Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Grinnell College in the Nineteenth Century

Joseph Frazier Wall. Grinnell College in the Nineteenth Century: From Salvation to Service. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1997.

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Manifest Destiny required a group of eleven easy going Calvinists to set out for the frontier of the Iowa Territory to spread a Congregationalist form of Christianity and New England culture. The result of their effort was the opening of Iowa College in 1850. But their openly abolitionist and temperance positions were decidedly unpopular with many in their new home of Davenport; the trustees of Iowa College were soon looking for a new location.

In a parallel development Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, whose goal was to found a Congregationalist community in Iowa, had acted on advance inside information as to where future rail lines were to be constructed. As one of five founders of the town he imagined founding both a religious and an educational community. Starting in 1855 when purchasing land in Grinnell twenty dollars over the asking price went directly to a fund for the founding of a college. J.B. Grinnell “[who] had always evinced interest in both pietism and profits” (p.92) envisioned a full-blown university. Competing with seven other towns the trustees of Iowa College chose Grinnell in 1858. J.B. Grinnell, who designated himself President of the “University” as well as Professor of History, Rhetoric, and Elocution (without the benefit of any students, faculty, or campus buildings) had persuaded a group of authentic scholars to join him in efforts at institution building. In September 1858 the merger between Iowa College and Grinnell University was official. Classes began when Iowa College opened in Grinnell in October of 1861.

While this magisterial book delineates the development of Grinnell College from its founding until the end of the nineteenth century it really does much more. It is possible over a century later to trace backward in time, from the normative ideal of “truth, understanding, and shared endeavor,” to those anti-slavery, pro-temperance, pro-suffrage forbearers who set the trajectory on which Grinnell College now finds itself. Additionally, there are a number of narratives that are both compelling and stand on their own.

John Brown, whom Abraham Lincoln in an Obamaesque moment referred to as a “misguided fanatic,” visited Grinnell in February of 1859. Fresh from a raid in Missouri where he had killed a slave owner while liberating his slaves, Brown was warmly welcomed by J.B. Grinnell and allowed to use his large wool-storage barn to house his company of followers. The people of the town were both eager and enthusiastic in their welcoming of Brown who spoke at the Congregationalist church on Sunday and visited the local primary school on Monday before leaving town. This was to earn both the town and its eponymous founder a reputation for radicalism around the state. Legend has it that before he was executed, John Brown requested that one of the pikes used in the Raid on Harper's Ferry be sent to J.B. Grinnell who, as long as he lived, used it at the head of the academic Commencement procession.

Professor Leonard Parker was to Grinnell College in the nineteenth century what Paul was to the New Testament. In his dual role of the superintendent of Poweshiek County Schools and later as a professor at Iowa College (it did not become Grinnell College until early in the twentieth century) Parker was in many respects the soul of the institution. He and one of the town's founders Amos Bixby resisted a mob in 1860 that sought to prevent the enrollment of four male fugitive slaves in the town school. After first being denied a leave of absence from his teaching duties he was finally allowed to lead a company of Grinnell volunteers in 1864 for a one hundred day tour of duty. And, what goes down as one of the finest moments in Grinnell history, he published an extensive article in The Grinnell Herald arguing against the imperialistic annexation of the Philippine Islands.

One tradition that did not persist (thankfully for anyone holding a Jello-shot party insulting faculty members) was President Magoun's “Come Forward” program. Any student guilty of an infraction against the code of conduct was required to make a public confession of it during chapel. Maoist self-criticism was based on the same principle and understandably the student body was not sorry to see the practice discontinued.

Perhaps the incident covered in the book that is my personal favorite had to do with finding a replacement for the outgoing President George Magoun. A leading candidate for the position was J.B. Grinnell's son-in-law David Mears. Mears also had the financial backing of Massachusetts shoe merchant Edward Goodnow. The contour of the deal was that if Mears was to become the President of the college then Goodnow would donate $50,000 (about $1.2 million in 2010 dollars). The proposal was further contingent upon the renaming of the college after Goodnow. In a classic response, the trustees declined the offer because “the sum named does not in our view by any means warrant it” and because such an action would potentially make the college the source of ridicule. The trustees, pragmatic to the end, stated: “that should the circumstances ever occur in which some larger gift, say from $150,000 to $250,000 be conditioned on a change of name, that question would be favorably considered” (p.221). Mears, who was angry at the rejection, withdrew his name from consideration and George Gates became the second president serving from 1887 until 1900.

In speaking to a retired Dean of Students who attended Grinnell College in the 1950s I learned that Professor Wall taught a course attended by all freshmen on the history of the school. Is this feasible today? It is undoubtedly more complicated than merely finding someone to write the syllabus with many more matriculates now in attendance than in the middle of last century. However, one seemingly logical addendum to Professor Wall's work would be a work entitle something like The History of Grinnell College in the Twentieth Century: From the Brink of Insolvency to Incredibly Well Endowed.

Burling Library 2nd floor LD2055.G52 W35 1997


Anonymous said...

college founded in 1846, not 1850

T. Hatch said...

A closer reading of the review should alleviate any confusion. The review reads: "The result of their effort was the opening of Iowa College in 1850." While the Board of Trustees were formed in November of 1846, classes began with "the actual opening of Iowa College in Davenport with six students in October of 1850..."(p.xiii)

T. Hatch