Centre College


When elite Kentuckians founded Centre in 1819 they were not starting the college in a vacuum. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, Centre was a part of white Americans “civilizing” the west as they expanded past the Appalachian mountains.

I think 1819 is a hard year for Americans to wrap their heads around. There is no historical landmark we can attach it to; the American Revolution was long over and the Civil War is yet to come. The War of 1812 ended a few years before but no one really knows that war anyway.

So, what else WAS happening in 1819?

  • In American politics:
    • Future president and son of a president John Quincy Adams negotiated the purchase of Florida from the Spanish in the Adams-Onis Treaty. This long desired land addition made Americans feel more secure from foreign empires and allowed the American government to force the removal of the Seminole tribe and runaway slaves from the future state.
    • Alabama became a state.
    • The Missouri Crisis begins when agreed to bar slaves from entering Missouri.
  • In the Arts and Sciences:
    • American author Washington Irving published his short story Rip Van Winkle– a story which expertly addressed the fears of the aging revolutionary generation as they began to question the values of the nation they had made.
    • The “Great Comet of 1819” fascinated people around the world and was also the first comet to be analyzed by western scientific methods to calculate its orbit.
  • In American Education:
    • Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia.
    • Dartmouth won a landmark Supreme Court case that allowed it to remain a private institution instead of a state-run college. Daniel Webster, a Dartmouth graduate, argued the case on the college’s behalf. This case would shape higher ed and the nation more generally for years to come.

One of the most remarkable things about Centre’s founding in 1819 is that America–and especially the nation’s western and southern regions-was gripped by an economic panic. A number of international incidents led to this American issue including a volcanic eruption, declining cotton prices, land speculation, and European bumper crops. The outcome, however, was that many southern and western banks folded and cash and loans were scarce throughout the “west” which included Kentucky in 1819.

Despite these economic issues, the founders of Centre College persisted and found a way to make the college a reality. It is worth asking ourselves why. Why in a bad economic climate in a state with an already established private college did a group of Kentuckians think a new school was so necessary?

Stay tuned for the answer!

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