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>  News Releases >   2002 >   February

Recently acquired letter reveals Dartmouth founder's political views

Posted 02/06/02

The political turmoil that eventually gave rise to the American Revolution was already brewing when Eleazar Wheelock opened Dartmouth College with the aid of a royal charter in 1769. An influential religious and educational leader in his day, he generally kept his political opinions to himself, perhaps realizing that imprudence on his part could endanger the future of the College.

However, in a four-page letter recently purchased by the Rauner Special Collections Library, Wheelock offered a candid analysis of the moral contract between citizens and their rulers, a topic that would have been of great interest when it was written, a scant year before the American Revolution began.

"It's a very important statement on the moral right to rebel when faced with a ruler whose behavior is inappropriate," said Special Collections Librarian Phil Cronenwett.

Addressed to "Colonel John Hurd and the Militia at Haverill [N.H.]" and dated May 5, 1775, the letter ponders a monarch's right to rule – and a citizen's duty to obey. While Wheelock reinforces the divine right of kings, he issues the caveat that "a King has no claim to obedience but in the Lord, or in that which is in itself Lawful; nor has he right to command in any thing which is not constitutional, for the civil constitution is his Law and Rule of administration ..."

Wheelock later cautions would-be rebels that "not every transgression nor every gross transgression exposes him (a ruler) to the forfeiture of his Crown, or at all renders his authority invalid in any matters which are lawful."

"A king is not to be ... removed by a little party who are in no Capacity to form, establish or defend another Constitution more agreeable to them, for that would be to throw themselves into a worse state than that of the most abject slavery," he continues.

"Commissions lawfully given and for good purposes may not be contemptuously thrown away, or neglected, because the King is doing that which is very bad."

Wheelock also examines the possible consequences should citizens abandon their ruler, risking "a doleful state of Anarchy and thereby expose their lives, liberties and properties to be invaded by any and to have no way of redress.... If the foundations be removed what shall the righteous do?"

Purchased for $3,800 at a Christie's Auction in late October, with funds donated by John Freund '54, a member of the Friends of the Library, the new Wheelock letter offers an insight into Wheelock's political philosophy that isn't otherwise revealed in the College's already-substantial collection of the founder's papers, said Cronenwett.

"Wheelock was a very careful person. He generally kept his own counsel about politics. This letter is very exciting for that reason. We don't have anything like this," Cronenwett said.

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