Saving King’s College: Hamilton and Columbia University

Columbia University is one of the most distinguished educational institutions in the world.  US News ranks it as one of the top colleges in the country and it has a stellar reputation for academics and research.  (Not to mention, my little brother Sid graduated from Columbia a few years ago!) King’s College held a special place in Hamilton’s affections.  His two year experience as a student was a catalyst for his revolutionary ideas and the basis for some of the most important and long-lasting friendships, including his friendship with Robert Troup.  King’s College was a fundamentally Tory institution, and during Hamilton’s time there, college president Myles Cooper was vehemently opposed to the revolutionary sentiment in New York.

In fact, as David C. Humphrey writes in From King’s College to Columbia, 1746-1800:

“Probably half or more of all the King’s College students and alumni living in 1776 became loyalists.  so did Myles Cooper, four of the five other men who taught liberal arts at King’s between 1770 and 1777, and more than two-thirds of the governors who participated in policy making during the early 1770s.  The college leaders conceived of their institution as a bulwark of the established order, not as its critic.  On the very eve of the Revolution they sought to strengthen the college’s ties to the Crown.”

In Stand, Columbia: a History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004, Robert McCaughey writes that “Tory loyalities and eight years out of operation had nearly consigned” King’s College to the “dustbin of history.”

James Duane, the first postwar mayor of New York City, who had come under scrutiny for siding with Hamilton in the Rutgers v. Waddington case and limiting the application of the Trespass Act of 1783, was a major advocate for saving the college.  Duane, along with George Clinton, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, spearheaded an effort to reopen the college under the auspices of the New York state legislature.  In early 1784, Duane initiated a discussion in the New York Senate, and “on March 24, 1784, the senate received a ‘Petition of Governors of King’s College’ urging adoption of Duane’s proposal.”

The Columbia website states:

“In 1784, Hamilton and fellow state legislator John Jay (Kings College 1764) were instrumental in reviving King’s College as Columbia College. Hamilton served as a regent of Columbia from 1784 to 1787, and as a trustee from 1787 until his death on July 11, 1804, when he was shot in a duel by his political rival Aaron Burr. Hamilton is buried in the Trinity Church cemetery. The Alexander Hamilton Medal, presented each year by the Columbia College Alumni Association, is the highest tribute awarded to a member of the Columbia College community. Winners include Columbia president Dwight D. Eisenhower and alumni Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.”

On April 13, 1787, Hamilton, Duane, and Jay’s efforts paid off and the New York Legislature approved a new charter that allowed the college more freedom and self-government than the more restrictive 1784 charter.   Robert A. McCaughey writes:

“In point of fact, the 1787 charter made the college substantially more private than King’s College under the 1754 charter or Columbia College under the 1784 charter.  None of its twenty-four trustees were to be state officeholders serving as ex officio members, and all replacements for future trustees were to be elected by incumbents.  The board was henceforth to be wholly self-perpetuating, as it would remain until 1908, when provisions were first made for alumni nominations to the board.  No less important in terms of the institution’s future identity, the charter explicitly linked for the first time governance and locale by its prepositional designation of ‘the Trustees of Columbia College in the City of New York..'”

This 1787 charter was the foundation upon which Columbia College was built, and which allowed the college to grow over time as an institution.

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