Documenting the American South Logo
Overview: 1840-49
Erika Lindemann

The 1840s did not begin auspiciously for faculty members, who once again were preoccupied with putting down student rebellions. Beginning in 1838 students organized themselves into "combinations" to perpetrate mischief, calling themselves members of the Ugly Club and the Boring Club.1 Even though faculty members required students to sign pledges promising not to join such clubs and checked on students nightly in their dormitories, periodic "sprees" nevertheless took place. In mid-August 1840, for a period of three weeks, student rebellions became especially persistent. Students doused faculty members with water when they attempted to enter Old West; stones, bricks, and furniture were thrown from dormitory windows; first-year students headed into the woods after dark for a "freshman treat" and returned "hallooing and shouting"; "the bell was rung indefinitely"; and students stole horses and rode them through the campus late at night (Letter from Elisha Mitchell to Charles Manly , September 11, 1840, University Papers, UA). Shortly thereafter, students held a mock religious revival in front of South Building, leaving campus afterwards to paint a professor's horses to look like zebras. They also cut the mane and tail off a horse and placed him in the old chapel (Battle 1:465). A few weeks later all of the University's blackboards were stolen. When Professor James Phillips announced that textbooks should not be carried into his recitation room, students again rebelled.
Though dismissing large numbers of students was an option, the faculty chose instead to elicit their cooperation, encouraging them to sign pledges against further misbehavior. Only those few students who refused ultimately were dismissed. Eventually order was restored. Throughout the 1840s, however, students went on sprees from time to time. Despite numerous regulations prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol, "getting tight" was a perennial pastime for students and a common means of defying authority.2
By 1840 over 600 students had graduated from the University since it opened its doors, and approximately the same number had matriculated without earning a degree. Well over that number—1,602 students—enrolled in the decade between 1840 and 1850 alone. The average annual enrollment in the 1840s was 160 students, with 30 to 40 students graduating every year ("Matriculates and Graduates" 14). Tuition increased to $50 per year in 1843, and room and board cost between $80 to $100 annually, depending on where a student lived.
Enrollment increases were the result of two significant developments. North Carolinians, like southerners in general, were increasingly conscious of their regional identity, especially of their political and economic differences with the North. Parents who could afford college educations for their sons increasingly resisted sending them to northern schools and enrolled them at Chapel Hill instead. Second, in January 1839 North Carolina's General Assembly had finally enacted a law to establish common or public schools funded at taxpayers' expense. The first school under this new legislation was opened in Rockingham County in January 1840. By the end of the decade there were 2,657 such schools in addition to some 630 private and religious academies (Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries 290). Though many North Carolinians were still indifferent to education, the establishment of common schools was a progressive step toward preparing the next generation of the state's citizens for increased responsibility in civic and professional life. Public schools also made it possible for young men to receive the preparation necessary for study at the University, and increasing numbers of them took advantage of the opportunity.
The faculty of the 1840s included President Swain , who also taught law; Elisha Mitchell , professor of chemistry, geology, and mineralogy; James Phillips , professor of mathematics and natural philosophy; Manuel Fetter , professor of Greek; John De Berniere Hooper , professor of Latin; William Mercer Green , professor of rhetoric and logic; Charles Force Deems , adjunct professor of rhetoric and logic; a professor of French;3 and two tutors, one for languages and one for mathematics. Gov. Swain heard seven recitations a week; most of the rest of the faculty, ten recitations; the tutors, fifteen. The president earned $2,000 per year; faculty members, $1,250, except for Hooper , whose salary was $1,000; the tutors, $600. Faculty salaries were geared to enrollments, so whenever tuition receipts exceeded $6,000 in a year, faculty salaries rose to $1,500. As Bursar, Mitchell was entitled to a commission for collecting the tuition, which added approximately $600 to his annual salary (Battle 1:462, 467).
Deems had been hired to provide additional support in composition and oratory, areas of the curriculum previously handled by Green alone. Deems describes his duties in his autobiography:
For years the chair of rhetoric and logic had been occupied by the Rev. Dr. William Mercer Green , an Episcopal clergyman, reared in Wilmington, well connected and well known, a gentleman and a scholar—especially a gentleman of very suave and pleasing manners. The duties of the chair were divided and the harder portion assigned to me. I had to take the department of logic, but also assisted in the department of rhetoric, in the correction of compositions, and in the teaching of elocution. Before my advent the only book on logic used in the university was that most absurd and contemptible little treatise by Professor Hedge,4 of Harvard University, a book bearing the title of logic, with every essential thing belonging to logic left out. I adopted Whately's treatise 5 and commenced with the junior class, in which there was not a single student who could not have taken me by the nape of the neck and put me out of the window, and I managed to make work for the class; so much so that they complained to the president that this young professor was making the department of logic absolutely more difficult than the department of mathematics. (Deems 82)
Deems and Hooper both resigned in 1848. The following year Green also left, which meant replacing almost half the faculty by the end of the decade.
Professor Mitchell's science classes appear to be the first in the University's history to include women as guests. On July 21, 1841, as William S. Mullins reports in his diary, "This Class convened in the Labrotary at half past eight and heard Dr. Mitchell,s opening Lecture on the Science of Chemistry. Misses Margaret and Ellen Mitchell, and Miss Whitaker were also present, and perhaps drew off a little attention that should have been given to the Lecture" (William S. Mullins Papers, SHC). Mitchell began the class with a lecture that "embraced nearly an hour and a half and he gave us a lesson to prepare for Recitation at eleven, so that the intermediate time is generally pretty well employed." Science classes did not include laboratory work for students until 1854. Experiments and demonstrations, when they were conducted, were performed by faculty members.
In March 1844 a group of students led by Edmund Deberry Covington launched The North Carolina University Magazine , the University's first literary magazine. Published "By a committee of the senior class," the first issue of forty-eight pages contained eight essays and two poems, all either unsigned or appearing over pseudonyms.6 A "Publisher's Department" reprinted newspaper items concerning politics, the economy, medicine, and literature, extracts inserted by the magazine's publisher, Thomas Loring of Raleigh. An annual subscription cost three dollars. The editors, whose names were not listed, introduced their magazine with an "Address to Patrons" urging the support of readers: "Such as it is, we commend it to you, as a voluntary offering—a token of our devotion to Literature. We present it as a flower in the bud. It is for you to determine, whether it shall wither and die, from neglect, or increase in beauty and fragrance, and expand under the genial sunshine of public favor" [The North Carolina University Magazine 1 (March 1844): 2, NCC]. After nine issues the Magazine ceased publication, deprived of the liberal patronage for which its editors had hoped. It was revived in 1852, however, and though its publication history has been interrupted several times, the Magazine's present-day successor, the Carolina Quarterly , is still run entirely by students.
As already noted, semester examinations took place twice a year, before the Christmas vacation and before commencement in June. Until the end of the decade, these examinations were oral, lasted between one and two hours per course, and "counted hardly more than single recitations" (Battle 1:554). The first written examination given in a University subject was a "paper" test on algebra administered to the sophomore class in May 1849 by mathematics tutor Charles Phillips . Though Phillips had examined his students "by papers" as early as Fall 1844, the examination had not come at the end of the term, and its novelty in 1849 created a rebellion among the students. Phillips reports, "On the night before the morning appointed for the examination, I was told, to my very great surprize, that the class, with the exception of two members had resolved in writing not to submit to the examination, as it was unprecedented and tyrannical" (Faculty Minutes 4:flyleaf, UA). Only four sophomores ultimately were persuaded to take the written examination.
The 1847 Commencement was especially memorable because President James Knox Polk returned to his alma mater. Preparations for his visit included repainting college buildings7 and faculty houses, replacing the wooden benches in Gerrard Hall with pews, and generally sprucing up the campus. Nancy Hilliard , owner of the Eagle Hotel, added a smart new two-story addition to her establishment, where the President and his entourage stayed from May 31 to June 4. Though Polk gave only a brief speech in response to Gov. Swain's welcoming remarks, the President attended all of the commencement exercises, shook hands with hundreds of guests who had come to Chapel Hill to see him, and revisited his old room on the third floor of South Building. According to Polk the visit was "an exceedingly agreeable one": "My reception at the University, and the attentions paid me on the route going and returning, was all that I could have desired it to be."8


1. "To be bored" meant "to be irritated," the objective of the Boring Club being to irritate faculty members.

2. Acts of the General Assembly and Ordinances of the Trustees for the Organization and Government of the University of North-Carolina (Raleigh: Office of the Raleigh Register, 1838). William K. Blake, writing to Richard Irby in Virginia on October 3, 1845, describes an almost annual event:
Our regular Sessional Spree came off last Friday week, about 20 or 30 fellows disguised with calico coats and pants, and paper hats plumed with chicken feathers sallied out in the campus about 11 o'clock at night. They commenced ringing the bell, blowing horns, shooting pistols, and then forming a line, would charge against the trees, and piles of Rocks with a savage vengeance. The Faculty came on the ground, and one attempted to enter one of the passages; the fellows ducked him with two buckets of water, pelted him with apples and finally threw a wash basin at him which made him desist. The Spors in the campus marched round to each of the Tutor's rooms and rocked their windows; after which they dispersed. But the Faculty had concealed themselves near the entrance of the passages, and recognized the fellows as they would go in their rooms. They had up about 20, but only 5 were dismissed; the others were too slipery tongued to be caught. (Knight 3:324-25)

3. The teaching of French, sporadic at best during the 1830s, remained so for the early 1840s. In 1841 John Jones Roberts , a member of the class of 1838 who had studied in France for two years, joined the faculty as professor of French. Roberts resigned the following year, and the position went to Thomas S. Barshall, a Frenchman, who held it for only a few months. Thereafter, teaching French in addition to Latin became John De Berniere Hooper's responsibility until he left the faculty in 1848.

4. Levi Hedge, Elements of Logick (Cambridge, MA: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1816).

5. Richard Whately, Elements of Logic (London: Fellowes, 1826).

6. "American Poetry," "Miscellaneous Writings by Thomas B. Macaulay," "The Abuse of the Press," "Henry Erskine," "Revolutionary History—North Carolina," "Stray Leaves of History—No. 1," "The Military Academy at West Point: System of Appointing Cadets," "Rural Economy," "What Is Life?" (poem) , "Lines Addressed to an Aged Poplar, Standing in the College Grove" (poem) [The North Carolina University Magazine 1 (March 1844): contents, NCC].

7. In 1848 new additions to the West and East buildings extended these dormitories northward by half their original length, at a cost of $9,360 (Henderson 135-36). Old East became the home of Philanthropic Society members; Old West belonged to the Dialectic Society. New society halls were located on the second floor of each building, the third floor housing the society libraries, which by this time numbered 7,000 volumes each.

8. Milo Milton Quaife, ed., The Diary of James K. Polk , During His Presidency, 1845 to 1849 (Chicago: McClurg, 1910), quoted in Henderson 95. An account of President Polk's trip, written by "The Doctor," a correspondent for the New York Herald , is housed in the SHC.