Documenting the American South Logo
1795-1819: The Establishment of the University
Erika Lindemann

When the University of North Carolina opened on a cold, dreary January 15th in 1795, not a single student was present. Gov. Richard Dobbs Spaight, other distinguished guests, and a single faculty member, Rev. David Ker , inspected the finished building and went home. The two-story brick College, now known as Old East, and the unpainted wooden house of the "presiding professor" were the only buildings defining the campus. A pile of yellowish red clay had been dug out for the foundation of the chapel (the east wing of Person Hall), and a wooden structure known as Steward's Hall would soon be built to serve students their meals. But the first student would not arrive for almost a month.
Though the opening ceremonies must have been brief, the Halifax, NC, newspaper North-Carolina Journal confidently reported "That the exercises of the institution have begun, and that youth disposed to enter at the University may come forward with an assurance of being received" (Connor 1:368). For some North Carolinians, the opening of the University was a beginning. For others, it marked the end of an almost twenty-year campaign to establish a college at public expense for the citizens of North Carolina. That goal had been frustrated twice before, in 1754 and again in 1770, when first the funding and then the charter of a public seminary failed to win the approval of the British Crown. With the beginning of the American Revolution, however, the North Carolina Provincial Congress was able to take action on the proposal without the King's permission. Meeting in Halifax, NC, on December 18, 1776, delegates to the state's constitutional convention approved Article 41: "That a school or schools be established by the Legislature, for the convenient Instruction of Youth, with such Salaries to the Masters, paid by the Public, as may enable them to instruct at low prices; and all useful Learning shall be duly encouraged and promoted in one or more Universities" (Connor 1:14). Borrowing language from the constitution of Pennsylvania, North Carolina's delegates wrote into their state's constitution a right to public education. Article 41 was the constitutional cornerstone of the University.
On the eve of the American Revolution, the colonies boasted only nine colleges, most of them affiliated with religious institutions and only one of them in the South.1 Families with the means to educate their children schooled them at home or sent them to colleges in the North or overseas. The first attempt to implement Article 41 occurred in November 1784, when a bill was introduced into the North Carolina General Assembly to establish a state university. The bill was rejected, in part because the state was still dealing with financial hardships brought on by the war but also because sectional politics made legislators wary of an institution that might promote aristocratic privilege. Political, religious, and economic divisions between eastern planters, who tended to be Anglican and conservative Federalists, and the small farmers and merchants of the back country, who were Presbyterians, Lutherans, and members of other Protestant sects and who regarded themselves as liberal Jeffersonian Republicans, would characterize the early history of North Carolina politics and in turn influence decisions with respect to the University. Finally, on December 11, 1789, the General Assembly granted the University its charter.
The man credited with securing the necessary votes was William Richardson Davie . Born in England, Davie was a graduate of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), had served as a Continental line officer in the Revolutionary War, and was a North Carolina delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He had been a member of the committee that wrote the North Carolina constitution of 1776. A Federalist and deist, Davie worked persuasively among legislators who had had little formal education themselves to urge their support for the University. In the introduction to the bill, Davie appealed to the legislators' sense of responsibility for securing the state's future: "it is the indispensable duty of every Legislature to consult the happiness of a rising generation, and endeavor to fit them for an honourable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying the strictest attention to their education" (Connor 1:34).
Though the University had a charter, it had no funds. On December 21, 1789, the General Assembly passed "An Act for the Endowment of the University," granting to the University all property that would escheat to the state. Potentially a rich endowment, the bill entitled the board of trustees to property reverting to the state when its owners died, including large tracts of land given as bounties to soldiers who had served in the Revolutionary War. These tracts, amounting in some cases to 20,000 or 25,000 acres, eventually could be sold to support the University. In the short term, however, the University needed cash, so Davie and James Hogg , a Scottish immigrant who had settled near Hillsborough, NC, began to raise subscriptions and donations. Their efforts were frustrated when the legislature required them to turn all contributions over to the state and permitted them to spend only the interest on behalf of the University. Finally, in December 1791, Davie persuaded a reluctant legislature to approve a loan of $10,000. Years later, when this loan was given outright to the University, the gift constituted the only direct appropriation that the antebellum institution would receive from the legislature.
In 1792, the trustees selected a site near the center of the state. They agreed that it should lie within a fifteen-mile radius of Cyprett's Bridge across New Hope Creek on the road that ran from New Bern, the colonial capital on the east coast, past the new capital of Raleigh to Pittsboro. The charter required that the site be no closer than five miles from "the permanent seat of government, or any of the places holding the courts of law or equity" (Connor 1:38). Hogg , a member of the site-selection commission, wanted the University located in Orange County and began talking to his neighbors. He raised generous pledges of 1,386 acres of land and approximately $1,600.2 The commissioners unanimously accepted these gifts and recommended New Hope Chapel Hill to the trustees. The trustees accepted the recommendation and granted the donors the privilege of educating one student at the University free from tuition.
Apart from the generosity of its neighbors, New Hope Chapel Hill boasted other attractive features. In a time when travel was difficult, the site was relatively accessible. It lay at the intersection of two important roads, a north-south road running from Petersburg, VA, through Hillsborough, NC, and on south to Pittsboro, and a major east-west road beginning in New Bern near the coast, passing through the center of the state, and continuing westward toward Greensboro and Salisbury. At the intersection of these two roads sat an old Church of England chapel of ease, which gave the place its name. Geographically, the University would be about twenty-five miles from Raleigh and twelve miles from Hillsborough. Located on a promontory in a forest of oaks, the site also had abundant springs, and its climate was regarded as healthy.
By late 1792, the trustees had begun planning the campus. They contracted with James Patterson to erect a two-story brick building, 96 1/2 feet long and 40 feet wide, with sixteen rooms and four passages. It was to be completed by November 1794 for the sum of $5,000. On October 12, 1793, a bright autumn day, the commissioners of the board of trustees met at Chapel Hill to lay the building's cornerstone. An address was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Samuel McCorkle , a Presbyterian minister and graduate of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), who ran the successful Zion-Parnassus Academy near Salisbury. McCorkle , the only preacher-teacher on the board of trustees, had initiated the 1784 bill to establish the University and had been an advocate for both public and private education in North Carolina for many years. The ceremonies ended with "a short but animated prayer." Then the assembly adjourned to an auction of some twenty-nine lots that had been laid out for a village next to the University.
The students began arriving in mid-February 1795. According to tradition, the first student was Hinton James of Wilmington, NC, but as word spread that the University was in session, other students quickly followed. It must have been a chaotic first term, Professor Ker trying to conduct a variety of classes, while intermittently examining in-coming students to determine their placement and finding many of them unprepared for college work. By the end of June 1795, forty-one students had entered the University. By the following September, the number had risen to seventy-four.
As the college grew, Old East soon became crowded. In 1798 the cornerstone of South Building was laid, but the funds ran out before it could be completed. The trustees obtained permission of the legislature to conduct two lotteries in 1801 and 1802, which yielded a total of $5,080.81 (Battle 1:127). Appeals for donations and gifts brought in additional funds, but it was not until President Joseph Caldwell made a personal pilgrimage through the state that sufficient monies could be raised to complete the building in 1814. In the early years, preparatory school students had roomed with the University's regular students, but by 1802 the students were so numerous that a separate wooden building was erected for the school, which moved across Franklin Street from the college. The preparatory school was abandoned in 1819, by which time the establishment of other good classical schools in the area had made it unnecessary.
Despite student rebellions, a lack of funds, and persistent difficulties in securing teachers, by 1820 the University clearly had survived infancy. The faculty had grown from one to five professors, and approximately 185 students had earned degrees. Perhaps as many as 300 additional students had attended classes for a year or more. The University's library contained over 1,500 volumes; the society libraries, approximately 1,000 volumes each. The campus had expanded to five buildings— Old East, Person Hall, South Building, Steward's Hall, and the president's house—and the town was growing. Student unrest persisted but was not quite so public. More important, the University had survived the sectional politics attending the birth of the state and the War of 1812. North Carolina was still relatively poor and largely indifferent to education. Eastern North Carolinians, who represented less than ten percent of the total white population, controlled the legislature, which made the laws, selected the governor, and appointed other state officials. But despite political and financial obstacles, the University decidedly had begun the work hoped for it by those who had written their confidence in its necessity into Article 41 of the state's constitution.


1. Harvard (1636), William and Mary (1693), Yale (1701), Pennsylvania Academy (1740; later the University of Pennsylvania), the College of New Jersey (1746; later Princeton University), King's College (1754; later Columbia University), Rhode Island College (1764; later Brown University), Queen's College (1766; later Rutgers University), and Dartmouth (1769).

2. Eight landholders donated most of the property: Christopher Barbee (221 acres), Hardy Morgan (125 acres), Edmund Jones (200 acres), Matthew McCauley (150 acres), Mark Morgan (107 acres), John Daniel (107 acres), Benjamin Yeargin (50 acres), and Alexander Piper (20 acres). John Hogan "contracted to produce 150,000 bricks at forty cents per hundred, and Edmund Jones agreed to supply lumber" (Vickers 17).