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Penn History

Common Nonsense: The Surprising Role of Penn, Columbia, and William and Mary in the Atlantic Revolutionary Era

This essay was composed by Grant Kleiser (Class of 2017) through rigorous archival work at both the University of Pennsylvania University Archives and those of Columbia University. It counters many of the widely held notions that Colonial North American colleges, specifically Columbia, Penn, and William and Mary, were influential in spurring the Revolution and politicizing and radicalizing their patriotic students. Of especial note is a reinterpretation of William Smith's, the first provost of Penn, role in the revolutionary conflict, which counters many scholars' more lenient and mollifying attitudes to his professed loyalism. The final addendum is meant as a notable observation, but one that requires much more future scholarship to fully substantiate.


On December 1, 1779, a group of twenty-four men, consisting of state officials, senior ministers from the six major churches of the city, and other eminent citizens, met in downtown Philadelphia and took a new oath of allegiance to the Constitution and state of Pennsylvania.1 They were the new trustees of the now University of the State of Pennsylvania, and the oath they had just made was in stark contrast to the oath new trustees of the then College of Philadelphia would swear upon entering the board, “For the further security of his Majesty’s Person and Government.”2 Why had such an institution taken so long, more than three years after the Declaration of Independence, to change its major oath? What were other North American colleges’ roles in the War for American Independence, and were they bastions of revolutionary and republican thought? While the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) produced an array of trustees and alumni during the eighteenth century, until 1779 the overall tenor of the institution was not one promoting radical change. On the contrary, the initial primary leadership of this college favored Anglican, proprietary, and anti-constitutional stances and expressed clear Loyalist tendencies. Similarly, much of the leadership of King’s College (Columbia) and the College of William and Mary abhorred revolt or independence in the early stages of the revolutionary conflict. This essay will help debunk the widely-held myth that these American institutions, because they are associated with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, were essential in spurring the revolution.

Considering that these colleges were places of intellectual thought whose curricula (that in all colleges was meant to prepare youths to serve the state in both religious and lay pursuits) was not regulated by the Crown, one might assume that such leaders and institutions might have played a significant role in developing new ideas of independence, republicanism, and revolution. The historian David W. Robson, however, takes the first step in refuting this notion by acknowledging that only four of the nine faculties of the North American colleges founded before 1776, those of the College of Philadelphia, King’s College, William and Mary, and the College of New Jersey (Princeton), “remained thoroughly enmeshed in politics throughout the period.”3 Robson further notes that Americans at the early stage of the Revolution perceived the first three of these colleges as predominantly under Loyalist or “Tory” control. The College of New Jersey constituted the lone politically active institution consisting of a primarily Patriot or “Whig” faculty and presidency.4 This essay seeks to examine Robson’s claim by analyzing the three supposed “Tory Colleges.” It will determine exactly how “Loyalist” both their faculties and their other leaders actually were (rather than merely were perceived to be) during the revolutionary conflict. Special and primary emphasis is placed on the College of Philadelphia, whose story is mired in misunderstandings, subtle political conflicts, and a contested legacy. The leadership of all three, it will be shown, did seek to counter the burgeoning calls for revolt and independence in their student bodies and larger communities, and so do not deserve significant credit for advancing the ideals of the Revolution. Such points have not been emphasized enough even in more contemporary studies such as those done by Robson, John F. Roche, and J. David Hoeveler. In the final addendum, it will be noted that these colleges and the other Northern American ones actually possessed interesting parallels with the more traditional and loyal Latin American institutions of higher learning during this era of revolutions, again contrary to popular belief and contemporary scholarship.

1. John F. Roche, The Colonial Colleges in the War for American Independence (New York: Associated Faculty Press, 1986), 148.

2. Additional Charter of the College, etc. of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. [Phila. 1755], in the University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center (UARC), UPA3, Box 31, Folder 1888, 4.

3. David W. Robson, Educating Republicans: The College in the Era of the American Revolution, 1750-1800 (London: Greenwood Press, 1985), 35.

4. The other five institutions were what are now Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard, Yale, and Rutgers. Ibid.