Edward Mitchell and Student Dissidence in the 1820s.

The typical student of the 1820s was probably quite different from today’s average student. He was a man, older, and usually in his mid twenties, although some students were as young as sixteen. He was brought up in a rural setting, probably in a farm in New England where life was harsh and offered few amenities. He was frequently self sufficient and forced to his own way through colleges by teaching or tutoring during summers. These factors made him aware of his rights (in this, early 19th century students share some similarities with their post WW II GI Bill counterparts). The Class of 1827 shared these characteristics and could be taken as an interesting case in point for student activism.

This might help explaining the sudden and violent student uproar that took place in August 1824. Stephen Stark, a member of the Class of 1827 and a grand-nephew of the Revolutionary hero General John Stark, was absent from an exercise considered mandatory by his tutor, Ira Perley. Stark argued that he had a justification to be absent (he was staying in a farm located more than eight miles away from Hanover for the weekend), but the tutor demanded that the student acknowledge he was in the wrong. According to J. Willard, who worked in a local store in Hanover, Perley “then told the government that Stark was contrary and meant to insult him & wanted Stark to make a confession.” The students submitted a petition, delineating the circumstances of the case and stating that the entire class stood behind Stark. However, as Willard added, although “the President humbly confessed that the tutor was more to blame,” he claimed that the faculty could not admit it, and so “whether he [Stark] was most to blame or not they sent him an expulsion for the term of six weeks, which no ever gad the students that they immediately formed a company called the ‘bear lagged rangers.’” These Bear Lagged Rangers embarked upon a three-day rampage throughout Hanover, during which they stoned Perley and his supervising Professor William Chamberlain, burned both faculty members along with President Tyler in effigy, and burned down a barn. Due to the chaos, the faculty was largely unsuccessful in finding those guilty of vandalism, but at least two students were expelled for their involvement in these events. Nevertheless, the student body established its reputation as a formidable opponent of policies it did not endorse, a fact which probably had an important impact on the faculty’s decision in a different, much more substantial event that took place several months later. This event was the decision to admit the first African-American student in Dartmouth College history (and the second or third African-American student admitted to an academic institution in the US, depending on the account): Edward Mitchell.

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The petition submitted by the members of the Class of 1827 to the Government of the College in response to the suspension of Stephen Stark:

To The Executive Government of Dartmouth

College

Gentlemen,

We, members of the Freshman Class, have ever had cause to respect our Tutor, and as far as we have been able, have treated him with the utmost regards, and, if we have ever treated him otherwise, it has been entirely unintentional.

Unpleasant, however, as it may be, we now think ourselves justified in presenting to you the following statement.

We feel ourselves very much interested in the welfare off our respected classmate Stark, and being persuaded of his innocent intentions, we wish to address you in his behalf. From the laws, which you have given us by which we are to regulate our conduct, we have thought in any case, expecting habitual inattention to exercises we are permitted to be absent from one recitation a week.

Having an exercise assigned to us in Cubic Equations, which we understand no other has studied before us, and the lesson being exceedingly hard, a member of the class did not prepare themselves in it, and The Tutor often calling upon a few individuals, who were unprepared, indirectly accused the class of “entering into a combination to neglect that recitation.” We take it upon ourselves to affirm that no “combination” was entered into or even suggested by any individuals of The Class. The same exercise was postponed and at three o’clock, the time to which it was postponed, our classmate Stark was not present. On this account the Tutor sent a request to him to appear at his room prepared with that exercise at eight o’clock the next morning or to read an excuse. In consequence of ill-health he was unable to prepare the exercise and, not understanding from the message, that he was required to render an excuse, neglected thus to do, supposing that no difficulty would occur as instances of the same kind have heretofore taken place.

At the next recitation the Tutor in presence of the class accused him of obstinacy, and requested him to call his room prepared with all he had to say in regard to the subject.

He accordingly went and the Tutor declined hearing what he had to offer in his own behalf, and requested him to subscribe a confession, which he says he cannot conscientiously do, and which the class consider unmerited.

We therefore make this statement that the Government may know the feelings of every individual of the class in relation to this subject.

Done by the unanimous vote of the Class.

David E. Wheeler   }

James C. Alvord      }   Committee

John K. Converse    }     of the

John Batchelder     }     Freshman

D. Pillsbury              }      Class.

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An important figure in the decision to admit Mitchell, and perhaps the most unique member of the Class of 1827, was Charles Dexter Cleveland. Cleveland was born in Salem, MA, on December 3rd, 1802. At 12 he began working at Tuckerman, Rogers & Cushing, a Boston store. Two years later, at 14, he joined the accounting company Wm. B. Swett, where he worked until he began his preparation for college admissions under Mr. Pemberton in Boston and Simeon Putnam, a lawyer from North Andover. He then attended the Phillips Exeter academy. Cleveland began attending Dartmouth as a freshman, but during the summer term of his freshman year he was at Harvard, and therefore not present when the Stark Incident took place. Cleveland returned to Dartmouth thereafter and became a principal member of the Class of 1827, publishing two books while in still studying for his undergraduate degree: “The Moral Characters of Theophrastus, in the Graeca Majora, translated into English, with Notes,” and “An Epitome of Grecian Antiquities.” After graduation, Cleveland spent two years teaching at a high school in Baltimore, MD, before becoming a Professor for Greek and Latin Languages at Dickinson College. Cleveland taught in a boarding school in Connecticut, lectured at the City University of New York, and founded a school for girls in Philadelphia before becoming the United States Counsel in Cardiff, Wales, in 1861. He returned to the US in 1864, but continued traveling and studying in Europe after the Civil War ended. He did so until his death in 1869. In his obituary, the “Philadelphia North American” described Cleveland as “one of the ablest and best known instructors in America.”[1]

Edward Mitchell was an emancipated slave who joined the college president Francis Brown when the latter traveled the South due to his bad health. He was born in Martinique in the Western Indies, and was probably in his mid thirties at the time he met president Brown. Mitchell, who had a wife and two children, became a family friend of the Browns and, prepared for the entrance examinations to the College by himself, which illustrates his academic capabilities and potential. The faculty found him fit for admission but the trustees, fearing that the student body would object having Mitchell as their class member, refused to admit him. Upon hearing this decision, the students immediately demanded that Mitchell would be allowed to attend Dartmouth. A meeting of all classes was held, in which Cleveland was the most outspoken person. Having a relatively dark skin, Cleveland presumably argued that “if color excluded from the College, he himself could not be a member.”[2] The outcome of the meeting was one of the most unique documents of the period (see below). In an almost anachronistic tone, the students explicitly defied the decision of the trustees and the very idea of judging a person based on insignificant characteristics that have nothing to do with his character or abilities. As a result of the petition, Edward Mitchell was admitted to the College as a member of the Class of 1828. In a letter, a fellow student describes Mitchell as being “an intelligent man & very highly respected by the government and students.” Mitchell was the second (or arguably third) African-American students to be admitted to a US College, and it would be 40 more years before other Ivy League universities (excluding Cornell, which was not yet formed) began admitting African-Americans.

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The petition members of the Dartmouth Student Body submitted to the Trustees of Dartmouth College:

Dartmouth College Hanover N.H. Sept 25th 1824

To the immediate government of Dartmouth College.

Honored Trustees,

The students in college have learned, with much regret, that a young gentleman by the name of Edward Mitchell, after passing an honourable examination for the highest standing, was prevented from joining the class, in consequence of  opinions entertained by the board of trustees, that this admission might prove detrimental to the interest of the institution, from the fear that his entrance into it might not meet with a cordial reception on the rest of the students; desire, through us this committee to make known their views.

We are happy in being all to day, that there is but one feeling throughout the college; (and) that that feeling is a desire for this return. From what we know of Mr. Mitchell moral character; (and) intellectual attainment we wish him every success; (and) so far from feeling any disrespect towards him on account of his color or extraction, we think him entitled to the highest praise, that, notwithstanding these, he has persisted in this noble (and) independent course that should he be permitted to return (and) enjoy, with us, the advantages of our institution, we are decidedly of opinion, that every member of this, (and) of the other classes, will cheerfully receive him as a companion and fellow student; (and) that the feeling of pleasure upon his return, will be as universal, as that of regret, was at his departure.

Respectfully yours

{ Leonard Worcester            From the Senior Class Committee

{ Henry Shedd                          “…       “    Senior      “

{ Charles Dexter Cleveland “…  “    Sophomore “

{ Samuel Folsom Smith   “…”      Sophomore  “

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[1] Cited in Jonathan Fox Worchester, ed., Memorial of the Class of 1827, Hanover, NH: Centennial Anniversary of the College, 1869, pg 22.

[2] Ibid. 87.

One Response to Edward Mitchell and Student Dissidence in the 1820s.

  1. Pingback: The West End and other topics :: Dartmo.

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