Collegiate Republic: Cultivating an Ideal Society in Early America by Margaret Sumner (review)
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Education, Higher education, Education in the early republic, Slavery

Collegiate Republic: Cultivating an Ideal Society in Early America. By Margaret Sumner. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014. Pp. 272. Cloth or ebook, $45.00.)

Dickinson, Washington, Bowdoin, Williams: They are small colleges, but there are those who think they shaped the republic. In this lovely, smart book, Margaret Sumner depicts the ambitious regional liberal arts colleges founded at the start of the nineteenth century as both an idealistic nationalist project and a lucrative family business. Those who ran them sought to create an ‘‘orderly ‘scheme’ for the world, in which collective harmony and virtuous self-interest would bring about success’’ (139). In a nation of unsettling political and economic competition, graduates would ‘‘exert a new form of collective virtuous power’’ (6). From the well-regulated classrooms and greens of Lexington, Kentucky; Carlisle, Pennsylvania; and Williamstown, Massachusetts, young men would set forth prepared to ‘‘enter the worlds of commerce, politics, and society in waves,’’ and determined to ‘‘work together to redirect the republic’s path toward a more virtuous and regulated definition of success’’ (53).

In ‘‘college world,’’ as Sumner wittily dubs the overlapping networks of kin, professors, and trustees, one could do well while striving to do good. ‘‘Families settling developing regions of the republic quickly seized upon educational institutions as the main channel through which they could secure a stable future for themselves and their communities,’’ she explains (20). Although families depended for their livelihood on the colleges, the profit motive was unacknowledged or assertively repudiated. Rather than being understood as commercial exchanges, the private donations and legislative grants on which colleges depended were cast as selfless gifts to selfless places. ‘‘All such economic activity,’’ Sumner writes, ‘‘was carried out in the name of the common good, and the continued ‘‘liberality’’ of the people was [college world’s] only form of insurance’’ (27). The result was a commercial and career network that believed itself to be a community of friends. Each bond strengthened the other.

Every chapter of this delightful book bears witness to Sumner’s deep archival work and humane but sharp-eyed contemplation of her subjects. We learn about the new nation’s small colleges rather as we learn about English minor gentry in Jane Austen: through coming to know men and [End Page 503] women as they are slowly revealed to us by an expert and wryly sympathetic narrator. Thus we have the Cleaveland women, who used their status as the wife and daughters of a Bowdoin professor to judge the talents and virtues of all those around them, even as their own ambitions were constrained; and Albert and Mark Hopkins, who struggled to believe that their lives as college professors matched the manly vigor they ascribed to their farmer brother Harry. Through the life of John Russwurm, a mixed-race graduate of Bowdoin College, readers learn not only of Russwurm’s extraordinary achievements but also of college families’ desire to exercise their benevolence by educating ‘‘black genius’’—only to sponsor colonization schemes so that the racial regime in which they themselves thrived would not be disrupted. Rather than staggering through abstract discussions of ‘‘place and space,’’ readers find deft sketches of the mix of familial, professional, and intellectual life contained in a professor’s parlor, and revealing tableaus that demonstrate the layers of class and racial privilege daily displayed and subverted on a college green. Sumner’s command of narrative and tone is particularly effective in her analysis of gender, which she persuasively depicts as woven into every aspect of these institutions. Many of her female subjects, for example, ‘‘believed their minds were equal to those of their male counterparts in learning, but different in understanding and activity,’’ a view that left them embracing the status and intellectual opportunities available to them within the ambit of the nation’s small colleges, but nonetheless lamenting the lack of an ‘‘ideal place in which to exert [their] intellectual powers’’ (125).

Sumner knows she is writing about men and women easily dismissible as elites who have already received sufficient historical attention. The precision with which she describes the creation and consequences...