In the year 1818 crews of Irish shovelmen began
digging the Erie Canal, the first Great Lakes steamship paddled
between Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit, and the National Road from
Baltimore reached the Ohio River at Wheeling. Illinois became a state,
and George Rogers Clark, desolate and forgotten, died at Locust Grove
outside of Louisville. In that year a woman named Nancy Hanks
Lincoln died at Pigeon Creek, Indian and eight-year-old Abe Lincoln
whittled pegs for her coffin. At St. Mary's, Ohio, a council of Shawnee,
Wyandot and Ottawa chiefs signed a treaty for their last shrinking
reservation lands in the Ohio country.
On the Miami campus in the summer of 1818 workmen were pounding a roof on a three-story brick structure called Franklin Hall: it was the first part of the building later called Old Main and still later Harrison Hall. Watching the job was James Maxwell Dorsey, superintendent of construction. A slight, middle-aged man with sloping shoulders, a high forehead and a bony nose, he looked like a college professor except for the restless eyes behind his steel-rimmed glasses.
Dorsey was a man of several minds--surveyor, soldier, teacher, business manager, philosopher, reformer. He had come to Oxford in 1810 when there was only a trail through the forest, and the next year he became the town's first teacher, opening a "select School" in the new log building on the University grounds. In December, 1811, Dorsey ran a partition across the eighteen-by-thirty-foot room. He lived in one end with his family and taught the township scholars just beyond the wall.
Seven months later, in June of 1812, war was declared with England and the school door closed. Master Dorsey became Major Dorsey, commanding the "old Battalion," four companies of volunteers from Butler and Warren counties. They served on the Northwestern border, scouting the Maumee and upper Wabash valleys and guarding the settlements from Indian attack.
When the war was over Dorsey came back to Oxford, which was little changed in his absence. But change was coming. In the spring of 1816 the University trustees hired him to measure and clear the ground for a college building. A good ax-and mattock-man, Dorsey chopped bush out of the previous two-acre clearing and leveled a foundation site. On April 10th , with a carpenter and two stone-masons standing there in the half-leafed forest, James Dorsey laid the first stone "eighteen or twenty inches below the surface of the ground."
For two years that structure, the eventual West Wing of the Center Building, was under construction, at a cost of $6,167, paid from the college land rents. James Dorsey kept an eye on the brick work--the bricks were baked of clay taken from the leveled Indian mound southeast of the building--but his mind was ranging.
The frontier was hospitable to ideas as well as to men. Already into the Ohio Valley had come new religious and social doctrines. There was a flourishing Shaker community near Lebanon, Ohio, and a colony of German Pietists on the Wabash at Harmony. Others would come with their revolutionary social orders. New lands stimulated new thoughts.
In 1816 James Dorsey and William Ludlow, president of the Miami University trustees from 1810-13, organized the "Rational Brethren of Oxford." This society, incorporated on Christmas Day, 1816, proposed to hold land and engage in manufacturing, all its members sharing in ownership and being provided for, each according to his needs, out of the common funds. It would admit any landholder of abstemious habits of industry; all members would receive one share in the common property. Both Dorsey and Ludlow owned land south of present Chestnut Street along Collins Run; they expected their society to do a business in pot and pearl ashes and in agricultural goods, and perhaps in fruit trees, as William Ludlow had a nursery on Collins Run and a larger one--120,000 trees--on mill Creek.
In later and less spacious times University trustees would blanch at Socialism, but Ludlow and Dorsey breathed the air of a new country. With a few of their Rational Brethren they discussed the organization of Oxford Township around the University--education being essential to a rational society--as a Socialistic community." equal good and happiness of all is to be the object of our Association"; the college would serve to improve useful knowledge and encourage freedom of inquiry.
These airy ideas never took root in the township soil. No substantial number of Oxford residents joined the Rational Brethren, though Ludlow's older brother, Colonel Israel Ludlow, who was Symmes' principal surveyor and the founder of Cincinnati, Dayton, and Hamilton, listed some lands with the association. Apparently no other trustees shared the rational hopes and enthusiasms of Ludlow and Dorsey. There was more Calvinism than Socialism in the college that opened in 1824. Oxford was orthodox from the start.
For James Dorsey, the search for social perfection led away from the college township. His life veered in a new direction when the astonishing Robert Owen came to America in 1824 and addressed the United States Congress about his plan to establish an ideal community on the Wabash, to which men of all nations were invited. "Here in the heart of the United States," he declared, "that Power which governs and directs the Universe... permits me to commence a new empire of peace and good-will to men, founded on other principles and leading to other practices than those of present or past." Robert Owen, a slight, soft-spoken man with steel-rimmed spectacles sliding down his nose, looked like a wandering schoolmaster, but he meant to change the world. In Scotland he had transformed a desolate mill town into a happy, clean and prosperous community, increasing the profits of the Lanark mills while he improved the lives of their workers. Now on the American frontier he saw a vaster theater in which to try his plan of social reform. In New Harmony there would be no rich or poor, no owners or exploiter, no oppressors or oppressed; all would be free and equal citizens of a New Moral World.
For three years, while he served as treasurer of Miami University, James Dorsey corresponded with Robert Owen. To the Wabash community flocked reformers, zealots, educators, some brilliant Socialists, more homeless eccentrics and still more fanatics and revolutionists. In 1827 Dorsey resigned his Miami office and went to New Harmony to supervise the school system. By then the bloom was gone from the great experiment. The Wabash community was deep in discord and Owen was about to return to London. He left the general direction of the community to "Mr. Dorsey, late treasurer of Miami University, in whose steadfastness, integrity, ability and disinterested devotion to the cause I have full confidence." Dorsey watched New Harmony dim and dwindle. He had missed the short-lived excitement of the New Moral World on the Wabash; now he was left to liquidate Owen's lands, and to send their proceeds to New York and London to support Socialist newspapers.
The foundation he had laid for Miami University was more lasting. That first college building, completed in 1818 and named Franklin Hall, received attention as far away as Philadelphia. On June 12, 1819, the Philadelphia Register and National Recorder described it as " a large building of brick; it contains twelve rooms, one of which is occupied as a library, another as a meeting house, the other ten are occupied by the students of whom last session there were twenty-two."
The University trustees appointed one of their own members, James Hughes, to teach the school. It was not yet a college but a grammar school, with beginning courses in Latin and Greek. A frontier college had to prepare its own students.
James Hughes, Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania came to Ohio as a missionary to the Wyandot Indians on the Sandusky River. He was appointed to the Miami University Board of Trustees in 1815, and three years later was named by the board to teach theUniversity school. Soon after his arrival he organized the Oxford Presbyterian Church, using the college building for its meeting place, and he served as its pastor along with his schoolmaster's duties. A rather handsome, slender, unworldly man, he appears in his silhouette portrait, with hair clubbed back and a string bow tie in his collar. He lived in the old log building on the site of Brice Hall, where James Dorsey had lived and taught in 1811; a second story was added for the Hughes family in 1818. Assisting him as schoolmaster was a scholarly German, Nahum Myers, recently arrived from Prussia. He came to teach Hebrew and to learn English, a combination which must have been hard on the schoolboys.
The Miami University grammar school opened on November 3, 1818, with twenty-one students. They were assigned rooms in the new college building and took board with Oxford families at $1.50 per week. They paid a tuition fee of $5 a session. Two terms were scheduled, winter and summer, with vacation at planting season in April and harvest time in October. A list of seventeen rules required attendance at morning prayers and Sunday worship and prohibited drunkenness, gambling, unnecessary noise, and the patronizing of any tavern or other public place. Each student was required to study composition and public speaking in addition to his classical course.
Meanwhile James Dorsey was leasing more of the college lands and supervising a new and larger construction. In 1820 work began on a three-story addition to Franklin Hall, adjoining it on the east. With large rooms and high ceilings, so that its three stories rose above the older wing, it was designed as " the center and principle building of the Miami University"; and it stood until 1958 as the central portion of Harrison Hall. It was then the oldest existing Miami building, as the west wing was completely rebuilt after the Civil War. The new Center Building was four years under construction; it was finished in 1824 at a cost slightly over $15,000. It was capped with a cupola--there were no towers until after the Civil War. It was whitewashed soon after completion and periodically until 1870 when all the campus buildings were painted red.
The combination of the Center Building and its Franklin Hall wing, together to be called Old Main, was an impressive college building for the time. It was noted in the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette that the trustees of Miami University had expended a large sum of money in the erection of a costly building. Something magnificent and splendid appears to be their object," wrote the editor, who went on to observe that " for many years the edifice of Dartmouth College consisted of logs, piled one on top of another and dovetailed together in the usual manner at the corner... In this humble and rude little temple, President Wheelock the elder, commenced a course of classic instruction." To the Yankees it seemed that, with such a building as the Miami edifice, the West was putting on airs.
One of the rules governing the grammar school required an annual examination of students by a committee of the Board of Trustees. This practice was continued until the Civil War; with monotonous regularity the examining committee attested to the intellectual progress of the students and to standards of scholarship which were a credit to the institution. But in April 1821, after two and half years of operation of the grammar school, the examining committee was not satisfied. They recommended that the school be closed. Perhaps the illness of Mr. Hughes--he died a few weeks later of typhoid fever--influenced their action. But there was also a financial angle: expenditure for the grammar school was draining the College income. At any rate after five sessions the school disbanded. Meantime construction continued on the Center Building, and the trustees labored with the land rentals and land forfeitures. While Dorsey was occupied with collecting rents, and with plans of the Rational Brethren, workmen on the new building moved their families into quarters on the lower floor. When they were evicted, the disgruntled bricklayers retaliated with a slowdown.
Then came a real problem. Early in 1822 a group of Cincinnati politicians proposed that Miami University be moved from Oxford township and merged with Cincinnati College.
Here was that question again: Where should the Miami University be situated? Assigned to the Symmes Purchase, to be endowed by a township there, it was now developing a campus on its own grant outside the Purchase. When in 1810 the Ohio Legislature established the University on its new lands, there was disappointment and protest in Cincinnati. The resentment had smoldered for a dozen years.
Cincinnati had bad luck with its own college-founding. The first try was met by a natural disaster; a nearly completed college building was blown down by a spring tornado in 1809. Five years later a Lancastrian school was opened at Fourth and Walnut streets, but it s utilitarian course did not satisfy people who wanted a classical college. In 1819 the Lancastrian school was re-chartered as Cincinnati College.
Meanwhile the existence, in prospect at least , of Miami University thirty-five miles away vexed some of the citizens of Cincinnati. In 1814 they made a legislative effort to move Miami University to within the Symmes Purchase. Though the attempt failed, it was not forgotten. An article in the Western Spy, a Cincinnati weekly, in October, 1817, referred scornfully to Miami University as " our college in the gloom of the Becchwood flats, where the footsteps of enlightenment and liberal patronage cannot penetrate, and from whence not a ray of science will be reflected for a century." Miami University had a small but increasing income and was dedicated to the advancement of literature and science; it was just what Cincinnati wanted. So the debate grew. The Hamilton Advertiser, arguing for the University's Butler County location, stated that Cincinnati was too full of paper-money maneuvering and houses of ill fame to be fit place for a college. To that , Isaac G. Burnet of Cincinnati replied: " the amenities of a large town[Cincinnati with a 7500 people became a "city" in 1819] have generally a refinement about them which improves the mind.
On January 10,1822, a proposal was made to the General Assembly and a bill was introduced to move Miami University to Cincinnati. An appeasement clause called for the retaining in Oxford of an "Oxford Academy" which could use the existing University buildings and ten acres of ground and would receive one-eighth of the income from the college lands. Such an academy, had it not promptly died, would have become a preparatory school for the Miami University removed to Cincinnati.
The bill provoked one of the most strenuous debates in the early years of the Ohio Legislature. The House of Representatives argued it until the winter darkness fell; then by candlelight the debate went on. To legal and practical arguments the Cincinnati group added the flat statement that "the school in Oxford has not succeeded and cannot assist in the education of the present population." The opposition was led by Captain Joel Collins, pioneer settler of Oxford, surveyor of the township, ex-Indian fighter, and long-time friend of Miami University. He succeeded in delaying action until the Butler County men could organize their defense.
In Oxford, alarmed at this threat to the town's only enterprise and its sole future, residents held a public meeting. With James Dorsey presiding, they formed a committee to publicize the injustice and impolicy of removing Miami University, and they sent to Joel Collins for an account of the struggle in the legislature. In his reply Collins stated that many legislators were prejudiced against the lessees of school and college lands generally, the lands having failed to realize expected profits, and that "it was the policy of the Cincinnati College to continue to make those unavailing efforts to obtain the funds from Oxford, and thereby retard the progress of the Miami University, by fixing on the public mind that it is not permanently established at Oxford." He concluded however, with an assurance that the present effort to move the site of University had failed.
To strength their defense for the future, the Oxford residents elected doughty James McBride to the House of Representatives. McBride prepared a long speech--nine thousand words on the complicated history of the college grant and the establishing of Miami University, followed by six thousand words of orderly, detailed, closely-reasoned argument against its removal. In addition to legal reasoning on the validity of contracts, he argued on moral grounds that the rustic setting derided by the Cincinnati group was better than an urban site for a university. "I had rather send my son to a seminary of learning provided there were able professors, even though it should be immersed in the gloom of the Beech Woods, as the (Cincinnati) gentleman will have it...than to send him ... where he would be exposed to the temptations and vices which are always preverent in large cities... It is not in the dust of a merchant's shop, or amidst the din of mechanics' hammers, much less at a theatre, a tavern, or a grog-shop that the classics can be read with most advantage."
This formidable speech was never delivered, as the bill for the University's' removal was not re-introduced.
With both Collins and McBride in the Legislature and Miami trustees alert for any new action, the threat to Miami University was diminished--though it would appear again, briefly, fourteen years later. Now, with a new cheerfulness, Dorsey collected land rents in the college township and watched the progress of the Center Building, and the Board of Trustees discussed the choosing of a University President.
In 1824 James Dorsey was elected treasurer of Miami University, taking an office whose duties he had partially filled for some years past. It was a busy job, dunning defaulters, leasing and re-leasing tracts of farm land, keeping the records of rent and disbursal. But these practical matters did not dim his dream of a rational society where men could have perfect freedom, equality and brotherhood. In 1827 he went to New Harmony, and disillusionment. After six years he came back to Ohio, settling first at Greenville, and later in Piqua where he died in 1857. His name and his memory would linger at Miami University. From 1854 to the closing of Old Miami in 1873 his son, G. Volney Dorsey, prominent in Ohio medicine and politics, sat on the Miami Board of Trustees, and his great-grandson, William Wilson Wood served as a trustee in the 1940's.
In his own declining years James Maxwell Dorsey watched the progress and achievement of Miami University. It had not become a center of Rational Brethren, but its graduates were in the colleges, the pulpits, the legislatures of America, and in foreign embassies from Bolivia to Russia. Sometimes James Dorsey must have remembered the foundation stone he had laid, on an April morning, in the empty forest.