refusing to act, resigned or removed, which Trustee or Trustees so appointed, shall be vested with the same powers, trust and authorities as the Trustees are by virtue of this act. Provided nevertheless, That the Trustee or Trustees so appointed, shall reside in the superior court district where the person or persons reside in whose room he or they shall be so elected.

    Trustees to fix on the place, &c.

    VII. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That when the Trustees shall deem the funds of the said university adequate to the purchase of a necessary quantity of land and erecting the proper buildings, they shall direct a meeting of the said Trustees for the purpose of fixing on and purchasing a healthy and convenient situation, which shall not be situate within five miles of the permanent seat of government, or any of the places of holding the courts of law or equity; which meeting shall be advertised at least six months in some gazette in this state, and at such superior courts as may happen within that time.

    To appoint or remove the president, &c.

    VIII. Be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That the Trustees shall have the power of appointing a President of the university, and such professors and tutors as to them shall appear necessary and proper, whom they may remove for misbehaviour, inability or neglect of duty; and they shall have the power to make all such laws and regulations for the government of the university and preservation of order and good morals therein, as are usually made in such seminaries, and as to them may appear necessary; provided the same are not contrary to the unalienable liberty of a citizen, or to the laws of the state. And the faculty of the university, that is to say, the President and professors, by and with the consent of the Trustees, shall have the power of conferring all such degrees or marks of literary distinction, as are usually conferred in colleges or universities.

    Benefit granted to subscribers.

    IX. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That every person who within the term of five years shall subscribe ten pounds towards this university, to be paid within five years, at five equal annual payments, shall be entitled to have one student educated at the university free from any expence of tuition.

    To the six largest subscribers.

    X. And be it further enacted, That the public hall of the library and four of the colleges shall be called severally by the names of one or another of the six persons who shall within four years contribute the largest sums towards the funds of this university, the highest subscriber or donor having choice in the order of their respective donations. And a book shall be kept in the library of the university, in which shall be fairly entered the names and places of residence of every benefactor to this seminary, in order that posterity may be informed to whom they are indebted for the measure of learning and good morals that may prevail in the state.

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    Who Was William Richardson Davie?

    William Richardson Davie was a founding father of the United States, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and founder of the University of North Carolina. A Federalist, graduate of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), and soldier in the North Carolina militia during the American Revolution, Davie rose in the ranks to brigade major of cavalry, leading his troops against the British forces at the Battle of Stono Ferry outside Charleston, South Carolina. He would become a colonel in 1780 and be appointed as the Commissary General for North Carolina in 1781-1782.

    At the Constitution Convention of 1787, Davie convinced the state delegation to agree to the Great Compromise, allowing an equal number of Senators, but proportional representation in the House of Representatives. In 1789, as a member of the North Carolina General Assembly, Davie sponsored the bill establishing the University of North Carolina, then serving on its Board of Trustees from 1789 until 1807, including his years as Governor of North Carolina from 1798 to 1799.

    Davie was a slave owner. That was true of thirty of the forty original trustees. Long after Davie's tenure as Trustee at the University of North Carolina, black students were not allowed admittance. Black students would not be admitted until 1951 to the University of North Carolina School of Law; in 1955 to the undergraduate program.

    Image above: University of North Carolina campus, 1939, Marion Post Wolcott. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Mural at Chapel Hill Post Office of Davie (right) setting the cornerstone for Old East, Dean Cromwell. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons CC1.0. Info source: University of North Carolina; "January 1795: The University of North Carolina," 2004, Nicholas Graham; uncblackink.wordpress.com; Text of the "Act to Establish the University," courtesy docsouth.unc.edu; Wikipedia Commons.

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