7. Columbia Faculty and Students and Slavery

Nicholas Murray Butler, who directed the university’s affairs for nearly half of the twentieth century, recalled the years from 1800 to the Civil War as Columbia’s “long period of discouragement.” The College remained a small, elite institution, whose trustees failed to raise sufficient funds to keep it out of the red and firmly resisted efforts to modernize the classically-based curriculum. As a result, Columbia long remained on the margins of the city’s burgeoning intellectual and commercial life. When it moved uptown in the late 1850s, it had only six faculty members and far fewer students than Harvard or Yale. Its library, which “discouraged the lending of books,” consisted of 18,000 volumes, a figure dwarfed by Harvard’s 98,000 and Yale’s 54,000. Columbia remained closely tied to the Episcopal Church. Many of the trustees were wardens, vestrymen, and rectors of Trinity Church, the city’s wealthiest religious institution and most of the students were of that religion, meaning that Columbia found itself isolated from the economic life of the city, increasingly overseen by transplanted New Englanders and other men of diverse religious affiliations.[i]

Columbia’s trustees and graduates, were mainly ministers and lawyers, with relatively few bankers and merchants. At the inauguration ceremony for Charles King, who became Columbia’s president in 1849, Professor John McVickar expressed the hope that King would create “a new bond of sympathy between the College and the needs and wants of our great commercial metropolis.” He did not succeed. Toward the end of the Civil War, George Templeton Strong, a long-serving trustee, lamented that Columbia had failed “to secure any hold on the community around it… Our own alumni give us a cold shoulder, and small blame to them.” Unlike in the late eighteenth century, moreover, almost no Columbia graduates became nationally prominent political figures. Yet Columbia remained embedded in a city with a political culture sympathetic to the South. Even as slavery died in New York State, the city’s prosperity came to depend in significant degree on connections with southern slavery. New York’s merchants dominated the cotton trade, the single most important economic enterprise in mid-nineteenth-century America, its bankers extended credit to help finance the expansion of southern slavery, its insurance companies sold policies so that owners would be reimbursed on the death of a slave. Although few graduates went into commerce, many came from mercantile or professional families with southern connections.[ii]

David Hosack
David Hosack
Samuel Bard
Samuel Bard

This was a college unlikely to become a hotbed of radicalism on slavery or any other subject. Into the nineteenth century, Columbia’s administrators and many trustees and faculty continued to own slaves. As noted above, Benjamin Moore owned two while serving as president. No information exists about his successor, Rev. William Harris, but William A. Duer, who succeeded Harris as president in 1829, had advertised a twenty-one year old “negro wench… having fourteen years to serve” for sale as late as 1814.[iii] Rev. John Mason owned a slave while serving as provost from 1811 to 1816 (when the position was abolished). Several trustees owned slaves into the nineteenth century – for example, Dr. John Charlton (two slaves in 1800), John Cosine (six in 1800), Edward Dunscomb (3 in 1810, when he was sheriff of New York County), and Richard Varick (who freed three slaves between 1810 and 1812). Some trustee owners who manumitted slaves in the early nineteenth century charged them for the privilege. John N. Abeel gave freedom to Phoebe in 1812, for a “consideration” of 50 dollars; Cornelius L. Bogert freed Rose in 1813 provided that she worked for him for an additional three and a half years while paying him $2 per month. At least twenty-one faculty members owned slaves before the institution’s abolition in New York. David Hosack and Samuel Bard, prominent medical professors at Columbia and founders of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, owned, respectively, five and eight slaves in the early nineteenth century. Professor of Medicine Edward Stevens owned a plantation with twelve slaves in the West Indies. Professor of Greek and Roman Antiquities Elijah D. Ratoone owned two slaves in 1800.[iv]

Peter Wilson Manumission
Professor Peter Wilson's Manumission Certificate, 1813

Nonetheless, the strong presence of Columbians in the Manumission Society suggests that the College’s relationship to slavery had changed since pre-revolutionary days. Between 1785 and the final end of slavery in 1827, along with the graduates and trustees mentioned above, at least twelve Columbia professors joined the Manumission Society, although many of them, like other members of the society, owned slaves. A few faculty were outspoken critics of slavery. William Cochran, who briefly taught Greek and Latin at Columbia in the 1780s, published essays in New York newspapers pointing to the contradiction between the language of the Declaration of Independence and the spectacle of “men set up to auction in our streets, and sold exactly like horses or oxen.” The response, which he later recalled as “scoff and ridicule,” was one reason he emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1788. Peter Wilson, a Professor of Greek and Latin, and John Daniel Gros, Professor of Moral Philosophy and German, published antislavery writings. (Wilson was also a slaveholder; in 1812 he manumitted a slave, Isabel.) In his Natural Principles of Rectitude (1795), Gros condemned slavery was “inhuman, unnatural and disgraceful to mankind.” No faculty member published a defense of slavery while at Columbia.[v]

John McVickar
Professor John McVickar

Other than Professor Gros, however, few Columbia faculty appear to have discussed slavery in class. The school’s heavily classical curriculum and elite atmosphere did not encourage such discussions, but surviving lecture notes from courses where the subject would be relevant reveal little or no mention of the institution. John McVickar, the son of a wealthy importer of Irish linens and an Episcopal priest, taught Rhetoric, Moral Philosophy, and Political Economy at Columbia for forty years beginning in 1817. His influential Outlines of Political Economy (1825), said almost nothing about slavery other than to comment on the “expensiveness” of slave labor. Lecture notes from McVickar’s Columbia courses on political economy and history from 1839, 1841, and 1849 contain no reference to slavery other than the fact that European colonies in tropical areas generally relied on slave labor. Professor of Law William Betts, an 1820 graduate, in 1850 delivered a public address on the causes of New York City’s prosperity. He offered many explanations, ranging from the city’s system of laws to the moral character of its inhabitants, but failed to mention New York’s lucrative relationship with the slave South.[vi]

Manumission Society Oration Prize
The New York Manumission Society established a prize in 1786 for the best oration at Columbia's commencement “exposing ... the injustice and cruelty of the slave trade and ill policy of holding the Negroes in slavery.”
Daniel Tompkins
Daniel Tompkins

Especially after the antislavery impulse inspired by the Revolution faded, the general attitude of the Columbia faculty regarding slavery seems to have been indifference. Some discussion, outside of class, did take place among students. In 1786, the Manumission Society established an award – a gold medal – to be presented to the student who delivered “the best oration” at Columbia’s commencement “exposing… the injustice and cruelty of the slave trade and ill policy of holding the Negroes in slavery.” Perhaps as a response, a graduate speaking at the commencement ceremony that year addressed the audience on the evil of holding “your fellow men… in hopeless and perpetual slavery.” Daniel Tompkins, Class of 1795, penned essays for a literary society on the “inhumanity of slavery” as well as mistreatment of the Indians. American patriots, he concluded, should be “civilizing the Indians and freeing and civilizing the Africans. America will then be unparalleled.” Nonetheless, he owned one slave in 1800. Tompkins went on to serve as counsel for the Manumission Society. As New York’s governor in 1817, he pressed the legislature to enact the law that provided for the final end of slavery in the state. Another undergraduate, Egbert Benson, Jr., Class of 1806, produced an essay condemning the slave trade, although it is unclear whether for a class or an extracurricular audience.[vii]

Philolexian Society Pendants
An illustration of two Philolexian Society Pendants

The Calliopean Society, a debating society founded in 1788 that included Columbia students and other young men, in 1789 debated “whether it is justifiable to retain the Negroes in slavery.” According to notes of the proceedings, “the dispute was decided in the negative.” No further discussion of slavery took place during the next several years. But between 1816, when its minutes begin, and 1836, the Philolexian, a student society, debated one or another aspect of the slavery issue no fewer than fifteen times. The outcome, in general, was mild hostility to slavery coupled with opposition to general emancipation. In 1817, for example, the Society debated whether emancipation would be “beneficial to the country.” Those speaking for the negative acknowledged that the institution was “repugnant to every feeling of humanity,” but feared that abolition would lead to violent revenge. The group concluded that abolition would not be “beneficial.” The following year, however, in a similar debate, proponents of abolition were victorious. (In this debate speakers for the negative included Henry Nicholas Cruger, Class of 1819, a descendant of eighteenth-century slave traders.) In subsequent debates in the 1820s and 1830s, members of the Philolexian voted that slavery could not be “justified on any moral principle,” but that the colonization of blacks in Africa was preferable to immediate abolition with blacks remaining in the United States.[viii]

[i]. John B. Langstaff, The Enterprising Life: John McVickar 1787-1868 (New York, 1961), 24, 313-15; McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, 57, 71, 81-87; College Finance 1761-1862, Folder, Box 11, Manuscript History of Columbia, Chapter 14, Box 31, Miner Papers; Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 531; Jaher, Urban Establishment, 173, 226; Humphrey, King’s College, 286-87.

[ii]. Richard H. Greene, “Columbia College Alumni Who Have Held Official Positions,” New-England Historical and Genealogical Register, 43 (July 1889), 311-12; Sven Beckert, The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie 1850-1896 (New York, 2001), 36-37, 239; Allan Nevins and Milton H. Thomas, ed., The Diary of George Templeton Strong (4 vols.: New York, 1952), 3: 403, 550; Philip S. Foner, Business and Slavery: The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict (Chapel Hill, 1941), 1-6; David Quigley, “Southern Slavery in a Free City: Economy, Politics, and Culture,” in Slavery in New York, ed. Ira Berlin and Leslie Harris (New York, 2005), 266-78.

[iii]. Poughkeepsie Journal, June 1, 1814.

[iv]. Megan Kallstrom, “Entrenched Apathy Toward ‘Horrible Iniquity’: Columbia College Faculty and Slavery, 1784-1865,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2015.

[v]. Ibid., 16; Milton H. Thomas, ed., “The Memoirs of William Cochran,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly, 38 (January 1954), 68-71; Humphrey, King’s College, 299; Certificate of Manumission, Peter Wilson, July 11, 1812, New York City Miscellaneous Manuscripts, Box 17, New-York Historical Society; John D. Gros, Natural Principles of Rectitude (New York, 1795), 291, 339.

[vi]. Langstaff, McVickar, 5-12; John B. McVickar, Outlines of Political Economy (New York, 1825), 187; “Notes in History with Professor McVickar, 1839, Abram S. Hewitt Papers; Wheelock H. Parmly, “Notes with Professor John McVickar, 1839, 1841-42,” Item 25, Columbiana Manuscripts; Edward C. Babcock, “Notes from McVickar Lectures on Political Economy,” Item 89, Columbiana Manuscripts, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University; William Betts, The Causes of the Prosperity of New York (New York, 1851).

[vii]. “Report of Standing Committee,” November 9, 1786, New York Manumission Society Records, New-York Historical Society; Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, 245; Ray W. Irwin and Edna L. Jacobsen, ed., A Columbia Student in the Eighteenth Century: Essays by Daniel D. Tompkins (New York, 1940), 4, 14-17; Ray W. Irwin, Daniel D. Tompkins: Governor of New York and Vice President of the United States (New York, 1968), 211-12; Egbert Benson, Jr., Composition on the Slave Trade, Box 1, Egbert Benson Papers, New-York Historical Society.

[viii]. Proceedings of the Calliopean Society, January 22, 1789, New-York Historical Society; Chloe Hawkey, “Hardly Student Activists: Columbia College Students in the Early Republic,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2015, 16-19; Philolexian Society Records, January 10, 1817, October 27, 1826, April 3, 1835, Columbia University Archives, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University; Student Life 49th Street, Folder, Box 26, Miner Papers.