Collegiate Republic: Cultivating an Ideal Society in Early America by Margaret Sumner (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Collegiate Republic: Cultivating an Ideal Society in Early America. By Margaret Sumner. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 260. $45.00 cloth; $45.00 ebook.)

In the deeply researched and engagingly written Collegiate Republic, Margaret Sumner excavates the history of early republic college families: the presidents, trustees, and faculty, along with their wives, children, and servants, who peopled the colleges founded in the wake of the Revolution. Sumner argues that college families were crucial to the work of colleges, envisioning themselves as laboratories for the production of the virtuous citizens required by the new nation.

The book’s research is primarily grounded in the archives of six schools—Bowdoin College, Dickinson College, Franklin College (later the University of Georgia), Union College, Washington College (later Washington and Lee), and Williams College—although Sumner ranges widely in her use of published materials and some archival material from other colleges (including Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky).

Sumner frames the book around five themes. Chapter one shows how presidents, trustees, and their families raised funds for their newly opened colleges, focusing on how they attempted to convince Americans of the benefits of college: the cultivation of virtue necessary for the continuation of the republic. At a moment when virtue itself was a contested term, college boosters needed to establish their importance in frontier locations as the perfect sites for the training of future leaders.

Chapter two, which is especially strong, documents the role of women in establishing ideal societies in miniature. Far from being ancillary to the task at hand, faculty wives and daughters were instruments for the refinement of the intellect and sociability of college students. Building on this ideal world, chapter three demonstrates how colleges put these plans into action in the construction of actual buildings, as well as through the breakdown of divisions between public and private, male and female spheres, all with the intent of creating new definitions of virtue that deemphasized competition [End Page 744] and aggression, in favor of a classical conception of virtue that was restrained, selfless, and self-controlled.

Picking up on these themes, chapter four is about labor on college campuses, focusing on how men understood their intellectual work vis-à-vis definitions of manly work bound up in manual labor, and how college women were afforded the opportunity of intellectual labor. While almost always playing a secondary role to that of their husbands and fathers, some college wives and daughters made a real name for themselves (and their colleges) in these nurturing environments. By contrast, as chapter five demonstrates, college families always had a vexed relationship with their servants and slaves, by turns extolling the opportunities available to their ethnic and racial inferiors at colleges (which included the occasional student of color) but only so long as they remained within their circumscribed positions.

The chapters, while organized around these themes, are also case studies of particular colleges or figures within them, and there are occasionally tensions reconciling this format with the overall theme of the chapter when Sumner’s evidence takes her in directions that seem unrelated to the chapter’s argument. But this may partially be a result of the fascinating evidence she has uncovered. Some readers may also hunger for more discussion of the significance of these college families. Although Sumner emphasizes, in the epilogue, their importance to the long-term success of colleges, one wonders about the ways that the conversations internal to the campuses did or did not influence conceptions of virtue or gender roles beyond colleges themselves. That said, Sumner has done historians of education and the early republic a great service in her uncovering of a heretofore little-studied facet of the new nation’s first colleges, illuminating the ways that their men and women, white and black, together forged a collegiate model for citizenship and social harmony. [End Page 745]

Nicholas L. Syrett

NICHOLAS L. SYRETT is an associate professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities (2009) and is finishing a book on the history of minors and marriage in the United States...


pdf