History of Columbia College

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The history of Columbia College extends back over 250 years to debates over the appropriateness for higher education of colonial New York City and the eventual establishment of King's College. Formally reinstated after the American Revolution as Columbia College, the institution would, by the early 20th century, be subsumed into the larger organization of Columbia University.

King's College

See also main article: King's College

Early beginnings

Although moves were made to grant land for the establishment of a college as early as 1709, talk of what would become King's College did not begin in earnest until the 1740s. The founding of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1746 brought together three unlikely factions: civic-minded New Yorkers, Anglican clergy, and the English establishment. New Yorkers loathed to see themselves outdone by New Jerseyans. The Anglican clergy worried that they were being overtaken by the Puritans (Harvard), the New Light Congregationalists (Yale), and the Scotch Presbyterians (Princeton). Finally, the English establishment worried that there would be no great center of higher learning in the mold of Oxford and Cambridge in what was then called the "heart of English America".

Naturally, just because the three factions came together did not mean there was no rancor. The Anglican establishment wanted a seminary. The New Yorkers wanted a non-denominational academy (as New York was then, as now, a melting pot of different races and religions) established by an act of provincial assembly. The English establishment desired a university in the mold of Oxford and Cambridge, established by royal charter.

A notable figure in the debate was William Livingston (a relative of Robert Livingston, whom Livingston Hall, now Wallach Hall, is named after), who published Objections to the Formation of King's College.[1] Livingston ultimately did not succeed in establishing the college along his intended lines, but his voice and activism had a significant impact on the resolution of the debate. Eventually, the compromise reached was as follows:

  • King's College would operate by a Royal Charter.
  • Religious services at King's College would be non-denominational and ecumenical, and would not act as a seminary.
  • The President must always be a member of the Church of England.
  • The College's initial land grants would be provided by Trinity Church.
  • Students would not have to pass a religious test in order to be admitted. Indeed, early records of King's College show a Jewish student, Isaac Abrahams (AB 1774), in attendance.

Classes began in June, when the first class of 8 was admitted to instruction by College's first President (and only Professor), Samuel Johnson. On October 31, 1754, Governor James De Lancey signed the Royal Charter [2] in the name of King George II, providing for the establishment of a college "for the instruction and education of youth in the learned languages, and liberal arts and sciences".

Revolutionary Period

During the intervening years, the College grew richer and richer. By the time of the revolution, it was easily the richest institution of higher education in the thirteen colonies, funded and financed by the largess of its royal patrons. There was even talk, in 1771, of re-establishing King's College as the "University of North America" in the same manner of Oxford and Cambridge, and to require other colonial colleges (by that point, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, Dartmouth, Brown, and Penn) to delegate their degree-granting authority to the new University. College officers visited Parliament with this petition in 1774, but it is unknown what, if anything, came of it.

By the 1770s, King's College was a bastion of Loyalist orthodoxy. Loyalists outnumbered pro-independence voices four to one, with three celebrated and notable exceptions, namely Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Gouverneur Morris. Hamilton, specifically, was famous for publishing tracts under the nom de plume "A Friend of America" in his college years, and for giving rousing speeches at the "Liberty Green", now Bowling Green Park.

In May 1775, tensions boiled over, and an angry mob stormed toward King's College with the intent of tarring and feathering King's College's stalwart, Loyalist, Oxford-education President Myles Cooper. Hamilton stopped the mob at the gates of the college, asking them to reconsider their rash action. This delay allowed Cooper to slip out the back door of the College and wander to the Hudson River. He spent the night sulking along the docks, and boarded the HMS Kingfisher early the next morning, which bore him back to England, never to return.

The College carried on, headless, for a while. Four men were designated as graduates in 1776, although Commencement exercises were cancelled "for want of our absent President". Following the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, during which Washington's army was almost completely crushed and the British occupied New York for the remainder of the war, there was some talk of restarting the College under British protection. A Governor of the College even offered his apartment on Wall Street as temporary quarters, as the British Army had appropriated College Hall. Nothing came of it, and King's College quietly dissolved.

A New Era

In 1783, shortly after the final British evacuation of New York, a group of prominent citizens, Alexander Hamilton among them, began serious discussions on the restarting of King's College. It was remodeled and re-christened "Columbia College", in the spirit of the new Republic, and deemed "mother of all colleges" in New York State. The charter was passed by an act of the New York Legislature [3] and the College prepared to take on new responsibilities.

Almost immediately, things went awry. New York was, at the time, not in any great want for more colleges, as the charter of "Columbia College of the State of New York" ascribed as its immediate duty. Moreover, Regents who lived in the upstate could rarely be persuaded to make the journey to the city for meetings, making quorums difficult and serious action impossible. However, when the University of the State of New York (not to be confused with the State University of New York) was established in the 19th century with the express purpose of chartering new institutions of higher education, the title of Regents was kept, and the founding date of 1784 was retained as well.[4]

The charter was further revised in 1787[5] to return Columbia College to private status, unequivocally discarded any religious qualifiers, and renamed the school to "Columbia College in the City of New York". With one last revision in 1810,[6] this is still the document that Columbia University operates under today.

With the affairs set in order, the time came to choose a President. For their first post-revolutionary President, the Trustees elected William Samuel Johnson, son of the late Samuel Johnson, the first President of King's College. Johnson Hall, now Wien Hall, was later named after these two men.

Fun Miscellaneous Stuff

Admission Requirements in 1763

Each person, to be admitted, shall be able to give a rational account of the Latin and Greek Grammar, to render Sallust, Caesar’s Commentaries, or some part of Cicero’s Works, into English, the Gospels, at Least, from the Greek into Latin, and to translate correctly both English into Latin, and Latin into English. He shall be examined by the President, and, if admitted, shall subscribe to the Statutes of the College (having first carefully copied them) thereto Promising all due Obedience, which Subscription shall be contersigned by the President. [7]

Names between 1858-1896

With exception of a brief periods of hosting a medical school, Columbia College consisted of one undergraduate degree granting school from its reopening in 1784 until 1858, when Columbia Law School was founded. Even as Columbia also opened the School of Mines, re-affiliated with its renegade medical school, entered the fields of graduate education and architecture, the whole thing was still called just "Columbia College" despite clearly being a university. This state of affairs continued until 1896 when the Trustees voted to officially change the name from Columbia College in the City of New York to the more appropriate Columbia University in the City of New York.

As a result, between the 1860s and 1896, what we know today as Columbia College went by a number of other names including the "School of Letters and Science"[8][9] and "School of Arts."[10]


If you want to know more about any other part of CU history, make a note here with your request, and I will do my best to accomodate - TT.

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