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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

The Leondard Cousins Co to College: Dartmouth in the l850's


In this era of soaring tuition fees, research-minded professors, and a Dartmouth 1990-1991 operating budget of over 200 million dollars, there is understandable nostalgia for the small, nineteenth-century College where professors taught and students studied, where life was simple and tuition low. It is easy to romanticize the Dartmouth of the nineteenth century, but we should realize how rigid, provincial, and inadequate it often was. Yet in some ways College life seems to have changed very little. Students complained about their professors and their living arrangements. They negotiated with their parents about money and worried about their future. The following account is based on the letters of two students who attended Dartmouth in the 1850's.

On 15 May 1856 Reeves Leonard, seventeen, and his cousin Leverett Leonard, eighteen, left Fayette, Missouri, for the long trek to Dartmouth College, where they would enter the freshman class. Six days later they arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts, but it took a day and a half more before they finally reached Hanover. Few students in the 1850's traveled as far to attend college, but these young men had a special reason. Reeves's father, Abiel Leonard, originally from Windsor, Vermont, had gone to Dartmouth for two years beginning in 1813, but because of family financial difficulties had been forced to leave before graduating. The elder Leonard had been admitted to the bar in New York State and had emigrated to Missouri in 1815. He became a successful farmer, lawyer, and judge, and was one of the few New England settlers in central Missouri. In 1856 he sent his son and nephew to Hanover to get the education he had been unable to complete. The letters, many written over a three-year period by Reeves Leonard to his father and mother, are preserved in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Most of the students in the Class of 1859 (eighty-four graduated) began their studies in the fall of 1855, but the two Missouri students did not enter College until near the end of the spring term. This was a serious handicap, but they managed to survive. Latin, Greek, and mathematics were the backbone of the curriculum at Dartmouth and at most American colleges in the mid-nineteenth century. At the end of their first term Leverett reported to his uncle,'In Mathematics & Latin all things went smoothly enough -- but the Greek particularly which the class were receiving I found a little more than I was able to get well. This I attribute to the comparatively little attention I paid to it before I came here-having studied it, not more than seven months & part of that time without a teacher.'1 Apparently Leverett was not at his best in Latin or Greek, for Reeves remarked to his mother,'Leverett thinks he would much prefer going to West-Point to this or any other college, not that he has any desire to become a fighting man-but-he has a great antipathy for Latin and Greek-and is fond of Mathematics-which they pursue there entirely.'2

In any case the Missouri students had only a month to catch up with the class, for in the same letter (22 June 1856) Reeves wrote to his mother, 'Yesterday we recited our last advance lesson during Freshman year-now we are to recess four weeks-then 2 weeks will be consumed in examination and Commencement.' They planned, however, to study during the vacation, to practice their Latin and Greek, and also to begin French. Dartmouth offered no formal instruction in modern languages in the1850's, but students were allowed to pursue their own course of study during vacations and the sparsely-attended winter term, if they could find a tutor. 3 'We did expect to commence studying French this vacation,' Reeves wrote home,'But I have been informed that it would be almost impossible to procure a teacher. At the end of the year the Profs are all a good deal fatigued and generally travel about during the vacation or are not willing to hear recitation then-especially on hot days.' Finding instruction in German was even more difficult.'The only German teacher there is here is the wife of a Frenchman. She is said to be a poor teacher and of course does not have many scholars.' 4

Dartmouth in the 1850's was a small, provincial college. Not only were there no modern languages taught, there was also no science except geology and chemistry, and those only in the senior year. There was a required list of courses, and there were no electives. The faculty in general was undistinguished, and the atmosphere was stifling. One of those who taught there remembered it as 'a college of pinched and grinding frugality almost without aesthetic adornment.' 5 And the students were probably similar to those Nathaniel Hawthorne had discovered at Williams a few years earlier:'a roughhewn, heavy set of fellows, from the hills and woods of this neighborhood,-great unpolished bumpkins, who had grown up farmerboys.'6 But few colleges in the 1850's were much different from Dartmouth. Instruction at Dartmouth, as at all colleges, was through the recitation method. The student recited from his Latin or Greek or other textbook, and the professor graded him on his performance. Examinations were much the same, except that the student recited before a committee. William Jewett Tucker, who attended Dartmouth from1857 to1861 and later became president of the College (1893-1909), remarked that the chief effect of the fixed curriculum and the method of examination was to introduce and encourage competition. 'It did not for this reason make scholars,' he decided, 'but it converted a good many rather indifferent scholars into competitors....There were limits to the degree of ignorance or stupidity which one liked to display before his classmates.' 7

Reeves seems not to have been especially disturbed by the prospect of facing the examining committee: 'Examinations commence next week,' he wrote to his father,'but that is of little consequence-although they are much more rigid in their examinations than at Howard High School [Fayette, Missouri]. If a student employs his time profitably or even applies himself diligently, I can scarcely see why there should be any dread of examinations.' 8 A short time later, he reported,'I went around yesterday to one of the professors and obtained from him my "standings," & was very agreeably surprised to find it much better than I anticipated-The marks range from 1 to 5; 1 is perfect-not a single mistake through the course. Out of all the number which had graduated here, Rufus Choate, Prof. [John Newton] Putnam and tutor [Walbridge Abner] Field are those who have been honored with the title of perfect scholars. It seems to me that this is an impossibility. The first scholar in our class stood 1.10, the second 1.23. Leverett and I had the same average recitation mark 1.73. The examining committee mark each student as he recites. In this our marks were not alike-his being 1.83, mine 1.33. However this does not make much difference; in truth it makes or ought to make none. 'Tis true you can always ascertain which stands first in examination; but this is no criterion, by which to judge of a persons scholarship. Sometimes the poorest scholar makes a good examination and "vice versa." '9

Commencement week proved to be not all fun. 'The whole college have to march around every way almost every day this week -- thing, by the way-which I am not particularly fond of -- And then we do have the most uncomfortable seats up in the gallery of a crowded house -- where the air is always hotter. And then I think it would pay better to stay in my room and read one of Webster's essays or other great men's speeches than to go up there and listen to the "gas" that those fellows get off: Is or to speeches a day.' 10

Reeves was also not very much impressed with the oratory he heard in church. 'I have just returned from the Episcopal Church where I have heard the poorest excuse for a sermon ...that I have ever heard during my life,' he wrote to his mother. 'The Minister of the Congregational church is not much better. And as we are compelled to go to church -- we would think ourselves extremely happy if we had some of the Fayette ministers -- poor as most of them are-to entertain us.' Later he remarked,'going to church considered the great bug-bear of college life. As long as President [Nathan] Lord stays -- we shall not have a minister to whom it would be a pleasure to listen. But whether students like to go to church or not is of little consequence -- one of the college laws requires it and it must be obeyed.' Chapel was also required, but Reeves did not always go, and his father on one occasion warned him about unexcused absences from chapel, which 'must not again appear on your bills.'11

Despite his criticism of Hanover ministers, Reeves did admit that President Lord's baccalaureate address was 'the best thing in the shape of a sermon I ever heard.'12 In addition, within the space of a few weeks he was able to listen to Edward Everett, Henry Ward Beecher, Theodore Parker, and Horace Greeley, as well as one of Dartmouth's most famous sons, Rufus Choate, an orator, lawyer, and congressman. 'I think him to be quite a common looking man-And from external appearances would never take him to be Dartmouth's second son,' Reeves remarked.' 13 Both boys joined one of the literary societies at Dartmouth; Leverett became a member of the Social Friends and Reeves of the United Fraternity, but they did not join one of the secret societies, for Reeves concluded that the latter had a 'decided tendency to break up this unanimity and harmony existing in the class.'14

The two boys lived in various rooming houses in Hanover, as more than half of the student body did in the 1850's They never found a place that completely satisfied them, however. 'Yesterday we moved; not being particularly attached to the rooms we then occupied,' Reeves reported. 'I have gotten out of the notion of ever going up into the college buildings to room. A few disorderly, lazy fellows keep up the most hideous howling there all night.'15 Leverett wrote to his uncle,'We have also changed our boarding place, the family with which we have been previously boarding having determined not to take boarders next year. The place at which we are [?] staying is not private but kept especially for students.... It is impossible to find a place where they take in but two or three boarders ...eight or ten usually the case.... For board we pay two dollars & a half per week-for room rent, one dollar & a quarter-& for washing twenty cents. Our room is furnished and taken care of for us.'16 But the new room did not seem to be much of an improvement on the college dormitories. 'The poorest scholars, the laziest & most trifling fellows seem to be forever hanging around your door,' Reeves reported. 'Without employment themselves they seem to think that all follow in their own footsteps and that it is a pleasant thing to be bored by their undesired presence. The students you love to associate with come seldom, and their visits are far between-They only come when they are wanted-It seems to me that I have been particularly unfortunate, in this respect, this term. I intend to turn over a new leaf however the next term and I will be the one to say who shall come and who shall not.'17

'About 1/3 of the Dartmouth students expect to become theologians-another 1/3 lawyers and the rest gentlemen of leisure,' Reeves reported. 'They do not actually say so -- but from their actions it seems right for us to infer this: at least I think they can never be anything more.'18 Yet he decided that 'There is a strong contrast between the students here and those at the South. And although it is quite natural that I should be prejudiced in favor of my young friends there -- yet in many respects-in many good qualities -- the students here are vastly superior. They seem continually to live in peace and in [mission?].... Neither does one exultingly rejoice over the failure of another. In short they all appear to participate in the exultation of each individual student and commiserate with him who is so very unfortunate as to make a failure.... It has been remarked frequently that the people here are more distant and [tis?] a more difficult thing to become acquainted with than at the South. I guess this is generally true, but not so much so in class as elsewhere.They generally like to ascertain a good deal about a student before they commit themselves as friends-but when this is once effected I doubt not but they are truly staunch friends.'19 Reeves observed that 'Almost all the students that are "fitted" at Andover Mass. & Exeter New Hampshire & even Meridan New Hampshire, are excellent scholars -- there can be no doubt but that New England is far superior to Missouri in the art of inspiring boys with a love of knowledge, if in nothing else.'20

The school year at Dartmouth in the 1850's was divided into four terms, with graduation in August. Most of the students who came from New England did not attend college during the winter term, which ran from about Thanksgiving to the first part of March. Many of them returned to their home towns and taught school or took some other such job during these winter months. Reeves and Leverett Leonard returned home to Missouri once during their three and a half years at Dartmouth, but during two winter terms they were forced to remain in Hanover. 'The weather continues to grow colder every day,' Reeves reported on 30 November of their first year, continuing that 'tonight the wind blows furiously -- A deep snow has fallen and most people say we shall not see the ground again until Spring.'21 At least in his reports to his father, Reeves faced the lonely, dreary winter with determination, and in the best tradition of the Protestant ethic set out to make the most of his opportunity to study and learn on his own, but he must have felt a twinge of envy and regret as he saw the other students head for home. 'The ground is now covered with snow,' he wrote,'the heavens dark and overcast, threaten to give us more; everything, except the students, who are [soon to?] be at home, looks dismal and dreary. Yet the gloomy appearance of nature -- the joyous students whom I will not see for some time to come -- the thought that I am to remain here this winter -- shut out from all society, causes me no unpleasant sensations -- I have thought, in times past by, that it was hard that a man should alone be able to make himself a man.'22

'Even if I had had a desire to be out of doors the cold weather would have kept me in,' he decided,'but no such desire has troubled me -- I have recited several lessons in French-but I have not commenced the German yet.... I study during the day and read history until 12 o'clock at night when I retire generally rather weary. I find that the reading of history properly is in reality more of a study than French itself. I cannot endure to be idle here-I become discontented not with my situation, but with myself.'23 'Another week has swiftly past,' he reported,'yet I am not satisfied, and I may truly say I have never -- since I have been here -- been satisfied at the end of any week. I feel -- indeed, I know I have not done my duty. As I reflect upon my actions during the week past, I continually reproach myself. I am clearly convinced that many precious moments have gone by, unheeded and unimproved by me-In fact, I see a thousand faults, and although I strive to employ myself more profitably, yet at the close of another week fully as many (not always the same) defects stare me in the face.'24 During the 1859 winter term Reeves studied French and German, when he was able to find a tutor. He read books on the history of Greece and Rome, a life of Chief Justice Marshall (author and title not specified), a history of England, and Richard Hildreth's The History of the United States of America (New York: Harper, various editions). Several letters from the same term also mention a book that obviously impressed him, Joseph Havens's Mental Philosophy: Including the Intellect, Sensibilities, and Will (Boston: Gould and Lincoln; New York: Sheldon, Blakeman, 1858). Despite the self-imposed regimen of study and the brave words, it must have been good to see the end of the snow and the return of the majority of the students.

Like the correspondence of all college students with their parents, Reeves's letters to his father are filled with the practical discussion of money. 'I can tell you what these bills will be and then you can manage about the money as you think best,' Reeves told his father.'1st there is a bill at my boarding place -- 25 weeks -- $2.50 per week -- 2 term bills -- that is one for this past term & one for the next fall term -- which are about $20.00 a piece -- About $25.00 for clothes & about $25.00 for Room rent & washing -- AIl this will amount to about $140.00 This seems rather a large sum at present -- I suppose -- but this will be about all the money I will need until the close of next term near the end of November-except some money for books and little things which must be purchased during the term'25

Reeves was not especially concerned with politics nor with the sectional crisis that was soon to lead to civil war. 'I never hear any thing up here about Kansas now except what comes through the Banner [the Fayette, Missouri, paper his father sent him] -- I don't profess to know anything about politics, yet it is a strange thing to me that our President can't put a stop to all this trouble'26 Later he wrote,'There is great excitement here at present, about the election. Mr. [John D.] Freemont has carried all the New England States but it is generally believed that Mr. [James] Buchanan is elected.... It would please me exceedingly to see Mr [Millard] Fillmore [the American Party or Know Nothing candidate] occupy the presidential chair for the next 4 years.'27 Several months later he continued, 'A man from Kansas lectured here tonight -- Leverett went to hear him, but I believe he did not consider himself paid for his "trip". Such lecturers I believe, don't have much sympathy here. The folks are most all (now that the students are gone) Democrats.'28

In 1858 a major religious revival swept across the northeastern part of the United States. The religious enthusiasm was probably related to the long strain of the slavery controversy and to the financial crisis left by the panic of 1857. It was sometimes called 'the businessmen's revival,' and almost all the large cities were affected. Its impact also extended to the colleges. 'There has been during this whole term a religious revival amongst the students,' Reeves wrote to his father in the spring of 1858. 'But I believe these revivals are omnipresent as far as America is concerned. In the villages adjoining Hanover a great many converts have been made -- but here in College it seems a peculiarly hard task for those who are most solicitous in this matter to effect anything-only two or three students have been converted Although, I doubt not, most of them have seriously contemplated the subject. None of the artifices employed as a general thing on such occasions, seems to avail anything -- All appear to be on their guard lest their heathen passions bid them do what cooler judgments or reason would not sanction. Public prayer meetings in which the whole college is invited to appear -- Prayer meetings by classes are held each day and some of the more zealous in the cause assemble in private rooms for devotion.'Tis something unparalleled here I believe.'29 Earlier he had written to his mother,'I expect you think boys had better attend to such matters before entrance into College -- Well perhaps this is true --... However, it is not akin to one of our Campellite or Methodist Revivals -- They deprecate such proceedings, and I believe about 3/4 of the members of the College are now, or soon will be, Members of the Congregational Church. The Professors take no part in their proceedings I believe -- it is only the "Theological Society."'30 Later he added,'In Yale and several other New England Colleges I am informed almost whole classes have become converts to religion -- At Dartmouth however, although I believe, from the general discussion of the students there is as much thought upon the subject, there yet seems to be but comparatively little action -- Perhaps 10 or 12, at least, have avowedly become converted -- It is not a revival of any particular church here ... And I think they act quite reasonably and right in the matter. They discuss no doctrine ... ask you to become members of no particular church -- but only pray you to consider the subject of religion as a personal matter.'31

As the spring of his senior year arrived, Reeves looked forward to graduation, and because his grades were excellent he was disturbed by the Dartmouth system of selecting commencement speakers. 'I believe I mentioned to you before this that we have no honors in this college as they are called. One third of the class are chosen by lot to speak on Commencement day -- the subjects are also assigned -- In a few weeks now our "commencement parts" are [known?], and as soon as they make their appearance I will send you a list of them. -- I said we have no honors here but perhaps I should correct this statement. There is a Society established in Yale, Harvard Dartmouth & other colleges of consequence called The Phi Beta Kappa Society and a certain number of the best scholars in each class are invited to join it, at the close of the college course -- The names of those who join are published in a separate catalogue -- but what it amounts to, farther than informing those who may chance to see the Catalogue that you were not amongst the poorest scholars of your class, I am unprepared to say.'32 Both young men from Missouri were elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

As his college career came to a close Reeves wrote to his father on 15 May 1859, '3 years ago yesterday I left home the first time for Dartmouth College. It has passed speedily, and the time could be much more profitably spent -- but I feel satisfied with myself to a certain extent. My highest ambition is to attain a high and worthy position in the law -- And I know of nothing that need prevent me from effecting such a thing save a want of ability -- for the love of political fame, the peculiar curse of students of the law, will not, I am confident, turn me aside from my business, for I despise it.'

Reeves Leonard studied law in Berlin, Prussia, for two years and then returned to join the Union Army in August, 1861, a decision that may have been influenced by his college years in New Hampshire, for a number of other young men in central Missouri cast their lot with the Confederacy. He rose to the rank of major and after the war returned to Fayette to manage the family farm and business. There he died prematurely at the age of forty, without achieving the position or the success he dreamed about as a student. Leverett Leonard also returned to Missouri, where he was a successful farmer and businessman. In 1891 he was nominated for governor of the state by the Populist Party. He lost that election, but lived on in Missouri, a respected and prosperous citizen, until he died in 1924 at the age of eighty-six. Reeves and Leverett Leonard never became famous, but their letters provide an interesting view of Dartmouth and its students in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was a small college; there may have been those who loved it, but there were others who suffered from its narrow and provincial ways.


1.Leverett to Abiel Leonard, 4 August 1856.

2.Reeves to mother, 22June 1856.

3.The only instructor in modern languages for these years was Jean Baptiste Torriceili, J.U.D., University of Turin and D.D., University of Genoa. The College paid him $400 in addition to private payments by students. There had been some atempt as early as 1834 to endow a chair in modern languages, but nothing came of it; it was not until after the Civil War that French and German became part of the regular curriculum. See Leon B.Richardson.History of Dartmouth College (Hanover:1932), 1, 398-399:John K. Lord, History of Dartmouth College, 1815-1909 (Concord, N.H.:1913), 303.

4.Reeves to father, 26 October 1856.

5.Edwin J. Bartlett, quoted in Ralph Nading Hili, The College on the Hill: A Dartmouth Chronicle (Hanover, N.H.: 1864), I32.

6.Nathaniel Hawthorne, Passages from the American Note-books. Vol. 9, The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston and New York:Houghton Mifflin, 1882-1896), 164.

7. William Jewett Tucker,My Generation: An Autobiographical Interpretation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919, 33.

8.. Reeves to father, 18 July 1856.

9.. Reeves to father, 5 August 1855.

10. Reeves to mother, 29 July 1855.

11. Reeves to mother, 8 June and 19 June i 8S6; Abiel Leonard to Reeves, 27 August 1857.

2. Reeves to mother, 29 July 1856.

13. Reeves to father, 5 August 1856.

14. Reeves to mother, 29 June 1856; Reeves to father, 18 July 1856.

15. David F.Allmendinger, Paupers and Scholars: The Transformation of Student Life in Nineteenth-Century New England (New York: St. Martin's, 1975), 88; Reeves to father, 5 August 1856.

16. Leverett to Abiel Leonard, 4 August 1856.

17. Reeves to father, 16 November 1856.

18. Reeves to mother, 22 June 1856.

19. Reeves to father, 18 July 1856.

20. Reeves to mother, 20 February 1859.

21.. Reeves to father, 30 November 1856.

22. Reeves to father, 16 November 1856.

23. Reeves to father, 30 November 1856

24. Reeves to father. 20 September 1856.

25. Reeves to father, 31 July 1858.

26. Reeves to father, 23 September 1856.

27. Reeves to father, 5 November 1856.

28. Reeves to father, 3 January 1857

29. Reeves to father, 4 April 1858.

30. Reeves to mother, 28 March 1858

31. Reeves to mother,10 April 1858 (See also Timothy Lawrence Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform (New York: Abingdon, [1957l).

32. Reeves to mother, 11 April 1859. Reeves was not the only one who was critical of the way Dartmouth chose commencement speakers. Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked in a journal entry for 24 July 1863 went to Dartmouth College, and found the same old Granny system which I met there twenty-five years ago' (quoted in Ralph Nading Hill, College on the Hill, 131):