Shortly after enrolling at Bates College in September 2001, I started doing some basic research to find out more about the community I was entering.
I perused the most recent Bates Catalogue and Bulletin, and I eventually came across a brief synopsis of the College’s history on the school’s website. This page asserted that “Bates was founded in 1855 by Maine abolitionists, and Bates graduates have always included men and women from diverse racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds.” While reflecting a contemporary commitment to socio-diversity, this statement also implies that Bates has a long tradition of egalitarian values, with little deviation from those core progressive beliefs.
This confident assertion about Bates history left me with more questions than answers. I wondered: Was Bates always open to students regardless of race, gender or class? If so, were these early students treated as equals at the school? How did Bates compare or contrast with other educational institutions and national attitudes regarding race, class and gender? Essentially, how progressive was Bates in its earliest years?
It was these questions that have inspired this thesis. In this thesis I consider how progressive Bates College actually was from 1855 to 1877 (the end of Reconstruction) in regard to race, class and gender. In order to accomplish this task, I will attempt to determine the values and aspirations of the founders, early faculty, and students, while comparing and contrasting Bates to other institutions and the dominant attitudes of the period. In this introductory chapter I shall first define “progressiveness,” describe how different historians have interpreted Bates history, offer some source criticism, and then present my conclusions.
What does it mean to be “progressive?”
In order to begin an assessment of Bates College’s early progressiveness I must first offer my interpretation of the term. Historian Glenn Altschuler asserts that “every generation writes its own history, for the reason that it sees the past in the foreshortened perspective of its own experience.” My own “foreshortened perspective” is largely focused on interpreting history through the lens of race, gender and class. In other words by focusing on the “other” or those who are left out of more orthodox histories, I believe a more inclusive historical picture may emerge. Therefore the primary analytic lens that I will apply to progressiveness in this thesis will be through differences in race, gender and class.
In nineteenth century America, racial progressivism involved fighting mainstream cultural stereotypes and working towards racial equality. During this period “most whites believed that blacks were innately inferior, that racial antagonism could not be overcome, and that blacks, at best, must remain a subservient group in white society.” These stereotypes of racial inferiority represent what the progressive element of the nineteenth century was battling against. Even among the progressives, there was a wide range of values, as Altschuler writes:
Many progressives shared the belief that social conditions and not biology bred poverty and ignorance, and that government had a duty to protect citizens against the oppressive environment. A far smaller number of these reformers asserted that truly equal opportunity would give the lie to the myth of innate black inferiority.
This quotation illustrates the true progressiveness of advocating for equal opportunity in a society that embraced and justified stereotypes of black inferiority. The first major step to reaching this state of equality before the Civil War was obviously to advocate for the immediate abolition of slavery. The second step for progressives in establishing equality was to work to create equal opportunity for blacks and to destroy racial stereotypes prevalent in nineteenth century American culture. In my mind these steps marked true racial progressivism during this era.
Nineteenth century progressiveness also involved combating stereotypes and creating equal rights for women. Often this battle for women’s rights was at odds with the African American civil rights movement, particularly after the Civil War. Many well-known white suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, allegedly held “mixed feelings about the way in which woman’s rights had become subordinated to civil rights in this era.” Tension between the two movements was obvious during the post-Civil War period, as some white women felt betrayed by their former political allies in the abolitionist movement. Relatively few white suffragists seem to have been ardent supporters of African American rights after the Civil War. Advocating for both women’s rights and African American civil rights seems to have been a fairly uncommon, yet progressive stance during the post-Civil War era. For the purposes of this thesis, this combination shall partially define progressiveness during the period of 1855 to 1877 at Bates College. In other words the most progressive individuals were those who supported advancing both women’s rights and African American rights.
The third component of my definition of progressiveness entails class egalitarianism. Being progressive in the nineteenth century involved a “provision for equal opportunity” regardless of social status (a.k.a. wealth), and a commitment to equality of condition for all Americans. Progressives during this period believed, as Altschuler puts it, that “the United States had the capacity to use its surplus to create a true democracy and higher culture available to all.”This striving for class equality will serve as the ultimate bar for progressiveness during this era, and class will serve alongside race and gender as the triumvirate of interpretation of Bates’ history for the purpose of this thesis.
To determine how well Bates College lived up to these ideals of equal opportunity and to see how others had treated the subjects of race, class, and gender, I started off my research by looking through past histories of the College. Understandably, official college publications provided the bulk of material on Bates history. The earliest descriptions of Bates’ history from the 1850s through the 1880s are recorded in publications such as Seminary Advocate, Bates Student and President’s Report, which were useful in gaining a first hand perspective from Bates students and faculty who lived during the period, and these sources frequently hinted at attitudes regarding race, class, and gender at Bates. Other Bates publications from the early nineteenth century such as the Bates Bulletin (1909 to 1917) were also invaluable in interpreting the early years of the school. These Bulletins contain brief histories of the college written by President George Colby Chase, who was a Maine State Seminary student in the early 1860s and a member of the Bates class of 1868. Chase’s interpretations seem to have been primarily based on his own recollections and discussions with other chief movers in the Bates community. A third very useful official source of College history was Alfred W. Anthony’s Bates College and Its Background. Published in 1936, this is the only official history of the College to date (as of March 2005). Professor Anthony was a generation removed from the founding of the College, and therefore he used various sources (primary and secondary) to interpret the early years of the institution. All of these College histories reflect as much about the era they were written in as they do about the early period of the school and understandably they present changing perspectives in interpreting Bates history.
Among the first brief histories of the school is an article published in the Bates Student in 1877 written by Professor Richard C. Stanley, entitled “A Historical Sketch of Bates College.” In this history Stanley described how the College “has given most cordial welcome to young men of color” and “every one…would testify that he had never received on account of his color, the slightest discourtesy from any one connected with the College.” Stanley also claimed that Bates “has been open to women from the first, in this respect taking the lead of all the New England colleges… the College has never refused free tuition to any worthy student who has asked for it.” This is significant because Stanley was hinting (very early in Bates’ history) that the school had been quite progressive in its early policies toward African Americans, white women and poor white students. This early history seems to imply that Bates attempted to treat its first minority students with at least courtesy, and at most equality. Professor Stanley’s firsthand perspective at Bates during this period, which describes racial, gender and class egalitarianism at Bates, is a useful to contrast with other later interpretations.
Later Bates historians largely reiterated Stanley’s description of early openness in admissions, although they downplayed certain characteristics as attitudes and perspectives changed. Bates College Bulletins from the early twentieth century both celebrated and distanced their descriptions of Bates’ progressive values. Most of these “histories” of the College were written by George C. Chase, a student at the Maine State Seminary and a member of Bates’ class of 1868, who served as a professor of English and president of Bates until his death in 1919. In the College Bulletin of 1910, Chase’s perspective seems to have reflected the era in which he was writing. For example, according to Chase, African American students had always “been welcomed” at Bates, but only comprised “a fraction of one per cent” of the student body (in actuality 1.13% of graduates were African Americans from 1867 to 1900). This early Bulletin stands in contrast to modern Bates marketing materials which are often attacked by students on the 2005 Bates campus for possibly exaggerating racial diversity. To a modern Bates student, it might seem slightly odd that the president of the College would state how little diversity there was on campus in a prominent publication. Why Chase stated how few African Americans attended Bates is puzzling. Possibly, his early 20th century New England audience was wary of racial diversity in higher education, or maybe Chase simply felt a duty to provide an honest description of the student body. It is impossible to know for sure, but it is likely Chase was at least thinking about his audience when he was constructing this very public history (and marketing material).
The last major history of Bates College from 1936 also celebrated Bates early egalitarianism, but was again very selective about which parts of Bates’ history it chose to focus on. In Bates College and its Background, Alfred Anthony, a retired professor, described the abolitionist background of Oren Cheney, the founder of Bates, in depth. He also described throughout his book how Bates was always very welcoming to poor students particularly those affiliated with the Free Will Baptist church. At the same time, Anthony tended to de-emphasize any racial progressiveness beyond supporting emancipation of the slaves. He neglected to mention Henry Chandler (the first black graduate) or any of the early black students in his text. In the last pages of his book, Anthony does mention Bates’ openness to women as the first college in New England to admit women. As a sort of disclaimer, however, Anthony wrote:
The policy was early adopted of limiting the number of women in proportion to the total expected size of the class, so that the ratio of women to men should be about that of three to five… This policy has proven beneficial to all parties concerned… It may have at times made it a little more difficult for a woman to gain admission than for a man, but probably with no ultimate loss to either men or women.
Anthony’s statement, while recognizing that women were admitted to Bates in its earliest years, seems to imply that women were less desired by the College than men. Clearly, Anthony was hinting that the earliest male and female students at Bates were truly not treated as equals in the admissions process. Perhaps this disclaimer was included so Anthony did not see himself as emasculating the College by emphasizing the sizable number of female students. Anthony’s de-emphasis of African Americans and the number of women at Bates again likely reflected his audience and early twentieth century perspective on co-education.
Since Anthony’s history, Bates College has largely presented its history through marketing material such as the annual catalogue, the website, and other bulletins. In much the same way that early twentieth century historical literature reflected early twentieth century ideals, early twenty-first century materials have mirrored twenty-first century values (at least the public values of Bates). The 2004-2006 College Catalogue claimed:
Bates was founded in 1855 by people who believed strongly in freedom, civil rights, and the importance of a higher education for all who could benefit from it. Bates has always admitted students without regard to race, religion, or national origin…Bates was New England’s first coeducational college. The inclusive nature of the College’s admissions philosophy has guided, enriched and strengthened the institution for 150 years.
This mythical description of the college’s values implies that Bates has held largely the same idealistic beliefs throughout its history, and it idealizes Bates’ historical commitment to civil rights and modern progressive values. Modern producers of Bates’ history would understandably want to appeal to the ideals that twenty-first century Americans consider important, and that is exactly what this passage and other contemporary College marketing materials do.
In critiquing primary sources from Bates’ earliest period, it is important to keep these artifacts in context and to expose notable biases of the authors. Among the earliest primary sources utilized in this thesis are the writings of Bates founder, Oren B. Cheney. Cheney’s surviving diary from 1864 and his few remaining letters did not often express his views on slavery, race, or gender, but they do provide some clues to his stances on these issues. Not surprisingly, Cheney often wrote about his daily activities and these included recruiting minority students and attending anti-slavery rallies. These clues hint at the progressiveness of the author and verify other secondary documentation about Cheney. Other primary sources written by Cheney also expressed his relative progressiveness, but these sources require a better understanding of the audience. Cheney’s writing for the Morning Star, Seminary Advocate, and College Catalogue publicly expressed his progressiveness, although in varying degrees. The Morning Star articles by Cheney expressed his loathing of the slave system and conveyed his opinions on racial justice. Whether Cheney exaggerated his arguments in an attempt to appeal to the relatively racially progressive audience is debatable, but it seems as though most of Cheney’s other actions and writings were consistent with these progressive arguments.
On the other hand, the Seminary Advocate and College Catalogue (Cheney likely had some input in writing the catalogues) understandably downplayed race and gender. The catalogues from this era actually did not mention race at all, simply asserting that the school is “open to students of any age or rank of scholarship.” Gender was also only mentioned in passing in describing the “young ladies and gentlemen” attending the school. Perhaps this downplaying of egalitarian positions was an attempt by the school to put on a more moderate face in order to attract students and donors, who were possibly more mainstream or conservative in their views. Cheney and other College officials may also have been concerned about building a reputation among peer institutions, and therefore put on a more conservative face in these official publications.
Primary sources from other faculty and trustees at Bates College during the Civil War era also offered piecemeal hints as to the progressiveness of the College. Publications by Bates’ early trustees A.K. Moulton and Samuel Tufts outwardly expressed their feelings about slavery. Whether these articles exaggerate their stances and whether their private stances are representative of their public work at Bates is unclear. Although it seems likely that Moulton and Tufts held strong convictions about slavery, little evidence exists about the direct impact of their views on Bates College itself.
During the first several decades of Bates’ existence, four of the most well-known and respected faculty members were Thomas Angell, Professor Benjamin Hayes, George Chase and Richard Stanley. All four of these faculty kept diaries or journals at some point during the 1850s and 1860s, and these period writings are currently in the possession of the Edmund S. Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library, Bates College. These four diaries provide useful insights into the views of Bates’ earliest faculty members, as they offer relatively candid opinions about race, class and gender matters. (Sometimes a good deal of digging is required to find relevant passages, however.) All four diaries mention slavery directly or indirectly, and all four provide evidence about Bates’ progressive views.
Primary sources from Bates students during the Civil War era are slightly more difficult to locate, although several do exist. The Bates Student (and the Seminary Advocate before it) is probably the most useful source in ascertaining the sentiments of the student body during this period. Most articles in the early Bates Students were undoubtedly written by students of European-American ancestry, as the early college yearbooks reveal that almost all of the first graduates of the college were visibly identifiable as white. Several articles in the newspaper were, however, written by African Americans such as Thomas Bollin. Bollin actually addressed issues of racial equality in several of his articles. Female writers also contributed articles to the Student in its first years of publication. These articles mainly stressed the value of co-education, and were in response to a male student who opposed co-education. Authors in the Bates Student provided a diverse range of opinions regarding co-education and racial equality. It is sometimes difficult to determine whether these articles are written for the sake of argument or whether the students actually believed the arguments they were putting forth. The latter seems more likely, although the former remains a possibility in some cases. The Student is certainly among the most valuable sources in piecing together views on both race and gender relations at Bates College during this period.
Another useful resource in gaining insight into the mind of an early Maine State Seminary (Bates College) student (he attended from 1858 to 1862) is the published diary and letters of Holman S. Melcher. Melcher’s writing, being personal, seems very credible. Melcher described life as a Union soldier, and his descriptions (or lack of them) of race and gender are telling. While Melcher did not deal extensively with these topics, inferences can be made about his opinions on them by analyzing his actions during the War. It is possible that Melcher’s attitudes were indicative of other students at the school, and therefore are useful as an early period source.
Other sources written by early Bates students include several reminiscent articles published in the 1920s and 30s. These articles include “Ricker’s Reminiscences” by George Ricker, class of 1867, and “Reminiscences of Bates History” by Emma J. Clark Rand, class of 1881. These articles are extremely useful because of their in depth descriptions of the early student body. Emma Rand’s article is particularly helpful because it describes life at Bates from the perspective of one of the earliest female graduates. Although the articles were written many decades after these alums attended Bates, and they may have forgotten certain details, the authors seem remarkably specific in their descriptions. Ricker and Rand did not seem to over idealize their experiences at Bates, and they actually pointed out many of the challenges facing early students and faculty of the College in all aspects of life, including race, class and gender. It is difficult to tell if these insights are the result of reflection and perspective, however, rather than their actual attitudes fifty years earlier.
Probably the most useful source pertaining to the early years of the College is Emeline Cheney’s 1907 biography of her husband, The Story of the Life and Work of Oren B. Cheney. Mrs. Cheney not only offers reminiscences, but also quotes from many of Oren Cheney’s diaries, kept throughout his entire life. Only Cheney’s diary from 1864 currently exists, so Mrs. Cheney’s biography is very important in piecing together his life. Emeline Cheney understandably puts forth an extremely positive image of her husband and Bates College. Although this work is biased because of Mrs. Cheney’s relationship to the subject, it is still an extremely useful source, as it conveys Cheney’s stances on abolitionism, Christianity, female suffrage, and civil rights. Because the book quotes directly from Cheney’s diaries, it deserves a fair amount of credibility in piecing together progressive life at Bates College.
Other Bates sources that are relevant to this thesis such the College Bulletins from the early 1900s and Anthony’s Bates College and Its Background from 1936 are slightly more removed from the Civil War generation at Bates. These sources provide some useful insights into the early years of the College, but often ignore specific social issues such as diversity in the early Bates community. These secondary sources are undoubtedly influenced by the era and the atmosphere in determining what should be left out or included in the histories. The early 1900s were a time of nativism in much of country including New England, and there was a widespread revival of the Ku Klux Klan.Because of this atmosphere, the downplaying of social issues (especially race and ethnicity) is to be expected from period sources. It seems likely that most sources from this era reflect some of the conservative attitudes of the times.
After extracting the credible information from these sources at Bates, I will use other sources to contrast and compare Bates’ values to those of other institutions. In comparing Bates to other institutions (namely Bowdoin), the most useful primary sources are articles from the Bowdoin Orient written about Bates in the 1870s that often address issues of gender and class. Other very useful secondary sources from Bowdoin include A Small College in Maine: Two Hundred Years of Bowdoin that provides an excellent picture of life at Bowdoin in the mid-nineteenth century, thereby providing a point of contrast to Bates. Other college histories that have been useful points of comparison in this thesis include: From Evangelism to Progressivism at Oberlin College, 1866-1917 by John Barnard; and Historic Hillsdale College: Pioneer in Higher Education, 1844-1900 by Arlen Gilbert. These books tell the histories of two western colleges that were similar to Bates in regard to their egalitarianism in consideration of race and gender. As western schools, however, Oberlin and Hillsdale were located in a somewhat different environment than the New England colleges and are obviously not perfect examples of comparison. All of these books were published by the respective colleges; therefore it is not surprising that the colleges are often portrayed in a rather positive light. Strong differences and similarities are still evident between all of the institutions in these books.
Furthermore, I will employ several secondary sources in addressing how Bates fit into the intellectual mainstream of the era. Cornell historian Glenn Altschuler’s book Race, Ethnicity, and Class in American Social Thought 1865-1919 provides a very useful reference point in discussing American attitudes toward race and class in late nineteenth century America. For an overview of mainstream gender relations in nineteenth century America from a late twentieth century perspective, Louise Newan’s White Women’s Rights; The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States, Glenda Riley’s Inventing the American Woman, and Nancy Woloch’s, Women and the American Experience provide excellent background material for understanding nineteenth century views toward female education and toward women’s place in mainstream American thought. Other generally useful secondary sources for this thesis are History of Universities by Jurgen Hurbst and A History of American Higher Education by John Thelin. These two sources give overviews of the American college system and describe race, gender and class (most significantly) on American campuses in the nineteenth century. All of these fairly modern secondary sources are useful in understanding various race, class and gender phenomena that were occurring on the Bates campus, and how these compared to the wider national attitudes and movements.
In this thesis, I will argue that from 1855 to 1877 Bates College was an exceptionally progressive school in regard to race, class and gender compared to both other institutions and the intellectual mainstream. The leading faculty members of Bates College were outwardly progressive in their views on race, class, and gender, and President Cheney tended to be the most radical member of the faculty in regard to these issues. This is not to say that notable anomalies did not exist to this rule, as sometimes faculty and students could be accused of being paternalistic or even bigoted by modern standards. But the student body, while holding a somewhat more diverse range of opinions on race and gender, was overall exceptionally progressive as well by nineteenth century standards. The presentation of this argument is organized into chapters. I will devote Chapter 1 to faculty attitudes toward abolitionism and race, Chapter 2 to race relations on campus, Chapter 3 to women at Bates, and Chapter 4 to “class.” In my mind, each of these topics is an integral part of defining progressiveness. In each chapter, I will discuss how the Bates’ faculty and students lived up to my definition of progressiveness. Hopefully, this thesis will provide a richer understanding of the dynamics of race, gender and class at Bates College during the Civil War era and become part of the greater historiography of Bates College.