Date of Award
Bachelor of Arts
Union College, Slavery, Temperance, Social Movements, Age of Jackson
The history of Union College spans nearly the entire history of the United States. Founded in 1795, the school emerged as one of the nation’s premier educational institutions in the early nineteenth century. The changes occurring on the national stage often entered public life on Union’s campus, and President Eliphalet Nott and students actively participated in the civil discourse of the period. The most prevalent issues on campus included the authority of government, temperance, and the question of enslavement. Historians often like to find commonality among individuals with regards to their views on the most pressing topics of the time, but these categories – social, economic, and political – often prove too simplistic. Students at Union, who shared very similar backgrounds, often ardently disagreed with each other on solutions to society’s problems. Union College provides scholars with a complex microcosm of how individuals perceived the world during the first several decades of the Early Republic. Most northern colleges established before the abolition of the slave trade and enactment of gradual emancipation laws bear a relationship to the peculiar institution, Union College is no exception. Records of the finances for the construction of West College, now known as “Old Stone College,” at the end of the eighteenth century, reveal that the architects of the building depended on hired enslaved labor from local elites. A quarter of the first Board of Trustees of Union College owned slaves. Eliphalet Nott, a man the college remembers as ardently anti-slavery, owned at least three slaves, one of whom he kept while president of the college. None of this should be shocking since the post-Revolution North existed as a society with slaves, especially in New York, which pursued gradual emancipation; but it is significant that the college today does not engage in serious research of its institutional connections to enslavement. Cassarino ▪ 5 Students at Union College during the early nineteenth century debated the most pressing issues facing the nation, including enslavement. From the 1810s till the 1830s, the percentage was of southern students at Union College were higher than most similar institutions. This high ratio led to fierce disputes among the student body regarding the future of enslavement. These discussions occurred in a culture of public discourse, which the literary societies at the college fostered. These groups allowed students to converse in a space free of the supervision of professors or President Eliphalet Nott, who used a paternalistic style of authority to control the lives and moral character of his students. While president of Union College, Nott felt duty bound to ensure the young men under his watchful eye engaged in righteous activities and avoided the temptations of vice. He accomplished this by placing disciplinary control under his sole authority and constantly talking with his students about early nineteenth century reform movements. The emergence of temperance reform at Union College came about through Nott’s actions and exemplified a top-down social movement expressed by the scholarship of Paul E. Johnson. However, today the college remembers Nott more for his anti-slavery activity than his work for temperance. When looking at the writings of Nott and students in the 1830s, it becomes clear that students initiated anti-slavery events and Nott often avoided the controversial subject and then supported colonization. In this regard, anti-slavery activism occurred bottom-up at Union College. The writings of students at Union College between 1810 and 1840 reveal that students thought critically about current events, and their actions demonstrate that none of them fit perfectly into the general molds created by historians of the early nineteenth century. This should not come as a surprise because students then, much like today, were growing intellectually and beginning to establish their own moral principles.
Cassarino, Andrew, "“Botany Bay”: The State of Society at Union College during the Early Nineteenth Century" (2018). Honors Theses. 1670.