In the decades following the American Revolution, the United States witnessed rapid industrial, political, and social change, especially in northern states. These changes greatly influenced people and institutions, which reacted to these transformations in a variety of ways. When studying this period, the history of American universities is often neglected or only mentioned in passing. Historians have argued that the interactions between institutions of higher learning and the evolving society were minimal and often non-existent. However, these studies focused on the collective institution and failed to address how individual students, faculty, and presidents understood and interacted within their local and collegiate communities.
The history of Union College spans nearly the entire history of the United States. Founded in 1795, the school emerged as one of the nation’s premier educational institutions in the early 19th century. The changes occurring on the national stage often entered public life on Union’s campus, and President Eliphalet Nott and students actively participated in the civil discourse of the period. The most prevalent issues on campus included the authority of government, temperance, and the question of enslavement. Historians often like to find commonality among individuals, as well as categorize them, with regards to their views on the most pressing topics of the time, but what becomes evident is that these molds often prove too simplistic. Students at Union, who shared very similar backgrounds, often ardently disagreed with each other on solutions to society’s problems. Union College provides scholars with a complex microcosm of how individuals perceived the world during the first several decades of the Early Republic.