Chapter 1: A University Dream That Failed

As the nineteenth century advanced toward its mid-point, the population of Rochester, chartered as a city in 1834, approached 37,000, larger than the Chicago of that time. For the most part, the influential, comfortably fixed elements, which set the tone of the buoyant, frontier community, had moved in from eastern New York or western New England, bringing with them the traditions, the broad principles and tastes of New England; a scattering of the residents had drifted up from the South, Maryland notably, and a small colony of Negroes already lived in the city. Reinforcing the older American stocks were comparative newcomers hailing from the Emerald Isle, Britain, and German Europe; about three inhabitants out of ten were born overseas.

Sometimes likened to Boston, the Rochester of that day was described as a sedate and sober community, made up of earnest, civic-minded, aspiring, patriotic citizens, whose faith in the national destiny might well have inspired the bombastic toast, "I give you the United States bounded on the north by the Aurora Borealis, on the south by the procession of the equinoxes, on the east by primeval chaos, and on the west by the Day of Judgment." 1

Blessed with an abundance of water power and by the productions of a highly fertile hinterland, -- "the bread basket of America"-- the city on the Genesee had expanded rapidly in direct response to the building of the Erie Canal and less sharply with the advent of railways. Started in 1837, a Genesee Valley Canal promised further to enhance the prosperity of "the young lion of the West," as exuberant journalists were wont to tag Rochester. Steamboats carried on a limited commerce by way of Lake Ontario with Canada and with developing areas in the central part of the United States.

In one of the earliest reports about the community -- if not indeed the very first -- to appear in a nationally circulated publication, the Reverend Frederick W. Holland, minister of the Unitarian Church from 1843 to 1847 and called "a geyser of enthusiasm" by admiring townsmen, asserted that "this growing city affords no inferior specimen of the success of Yankee enterprise and the rapidity of Yankee improvement." This "emporium of the flour business," he declared, "had blossomed as one of the handsomest flowers in the land." 2

Quite properly, Holland emphasized the importance of the Genesee River for Rochester industry, in spite of "very considerable fluctuations in the volume of water." Over a run of three miles the river dropped about two hundred and sixty five feet, and banks below the high falls permitted the water to be used for power several times over. Headed by flour mills, the manufacturing enterprises possessed an impressive and pleasing diversity: iron foundries, cotton mills and tanneries, factories to process tobacco, beer, and paper, as well as to turn out building materials and agricultural implements. Using lumber supplied by sawmills beside the Genesee, boatyards in the city exhibited "the utmost activity during summer and winter" making vessels largely for canal transportation. Rochester boasted, Holland reported, three daily and five weekly newspapers together with two periodicals; four banks, three of the commercial type, handled financial transactions. Peering into the future, he envisaged accelerated growth for the community upon the completion of the Genesee Valley Canal and of railway lines then in the blueprint stage.

A few handsome residences testified to the well-being of affluent, established families, while some six thousand houses and cottages provided homes for small merchants, mechanics, day laborers, and the like. Within the boundaries of the city, farms were still under cultivation, many dwellings had gardens attached in which vegetables and even wheat were raised, and cattle cavorting about the streets were not an unfamiliar sight. Until the introduction of gas lighting in 1848, lamps and candles illuminated homes, which were made livable during the rigorous winters in "the snow belt" by fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. (Anthracite coal for heating first came into use at the mid-century). Backhouses furnished toilet facilities.

Churches, nourished by recurrent waves of evangelical revivalism, were more plentiful and much more vital in the intellectual life of the Flour City than educational institutions. Counting the Congregation of Advent Believers, no fewer than twenty-eight houses of Christian worship were in existence, and in 1848 a Jewish synagogue was added to the spiritual resources of the community. Though Roman Catholicism claimed the largest single constituency, the Presbyterians, with eight churches, formed the most numerous Protestant body and probably the wealthiest, and Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians followed in that order. For the more committed Protestants, reading of the Scriptures or a religious tract or book in the family circle on Saturday evening supplemented regular attendance at public worship on the Sabbath and at weekly prayer services.

Matching the record in other American cities, the story of schooling in Rochester was a narrative of ups and downs with partisans of free elementary and secondary schools eventually winning through. 3 After 1841, primary schools offered instruction ranging up to eight months of the year, though attendance was not obligatory, and they were paralleled by a few church-connected schools. Every child was entitled to basic education gratuitously, the school system being financed by public funds; colored children attended a separate school. Rochester was among the earliest cities in the country to appoint a superintendent of schools. Special evening schools furnished the rudiments of learning to unlettered apprentices and to illiterate immigrants, recently arrived.

It was not until 1857, however, that the first authentic secondary school, maintained by general taxation, made its appearance. Previously, though, private academies catered to boys and girls in the immediate neighborhood and a few household tutors prepared boys for a college experience. Of the academies, the best one came to be known as the Rochester Collegiate Institute, which entered upon a new era in 1836 with the appointment of the Reverend Doctor Chester Dewey as principal. An alumnus of Williams College, and sometime a member of its faculty, a scientist of national repute, and a Congregational preacher in constant demand in various pulpits, Dewey had experimented in his native Massachusetts with a secondary school patterned on the German gymnasium. As no other man in Rochester he was concerned to promote the cause of learning at all levels as the best way to enhance the quality of American life, to open doors of opportunity for the fullest flowering of natural talents and personality, and to equalize conditions of existence in a period of national history which someone has called the epoch of "the rise of the common man." 4

In the area of adult education, Dewey offered public discourses on scientific and moral themes, and the Rev. Mr. Holland frequently presented lectures on historical and literary subjects as well as religious; several less eminent minister-educators gave addresses on secular topics for the enlightenment primarily of their particular congregations. Nationally respected lecturers included Rochester in their itineraries, and the Athenaeum and Mechanics Literary Union -- merged in 1847 -- arranged series of lectures as well as maintaining a very good library and reading rooms. In an earlier day the Rochester Institute of Practical Education (1831) had been organized, primarily to train men for the ministry; students financed their education by manual labor, but the experiment soon came to grief.

Embraced in the intellectual sources of the community were several so-called learned societies, reading clubs, and a generous array of small libraries and bookshops, the most enterprising called the "Literary Depot and News Room," which dispensed a large selection of periodicals and newspapers along with inexpensive books. It is well to be reminded, in the language of a writer on the period, that Rochesterians "could not borrow books as easily as we, but they bought books and read them too. They even wrote them; more and better books than ours," this author felt sure. 5


Such in broad strokes was the texture of Rochester at the time that a movement emerged to establish an institution of higher learning in the city. At that time only about one resident in a thousand had earned a college degree and the number of young men currently in attendance at colleges did not exceed thirty. For the United States as a whole, some eighty institutions of higher learning, diverse in character to be sure, were organized in the 1830's and 1840's, or double as many as had existed in 1830. Upper New York State could point, however, to only two firmly rooted colleges, Union and Hamilton, and two other struggling institutions, Geneva [later Hobart] College and an establishment at Hamilton, New York, soon to be rededicated and chartered as Madison University (1846).

That the thriving region of west central New York and its principal city deserved an intellectual and cultural institution of first quality admitted of little debate. Precisely when the dream of founding a University in the Flour City originated and who the sponsors were remains veiled in insoluble mystery. All that is known is that little can be known; chance allusions in the surviving evidence suggest that a plan for higher education came under discussion in community leadership circles during the mid-1830's, less than a quarter century, that is to say, after a permanent settlement had been started along the Genesee. This chapter in the university idea in Rochester and its sequel have either been wholly missed or casually glided over by previous investigators. 6

Early in the 1830's the Baptist Association of Western New York, in which Rochester clergy and laymen were prominent personalities, an educational facility, in or close to the city. This decision flowered in the founding short-lived "Baptist College" (1834) and later a Collegiate Institute, in the nearby village of Brockport; the career of this non-denominational secondary school was chequered, yet it was the forerunner of the present (1968) State College University of New York at Brockport.7

The initial extant reference to an institution of advanced learning in Rochester itself appeared in the press toward the end of 1844. 8 An anonymous communication, signed simply "R", remarked that "the establishment of a university in this city has lately been made the subject of conversation." Evidently familiar with European universities, the writer proceeded to sketch the nature of a university, taking Scotch centers of learning to illustrate his theme; they began, he explained, not with buildings but with the endowment of professorships, stressed lectures rather than prescribed courses, and in them student self-discipline prevailed. "If money could be raised to endow one or two professorships, and to establish a small library," he wrote, "it would unquestionably be of great benefit to this city." If inexpensive buildings were erected, "an education could be as cheap a rate as at any of the universities" of the Old World. As matters stood, a talented youth from a low income family found it more difficult to get advanced training in "representative" America than in the most aristocratic European countries, he pointed out.

Once begun, commentary in the press on an institution of mature education rolled steadily onward. One correspondent, "L.M.," almost certainly Lindley Murray Moore, a Canadian-born teacher, insisted on the desirability of setting up a college instead of a university.9 To send youths even to Geneva College, a scant fifty miles distant, was an expensive undertaking, he argued. Readers were reminded that a tract of land in Rochester, bequeathed "some years since" for a college, had been forfeited, and that it had "long been a favored scheme with many in this establish a college well endowed and upon broad and liberal principles...." This plan was neither chimerical nor Utopian, for the Flour City commanded sufficient financial resources to build an institution whose academic reputation would quickly rival the prestige colleges in the east. "L.M." appealed for someone more qualified than himself to carry on publicity for his vision and to counteract "cold indifference or open hostility."

A group of Presbyterian clergymen and laymen from Rochester and elsewhere in western New York eagerly picked up the challenge, assembling late in January of 1845 in the session room of the First Presbyterian Church to devise ways and means of founding an institution of higher education. 10 At or about the same time, Dewey and Holland, already mentioned, openly enlisted in the higher education cause; the latter, a product of Harvard College and its Divinity School, had advised his fellow citizens that public lectures on religion repelled many young men, who urgently needed "something to raise them to better thoughts than the getting of gain and to occupy with noble desires the dangerous leisure of the spring time of life." Consequently, Holland had taken it upon himself to deliver public addresses of a biographical character, which at the minimum afforded an "impulse to personal improvement."

"My only regret is," he lamented, "that though I have spared no pains to obtain books, at this remove from any large libraries, I cannot verify all the results which I have reached [for biographical sketches]; nor do that justice to the splendid names on my list which both mind and heart would rejoice to render..." 11

When the energetic editor of the Daily American and member of the Rochester Board of Education, Alexander Mann, commented on the current college discussion, he did so in a pessimistic vein, though confessing deep interest in the subject. Cooperation on the part of all Protestant denominations, a goal not lightly to be gained, would be necessary to raise the money required to launch a college and to build an adequately stocked library. To stimulate exchange of opinions, Mann proposed that the several church groups in Rochester should be represented on the projected college governing body in proportion to their contributions to an educational fund. That general viewpoint was shared by a pseudonymous "Cato", though, remembering how a project for an institution of advanced learning in Buffalo had recently failed, he rather preferred a large library as the first step. 12

Presently, a meeting of "our citizens who take an interest in elevated education convened under Presbyterian auspices, with the Rev. Albert G. Hall of the Third Church, and the Rev. James B. Shaw of Brick Church filling the role of chairmen; it attracted an attendance of two dozen. This gathering got down to fundamentals on educational planning, ruling out the construction of dormitory facilities, but advocating a plain structure for teaching purposes that would cost no more than $30,000; an equal sum would be required to equip a library and to pay for "philosophical apparatus," and $40,000 more would have to be collected to endow professorial chairs. An endowment portfolio of that amount, it was supposed, would yield an income for each teacher of $600 a. year, which would be supplemented by student fees, as at German universities. This formula, in place of a full salary, it was believed, tended to make a professor work hard in order to lure learners to his recitation hall. 13

Warmly applauding the attitude of "the friends of a Collegiate Institution," Chester Dewey insisted that "the tone of society has become such that our children, to maintain a respectable standing among men, must be better educated than was considered necessary when their fathers were young." He pleaded, too, that consideration should be given to the provision of higher education for the feminine half of society. For success, regardless of vocation, it was imperative that the minds of young men should be expanded, and well stored with useful knowledge; thus equipped they would be valuable social assets and would help to ensure the stability and genius of the republican way of life, Dewey reasoned.

Costs of travel to an eastern seat of learning were steep, nearly equivalent to the expenses of training that could be made available right at home; and nearly "every farmer in Western New York in comfortable circumstances" would be able to finance the education of one or more of his sons at Rochester, alongside of youths enrolled from the city itself. Every interest in the community, according to Dewey, would profit from the presence of an institution of higher learning. Rhetorically, he asked, what would New Haven have been without Yale College" Thanks to that center of learning New Haven had become "not only large, respectable, and wealthy, but the most beautiful city in the Union." It was subtly hinted that the prospering metropolis on the Genesee could easily emulate the proud achievement of its far older sister on the Quinnipiac and the Mill.

Taking a pecuniary tack, Dewey begged "the landholder, the merchant, the estimate, if he can, the effect to be produced on their interests by the...residence of some...four hundred men, many of them sons of wealthy parents from a distance, whose entire expenses of clothing and support are dispensed here....There is not a business interest...that would not be beneficially effected. Nor is there a house or building lot in the city, the value of which would not be enhanced. If Rochesterians donated $50,000 for the projected institution, the outlay would he recovered from students in a single year.

Besides, a family in the city or the surrounding district would be able "to educate a son for four years in his classical course, and three years in the study of a profession [Dewey clearly had in mind a university, not simply a traditional college], at no more expense than is now incurred at our select city schools." Four years of study in an eastern college, by contrast, would entail a minimum cost of $1,000. The scientist-educator appealed earnestly to the citizens of Rochester and western New York "to act wisely and efficiently" on the proposal to create a great center of higher learning.14

Before long, the Presbyterian element in the city resumed its deliberations at a second meeting, the Rev. James B. Shaw dwelling upon the unique character of the university that was to be, in that it would furnish instruction in agricultural chemistry. The teaching of this subject was recommended by Presbyterian circles in Geneva and Geneseo, perhaps under the prodding of the Wadsworth family, owner of extensive landed properties in the latter community. It was understood that $150,000 would be needed, even without provision for dormitories, which were not regarded as essential anyway; part of the sum could be obtained, it was suggested, from the New York State treasury, which had already voted grants to other colleges. 15


Agreeable to the sense of this meeting, the Rochester representative in the Senate at Albany, Frederick F. Backus, a graduate of Yale, an esteemed physician, and one of the earliest settlers in the village on the Genesee, promptly presented an appropriate bill to his colleagues. It was entitled "An act to incorporate the University of Western New York," and after two readings it was referred first to the Senate committee on literature and subsequently to the Senate as a whole. 16

Whatever interested Rochesterians may have said in private conversation about an institution of higher learning, the idea languished so far as the press was concerned until the autumn of 1845. Then, a farmer in a letter to the press recommended the foundation of an agricultural college, which seems to have inspired the newspaper to review carefully the discussion a university in its entirety. Dismissing the proposal for a school of agriculture as inadequate, the paper strongly favored a full-bodied institution "for all the learned and liberal sciences ... and the laws of vegetable and animal organization." This great cause required, it was said, resolute backing by civic leaders, ministers of the gospel among them, who, together with the press, should give wide currency to the university scheme. The state treasury, the writer believed, could be relied on to appropriate a share of the $300,000 and more that would be necessary for buildings and endowment; the bulk of the remainder needed could not be obtained from a few wealthy patrons, but would have to come from Protestant donors in general.

Specifically, it was recommended that subscribers should he asked to pledge $100 each, payable within a year, on the understanding that a contribution of that amount would "entitle one student to his tuition in the university for the first four years." The president, it was proposed, should be chosen by the denomination whose members pledged the largest sum; professors should be selected from the several Protestant sects in proportion to the contribution each denomination made, and presumably the same formula would apply in choosing the original governing body of twenty or thirty trustees. 17

No congenital optimist, Editor Alexander Mann reported that the Episcopalians, who were helping to maintain Geneva College, would not cooperate in a Rochester enterprise, nor would the Baptists, whose philanthropic instincts were already committed to other ends. As for the Methodists, they were carrying a staggering burden of debt for a newly constructed edifice, so that only the Presbyterians of the larger Protestant bodies remained to finance a university. Next, the editor indulged in some historical and philosophical observations on the accomplishments (or lack of them) of higher learning in the United States; nearby Geneva College, though conducted by estimable professors and located in a community better suited for a literary institution than Rochester, had only a limited enrollment, he begged to point out. Most of the more than one hundred colleges in the Republic belied their name, "being only academies...having say one or two dozen students, a suitable proportion of professors, naked shelves for a library, and a so-called philosophy room instead of philosophical apparatus...their graduates could hardly enter as Freshmen at Yale or Cambridge." Because of their inferior quality and because "they are very frequently sectarian up to the hub," American letters would benefit, Mann thought, if these "paltry pretenses" were extinguished. To establish an institution of similar grade in Rochester would be "a public calamity" and in any case funds could not be raised for it. 18

Judging by the elevated tone and sweep of a communication to the press, signed "Respus," it may have come from the pen of Chester Dewey, fervent champion of educational progress. It sternly warned against creating a sectarian institution in Rochester; professors and officers, true enough, should be religiously oriented men in harmony with the temper of the age, but they should be recruited from various denominations, as was the custom at prospering Union College. Grounded upon "generous and liberal principles," the university-to-be, "Respus" pleaded, should make science and art accessible to "sons of all the people" and prepare men for all walks of life.

For instructional purposes, "Respus" thought there should be "a large and noble building" and "cabinets of minerals and all natural productions and curiosities;" residences for the president and some professors should be erected in the immediate vicinity, but no living quarters for students should be provided, for learners would fare better in the homes of Rochester families. To implement the project, agents should be set to work at once gathering money, which might fully justify the state Senate in enacting the bill before it to charter a University of Western New York; that done, the institution might be a going concern within a year. "There is no time to lose," ran the stirring peroration, "no reason for delay. The interests of Western New York make the demand. Patriotism and the love of our kind, as well as the interest of the world, make the demand." 19


Early in 1846, several counties and towns in the Upstate region petitioned the legislature in Albany to adopt the act for a university in Rochester. And, on May 8, as recommended by the committee which had the matter in hand, the Senate passed the law; it was approved by the Assembly, and signed by Governor Silas Wright. Thereby a corporation was authorized as the University of Rochester, whose object was "to promote education, to cultivate and advance literature, science, and the arts;" it might confer the same honors, degrees, and diplomas, as are "granted by any university, college, or seminary of learning in the United States." Though the institution would be subject to visitation by the Regents of the University of the State, actual management would be assumed by a corps of trustees; the men named included the Presbyterian divines, Hall and Shaw, the Rev. Samuel Luckey, a Methodist minister, and respected lawyers and business leaders. They were privileged to choose a president or chancellor, and no officer or professor should be appointed or removed, no real estate should be purchased or sold without the consent of a majority of the trustees. It was likewise prescribed in the law that "a school for instruction in literature and science," with at least two professors in addition to the chief executive officer, must be in operation within three years. Failing that the charter would expire; nothing was stipulated concerning the money that would be required. 20

If the press faithfully mirrored the mood of the sedate community on the Genesee, the adoption of the university bill provoked no immediate response, though the trustees that had been designated and other concerned citizens undoubtedly conferred on the next steps to be taken. The trustees named Charles M. Lee, a prominent attorney, as chairman of the Board, picked an executive committee, and revealed that they were "digesting a plan for procuring the requisite funds ... a cause which cannot fail to meet with unanimous approbation. 21

In the autumn of 1846 several trustees and Dewey issued statements expressing "a deep conviction of the eminent usefulness of a high literary institution to be established in our midst." They intended to collect enough funds to place the university, which should not be controlled by any religious sect, on firm foundations. The institution would be "wider in its scope, more profound in its instruction, more extensive in its revenues and resources than any now existing in the state," and it would cater not only to the Rochester area, but to populous western New York generally. Of the beneficent potentialities of a university there could be no question, for its presence would encourage an upgrading of schools, raise the tone of society and the tastes of the people in the neighborhood and confer "luster upon the name of our city." 22

Actually, on October 5, 1846, the executive committee of the trustees matured a coherent program for the enterprise and for an appeal to subscribers, though it was not disclosed for more than a month. When published, this eloquent document summed up afresh the urgency of having "a well endowed University for Rochester conducted on rational principles" and providing "the facilities for extended education."

Rochesterians were reminded that "within the memory of the present generation ... a wilderness has been changed to a fruitful land. Its inhabitants have been multiplied a hundredfold. Few, if any portions of our favored country are more distinguished for enterprise, wealth, intelligence, independence, happiness, moral and social interests ...An electric energy is diffused among the people, not less efficient and active than on Telegraphic lines...." Although western New York contained upwards of 700,000 inhabitants, only a single college - that at Geneva - existed; in New England by contrast the ratio was one college for every 160,000 people. Since about two hundred young men from western New York matriculated every four years at eastern colleges, at an expense in excess of $150,000, the desirability of having a university in Rochester was apparent, and the omens indicated that it would prosper.

As for the scope of the contemplated institution, "instruction will be imparted in some of the more practical sciences"presenting a feature which will commend the enterprise to the favorable regard and support of agriculturalists and mechanics. There will also be Law and Medical Departments." The Rochester center of learning would "differ from the older institutions of the land," inasmuch as it would "aim at the intellectual and moral advancement of men in all the practical relations and business of life, not only as clergymen, lawyers, and physicians, but as farmers, mechanics, and teachers." And it would "secure to all classes of the community an easy and cheap access to those privileges with the least possible delay..."

The Trustees, the statement went on, were determined to protect the new adventure from all sectarian influences and since they represented various religious and political associations, the danger of improper influence in the conduct of the institution was excluded. "...The enlightened spirit of the age," it was affirmed, "demands a liberal and united effort of all friends of religion and science" in the management of the university.

To launch the enterprise, at least $120,000 would have to be raised, of which not more than $20,000 would be spent for buildings. Subscriptions to the university fund might be paid in three installments spread over fifteen months and donors of $100 (or their heirs) might name a student for free tuition; for each additional $100 another tuition exempt learner might be chosen. For a gift of $1,000 (and each additional $1,000) a benefactor (and his heirs) would be entitled to select a candidate to receive instruction free of charge "in perpetuity" - a device for securing money that was commonly employed by American colleges at the time. Chester Dewey was engaged to solicit subscriptions. 23

Straightway, Dewey summoned his fellow-citizens to contribute to the cause of the University of Western New York whose "influence on all branches of industry in the city and country will be great and beneficial. It will give additional value to capital, as well as to the manufacturing and agricultural interests, over a wide extent of the State." Everyone would benefit because higher education would be brought within the means of a great portion of the people.

Inside the Rochester orbit, Dewey supposed, at least a thousand citizens were able to contribute $100 or more. "Will the people then examine the subject," he inquired, "confer upon it, and be ready for action" In this day of manly enterprise, the mighty lever which moves every good and patriotic work is action - action - action." That appeal Dewey reinforced with letters to the press pointing out that many thousands of Rochester families could afford $1,000 to educate a son and that local money had been generously contributed to the support of higher education or other laudable cultural undertakings elsewhere in the Republic. The time had come to apply the principle that philanthropy began at home in order to found "an adequate university for our city and Western New York." 24

Newspapers energetically exhorted citizens to respond to the calls by Dewey and open support came from many individuals, wage workers and farmers among them. However, opponents of the university project, with the Rev. Pharcellus Church, pastor of the large First Baptist Church of Rochester, in the van sounded cacophonous notes. Born and raised in Upper New York, Institution Church had been trained for the ministry at the Literary Institution and Theological Seminary in Hamilton, New York (the forerunner of Madison -- later Colgate -- University). He began a thirteen year pastorate in Rochester in 1835 and under his guidance the First Baptist flourished greatly; he earned general respect for authorship and as a delegate (1846) to a conference in London, England, to organize an ecumenical Evangelical Alliance or Christian Union. Few Rochesterians commanded more influence than Church, most importantly, of course, in the Baptist communion. Even before coming to the Flour City, he had urged the establishment of an institution for higher learning there, but the specific project of 1846, as it had evolved, repelled him. 25

Preceding a press campaign by Church, a student at Madison University, perhaps a member of Church's congregation, publicly protested that the university being planned for Rochester would be an instrument of Presbyterianism, since that sect had promoted the scheme from the beginning and five of the seven men on the trustee executive committee belonged to that faith. Essentially the same line of reasoning was set forth by Church in a series of newspaper articles, though he fully agreed that the city, its high-grade population, the money spent to educate local youths elsewhere, and the inability of talented young men of limited resources to obtain higher learning rendered the foundation of a university in Rochester matter of capital importance. Not only would well educated men impart polish to their home community, Church reasoned, but they would "furnish a phalanx to supply the destitution of the mighty West."

Disclaiming any intention to interfere with "the great enterprise" Professor Dewey had in hand, Church, nonetheless, felt driven by "imperious necessity" to set out his convictions on the way to achieve the best educational results. If we fail to rally around our university, "the friends of a liberal education in Western New York without distinction of sect or party," he wrote, "shall fail of getting one to enjoy anything better than a dying life."

What the Baptist leader wanted was united action by all Rochester elements for one great university and the diffusion of "the controlling power among the various sects and parties of which the community is composed...." Unless an arrangement of that sort were made, he foresaw an array of competing colleges arising in western New York, each under the preponderant influence and authority of a particular denomination, such as had emerged in Massachusetts, for example, or Connecticut. When in 1845, his backing for a university in Rochester had been solicited, Church had made it absolutely clear that he would lend support only if the charter spelled out the principle "that no one denomination should have a plurality in the board of trustees." This condition had in fact not been satisfied, and in consequence he would have nothing personally to do with the projected undertaking, though he wished it well. It may be assumed that his parishioners generally shared their pastor's attitude. 26

As if to blunt the suspicions and criticism of Church, the Mechanics Association of Rochester, which had appointed a committee to further the university interest, published a set of interesting resolutions, decrying "all monopolies, especially monopolies of learning," and insisting that the means of acquiring knowledge should be placed within the reach of all who desire it. It was said that western New York needed "an institution similar, in its general character to Harvard and Yale," and this society of workmen accepted without dissent assurances that the interests of no particular Christian sect would be favored. An editorial writer rejoiced over the explicit backing of the mechanics, remarking that the rich sent their sons away to be trained, and that thousands of workingmen "who could not afford that, could finance a collegiate education at home. We can scarcely see how a mechanic, who has $100 to spare, and children to educate, can refrain from investing it" in the proposed university and thus guaranteeing its success.

In much the same vein, the Quaker Lindley M. Moore, apparently an early advocate of the idea of higher education in Rochester, dismissed as groundless the alarm of Church over the sectarian serpent. Besides the collegiate department, the university, he pointed out, would furnish training in medicine, law, and area theology, and only in the last area could sectarianism manifest itself. Even that danger would be nullified, Moore reasoned, if each Protestant denomination endowed a theological professorship to furnish instruction in keeping with its own convictions. "It is greatly to be desired that no unnecessary fears, or illiberal views frustrate or jeopardize the success of the great and noble enterprise," he concluded.

In spite of persuasive arguments to the contrary, the charge that the proposed university would be sectarian in character, an agency to foster the interests of the Presbyterian denomination, proved extremely damaging to the whole enterprise. Nevertheless, the value of an institution of higher learning was appreciated by a broad section of the Rochester population. "Farmers and mechanics this is your cause," cried a boat-builder, "I am in very moderate circumstances, but have two promising boys. I mean to send them to the university if it is started, and shall subscribe $200. Let sectarians dispute about it.... Pass them by..." 27

Addressing himself to "the professional and mercantile men," "Publicus" warmly supported the university cause as immeasurably valuable for the community and its sons. "Let one voice, one mind, inspire the throng," he pleaded. According to "Beta," parental psychology would profit notably by a local university; "I have seen the father's eye glisten with the tear," he wrote, "and heard his voice falter, as he said 'farewell' to the darling boy now to be left at [a] college so far from home." 28

Seemingly oblivious of the sectarian reproach, and with the watchword "arise and build," Dewey poured out calls for funds, stressing that a university adapted to "the varied pursuits and enterprises of western New York" and to new needs that would appear in the future would benefit all social classes. He emphasized that the enthusiasm with which Rochester responded to the cause would have a powerful effect upon potential donors at other places in the state. Without making any genuine sacrifices at least 500 families could easily contribute $100 apiece, and others could do much better than that. 29


On January 8, 1847, a mass rally of friends of the university idea convened in the Rochester Court House. The call for the meeting was issued over the signatures of a cross-section of the community leadership, so far as can be determined, representing the larger church bodies and the major political parties. A Presbyterian layman, Thomas Kempshall, a well-to-do miller, former mayor of the city nd sometime Congressman, presided. Dewey reviewed the evolution of the university idea in Rochester and expressed regret that citizens were "so overwhelmed in other pursuits that they had not given it their earnest personal attention." Nevertheless, he felt confident that the undertaking would turn out successfully and announced a pledge of $1,000 to the fund, provided twenty-four others would match that amount; many Rochesterians could afford $200 to $300, Dewey observed.

Meantime, a committee that had been assigned the task of drafting a report and resolutions on the university scheme finished its deliberations. In the document, which was accepted unanimously at the meeting, it was stated that western New York urgently needed "an institution of learning...equal in its collegiate course to any in the United States, and superior in a course of instruction in the sciences requisite for the advancement of great industrial interests. Without agricultural science taught so as to become practical, and to induce improvements in husbandry, the farmers of Western New York cannot compete successfully with the fertile West." Equally, it was asserted, a many-branched university would help area manufacturers to carry on effectively in rivalry with eastern centers of production. Since the inhabitants of western New York were for the most part of New England stock, it was believed they would imitate "their Fatherland" in providing facilities of higher education for business, the professions, and public service. Rochesterians possessed the resources "to endow a noble university" in the amount of $ 300,000; if, however, they proved indifferent, "the project... must be abandoned."

For the drafting committee, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Luckey, the Methodist clergyman, presented to the meeting a set of nine resolutions endorsing the plan to establish a university, approving the content of the charter of 1846, and pledging "a united and energetic effort" to obtain the money needed; trustees were requested to manage the institution so as to avoid any taint of sectarianism. Each item on the committee agenda was considered separately, almost all the commentators expatiating on the cultural and economic gains that a university would bestow upon the Flour City. Yet the Rev. Frederick W. Holland, thinking along the same general line as his colleague Church, vehemently declaimed against what he regarded as the denominational character of the proposed institution, inasmuch as Presbyterians would dominate the trustee body; with hardly less vigor, other speakers flatly denied the validity of this interpretation. Since the controversy over the sectarian question could not be resolved, it was agreed to postpone further discussion to later meetings. 30

A spate of letters an the university plan poured into newspaper offices, more indeed than editors could find space to print. Of those published, all written by obscure men, the sentiments expressed were overwhelmingly favorable, one recommending anew that an appropriation be sought from the state treasury, which had given modest subsidies to existing institutions of higher learning. A second correspondent warned that the community could be united for a successful financial campaign only if the university charter were revised so as to prevent the predominance of any one Christian communion on the trustee board.

At two more public meetings the sectarian issue was hotly debated, but in the end the resolutions brought forward on January 8 were all approved, and Dewey was appointed chairman of a committee of twenty-five, recruited from several denominations, to solicit contributions. Several communications to the press complained that while there was a superfluity of talk about raising a university fund, positive action was woefully lacking. 31

Despite prodding by Dewey the subscription committee was singularly laggard. Announcing on February 24, 1847, that other obligations compelled him to quit solicitation for funds, "for a time at least," the campaign chairman reported only $15,000 in hand or pledged; he had no doubt, however, that the minimum of $50,000 needed could be obtained in a fortnight, if bent to the task. If a deficit still existed, a fund-raising agent could be appointed to finish the job. 32

For several months after the issuance of this statement, the university idea virtually vanished from the public view; only chance references, of no particular significance, appeared in the press, and the papers of Dewey that are available shed no light on the trend of events.

Uncertain whether the financial campaign was dead or only sleeping, an editor surmised that the solicitation had in reality run into sand. At a public meeting on November 8, 1847, Dewey revealed that $30,450 had been pledged and at least $10,000 more was in sight. This report was in fact the final document in the effort to found a university of western New York - the conclusion of the first chapter to create an institution of higher learning in Rochester. Since the conditions specified by the state legislature had fallen short of fulfillment, the charter of 1846 lapsed. 33


In the absence of adequate documentation, particularly the records of the Dewey subscription committee, a large admixture of speculation enters into any explanation of why the original dream of a university in Rochester collapsed. In spite of the considerable enthusiasm that was generated, despite candid and repeated avowals by community leaders of the desirability - even the necessity - of a full-fledged university, the essential financial resources were not forthcoming. Certain influential citizens were alienated by what they believed would surely be a sectarian institution; if the hostility of Holland softened, Church was never really reconciled to the program. Deep down he seems clearly to have wanted an institution of mature education in Rochester only if it was under Baptist management, and he persuaded some potential donors to adopt that viewpoint.

This plausible hypothesis is supported by the exultant tone that suffuses the private letters of Church when plans for a Baptist sponsored college in Rochester were maturing. "The Presbyterians are amazed at the success of our subscriptions," he confided to a friend. "Some have said to me, 'What do all these men get for their money?" and when they are told, 'nothing, nothing, which the public at large does not share with them,' they look astonished. Their own subscription last winter" amounted to only $12 to $14,000. And again, "Staunch Presbyterians dislike the idea of Baptists in control of the university in Rochester.... For four years past they have been rallying their forces"to take possession of Rochester as the seat for a University for Western New York.... Yet all this availed them nothing. One honest Baptist [i.e., Church] telling the story as it was, they say, defeated their enterprise...." 34

As for other denominational groups in the Genesee River area, a good deal of Presbyterian philanthropy for education was being directed to Hamilton College and to institutions in Ohio, Methodists were thinking of a church college of their own in the vicinity of Rochester, and Episcopalian money was passing to Geneva [later Hobart] College.

Footnotes for Chapter 1

  1. The authoritative work on this phase of the history of Rochester is Rochester: The Water Power City, 1812-1854 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1945) by Blake McKelvey.
  2. F. W. Holland, ''Rochester: Its Mills, Factories, Etc.," Hunt's Merchant Magazine, XVII (1847), 46-52.
  3. McKelvey, op. cit., pp. 119-124, 183-184, 263-273. See, also, Margaret M. Mattern, ''Early Rochester Textbooks, 1821-1850," University of Rochester Library Bulletin (hereafter cited as URLB), XXII (1966), 4-16.
  4. Consult ''Chester Dewey," Dictionary of American Biography (hereafter cited as DAB), V (New York, 1930), 267-268, with a selective bibliography.
  5. John R. Slater, Rochester at Seventy-Five (Rochester, 1925), p. 5.
  6. See, for instance, Jesse L. Rosenberger, Rochester, The Making of a University (Cited as Rochester ) (Rochester, 1927), p. 2. Professor Rolf E. P. King, 1926, of Murray State University, Murray, Kentucky, who accumulated considerable information on the earliest schemes for higher education in Rochester generously transmitted the harvest of his researches to the present writer. Materials in the Rush Rhees Papers, tantalizing because incomplete, suggest that the third U. of R. President started to reconstruct the beginnings of the university idea in the Genesee town. Rush Rhees to W. H. Samson, May 17, 1912. Rhees Papers, Rhees Library Archives. In the first directory of Rochester, dated 1827, we read, "There is no institution of learning, enjoying a public and organized patronage. There is no edifice built for science--no retreat for the muses--no academick [sic] grove yet planted..." After vigorously pleading the cause of education in general, the writer [almost certainly, Elisha Ely, publisher of the Directory ], continued, "If Greek and Roman literature be still indispensable to an enlarged mind and cultivated taste, let a provision for its thorough acquirement not be overlooked. If mathematical learning has become the handmaiden of every useful art, as well as the very marshal of our reasoning powers, let its cultivation not be forgotten." The writer advocated "popular lectures on the arts and sciences--by philosophical experiments--by a cabinet--by a botanik [sic] garden..." In ringing language he described the education of youth as indispensable and summoned Rochesterians to provide training in order "to sustain the interest, reputation, and well being of our community." Directory of the Village of Rochester, 1827, p. 137.
  7. M. Alene Butler, "A History of the Brockport Collegiate Institute," unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Rochester, 1939; Charlotte E. Martin, The Story of Brockport (no place or date, but about 1929). Professor W. Wayne Dedman, College Historian, has in preparation a full-bodied history of the Brockport institution.
  8. Rochester Daily Democrat (hereafter cited as R DD), December 28, 1944.
  9. R DD, January 18, 1845. If the writer was in fact Moore, he was an active Quaker reformer and the father of the distinguished Dr. Edward Mott Moore, a leading figure in Rochester civic affairs and in the eventual University.
  10. R DD, January 29, 1845.
  11. R DD, December 19, 1844.
  12. Rochester Daily American (hereafter cited as R DA), February 5, March 3, 1845.
  13. RDA March 1845.
  14. R DA, March 14, 1845.
  15. R DA, March 14, 22, 1845.
  16. Journal of the Senate of the State of New York, 68th Session (1845), pp. 342, 346.
  17. R DD, October 24, November 10, 1845.
  18. R DA, November 19, 1845.
  19. R DD, November 14, 1845.
  20. Journal of the Senate of the State of New York, 69th Session (1846), pp. 194, 209, 445, 457, 459, 629, 634; Laws of the State of New York, 69th Session (1846) pp. 160-161; R DA, May 13, 1846. At the same session, the legislature incorporated an institution of higher learning at Hamilton, New York as Madison University, and also a university in Buffalo. Documents of the Senate of the State of New York (1847), no. 101, 5. 6.
  21. Rochester Republican, July 14, 1846.
  22. R DA, September 28, 1846; R DD, October 6, 1846.
  23. Rochester Republican, November 24, 1846; R DA, November 24, 1846.
  24. R DD, November 28, December 4, 1846; R DA, November 28, December 4, 1846.
  25. "Pharcellus M. Church," DAB, IV (New York, 1930), 104; William Cathcart, ed., The Baptist Encyclopedia (2 vols., Philadelphia, 1881), I, 224-225; Examiner, June 17, 1886.
  26. R DA, December 5, 1846; R DD, December 7, 8, 11, 1846.
  27. Rochester Republican, December 8, 1846; R DD, December 14, 15, 1846; R DA, December 28, 1846.
  28. R DD, December 29, 1846; Rochester Republican, December 29, 1846
  29. R DD, December 17, 31, 1846.
  30. R DD, January 11, 1847.
  31. R DD, January 12, 18, 19, 22, 24, 25, 26, 27 (3 items), February 8, 15, 1847; Rochester Republican, January 19, 1847
  32. R DD, February 24, 1847.
  33. R DA, September 13, October 27, November 1, 2, 3, 30, 1847; R DD, October 27, November 1, 9,10, 1847; Rosenberger, Rochester, chaps. I, II. Presbyterian interests were soon considering a Westminster College, probably with some instruction in theology, at Geneseo in the Rochester area. New York Baptist Recorder, November 13, 1851.
  34. Pharcellus Church to Asahel C. Kendrick, November 4, December 12, 1847. Kendrick Papers, Rhees Library Archives. Many years later the Rev. Mr. Holland recalled his relationship to the whole university enterprise in this fashion: "Presbyterianism was then so predominant as to design fastening its yoke on the people by erecting an entirely liberal (!) college with twenty-four Trustees, of whom twenty-two were Presbyterian ministers [sic] whose numbers were to be recruited through all time by elections within this close Board of Corporation. A public meeting being held in the City Hall to endorse this monstrous fraud, Mr. Holland alone ventured to show the cat in the meal, perhaps too vehemently, as he had a long account to settle. But, with the earnest repudiation of a sectarian university by Dr. Pharcellus Church in the newspapers, this insidious scheme was abandoned--and liberal Christianity breathed more freely in Western N.Y. When the Baptists started on a broader basis, Mr. H. went round at Dr. Church's suggestion and got some of the first subscriptions -- for which endorsement he never received, nor expected any thanks: the first officers of the new institution were afraid to make any--the later ones never knew that any needed to be made. It only shows that Baptists have not the courage to act up to their convictions: the braver ones are silenced by the Conservative majority." Frederick W. Holland, "Reminiscences of Rochester," written about 1873. Copy in Rhees Library Archives.
Chapter 1: A University Dream That Failed