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A New University for the New South

James L. Leloudis
Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The North's victory in 1865 unleashed a barrage of criticism of the University of North Carolina from within and without. Confederate Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill led the attack in the first issue of his Charlotte-based magazine, The Land We Love. Hill blamed the South's defeat on a system of higher education that produced "orators and statesmen, but did nothing to enrich us, nothing to promote material greatness." Venom flowed from his pen:

The educated man of the South was like the hero of the fairy tale; in the legislative chamber he was a mail-clad warrior, armed at all points, ready to assail and invulnerable to attack; but as soon as he recrossed the portal of the enchanted hall, his armor fell off, his sword crumbled to dust, his tough and cord-like sinews became soft and flexible as those of a delicate woman. The invincible champion was changed into the feeble imbecile.

Slavery had relieved the southern elite "of the necessity of scrambling for a livelihood" and had encouraged them to "turn their ambitious aims toward political power" instead. But emancipation changed all that by making the "struggle for property" and money the wellspring of human endeavor. Under such circumstances, preservation of the classical curriculum was "worse than folly"—it was "absolute madness." 1

Hill championed the benefits of industry and diversified agriculture and preached the necessity of educational reform as a means of achieving those goals. He argued that conditions required the South to "make a total radical change in our system of education" by abandoning "the aesthetic and the ornamental for the practical and the useful." Many among the University faculty and trustees shared those sentiments. Andrew Dousa Hepburn, a young Professor of Logic and Rhetoric, was the most outspoken. He wrote to President Swain in 1866 that "our only hope of prosperity is in being able to offer to the world a high & thorough scientific course. . . . A new life is commencing for Southern colleges; for those who can keep up with the times, there is a brilliant future; the others must sink."2

In 1867, the old University sought to reform itself from within. The trustees appointed a committee headed by alumnus Kemp Plummer Battle (class of 1849) to devise a new plan of study for the institution. Battle's group set to work in the midst of a general upheaval in American higher education. During the 1860s, a number of forces came together to transform American colleges into modern research institutions. By law, the state land-grant colleges founded under the federal Morrill Act of 1862 supplemented classical studies with instruction in agriculture, "mechanic arts," pharmacy, medicine, and education. Americans studying abroad came home praising the German university with its emphasis on research and academic specialization. And in the northeast, Ezra Cornell and other philanthropists established new institutions to provide training in the emerging fields of engineering and commerce. In large measure, their efforts answered the demands of a nascent culture of professionalism whose adherents valued the college diploma as a vocational credential rather than a certificate of "gentlemanly breeding." Guided by those developments, Battle and his colleagues devised a scheme that would have qualified their own university for federal land-grant funds. It called for abandoning the prescribed classical course in favor of a "'University or elective system,'" dividing the institution into several degree-granting colleges, and allowing students the privilege of arranging their own academic programs.3

The Republican trustees appointed in 1868 looked favorably upon the recommendations of the Battle committee, but the political turmoil of Reconstruction and the University's closure in 1871 delayed any constructive movement toward reform. Over the next several years, the University's fate tracked that of resurgent, old-guard Democrats. In 1871, lawmakers approved an amendment to the state constitution that would take the power to appoint University trustees out of the hands of the State Board of Education, which was still controlled by Republican governor Tod Caldwell, and return it to the legislature. The amendment won ratification in a public referendum in 1873, and in 1874, lawmakers appointed a new board of sixty-four trustees, drawn primarily from the ranks of the Democratic Party leadership. Indeed, many had served in the same positions prior to the Civil War. 4

Still intent upon curricular reform, the reconstituted board of trustees once again appointed a committee under Kemp Battle's leadership and charged it with devising a new course of study. The proposal the committee sent forth and that the trustees approved in 1875 closely resembled the "Battle plan" of 1867. It called for an institution made up of six colleges, each administered by an individual faculty member and subdivided into several schools, conferring the degrees of Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Agriculture, and Master of Arts. Details of the plan deserve notice because they suggest how far the trustees distanced themselves conceptually from the antebellum curriculum. The remodeled University's colleges were: Agriculture, including the schools of scientific agriculture, practical agriculture, and horticulture; Engineering and Mechanic Arts, composed of the schools of mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and military science and tactics; Natural Science, embracing the schools of chemistry, zoology and botany, and geology and mineralogy; Literature, incorporating the schools of English language and literature, ancient languages, and modern languages; Mathematics, consisting of the schools of pure mathematics, physics, and commercial sciences; and Philosophy, containing the schools of metaphysics and logic, political economy and international and constitutional law, moral science, and history.5

The trustees selected this arrangement so that the school might "keep step with the century in its march of knowledge, invention and discovery." Their metaphors testified to a radically new vision of education and society. The University would serve no longer as a mere repository of knowledge; it would operate instead as "a great metropolis of thought whose ships bravely shall sail the ocean of life and even explore unknown seas." Just as the world's bustling seaports sustained the flow of commerce, the University's mission was to create a marketplace of ideas. By "gathering, creating and distributing knowledge," it would become "a potent force in the world's progress, a wide-felt influence throughout the State to make all men love and seek after learning." Satisfied with their handiwork, the trustees voted to open the school for the fall term in September 1875. During the following summer, they elected Battle to the presidency in recognition of his contributions as "the Father of the new University."6

This New University was charged with creating a decidedly New South and integrating the region back into the life of the nation. But that New South bore many of the hallmarks of the old—particularly in the ways that it was built upon racial and class inequality. During the 1890s, the architects of this new order were, like their fathers before them, confronted with the challenge of a biracial political alliance. In this instance, it was white Populists and black Republicans brought together in a fragile partnership—they called it Fusion—by shared suffering in the system of sharecropping and tenantry that had taken hold of the countryside. The Fusionists gained control of the legislature in 1894, and in 1896 won the governor's office as well. Only in North Carolina did such an alliance seize the reins of both the legislative and executive branches of government. As in Reconstruction, if biracial politics stood a chance in the South, the best chance was in North Carolina.

Again, conservative Democrats met the challenge with intimidation and a violent campaign for white supremacy. Two of the New University's alumni—Josephus Daniels (law student, 1884-85), editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, and Charles Brantley Aycock (Ph.B., 1880), elected governor in 1900—were key actors in that effort. They championed an amendment to the state constitution, ratified in 1900, that stripped one of the fundamental rights of citizenship—the right to vote—from black men, and in doing so, constrained the lives of black and white citizens alike. There would be no biracial politics once half of any potential alliance could no longer cast a ballot.

Disfranchisement marked the final victory in a counter-revolution that had begun as soon as the Civil War ended, and for the first half of the twentieth century, it saddled North Carolina with one-party government. In the absence of meaningful political competition, there were few outlets for dissent or debate over the course of the state's future. The meanings of democracy and citizenship as the Fusionists had imagined them, or as we would understand them today, were hardly recognizable, and there were few options for challenging the ills that came to define the South as a region apart: poverty, low wages, racial violence and injustice, illiteracy, and ill health. For those who dared to see, this era of white supremacy offered living evidence of the truthfulness of an old adage: no people are fully free in a society in which some remain unfree.7

That is the legacy with which the University wrestled for much of the twentieth century. At times, it distinguished itself as a citadel of free inquiry and a champion of justice—no more so than in the work of sociologists Howard Odum, Arthur Raper, and Guy Johnson; Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Paul Green; and University president Frank Porter Graham—all of whom brought brave moral and intellectual leadership to the institution. They spoke forthrightly about the evils of sharecropping, lynching, chain gangs, and the segregated regime of Jim Crow. In doing so, they challenged fellow whites to what Howard Odum called "a frank, honest . . . stock-taking of ourselves." At other times, though, the University could be slow to change, preferring the comfortable indeterminacy of gradualism over more active advocacy. During the Civil Rights era, Paul Green observed with considerable frustration that the University he loved was at times "like a lighthouse which throws a beam out to the far horizons of the South, yet is dark at its own base." 8

This is the University's history—good and ignoble, contested and fraught with contradiction, often a source of pride and at times disillusioning. It is the history of an institution that for more than two centuries has been bound up intimately with the making (and remaking) of America and the South.


1 Daniel Harvey Hill, "Education," The Land We Love 1 (May 1866): 5, 9, 11 and (June 1866): 87-88. The account that follows is adapted from James L. Leloudis, Schooling the New South: Pedagogy, Self, and Society in North Carolina, 1880-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), chapter 2.

2 Hill, "Education," pp. 3, 11, 10, and Andrew Dousa Hepburn to David Lowry Swain, June 23, 1866, folder 54, David Lowry Swain Papers #706, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

3 Kemp P. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina (Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1907 and 1912), I:764, and Hill, "Education," p. 4. For the national movement toward curriculum reform, see Laurence R. Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), pp. 57-262; Carl Diehl, Americans and German Scholarship, 1770-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978); and Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1976), especially chapter 8.

4 Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, II:50-51, and Battle, "Struggle and Story of the Re-Birth of the University," University Magazine 17 (June 1900): 305-21. For more about the history of the University during Reconstruction, see the essay available on this site, "Civil War and Reconstruction."

5 Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, II:71-72, and Catalogue of the Trustees, Faculty, and Students of the University of North Carolina, 1875-76. On the original "Battle Plan" for reorganization of the University, see "Report on the Special Committee on Matters Connected with the University," December 17, 1867, University of North Carolina Papers #40005, and Trustees Minutes, December 17, 1867, Records of the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina #40001, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On the trustees' approval of a revised and updated version of the "Battle Plan" in 1875, see Trustee Minutes, May 4 and 5, 1875.

6 George T. Winston, "The First Faculty: Its Work and Its Opportunity," University Record 1, New Series, Number 2, (1901-02), pp. 18, 21; Winston, "University of To-Day," University Magazine 13 (March-April 1894), p. 327; University Record 2 (January 1898): 19; and Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, II:1, 114-16.

7 On North Carolina politics of the late nineteenth century, see Paul D. Escott, Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), chapters 7-10.

8 Howard Odum quoted in Daniel J. Singal, The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), p. 123, and Paul Green quoted in John Ehle, The Free Men (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 284. On the history of the University of North Carolina in the 20th century, see Louis R. Wilson, The University of North Carolina, 1900-1930: The Making of a Modern University (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957); Warren Ashby, Frank Porter Graham, a Southern Liberal (Winston-Salem: J.F. Blair, 1980); Julian M. Pleasants and Augustus M. Burns III, Frank Porter Graham and the 1950 Senate Race in North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); and William D. Snider, Light on the Hill: A History of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).