Chapter 4: Class at Bates College
Only a handful of Bates College graduates in the Civil War era were African Americans and white women. Early alumnus George Loring White, class of 1876, described Bates students during this period as “nearly 80 per cent…boys from Maine farms.”The composition of the student body is essential to understanding the dynamics of class at Bates College during this time. During the period from 1855 to 1877, Bates was a relatively under funded college attracting a student body comprised overwhelmingly of poor, rural, Baptist farm boys. Due partially to this demographic characteristic, Bates never developed a fraternity system, made tuition affordable and remained a relatively egalitarian institution during this period. Since Bates’ class orientation was tied to its economic state, I shall first address the causes of Bates relatively weak financial standing (largely Free Will Baptist attributes), then describe the social makeup (class) of students who predominantly attended the college, and next describe the experience of that class of students and how it contrasted with similar colleges and the larger community. My argument is that although Bates’ student body seems to have been relatively poor relative to other schools, the College was committed to providing educational opportunities regardless of class.
In order to understand my analysis of “class” at Bates during this period, the reader might find it helpful to consider the subject of class more broadly. Cornell historian Glenn Altschuler writes that “[t]hroughout much of their history Americans boasted that the nation, in contrast to Europe, was relatively free of fixed categories of social class.” Although social classes in the United States may not have been as rigid as those in a nation with a formal aristocracy, classes did indeed exist, even if they were focused on wealth rather than birth alone. Altschuler goes on to describe how in late nineteenth century America:
[t]he popular novels of Horatio Alger…appealed to people who abhorred the industrial city and wished to accept change without undermining values associated with the rural past…The honest and energetic heroes earn the rewards of Providence in the form of a chance to win the gratitude of a well-to-do merchant. Alger, and scores of writers who used the genre, asserted that success, defined as middle-class respectability, awaited those who could summon the will to grasp it.
This romanticizing of upward mobility seems to have been aimed largely at a rural, lower-middle class audience, who believed that “the prosperous were virtuous and industrious, the poor vicious and indolent.” This rural upward-looking audience resembles the sort of people who largely attended Bates College in its first years, and the role of “well-to-do merchant” seems to have been filled by Benjamin Bates and others.
Many older American colleges were founded as relatively aristocratic institutions, but by the mid-nineteenth century when Bates was founded, a broader class of Americans was starting to go to college. Education historian Jergen Herbst claims that “the ante-bellum years opened the colleges to men and women who until then had never dreamed of entering academic life. The sons and daughters of middle-class and poor families in city and country sought out colleges.” This upward looking class was able to afford an education largely because, “[a]ided by their elders through voluntary education societies they availed themselves of private and of public generosity. They demonstrated their need and their determination to be educated.” As in many other institutions, Bates students were aided by this sort of benevolence, and this chapter will address the degree to which Bates students required and received assistance and employment to complete their education.
To understand how Bates was able to exist as an institution (funding tuition, salaries and other expenses), a general background of Bates’ financial condition is helpful. This is relevant because the financial condition of the school was largely responsible for the “class” of students who were attracted to it. Bates was in relatively weak fiscal shape in its first decades, and a large part of Bates’ modest financial situation was due indirectly to its religious connection. When Bates was founded as the Maine State Seminary in 1855 it was predominantly the creation of the Free Will Baptist denomination. The founder, Reverend Oren B. Cheney, was a Free Will Baptist pastor, and although the college was open to students of all denominations, it was run primarily by the Free Baptists into the twentieth century. In describing the Free Will Baptist connection to Bates, a bill in the state legislature in 1864 asserted that:
Bates College, though a purely literary institution, is under the care of the Free Baptist denomination. This denomination is not wealthy—is mostly confined to country towns. It has been but a few years since they have taken a general interest in the cause of education.
Because the Free Will Baptists had a particularly large following among lower middle class, agrarian New Englanders in “country towns,” it is not surprising that Bates drew a sizable number of students from this demographic group. Free Will Baptists had a less elite membership than the Calvinist sects that had dominated New England for centuries such as the Congregationalists (Puritans) and Calvinist Baptists. The Free Baptists believed that salvation, grace, will and communion were open to everyone, in contrast to the Calvinists’ more exclusive theology that emphasized an elect few. Because of this difference in doctrine, those who were not necessarily in Calvinist communities (often poor and minorities), were generally included in the Free Baptist denomination, often as leaders. The relatively socially inclusive atmosphere that pervaded in Free Will Baptist churches also influenced other institutions that were affiliated with the denomination such as Bates. Bates College was eventually founded to support the education of Free Will Baptists and others who did not necessarily want to be educated in the schools affiliated with the Calvinists, such as Bowdoin and Yale, which were affiliated with the Congregationalists.
Because the Free Baptists as a denomination were relatively poor it is not surprising that the major benefactors of the institution were not Baptists, but were instead the State of Maine and Benjamin Bates. After the Parsonfield Seminary burned in 1854, Oren Cheney decided to build the Maine State Seminary (Bates College) as an institution run primarily by the Free Will Baptists. Not surprisingly, Cheney raised some donations from Free Baptists throughout New England, but “little, very little comparatively speaking, of the material resources of Bates have come to her directly from Free Baptists.” Cheney’s donations from the Free Baptists came mostly in small amounts. According to Emeline Cheney, “one of his [Cheney’s] shrewdest moves for raising money for the Seminary…was through a call for an offering of one dollar each from the children in Sunday schools and elsewhere. Following Mr. Cheney’s appeal, through the Seminary Advocate and Morning Star, a wide-spread interest was created, which proved to be of threefold value.” Although Cheney may have raised some funds through small individual donations from Free Will Baptists, his largest donations came from outside of the denomination. First, Cheney convinced the Maine State Legislature to pass “a bill appropriating $15,000 and …giving a charter to [the] Maine State Seminary.” In the mid-nineteenth century nearly all colleges were run by religious denominations, but received partial funding from the state. After this initial state funding, Cheney solicited large donations from Franklin Company of Lewiston. From the Franklin Company Cheney received donations of cash and land on which to build the Seminary. One of the primary investors in the Franklin Company was a Congregationalist named Benjamin Bates, who went on to become the College’s major early benefactor.
Benjamin Bates was the largest of the early donors to the school even though he was not a member of the Free Will Baptist church. In addition to his early donations through the Franklin Company, Bates personally donated $100,000 to the Seminary and College and pledged another $100,000 to be paid after his death, assuming the College could match those funds. Bates made his gifts at a time when, according to education expert John Thelin, “[c]olleges benefited from the world-view of wealthy entrepreneurs who acknowledged their obligation to be stewards of important educational endeavors.” Bates seems to have donated generously to the college out of a sense of duty to the community and “no hint had been given to Mr. Bates that the proposed College should be named for him.” Unfortunately, after Bates’ death in 1878, a lengthy court battle between Bates College and Bates’ heirs took place, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled against the College. Therefore the school never received the second pledge of $100, 000 and remained financially burdened for quite some time.
Regardless of its relatively poor financial health in its early years, Bates College continued to attract relatively underprivileged students and helped them to pay their way through the school. Bates stood in contrast to other New England colleges in regard to the class of people it attracted. The Bowdoin Orient in 1874 paints a picture of Bowdoin’s student body asserting that:
Bowdoin claims to be an aristocratic College…We do not come here for the sake of being aristocratic, we come to fit ourselves so that we must, whether it is our aim or not, occupy a place among the aristocrats of the world.
Bowdoin’s reputation as an aristocratic training ground stood in sharp contrast to its relatively impoverished cousin in Lewiston.
George Chase, class of 1868, wrote that the founders of Bates wanted to ensure that the school:
embodied their protest against castes, classes, and social tyrannies, whether originating in human slavery or in human vanity, pride and snobbishness. It was their aim to establish an institution in which the rich and the poor, the highest and the humblest might mingle on equal terms in the spirit of mutual helpfulness
Indeed Cheney’s Free Baptist values seem to have been the driving force behind his desire for the College do “missionary work at home in opening the way for a large number of young men to acquire a liberal education who would otherwise remain uneducated.” This desire to destroy caste seems to have been sharply different from the ambitions of other colleges such as Bowdoin, which saw themselves as the educators of the “aristocrats of the world.”
Bates also differed from most traditional colleges in its rejection of the fraternity and sorority system. According to historian Charles Calhoun, at most colleges from “the 1840s on, students began to find the new “secret societies”—the origins of modern social fraternities—a…fulfilling experience.” In contrast, at Bates, “there were to be no cliques, no secret fraternities or clubs.” Although this statement may have exaggerated the egalitarian atmosphere at Bates, it appears as though no official fraternities or secret societies were ever sanctioned by the College, and the College’s literary societies and other clubs were open to all students. This purposeful inclusiveness was of the utmost importance in understanding class issues at Bates. At most colleges with fraternities during this period, students were segregated socially because of the fraternity system. According to historian John Thelin, “[s]tanding in sharp contrast to the ‘college men’ and their extracurricular orbits [fraternities] were the ‘outsiders’—students who usually were from modest economic backgrounds and were not offered membership in the established enclaves.” At Bates a hierarchical fraternity system was never allowed by the College administration, and the “outsiders” at other schools were the overwhelming majority of the student body at Bates.
The Bates Student recorded one instance of a failed rebellion against this policy of egalitarianism. Apparently, several students attempted to start a secret society in March of 1881. But as the January 1882 Student reported, “What has become of that secret society that the Seniors started so bravely last March? Did the cold March wind blow it away in its infancy, or did the publication of all its officers take away so much of its secrecy that they concluded to give it up?” This brief passage appears to be the sole mention of a failed attempt at forming an exclusive society at Bates during its earliest years, and later College literature took pride in the fact that its clubs were open to all students in maintaining “the great Christian democratic purpose of her founders.”Although a small minority of Bates students may have desired more aristocratic company, they seemed to have had few sympathizers at the school.
The overwhelming majority of Bates students during this period seem to have been a far cry from the label “aristocrat.” As President Chase described it, “these young men and women are from the common people, mostly from the families of small farmers where the wage-earning capacity is that of the common laborer. There are no ‘favorite son’s’ positions awaiting them.” Indeed it seems to be the consensus among early faculty and students that Bates’ first students were relatively impoverished, but that this hardship was a badge of honor. The Seminary Advocate from March of 1860 reiterated the message that poverty is nothing to be ashamed of, asserting:
If there is anything in the world that a young man should be more grateful for than another, it is the poverty that necessitates his starting life under great disadvantages. Poverty is one of the best tests of human character.
The College seems to have celebrated the Horatio Alger-like struggle of the majority of its students, even though students often faced sizable challenges, and often this version of the American Dream clearly did not reach fruition.
Just how many students overcame these challenges, interacted with the few wealthier students, and could afford an education at Bates College presents a much more complicated picture. Several alumni, including Emma Clark Rand, class of 1881, hinted that several relatively privileged students attended Bates during her time at the school (1877 to 1881). Rand wrote:
In our class several of the young men, who had come from families where there was considerable social life and who in fine summer hotels had seen things done with elegance, were eager to try their hand at a really handsome party. So we had a delightful “Sophomore Exit” at the DeWitt Hotel: and the next night the Juniors had their party at the same place. For once we were just as elegant as we aspired to be; but when the Faculty learned of it they decided that such parties were too fine for Bates’ purse so they were not repeated.
Rand’s reminiscence certainly implies that at least a few early students were from more well to do families with “considerable social life.” It is possible that these members of the class of 1881 were the same students referred to earlier as attempting to start a secret society in 1881. Interestingly, Emma Rand suggested that the party, inspired by these young men, was open to the entire class, and therefore it does not seem as though it excluded the poorer students. It is also interesting that Rand noted that the class was finally “as elegant as we aspired to be.” This certainly indicates a desire on the part of the students for Horatio Alger-like upward mobility towards elegance. Although more Americans were going to college, a nineteenth century college education was still a relatively elite activity. (Historian Nancy Woloch points out that in “1870… 1 percent of college-age Americans attended college.”) Although some Bates students may have recognized this privilege and seen themselves as a rising elite, they seem to have been in the minority. In Rand’s example, it seems as though the faculty brought the students back down to reality with their assertion that “such parties were too fine for Bates’ purse.” This suggests that the College community was generally not a bastion of wealth and elitism during this era and that the school wanted to be seen as practical and down-to-earth.
The fact that many Bates students were not wealthy is suggested by many of the students’ tuition struggles. Even though Bates was among the most affordable colleges in New England in the mid-nineteenth century, many students had a hard time paying tuition and worked as teachers to support themselves. Tuition at Bates was $36 in 1874, versus $75 at nearby Bowdoin that same year. Even at less than half of the cost of tuition of other schools, almost all Bates students worked to pay at least part of their way through school, and the main form of employment was teaching school during winter vacations. The Seminary Advocate from April 1861 reported:
To those students pursuing the course who find it necessary to be absent to teach school in the winter terms and at the same time are able to maintain a good standing in their several classes, permission will be granted.
This trend of teaching school during winter break continued as Bates transformed from a seminary to a college. Often College students were “overburdened with the necessity of teaching country schools in the long winter vacations and toiling arduously on the farm in the summer.” Bates appears to have been relatively accommodating towards its schoolteacher-students and a large majority of students appear to have worked as teachers during their time at Bates. In 1878, Professor Richard Stanley reported that “some students have been absent from my classes by excuse, for the purpose of teaching; but all except one who have been absent for the present term, have satisfactorily made up the studies in my department.” The College was clearly accommodating the many students who were underprivileged and needed to work to support themselves.
At the same time, however, some faculty members were dissatisfied with the system of students teaching school, and felt it was detrimental to the students. Bates’ Examining Committee, led by Rev. G. S. Dickerman reported:
One great hindrance to individual and class proficiency is the frequent and prolonged absences of students from the College. It is an injury not only to those who are absent, but to those who remain. It tends to weaken habits of study and to cultivate a spirit of restlessness. Yet these absences are mostly necessary; and while we deplore the inexorable necessity which compels many to rely so largely upon their own labor while in College for means to remain at College, we are thankful that our College system is such that they can enjoy its advantages to any degree.
Although this faculty member may have opposed the student absences to earn money for tuition, he seems to have recognized the deplorable necessity of the situation due to the relative poverty of the students. The professor seems to have been primarily concerned about the quality of education that the students were receiving.
If the class of 1879 is indicative of the student body, it appears as though almost all of the students paid for a substantial part of their expenses at Bates by teaching. Of the eighteen students in the class, sixteen taught school to earn money. Of the two who did not teach, one of them, Thomas Bollin, could not teach because of racial prejudice (as described in chapter 2). Only one of the eighteen students, Thurston Lombard of Auburn, Maine, could afford the luxury of not teaching while at Bates. The average graduating senior spent $1,292 and only earned $509 over their four years at Bates. Although almost the entire class taught to pay for some of their expenses, only about 40 percent of their expenses were paid through their own labor. The other 60 percent of their expenses were likely paid with the help of family, scholarships and other aid. Almost all Eastern colleges such as Bowdoin, Harvard, and Yale charged much higher tuition than Bates, so inferences can be drawn that students at these schools were able to pay even less of their expenses by their own labor. Perhaps the students at these schools did not need to pay for their own expenses, as they likely came from wealthier families. Even at Western colleges such as Oberlin, which was in 1875 “less expensive than most comparable colleges,” an investigation found that “33 1/3 percent were entirely supported by someone else.” That nearly all Bates students had to teach to support themselves suggests that Bates students were significantly poorer than students at other colleges, even relatively affordable ones in the West such as Oberlin. Interestingly, according to John Thelin, “as a general rule, tuition charges were not prohibitive anywhere. If a student was excluded from a particular college, it was more likely due to social, gender, ethnic, racial or religious discrimination than to the price of attendance.” It seems as though most colleges were relatively accommodating toward students during the mid nineteenth century, although the majority of Bates students still seem to have been less privileged than students at other American colleges.
Because such a high percentage of early Bates students (roughly 95% of the class of 1879) were struggling to pay their own way through the school by teaching, the College offered many scholarships to help make the already low tuition more affordable. The Bates Student of June 1877 reported the College has “nineteen scholarships, which regularly give free tuition to as many [and] the College has never refused free tuition to any worthy student who has asked for it….upwards of fifty are receiving charity in this way from the scholarships and liberality of the College.” One of these scholarships, founded “by the late Hon. Asa Redington, LL.D., is specially set apart for the benefit of a lady student, and is the only scholarship of such a character, it is thought in New England.” Clearly, Bates appears to have been working quite hard from its earliest years to open its doors to all students regardless of present economic standing.
Bates’ commitment to providing an affordable education to underprivileged students (and women), through offering scholarships and allowing students to teach, did not escape the scrutiny of other more elite colleges. Bowdoin’s student newspaper criticized Asa Redington after his donation of the aforementioned scholarship to Bates, and hinted again that Bates was of a lower social caliber than Bowdoin. The Bowdoin Orient from September of 1873 asserted:
To this slight, the December, 1873 Bates Student responded:
We would answer that Bowdoin if we remember rightly, is at Brunswick, ME., and her LL.D. is no other than the Hon. Jefferson Davis, chief cook and bottle-washer of the Southern Confederacy. We recommend that they call on him for a few Confederate stamps.
Bowdoin had indeed given an honorary degree to Jefferson Davis when he visited Maine in 1858 and “as embarrassing as the degree was to prove in a few years, it made sense at the time, and the College never rescinded it.” The overly defensive post-Civil War Bowdoin paper wrote a lengthy rebuttal to Bates’ attack in January of 1874 claiming:
The gentlemen of the Student…show themselves remarkably familiar with Bowdoin’s LL.D.’s and yet these more important things appear to be forgotten. Perhaps some of our readers may stop with us to smile just here. Gentlemen of the Student, you have simply fallen into error, and lest you do the same again, we call to your attention this one fact: the gulf that rolls between the prestige of Bowdoin and that of Bates, is still so broad that it cannot be easily bridged by your little slips of memory.
This final article from the Bowdoin Orient reveals certain nineteenth century attitudes about Bates’ standing that were seldom recorded in official publications. The “gulf” of prestige between Bates and Bowdoin that the author mentioned may have had to do with the difference in age between the two colleges (Bowdoin was sixty years older), but it was also undoubtedly linked to the endowment and the class background of students at the two schools. While Bates was attracting primarily “needy but deserving young men [and women],” according to Bates Professor Stanley in 1877, Bowdoin was building a reputation as a prestigious school, “especially for sons of the elite.” It is not surprising that a more privileged all-male institution would criticize the philanthropy of Asa Redington in donating a scholarship to its younger, poorer rival in Lewiston (especially a scholarship for a female student).
Another sign of the class gulf between Bates and Bowdoin is evident in examining the percentage of Bowdoin graduates who fought in the Civil War, which hints not only at abolitionist principles, but also at class issues. Students who were able to afford substitutes and commutation fees were generally more financially secure. According to Bowdoin historian Charles Calhoun:
[a]fter the war, the College took great pride in pointing out that a larger percentage of its alumni had fought for the Union than those of any other college in the North…25.02 percent, [although] such statistics are not entirely reliable, for the war records were not complete…In truth, the record is more ambivalent. Civil War service, especially for sons of the elite, was notoriously easy to avoid: you paid a $300 commutation fee or hired a substitute…it is striking how low the absolute percentages of military service are for the late antebellum classes.
Bowdoin clearly seems to have relished if not exaggerated its myth as the most pro-Union school in the North. Although Bates College does not appear to have celebrated its own Civil War history as zealously as Bowdoin, there are many references to the high numbers of students serving in the War. Although there is only a partial list of Maine State Seminary and Bates College students who served in the War, it is possible to piece together a basic picture of the College during this period. The “Seminary Roll of Honor” (the most recent surviving edition is from July, 1863 Seminary Advocate) and the list of enlisted students from the 1862 Seminary Catalogue reported that 42 percent (26 of 62) of male Seminary graduates (college course from 1858 to 1862) served in the Union forces. Furthermore, Emeline Cheney recorded that as of November 1864, the Seminary and College “sent one hundred and seventy-five of its young men to the war [including graduates and non-graduates alike].” Additionally, at least nine Civil War veterans also enrolled as students at Bates College from 1865 to 1875, according to the General Catalogue of Bates College from 1930. In percentage terms, Bates College (Maine State Seminary) could have very well sent a much higher percentage of men to the War than Bowdoin. This is not particularly surprising as Bates’ students seem to have been relatively poorer and therefore less able to afford commutation fees or substitutes and been more motivated by principle.
Because of Bates’ low tuition and small endowment, early professors were often disadvantaged as well and were often paid less than their counterparts at other schools. George M. Chase described in detail the financial hardships faced by the College after the depression of 1873 and the inability of Benjamin Bates to donate the second $100,000 before his death. Chase claimed:
The only way they could think of to avoid closing the doors of the institution was to reduce the already meager salaries of the professors from fifteen hundred to twelve hundred dollars…Most…were ordained clergymen, and were able to supplement their scanty stipends by the sums received for…ministrations at country churches.
Chase’s comment shows the obvious financial difficulty facing the school in its early years, and it is telling that the administration continued to recruit talented yet underprivileged students even in the face of this adversity and with reductions in their own salaries. According to historian John Thelin, in mid-nineteenth century America, “[p]rofessors at the liberal arts colleges enjoyed both high income and high status within the community.” That Bates’ professors were forced to accept a decreased income [in contrast to their peers elsewhere] reflects again on the dire financial state of the school. Professor Stanley wrote in 1877 that “the scale of expenses is low, and effort is made by all the College Authorities to keep it low, and to put students, by every means in their power, in the way of earning money whereby to help themselves. All habits of needless or extravagant expenditure would be immediately checked.” It is clear that the College stressed frugality in spending and that the faculty often sacrificed to keep tuition low for the students and to keep the college alive.
Because most Bates students were from Maine and were fairly poor, it is not surprising that there seems to have been relatively little class tension between the College and the city of Lewiston in the 1850s through the 1870s. This harmony in town-gown relations also seems to have been reaffirmed by a shared cultural background. The students appear to have been relatively homogenous in the nineteenth century. Also during this era, Lewiston and the surrounding area were comprised almost entirely of native-born whites. As of 1873, a “change in the character of the population was beginning. Already Yankee workers in the factories were being displaced by other races, and slums and patches were disfiguring various portions of the city. But Lewiston was still essentially an American community.” Indeed there appears to have been relatively little reason for tension between the College and the “American community” before the 1880s, as this somewhat nativist reminiscence from the 1920s reveals. Native-born whites were clearly the dominant population in the region during this period, making up approximately 90% of the Androscoggin County population in 1870 and 82% of the population in 1880, according to the 1880 census. It would be expected that working class, white, native-born Bates students (95% of the graduates from 1867-1877) would fit in with most members of the surrounding community very well.
Thanks at least partially to a shared class and ethnic background, the students and residents from the surrounding area often interacted. In the 1860s and 1870s, several Bates students actually labored at the mills in Lewiston, such as Mary Mitchell, class of 1869. Scores of other Bates students taught at local schools and were active in local churches in the community. When the school first opened in 1857 President Cheney reportedly “hoped that the citizens of this institution would ever preserve kindly relations with our citizens.” The inaugural speaker on that day claimed “that the citizens of this village had $15,000 invested in this Seminary; and he was assured that the hearts of Yankees would go where their investment was.” Indeed, relations seem to have started off well between the College and the predominantly Yankee community, and they were relatively cordial up through the 1870s. Since the community and the school had a good deal invested in each other and largely resembled each other, there appears to have been relatively little tension between the community and the College due to social status or cultural background.
As this chapter makes clear, Bates College during the period 1855 to 1877 was overwhelmingly comprised of relatively poor students who grew up on farms in the greater Lewiston area and paid much of their way through school. Due to Bates’ early affiliation with the Free Will Baptists, this particular demographic seems to have been drawn to Bates for many decades, in contrast to other New England colleges. Largely because of the makeup of the student body and values of the founder, Bates never allowed a fraternity system to develop at the College, and therefore may have avoided the exclusive system that such a hierarchy would legitimate. Furthermore, because this area in Maine was relatively homogenous, there appears to have been little visible class conflict between the College and the city, and very little class conflict within the school itself. The primary source of tension seems to have been between Bates and other more “aristocratic” institutions such as Bowdoin College. Most of the “boys [and girls] from Maine farms” at Bates seem to have developed little of the elitist pretensions found at other New England institutions during the mid-nineteenth century and largely avoided the class strife prevalent elsewhere.