The Village on the Plain: Auburn University, 1856-2006

The Village on the Plain: Auburn University, 1856-2006

by Dwayne Cox

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Long overdue for an institutional history, Auburn University possesses a rich and storied past. Dwayne Cox’s The Village on the Plain traces the school’s history in authoritative detail from its origins as a private college through its emergence as a complex land-grant university.
Originally founded prior to the Civil War with an emphasis on classical education, Auburn became the state’s land-grant college after the cessation of hostilities. This infused the school with a vision of the South as a commercial and industrial rival to the North. By the 1880s, instruction in applied science had become Auburn’s curricular version of this “New South” creed. Like most southern universities, Auburn never enjoyed financial abundance, creating scarcity that intensified internal debate over whether liberal arts or applied disciplines deserved more of the school’s limited resources.
Meager state funding for higher education complicated Auburn’s rise and became a source of competition with the University of Alabama. This rivalry was perhaps most intense between 1908 and 1948, when the two schools did not meet on the gridiron, but blocked and tackled one another in the legislature over the division of state funds.
Like many universities founded in somewhat isolated locations during the antebellum period, Auburn developed an insular culture, which hindered the school’s progress in issues related to race. Cox traces how this insularity also found expression in the school’s resistance to outside academic regulatory organizations as well as in conflicts over the university’s governance.
Auburn University’s history is that of a small private college that transformed itself in the face of sweeping national events and state politics, not only to survive threats but to emerge more complex and resilient. Offering much to students of higher education and Alabama history, as well as readers affiliated with Auburn University, The Village on the Plain tells the story of this complex and fascinating institution.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817319090
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 04/08/2016
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 455,331
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Dwayne Cox holds a PhD in history from the University of Kentucky and serves as Head of Special Collections and Archives at Auburn University.

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The Village on the Plain

Auburn University, 1856â"2006

By Dwayne Cox

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2016 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8975-8


Purpose Debated, 1856–1884

Before the Civil War, Southern colleges typically prescribed a curriculum that included required courses in ancient languages and literature. The proponents of this academic model remained active after the conflict but encountered opposition from advocates of the New South creed, which called for industrialization, commercialization, and scientific agriculture. New South educators believed that the region's antebellum colleges had failed to develop the talent necessary to defeat industrialized opponents on the battlefield and compete in the modern world. The region needed colleges that taught more applied courses, particularly in the sciences. The early leaders of the land-grant college that became Auburn University shared this academic vision for the New South. They encountered opposition from those who favored the more traditional curriculum.

What became Auburn University inherited a classical curriculum from the East Alabama Male College, an institution that grew out of a rivalry between two Alabama towns and a feud among the state's Methodists. This originated in 1854, when representatives from the town of Auburn asked the Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church to consider establishing a men's college. The Methodists, like other denominations, wanted to spread their vision to an educated class of leaders trained at their own institutions of higher learning.

In response to the request the church's Alabama Conference appointed a commission to determine a location for the school. The following year Auburn's advocates made their case, as did those who wanted to put the college at Greensboro in west Alabama. Both towns pledged support for the school, but a majority of the commissioners favored Greensboro, which was undoubtedly the wealthier community, given its location in the state's cotton-rich Black Belt. In late January 1856 the state legislature incorporated a Methodist school named Southern University in that city. Greensboro had won the battle, but in the process the victors had insulted Auburn by stigmatizing the eastern part of the state as poverty-stricken and unworthy of a college. According to Anson West, a nineteenth-century historian of Alabama Methodism, the taunts from Greensboro galvanized those who wanted a college in Auburn.

The aims of both Auburn and Greensboro typified the aspirations of numerous settlements of the interior South. Both towns owed their origins to the migration of settlers from the Atlantic seaboard states to the interior. Auburn did not lie in the more prosperous Black Belt region of Alabama, but one thousand whites and seven hundred black slaves soon called the settlement and the surrounding area home. By the 1850s the town boasted a bank, a post office, a railroad, rooms for rent, photographers, churches, and stores that sold groceries and dry goods. Naturally, local boosters also wanted a college to further Auburn's destiny as a place of promise. The nationwide prevalence of this attitude encouraged a boom in college building during the first six decades of the nineteenth century, particularly west of the eastern seaboard states. As the sectional crisis worsened, many Southerners began to pull their sons out of Northern colleges, which led to the creation of more institutions of higher learning in the South. On the eve of the Civil War, Alabama alone boasted seventeen colleges.

In early February 1856, not long after the legislature had incorporated Southern University, the lawmakers overrode a gubernatorial veto to create the East Alabama Male College in Auburn. The bill empowered the college corporation to own real and personal property valued up to $250,000 and exempted all the school's holdings from taxation. The lawmakers identified forty-nine trustees, who included ten board members from Auburn and thirteen clergymen. The founders obviously hoped to benefit from local residents with a financial interest in the school's success and the efforts of ministers experienced in fund-raising, for the college received neither tax money nor direct support from the church. Anson West considered the large board capable of producing a smaller corps of effective advocates for the college. The legislation gave the trustees financial authority over the East Alabama Male College. In addition, the board would fill vacancies within its own body, appoint the school's administrative officers, select faculty members, and control the legal and financial life of the college.

In 1859 the East Alabama Male College opened for classes, forty years after Alabama had attained statehood and two years before it left the Union. By then the governing board numbered fifty-two, including eighteen members from the town of Auburn and twenty Methodist clergymen. Theoretically this gave the school a broad base of support locally and within the state's Methodist churches. College rules required the presence of each student at prayers twice daily and at church twice on Sunday, but they did not dictate a particular denomination. The faculty consisted of six professors, one each in moral philosophy, natural science, pure and applied mathematics, and ancient languages. The fifty-two trustees thus outnumbered the professors almost nine to one.

According to a college publication, admission to the freshman class required knowledge of Latin, Greek, English, and mathematics. As in most colleges of this era, the four-year curriculum included no electives but exposed students to a variety of subjects. During the first three years, students took classes that included mathematics. During the junior and senior years, they took classes that included science. During the first, second, and third years, the prescribed course load included a heavy dose of the classics: the languages, literature, and history of antiquity. The same publication indicated that the senior class studied moral philosophy, political economy, modern languages, history, and evidences of Christianity.

The school's early emphasis on the classics followed national and regional patterns. Before the late nineteenth century the study of antiquity stood second to Christianity as America's chief intellectual pursuit. This had begun with the revival of interest in antiquity during the Renaissance and later found its way into the curricula of colonial colleges. The Revolutionary War generation idealized ancient Rome. Early in the nineteenth century the Greek revolt against the Turks shifted some of the focus away from Rome toward Athens.

The East Alabama Male College fell within this tradition, but it offered a distinctly Southern version of it. During this period Southern colleges existed almost exclusively to benefit the region's upper class. The curriculum reflected that group's affinity for the classics, for Southerners admired ancient Greece and Rome as model slave societies. The founders of most Southern colleges located them in small interior towns such as Auburn, isolated from the vices associated with larger cities. Church-related institutions often emphasized piety rather than analytical thinking.

On November 11, 1859, Britton C. Lee, a student at the newly opened school, wrote to his mother about life at the college and the town. He described them both as largely devoid of wicked influences. Lee found the local residents friendly, the water pure, and the school's faculty excellent. In reference to the rival college in Greensboro, Lee boasted that Auburn enrolled twice the number of students. He also called the town of Auburn healthier than Greensboro. Lee wanted to acquire a college education before he studied for any profession, ridiculed those who went straight to the medical school in Mobile without the necessary background, and predicted that the majority of those students would lack the competence to treat a sick horse after they became physicians. Finally, Lee advised his mother not to purchase a slave named Julia, whom he described as old and abused.

Three months later, in February 1860, Lee delivered an oration to the school's Wirt literary society, named in honor of the Virginian William Wirt, the US attorney general during the James Monroe and John Quincy Adams administrations. Lee praised the American Revolution as an event that liberated political thought in both the Old and the New Worlds. According to his assessment, the Americans who overturned British colonial rule broke the chains that bound Europeans to hereditary monarchs. France soon followed the US example with its own revolution, which furthered the cause of liberty across Europe. Unfortunately liberty led to license and popular tyrants arose in the Old World.

Lee further argued that, on America's southern frontier, pioneers cleared a wilderness once populated only by Indians and created schools to educate their sons and daughters. He spoke in an atmosphere in which the ruling class of Southerners believed that Northern abolitionists threatened the efforts of their pioneer ancestors. His audience undoubtedly preferred social stability but also saw an analogy between the American Revolution and their situation. Lee did not say so directly, but he clearly implied that Southerners soon might throw off the oppressive rule of Northern tyrants.

Shortly after opening, the East Alabama Male College became formally affiliated with the Methodist Church. On February 7, 1860, the legislature gave church authorities control over appointments to the board of trustees. Later that month the lawmakers prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages within the town of Auburn and five miles outside its corporate limits, which undoubtedly pleased the Methodists. The state imposed a fine of $100 upon those convicted of a first offense. Every subsequent conviction resulted not only in the fine and court costs but also in imprisonment for three months. The legislature passed the act to preserve order, protect students from immoral influences, and instill confidence in the patrons of the college. The bill covered all alcoholic drinks regardless of quantity. Supporters of this legislation undoubtedly wanted to set the college at Auburn morally apart from the more secular state institutions of higher learning.

In 1860 the college boasted 228 students, a handsome building, and strong local support, but its modestly bright future soon changed. In July the board prohibited students from joining militia companies, a portent of the coming Civil War. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, the board nullified the prohibition on enlistment. Before long the board's executive committee agreed for the college to create its own militia company. After the school closed, most of the students and many of the faculty members enlisted in the army. James F. Dowdell, who later became president of the East Alabama Male College, commanded the 37th Alabama regiment, which he raised locally. The town remained relatively deserted during much of the war, but in July 1864 Union soldiers under the command of Major General Lovell H. Rousseau arrived, set fire to the depot, and mutilated the train tracks to sever Southern supply lines. By this time the college building served as a Confederate hospital. Nevertheless, the school survived with both its facilities and its corporate identity intact.

Reconstruction exposed the fissures in Alabama's body politic, as it did in other states of the former Confederacy. War and military defeat discredited Alabama's white leadership, aggravated discord between unionists and secessionists, depleted capital, destroyed property, gave Northern whites a large degree of control over the state's destiny, added a vast number of freed slaves to an already tense situation, and brought an uncertain political future. President Andrew Johnson's moderate plan for Reconstruction displeased radical Republicans, for it allowed conservative whites to regain power in the South.

Congressional radicals took control of the process and divided the defeated Confederate States into military districts under an army of occupation. Black men became eligible to vote for the first time in Alabama's history, which helped the Republicans take control of the government and terrified white Southerners. In response whites in Alabama and other Southern states joined the Ku Klux Klan, which employed violent tactics to intimidate black voters and resist Radical Reconstruction. Southern Democrats accused the Republicans of corruption and inefficiency and began efforts to recapture their state governments, which they eventually did. The fledgling college in Auburn faced a complex and inhospitable atmosphere when it reopened after the cessation of hostilities.

Evidence of the tense situation appeared in a speech by John Frederick Greene of Jamestown, Georgia, who attended the East Alabama Male College during the academic year of 1869–1870. Ostensibly Greene spoke on the powerful influence of public opinion. Actually, he delivered a thinly disguised attack on Radical Reconstruction, using the American Revolution as an analogy. In the course of his presentation Greene praised the eloquence of Edmund Burke and other members of Parliament who sympathized with the grievances of the American colonies.

According to Greene, the words of Burke and others undermined the British government's efforts to subjugate the colonies. As a result, any American who could read became more determined to protect the rights of the colonies and their citizens. Some made the mistaken assumption that autocrats backed by force could prevail against all opposition, but Greene contended that the power of well-informed public opinion constituted a more potent weapon. The speaker advised his listeners to express their opinions in vigorous support of liberty and in stout opposition to oppression. Greene and many other white Southerners considered the Civil War a battle for their own independence from tyranny no less severe than that imposed on the American colonies. Likewise, they considered Radical Reconstruction the equivalent of armed occupation by an alien enemy whose oppression they would overthrow at the earliest opportunity.

Despite Greene's oratory, the East Alabama Male College never recovered its prewar momentum, even after adding elective courses and applied disciplines. Shortly after the war, at least one donor offered to pay her pledge in Confederate money. In 1866 the trustees created an auditing committee to classify the school's assets as good, bad, or doubtful. Apparently the bad and the doubtful outweighed the good. In 1868 a board committee appointed to eliminate the $10,000 college debt recommended that each citizen of Auburn make a personal donation to the school. The committee also empowered Methodist clergymen to keep for themselves 10 percent of the money they raised on behalf of the institution. Finally, the group urged the board to circulate an earnest fund-raising letter.

The situation failed to improve. In 1868 the board downsized the faculty, eliminated the presidency, and gave the remaining professors day-to-day financial control of the college. Unfortunately the term ended with little money remaining for salaries after the payment of other expenses. Meanwhile, the college building suffered serious water damage, the consequence of a leaky roof. In June 1871 the board appointed a delegation to visit Southern University in Greensboro with the charge of unifying the educational enterprises of Alabama Methodism. Six months later the trustees donated the East Alabama Male College's property to the state for an agricultural and mechanical college, made possible by the US government's foray into higher education.

The federal legislation that resurrected Auburn's college passed in 1862 after the Confederate States withdrew from the Union. The bill took its name from Congressman and later Senator Justin S. Morrill of Vermont, who possessed a long-standing interest in the use of public land to further practical higher education. Before the Civil War, Morrill's efforts gained congressional backing from Northern legislators, but Southerners generally opposed the measure. When passed, the original act excluded the rebellious Southern states, but after the war Congress extended its provisions to them. Under the Morrill Act Congress gave the individual states either federal land or a scrip for the same in proportion to the size of their congressional delegations. The lawmakers intended for each state to invest its returns and endow a college required to teach agriculture, mechanics, and military tactics, but not to the exclusion of other disciplines. Traditionally, historians considered the Morrill Act a bill that made higher education more democratic and facilitated the growth of a rapidly expanding nation.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction ix

1 Purpose Debated, 1856-1884 1

2 Purpose Defined, 1884-1902 23

3 Purpose Refined, 1902-1920 45

4 Out of Control, 1920-1928 67

5 In Search of Control, 1928-1935 88

6 In Control, 1935-1947 111

7 Delicate Balance, 1947-1965 134

8 Balance Threatened, 1965-1980 155

9 Balance Lost, 1980-1984 177

10 Academic Politics 101, 1984-1992 198

11 Academic Politics 102, 1992-2001 220

12 Academic Politics 103, 2001-2006 242

Conclusion 264

Notes 269

Works Cited 303

Index 323

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