First State Universities Are Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Increased governmental support for secular higher education, which, it was believed, would ensure a knowledgeable electorate and an educated leadership, made a college education available to a growing middle class.

Summary of Event

For most Americans, state universities Education;U.S. colleges and universities[US] may be defined as publicly supported and controlled nonsectarian, degree-granting institutions of higher learning, designed to discover, conserve, and disseminate knowledge. The concept, if not the realization, is at least as old as the republic. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a comprehensive educational plan, part of which involved converting his alma mater, William and Mary College, into the State University of Virginia. Even earlier, North Carolina’s founding fathers drafted a constitution that authorized the creation of one or more publicly controlled and endowed universities for that state. They also barred clergymen from holding office in the general assembly. Although neither Jefferson nor the Carolinians succeeded in the 1770’s, their schemes to create Colleges and universities;development of state universities reflected the strongly republican and secular sentiments prevalent among many of America’s revolutionary leaders. They also illustrated the firm conviction of many public servants that no self-governing people could long endure without making provision for an informed electorate and an educated leadership. [kw]First State Universities Are Established (1785) [kw]Universities Are Established, First State (1785) [kw]State Universities Are Established, First (1785) State universities (United States) Higher education, secular Secularism;education Middle class;higher education [g]United States;1785: First State Universities Are Established[2590] [c]Education;1785: First State Universities Are Established[2590] [c]Organizations and institutions;1785: First State Universities Are Established[2590] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1785: First State Universities Are Established[2590] [c]Government and politics;1785: First State Universities Are Established[2590] Baldwin, Abraham Cutler, Manasseh Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas;higher education [p]Marshall, John Webster, Daniel

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the first state university, shown in a 1939 photograph.

(Library of Congress)

During the colonial period, the principle of the separation of church and state was not yet widely accepted. After the beginning of the U.S. republic, it thus proved more difficult for legislatures to create universities in states where colonial colleges already existed. The first state universities created in the original thirteen states were concentrated in the South, where only one of the nine sectarian colleges founded in the colonial period was located. Under the leadership of a recent immigrant from Connecticut, Abraham Baldwin, Georgia chartered its state university in 1785, although the institution did not admit students until 1801. By that time, North Carolina and South Carolina also boasted state universities. Created in 1789, the University of North Carolina began classes at Chapel Hill in January, 1795. South Carolina’s legislature acted in 1801, and the state university opened its doors four years later.

Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware followed Georgia and the Carolinas in chartering state universities. Admitting its first entering class in 1825, the University of Virginia was the only state university founded before the Civil War in a state where a college had existed prior to the American Revolution. On the grounds that any state university needed to reflect basic principles of religious and academic freedom, Jefferson refrained from establishing a professorship of divinity at the university, institutionalized lifetime appointments for the faculty, and gave students more latitude than was customary in deciding which lectures to attend.

From the beginning a successful model of nonsectarian education, the University of Virginia operated without interruption or significant change in legal status before the Civil War.

Among the new states added to the Union before 1861, at least a dozen chartered state universities, largely as a result of the westward movement and federal largesse. In 1787, lobbying for a group of New England land speculators organized as the Ohio Company of Associates, Ohio Company of Associates Massachusetts-born clergyman Manasseh Cutler persuaded Congress to award two free townships to the land company for the purpose of creating a university. Otherwise, Cutler argued, New Englanders would not emigrate. From these grants came Ohio University (1802) and, after another land sale, Miami University at Oxford (1809). By the outbreak of the Civil War, the land grant pattern set by Congress in Ohio had been applied to twenty-one of the twenty-four states admitted to the Union following ratification of the Constitution.

As the American population expanded into the West, the common perception that civic order needed to be established as quickly as possible helped in this region to fuel the rapid growth of state universities. These institutions, it was assumed, would provide their students with an education in civic virtue so, once graduated, they might take on the roles of responsible citizens of a republican nation. They also took the lead in the development of coeducation at the state university level, with the Iowa, University of, and admittance of women University of Iowa in 1855 becoming the first state university to admit women, followed by the University of Wisconsin in 1863. Early advocates of state-supported, nonsectarian education, despite their initial successes in the South and on the frontier, made almost no headway where denominational schools were well entrenched or where, as in Massachusetts and Connecticut, separation of church and state did not occur until well into the nineteenth century. In any case, by the time Jefferson had left office in 1809, the strongly secular spirit regarding higher education, so widespread immediately following the Revolution, had largely disappeared in a wave of evangelicalism that has been called the Second Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening.

Another obstacle to the early establishment of state universities was the Dartmouth College case of 1819. In 1816 the New Hampshire legislature, influenced by the results of a recent election, sought to bring Dartmouth College, a Congregational institution founded in 1769, under state control. The board of trustees sued to retain the college’s charter as a private institution, but the New Hampshire high court upheld the state law. Undaunted, the board appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Supreme Court, U.S. Persuaded by the passionate appeal of Daniel Webster, himself a Congregationalist and alumnus of Dartmouth College, to preserve the institution’s autonomy, Chief Justice John Marshall reversed the lower court in a precedent-setting opinion, holding that a charter granted to a private corporation constituted a contract, and a contract, under Article I, section 10 of the Constitution, could not be impaired by the action of a state. Dartmouth College, therefore, was immune from legislative tampering. More important, the Dartmouth decision killed efforts in other states to make public universities out of private colleges. It also unleashed what one authority on higher education has called a Protestant counterreformation; that is, it spurred the creation of innumerable inferior Denominational colleges denominational colleges, all secure in the knowledge that their charters, once obtained, placed them beyond state control.


America’s first state universities, never very well supported from public funds, came under increasing attack after the turn of the century, especially following the War of 1812. While sectarians accused them of “godless atheism,” an upwardly mobile electorate suspected them of promoting aristocratic privilege at the expense of the common people. Timid legislators responded predictably. They refused to support state universities altogether, diverted university funds to the common schools, or parceled out meager resources among a host of inferior denominational colleges. In some instances, lawmakers blunted popular criticism by naming representatives of the most powerful sects to state university faculties or boards of trustees. The net effect was that true state universities were almost stifled in their infancy.

Not until the Civil War would state universities begin to break free from the crippling effects of sectarianism, local boosterism, political demagoguery, and stingy legislative appropriations. By the time of the Civil War, new forces were active in American society. The Industrial Revolution and the political coming-of-age of the middle and lower classes combined to bring about a concerted drive for what contemporaries called a more “practical education,” one that would stress the agricultural and mechanical arts so necessary to a progressive and developing materialist society.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoeveler, J. David. Creating the American Mind: Intellect and Politics in the Colonial Colleges. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Examines nine colleges and universities that were created by the time of the American Revolution (including Dartmouth, William and Mary, Harvard, and Yale) to determine their role in developing an American intellect, theology, and politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lucas, Christopher J. American Higher Education: A History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Chapter 4, “The American Colonial and Antebellum College,” describes the creation of state universities in the late eighteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marsden, George M. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A captivating account of the history of the relationship between church and state in the development of higher education in America, with a focus on the diminishing role of religious values in publicly supported universities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pangle, Lorraine Smith, and Thomas L. Pangle. The Learning of Liberty: The Educational Ideas of the American Founders. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993. An illuminating study of the beliefs held by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others concerning the role of education in a republican nation. Chapter 8, “Higher Education,” concentrates on the development of the University of Virginia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudolph, Frederick. The American College and University: A History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962. Reprint. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. One of the earliest comprehensive histories of higher education in America. Rudolph draws on numerous histories of specific institutions to create an engaging study ranging over a number of topics, including the development of coeducation in higher education and the movement to create land grant colleges. This reprint contains an introductory essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tewksbury, Donald G. The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War. New York: Archon Books, 1965. A valuable source of information related to the chronological development of state universities. Includes tables.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thelin, John R. A History of American Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. A comprehensive history, with chapter 2 focusing on higher education and college-building between 1758 and 1860.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Westmayer, Paul. A History of American Higher Education. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1985. While similar to other histories of American higher education in the material and topics covered, this book also covers the relation of the development of the United States to the development of its colleges and universities.

Settlement of Georgia

Declaration of Independence

U.S. Constitution Is Adopted

Second Great Awakening

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