VOLUME 26 #1

Current cover


Q & A with Delaware Historian
Carol Hoffecker,

AS60, Richards Professor Emerita of History

Q: Alison’s school underwent several name changes and locations after its founding and wasn’t even the University of Delaware until 1921. Is 1743 an accurate milestone?

A: If you’re going back to the beginnings of the institution that would become the University of Delaware, then yes, that’s the date. If you’re talking about the legal creation of the University, its charter with that name, then no. But the first heartbeat of the University? That’s Francis Alison’s school.

Q: Historical accounts always emphasize that Francis Alison was a Presbyterian minister as well as a classical scholar. How important was religion in his decision to start his New London Academy?

A: Francis Alison was Scots-Irish, educated in Ireland and Scotland and a member of the clergy before coming to the United States. In that tradition, he had really solid academic training, not only in reading the Bible but reading it in Greek and Hebrew. It was a very mentally challenging and demanding approach to religion, and he wanted to educate other young men in that same way.

One of the main reasons he founded his school, I think, was in reaction to what was called the Great Awakening of the 1730s and ’40s, which began in Delaware with a man named George Whitefield. He landed in Lewes [from England] in 1739 and brought with him a new kind of religious enthusiasm, preaching to people of southern Delaware, who hadn’t been especially active in churches before. It was a very emotional approach to Christianity, and Francis Alison really found everything about it abhorrent because, to him, it was just enthusiasm without any knowledge or education about Christianity and its foundations. In his school, he would demand serious Biblical studies. He wanted to foster academic, intellectually demanding learning.

Q: Alison’s New London Academy had 11 students in its first class, including three signers of the Declaration of Independence. How remarkable was this?

A: Francis Alison was teaching classical languages, as well as subjects like philosophy and ethics. There weren’t many schools at that time, certainly not in this area, where students could get that kind of very demanding education. So his students, and especially that first class, were really the intellectual elite.

There was also a time when it stopped being particularly Presbyterian. Once people recognized that the way to get ahead—the way for their sons to get ahead—was to get a good education, they saw the place where that was available was the school in Newark. [It moved to Newark in the 1760s and was chartered as the Academy of Newark in 1769.] That’s when it started attracting a wider range of students.

Q: UD today values innovation, and it sounds like Francis Alison could be considered an innovator himself in many ways.

A: I think the whole history of the University of Delaware, beginning with Francis Alison, is about innovation and change.

History is all about change; if things didn’t change, you wouldn’t need it. It’s really about how people foresee and adapt, and that’s especially so with the creation and involvement of schools and universities. You see needs, and you adapt. In a sense, you’re always creating a new world.

The point of studying the past is to show how it led to the future, how it produced the future from its time. And that’s true no matter what kind of history you’re studying. I think one of the things you can say about the University of Delaware is that it’s always stayed a step ahead in producing students who are capable of moving on and fulfilling the needs of their time, and as long as it keeps doing that it will continue to be successful.

Q: Has this been a theme throughout UD’s history?

A: Yes, I sincerely believe that. I’ve looked at some leaders through the years who were real innovators:

There’s Francis Alison, of course. Willard Hall [an original trustee of Newark College, chartered in 1833], who came from Massachusetts to a state that didn’t have any real public schools or training for teachers, and he brought ideas to Delaware that would be really significant in starting the Women’s College and advancing public education in the state.

H. Rodney Sharp and P.S. du Pont, because it was their financial support that helped the growth of the sciences and also the development of the University’s physical facilities. The construction of buildings [beginning around 1915] on The Mall [now called The Green] also brought the Men’s and Women’s Colleges closer together.

And Emalea Pusey Warner, who was an activist in the community and really beat the drum for the creation of the Women’s College [in 1914].


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