Starting with the Revolutionary War and continuing to more recent involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation’s wars have played a key role in shaping Brown’s political, social and academic identities. These stories trace Brown’s relationship with the Revolutionary War, Civil War, both world wars, the Cold War and modern-day conflicts, examining how they have colored the University’s history. This article is part one in the five-part War at Brown series.
In 1769 at the College of Rhode Island’s first commencement ceremony — an event that at the time featured academic debates by students — graduating student James Varnum was assigned to argue against American independence.
Though Varnum argued in favor of the British Crown at the time, just a few years later, when the Revolutionary War was in full force, Varnum was an active supporter of independence.
It is unclear whether Varnum’s speech in support of colonialism reflected his actual views or simply his assignment. But the debate itself reflects the close relationship between questions of indepedence and the College.
The debates of the pre-war years would later give way to sacrifice during the war, in which many of the College’s graduates served.
The revolutionary spark was ignited early for students and faculty members at the College. In 1769 a debate on independence emerged alongside a boycott of British manufacturers for all items purchased for the 1769 Commencement, according to former Professor of English Walter Bronson’s “The History of Brown University, 1764-1914.”
The Corporation at the time was composed of figures who would go on to play key roles in the fight for independence, Bronson wrote. The University’s first chancellor, Stephen Hopkins, signed the Declaration of Independence and later became Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Samuel Ward served not only as governor of Rhode Island but also as a delegate to the Continental Congress, Joshua Babcock became major-general of the Rhode Island militia in 1775 and Treasurer John Brown led the 1772 burning of the Gaspee, a ship in the king’s fleet tasked with enforcing unpopular customs acts in Narragansett Bay.
Records indicate only two members of the Brown community — Morgan Edwards, a Corporation member, and his son, William, class of 1776 — expressed Loyalist sympathies, said University historian Jane Lancaster PhD’98. Disconcerted with the College’s demonstrations of Patriot spirit, William sailed back to England at the start of the war. His father was censured for his opinions in Philadelphia.
At commencement in 1770, 1771, 1773 and 1774, students debated the merits of “Standing Armies,” the fate of “the Union betwixt Great Britain and her Colonies,” the “present State, and future Greatness, of the American Colonies” and “Patriotism,” respectively, Bronson wrote.
As the College engaged in these academic expositions, anti-British sentiments also flourished in the Rhode Island community. In the years leading up to the start of the war, Rhode Islanders burned 300 pounds of British tea, created a standing army of 1,500 for defense against British invasion and took over wealthy Loyalists’ estates in Narragansett and Newport, Bronson wrote.
As local colonists began to engage in acts of war, the College’s senior class of 1775 petitioned to cancel the public commencement, Bronson wrote. In a letter to President James Manning they wrote they were “deeply affected with the Distresses of our oppressed Country, which now most unjustly feels the baneful Effects of arbitrary Power.”
Manning granted their request, responding: “And though the Din of Arms, and the Horrors of a civil War, should invade our hitherto peaceful Habitations; yet even these are preferable to a mean and base Submission to arbitrary Power and lawless Rapine.”
Predicting both the war and the role the College would play, he wrote, “Institutions of Learning will doubtless partake in the common Calamities of our Country, as Arms have ever proven unfriendly to the more refined and liberal Arts and Sciences.”
The College held one commencement ceremony during the war, in 1776, before closing its doors to students for the conflict’s duration.
The British invasion
On Dec. 7, 1776, a British fleet commanded by Sir Peter Parker brought 6,000 British and Hessian troops into Rhode Island. They docked in Newport before marching toward Providence, where, according to Manning’s correspondences, they were visible from the College.
Manning notified students Dec.14, 1776 via the Providence Gazette that academic activities would be dispensed until the following spring, asking them to leave campus. When spring came, Manning released another notice, stating, “in the public state of affairs, the prosecution of studies here is utterly impractible, especially while this continues a garrisoned town.”
Members of the senior class were instructed to come to campus Sept. 3, 1777 to receive their diplomas. After the diplomas were given, the campus housed neither students nor its three faculty members, Lancaster said. Some students served the American cause as soldiers, sailors, chaplains or physicians. In the August 1776 Battle of Long Island, Richard Stites, Manning’s brother-in-law and class of 1769, became the College’s first graduate to die for independence.
The College urged those who did not fight to complete their studies elsewhere, Bronson wrote. Manning continued his work as a preacher at the First Baptist Church in Providence and privately tutored students of the College not participating in the war. He remained unaffiliated with the war effort, but in his duties as a preacher he saw to a stay of execution for three prisoners of war and convinced Connecticut to lift its ban on food exports to meet the needs of an overcrowded Providence.
By 1779, about 2,000 Rhode Islanders had been uprooted by the war, and many sought refuge in Providence, Bronson wrote. Among them were the militiamen, who took up residence in the College Edifice — later renamed University Hall — and remained there until April 20, 1780.
After the war
Once American troops left the College Edefice in April 1780, the Corporation met to discuss reconvening classes. About a month later, then-Gov. William Greene wrote in a letter to Manning that the University would be the ideal location to house incoming French troops. Manning resisted the measure but returned from preaching one day to find the building occupied by the French.
The French army left the College Edefice May 27, 1782 in anticipation of American victory the following year. The Corporation met to reopen the college Sept. 4,1782, leaving Manning little time to assess the damage done to the building.
He reported damages of upward of 1,309 pounds to the new U.S. government, claiming that since federal troops had destroyed the building, federal funds should be used to pay for repairs. Troops had pulled down one wall to put a latrine at the end of the building, stabled horses within the edifice, removed windows, stripped iron work from the doors and pulled wallpaper and paneling from the walls, Lancaster said. In his letter, Manning complained that “the stench makes the northern part almost uninhabitable.”
A decade later, having received no government compensation, the College resubmitted the bill with an added 2,300 in interest, equivalent to roughly $7,667 at the time, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana. In 1802, the College received $2,779.13 from the government, leaving most of the rebuilding effort financed by private investors.
The next story in the War at Brown series examines the divisions that arose within the University with the Civil War.