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  • COLLEGIATE REPUBLIC: Cultivating an Ideal Society in Early America by Margaret Sumner
  • Mark Oromaner
COLLEGIATE REPUBLIC: Cultivating an Ideal Society in Early America. By Margaret Sumner. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 2014.

Margaret Sumner, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University at Marion, focuses her attention on a relatively neglected period in the American higher education system, the first generation of colleges and their associated communities founded after the American Revolution. Specifically, Collegiate Republic covers the period 1782 to 1860.

Sumner’s interest is in what we would call liberal arts colleges, e.g., Bowdoin (Maine), Lafayette (Pennsylvania), Oberlin (Ohio), Union (New York), Washington, later Washington and Lee University (Virginia), Williams (Massachusetts), and not in all colleges established during the period in question. Her schools were founded as “ideal environments dedicated to producing a new generation of republican leaders well trained in a classical, collective form of virtue that would bring about their individual success as well as benefit what college founders often termed the ‘common good’” (4). The Revolution was over and it was now necessary to develop higher education communities that would provide leaders grounded in the right organizing principles and standards for the emerging American society.

Older colleges and universities, primarily located in cities on the east coast, and newer institutions that lacked the setting (rural, frontier) for proper moral development were both unacceptable. For instance, when asked for an opinion about Jefferson’s recently established (1819) university at Charlottesville, VA, a friend of Washington College argued that the University of Virginia “has always been tinctured with the immoral, irreligious opinions of its founder. …” (103). Jefferson’s design of the university even lacked room for a chapel.

In five well written, informative, and lively chapters Sumner uses extensive secondary literature, letters, and diaries to provide personal and intimate pictures of individuals, families, college families, and college communities. In place of a focus on an in-depth study of one college, she uses examples from a network of families and colleges established along the frontier. Although we don’t know how representative these examples are, the chapters form a meaningful image of life within these colleges and within the network they formed. [End Page 154]

The first chapter, “Cultivating the College World,” explores Washington College president George Baxter’s travels to promote the importance of an education based on “virtue” and to engage in friend- and fund-raising for the new college. The second chapter, “Organizing the College World” focuses on the women and families of Bowdoin College. The importance of “college ladies” in both social and academic roles is stressed. In chapter three, “Building the College World,” Franklin College in Athens, GA serves to demonstrate how “From their classrooms to their parlors to the local tavern, [college families] insisted that all social structures and spaces should be designed for educational purpose…” (11). In the penultimate chapter, “Working in the College World,” Sumner illustrates how both men and women defined their new roles in the “business of instruction.” In order to cope with concerns about the masculinity of mental work, a number of colleges stressed the importance of the balance of such work and physical labor, especially agricultural work. At the same time, women began to stress the importance of scholarship along with components of traditional nurturing roles. The ultimate chapter, “Leaving the College World,” is concerned with the positions of black students, slaves, and poor white servants. These are significant issues and Sumner provides interesting information about John Russwurm, the first “colored” graduate of Bowdoin College, and Jenny, a slave woman owned by the daughter of a Washington College trustee. However, the space devoted to an exploration of Russwurm’s personal life and career in Liberia might have been more profitably devoted to the provision of greater insight about these groups within the college communities. Even with this quibble, these five chapters reveal the injuries of class, gender, and race at these virtuous college communities.

In an eight-page epilogue Margaret Sumner briefly touches on the changes in the “business of instruction” during the post–Civil War era. The major changes were that “the college world filled up with new state universities, new...


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