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Creation and Governance of the University

Scholarly Essay:
"Revolution and Retrenchment" by James L. Leloudis

A product of the American Revolution, the university had its origins in the North Carolina Constitution of 1776. Article Forty-one of that document stated that "all useful Learning shall be duely [sic.] encouraged and promoted in one or more Universities." The constitution's framers, who were heirs of the Enlightenment, believed that the survival of their fledgling democracy depended on the education of future leaders. However, through the next decade of military and political struggle, the provisions of Article Forty-one were the least of the state's concerns.

After the Revolutionary War ended and as the newly independent states settled down to govern themselves, some North Carolinians began advocating for the fulfillment of Article Forty-one. A bill to establish a university failed in 1784, but on December 11, 1789, the state legislature finally passed an act chartering the University of North Carolina. Several individuals provided support, but William Richardson Davie of Halifax introduced the bill and took the lead in pushing it through the General Assembly.

The initial struggle to charter the university was followed by an equally difficult period of choosing a location, securing adequate funding, constructing the buildings, hiring a faculty, developing a curriculum, and attracting students. The General Assembly had granted the trustees rights to two sources of income: money owed the state for certain arrearages and "all property that has heretofore or shall hereafter escheat to the state." Turning these into ready cash would be a long and difficult process. Still, the trustees continued to push forward with plans for building and opening the institution. In 1792 they chose to locate the campus at New Hope Chapel Hill in the rolling hills of what was then backcountry North Carolina, where several generous settlers had promised donations of land. The site was far from the power centers of eastern North Carolina, but it was close to the newly chartered capital city, Raleigh. The cornerstone of the campus's first building was laid less than a year later on October 12, 1793.

A friendly debate rages between the University of Georgia and the University of North Carolina concerning which school can accurately claim the distinction of first state university. The University of Georgia claims the title based on the fact that it was chartered before the University of North Carolina (1785 versus 1789). The University of North Carolina bases its claim on the fact that it opened its doors on January 15, 1795, which made it the only state university to graduate students in the eighteenth century. The University of Georgia did not open until 1801; by then the University of North Carolina had graduated three classes.

The items in the "Creation and Governance" section document the struggle to establish, enable, open, and operate the University of North Carolina. Ranging from the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 to the minutes of the trustees to a 1792 campus map, the transcribed and original materials allow readers to follow the birth of the first state university in the United States.

The items in this section are arranged chronologically.