Founders’ Colleges Were Not Sectarian


Right-wingers like to promote the mythology that everything our Founders did was extremely religious, but the truth is, the colleges they founded, in the 26 states east of the Mississippi, from the birth of Harvard in 1636, through the next 200 years, were largely secular, or public universities, and not faith-based colleges.

Many States had only Secular Schools:

MASSACHUSETTS: Harvard (1636), our oldest university, was founded without religious affiliation. Over the following 200 years, Massachusetts witnessed the opening of four more private colleges: Williams (1793), Amherst (1821), Wheaton (1834), and Mt. Holyoke (1836). The first religious-based school in the Bay State did not appear until 1843, when Holy Cross accepted students.

CONNECTICUT: Yale (1701), a secular Ivy League school, was Connecticut’s only university for 122 years. Trinity (1823) and Wesleyan (1831), both private, were the next to break ground, followed by Central Connecticut (1849), a state school.

NEW YORK: Early New Yorkers introduced Columbia University (1754) to the Ivy League, without religious ties. It was followed by private colleges at Hamilton (1793) and Union (1795). After the U.S. created a public Military Academy (1802) at West Point, four more secular schools appeared: Colgate (1819), Rensselaer Tech (1824), Rochester Tech (1829), and NYU (1831). Not until 79 years after Columbia was first opened, did St. Joseph’s (1833), a religious school, begin taking students.

RHODE ISLAND: Brown (1764), an Ivy League university, was not connected to any church. 90 years after their chartering, the state added a public school named Rhode Island College (1854).

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Dartmouth (1769), another Ivy League college, was not faith-based. It was the state’s only university, until Colby-Sawyer (1833), a private school, appeared 61 years later.

MAINE in the early years had two private schools, Bowdoin (1794) and Colby (1813), and they gained no other, until Bates (1855), a secular university, was added just before the Civil War.

Public Universities founded before Independence:

DELAWARE: Our Delaware forefathers chartered the University of Delaware (1743), as a public institution. It remained the state’s only school of higher education for 98 years, through 1841.

NEW JERSEY: After Princeton (1746) opened, as a private Ivy League institution, the New Jersey Founders started Rutgers (1766), as a state-run college. It would be 90 years before students would be accepted at Seton Hall (1856), a Catholic school.

GEORGIA: Shortly after the Revolution, the Georgian Founders broke ground at the University of Georgia (1785), a public college. 46 years later, Methodists launched a school named La Grange (1831), followed by Baptists at Mercer (1833), private interests at Oglethorpe (1835), and Methodists again at Emory (1836).

Public universities under President Washington:

NORTH CAROLINA: Although the first in North Carolina was a small Moravian women’s school named Salem (1772), during President Washington’s first term, the state created the University of North Carolina (1789), as a public school. Baptists followed with Wake Forest (1834), as the Society of Friends founded Guilford (1834), and the Presbyterians opened Davidson (1836).

VERMONT: As Washington was in his third year, the Founders of Vermont molded the University of Vermont (1791) into a public school. Following appearances by secular Middlebury (1800) and Norwich (1819), Johnson State (1828) was added.

TENNESSEE: During Washington’s second term, the Tennessee legislature appropriated funds for the University of Tennessee (1794), as a public institution. Tuculum (1794), a private school, also took students that year. Sectarian interests finally broke ground at religious-based schools, when the Presbyterians opened Maryville (1819), and the Baptists founded Union (1825).

Public universities under Adams and Jefferson:

KENTUCKY: After private parties opened Transylvania (1780), and Baptists created Georgetown, KY (1787), the Founders of Kentucky voted, during John Adams’ presidency, to start the University of Louisville (1798), as a public institution. Early Kentucky was rounded out with a Catholic school named Nazareth (1814), and a private one called Centre College (1819).

SOUTH CAROLINA started with the private Charleston College (1770) and funded the University of South Carolina (1801), early in Jefferson’s presidency. Baptists added Furman (1826).

OHIO started with a private college named Marietta (1797). It was soon joined in Jefferson’s time, by the Ohio University (1804), a public school. When James Madison was inaugurated, Miami of Ohio (1809), another public college, was chartered. As James Monroe became President, the University of Cincinnati (1819) started as a municipal institution. Kenyon (1824) and Western Reserve (1826), both private, completed early Ohio.

MARYLAND: Two private schools, St. John’s (1696) and Washington (1706), were the first to open. 83 years later, the Catholics introduced Georgetown (1789) in Washington, DC, and St. Mary’s (1791) in Maryland. While Jefferson was still President, the state’s Founders launched the University of Maryland (1807), as a public school. Catholics soon followed with Mt. St. Mary’s (1808), and St. Joseph’s (1809), as other private interests broke ground at the George Washington University (1821), in the District of Columbia.

Public Universities under Madison and Monroe:

MICHIGAN: While James Madison was ending his second term, the University of Michigan (1817) appeared, as a public school. 16 years later, the Baptists first accepted students at Kalamazoo (1833), followed by the Methodists at Albion (1835).

VIRGINIA: A royal charter established William & Mary (1693), as a secular college. Washington & Lee (1749) followed, as a private institution. 83 years after William & Mary was first opened, the Presbyterians organized a religious-based school at Hampden-Sydney (1776). During James Monroe’s first term, Virginia appropriated funds for a ground-breaking at the University of Virginia (1819), a public school. Methodists next opened Randolph-Macon (1830), as Baptists gave birth to Richmond (1830).

ALABAMA: While James Monroe was still President, the Alabama legislature funded the University of Alabama (1820), as a public school. Northern Alabama (1830) followed, as Methodists launched colleges at Athens (1822) and Livingston (1835), and Catholics created one named Spring Hill (1830).

INDIANA: The Founders of Indiana organized the University of Indiana (1820) while James Monroe was still President. After Presbyterians introduced Hanover (1827), private interests started Wabash (1832), and Baptists accepted students at Franklin (1834).

Public universities under Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, and Fillmore:

WEST VIRGINIA remained a part of Virginia, until the Civil War. They had just two colleges before the split, namely Marshall (1837), and West Liberty (1837), both public institutions, which were chartered, while President Van Buren was in office.

MISSISSIPPI, a conservative place, started with Mississippi College (1826), a Baptist institution, before the state agreed in John Tyler’s time, to fund the University of Mississippi (1944).

WISCONSIN: Upon joining the union during the Presidency of James Polk, the Wisconsin Founders broke ground on a publicly-funded school named the University of Wisconsin (1848). Carroll College (1846), a Presbyterian school, also organized then, along with two private universities, Beloit (1846) and Lawrence (1847).

FLORIDA: The first universities in Florida, launched during the Presidency of Millard Fillmore, were Florida State (1851), and the University of Florida (1853), both public institutions.

Some had private and sectarian schools:

PENNSYLVANIA: The secular University of Pennsylvania (1740) appeared as a member of the Ivy League. Although a religious order founded Moravian (1742), the next four to break ground were private: Dickinson (1773), Washington & Jefferson (1782), Franklin & Marshall (1787), and the University of Pittsburgh (1787). Lyconing (1812), a Methodist college, was followed by three secular schools: Allegheny (1815), Pennsylvania Military (1821), and the Philadelphia Pharmacy College (1821). While the Presbyterians added Lafayette (1826), Lutherans opened Gettysburg (1832). Haverford (1833) became a private school. Public colleges were not chartered, until Cheney State (1837) and Bloomsburg State (1839) appeared.

ILLINOIS commenced with McKendree (1828), a Methodist school. They next added Illinois College (1829) and Knox (1837), both private. Four more secular colleges and six sectarian would follow, before Illinois St. (1857) would first break ground.

As the evidence clearly shows, the Founders supported secular colleges, and actually appropriated funds to create public non-sectarian universities. While some may have had religious beliefs, they were careful to separate church and state.

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