On a windy night in Edinburgh in 1801 a rangy,
rawboned young theology student chanced to meet on a street corner
an American churchman who was recruiting Presbyterian ministers
for careers in America. As a result of this meeting Robert Hamilton
Bishop and his young bride sailed for America in the fall of 1802. In New
York Bishop was assigned to the Presbytery of
Kentucky--"then the extreme of the far West, "he noted with
satisfaction, On his way he stopped at Chillicothe, Ohio, where he found
the town buzzing with talk of a
constitutional convention. He had arrived in Ohio at the hour of its
For a year the rugged Scotchman preached to frontier congregations in Kentucky and Southwestern Ohio, traveling on horseback to scattered settlements on the river banks and in forest clearings. In the ardor of young manhood he had come to a new land, a land which kindled his mind and emotions. "Kentucky and the Miami Valley appeared to me to be not only the garden of America, but the garden of the world, and were fixed upon my mind not only to be filled with a dense population, but to be the center of influence to the future states and future nations of the Mississippi Valley."
In 1804 at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, the oldest college west of the Alleghenies, he became professor of moral philosophy, logic, criticism and belles-letters. During twenty years there he also taught natural philosophy, history, mathematics and astronomy. He was a tall but not a narrow man.
In those years Lexington was the literary capital of the West. Bishop's colleagues included the jurists Henry Clay and John Breckenridge, the distinguished physician Daniel Drake, the versatile editor Amos Kendall, and that far-wandering gypsy-scientist Constanine Rafinesque. Among these scholars and discoverers Bishop took an equal place; in fact his students ranked him at the top. His learning, his magnetism, his profound and lofty earnest they never forgot. "Clay in the bar, or Bishop at the pulpit" they considered the ne plus ultra of human greatness. One of his students was Jefferson Davis, who in later years remembered Bishop as "a man of large attainment and very varied knowledge." Francis Preston Blair, pre-eminent Jacksonian editor, wrote that Professor Bishop was one of the best teachers he had ever known. The height of his mind, these students knew, was matched by the breadth of his humanity. After a college riot which President Holley could hardly cope with, one of the rioters said, "Mr. Bishop could have done it. We may respect Dr. Holley, but we love Mr. Bishop."
In the fall of 1824 three dusty youths on horseback clattered into Lexington and inquired the way to Robert Hamilton Bishop, then vice-president of Transylvania. They brought letters to him from their families in Abbeville, South Carolina. Bishop welcomed them to Transylvania, but said that he would not be there much longer. "I am going over the river," he explained, " to establish a college in the woods, in Ohio."
"Then," declared the boys" that is where we are going." They rode on to Oxford and were in the chapel when President Bishop met the first students of Miami University, looking over the bare square room and beginning, "My young friends--"
In the previous spring when the Center Building was nearly completed a committee of the Board of Trustees had begun the search for the first president of the college. One member had been a student under Bishop at Transylvania , another knew him through activities of the Presbyterian Church. At the meeting on July 6, 1824, the University trustees elected Robert Hamilton Bishop as Miami's president. On September 14th he rode into Oxford, tied his horse to a campus tree, and in the library "chamber" of the new Center Building presented to the trustees a formal acceptance. It concluded with a quietly optimistic view of the University's future: "From the situation and resource of the Miami University the public are authorized to expect within a reasonable period it shall be an extensive public blessing."
He looked at the president's "mansion," the old log school where Dorsey had taught the first Oxford students; it now had a second story, and Bishop suggested that it be whitewashed outside and in and that a sitting room be added. Then he rode back to Kentucky for his family. They came through the colored woods of October in a two horse wagon--his wife, eight children ranging from three years to nineteen, and Nellie, a Kentucky slave girl, who was working out her freedom. They found the president's log house freshly covered with weatherboard and painted red; a stable stood near it to the west. That family filled the house to overflowing.
Since the appointment of President Bishop the trustees had announced in nearby newspapers the opening of Miami University on the first day of November, 1824. There would be two session, November through March, May through September. Tuition $10 a session in the college, $5 in the grammar school. Board $1 a week. Rooms in the college were free except for a $5 for "servant hire." The total of a student's expense was $93 for the year.
At the start, however, Miami University offered an opportunity to students who could not pay fees. In the trustees records appears a resolution--"that five students, should that number apply and produce satisfactory evidence of their inability to discharge the fees of tuition, and their goodness of character, shall receive instruction in any department of the university without paying tuition fees for the first year that the college shall be in operation." A year later they agreed to waive tuition for eight superior students in return for one hour per day as tutors.
For the opening of the college there were twenty students--four seniors, three sophomores, five freshmen, eight in the grammar school. More came in the spring, pilling out of muddy wagons to be greeted by tall, lean President Bishop at the college door. At the end of the first year the roll of students numbered sixty-eight. Coming from various backgrounds and without uniform schooling, they ranged from ten-year-old boys to stalwart young men of thirty. The ten freshmen varied from twelve to twenty-three years. Together this assorted class recited their Greek and Latin, algebra, modern geography and Roman history. They lived together in the college rooms and were subjected to the same regulations. "Every student, except at recitation or lecture, shall remain in his room during study hours, which shall be regulated by the faculty." No wonder there were outbreaks.
On the ground floor of the old wing was the president's office and the secretary's rooms, with two classrooms across the hall. The Center Building contained the chapel, later the Towers Theatre, a library room and recitation rooms. The advertisements had stated: "the college already possesses a library comprising a collection of many rare and valuable works in various departments of literature and science, to which additions will be made from time to time." The library was open only a few hours a week and students were not allowed to take books away. A few years later the rule was liberalized: "Only the Senior class shall be allowed to take books from the library."
A whitewashed fence enclosed four or five acres around the college building, a campus denuded of forest but dotted with stumps. The fence kept out stray hogs and cattle, except as restless students led a cow into the chapel room or threw a sheep into a classroom or dormitory window. A muddy path, the original "Slant Walk," led diagonally from the college building toward the distractions of the village. Town and gown were inimical in the early years, and the faculty contended with the saloonkeepers of High Street. A well just north of the college building provided water and a trodden path led eastward to a privy in the woods. The main entrance of the building faced south--the town was expected to grow in that direction--and a double row of spindly poplar tress led to the south campus fence. Much of the native forest--too much of it--had been cleared. The poplars were the first re-forestation.
Daily schedule called the students to a study period at 5 a.m. Except for meals followed by two "exercise periods" they were assigned to study and recitation until the evening prayers. Classes were summoned by a trumpet, as President Bishop considered a bell an extravagance. He preferred to spend money for books and apparatus.
In the first faculty President Bishop, professor of logic and moral philosophy, had two colleagues. William Sparrow, educated at Trinity College, Dublin, had the chair of ancient languages. John Annan, of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, was professor of mathematics. Bishop's salary was $1000 plus the use of the house and garden. The other two salaries were $500 each.
In the business of getting the college organized and going there had been no ceremony, but when the first winter was past the trustees arranged a fitting inaugural for the first president. On March 30, 1825, Robert Hamilton Bishop, D.D.(he had just received the honorary doctorate from Princeton) was formally installed in office.
At eleven o'clock on that bright spring morning the convocation formed at the Methodist Church, the pioneer church of Oxford, and marched down High Street through the campus gate and over the path to the college door. A brass band led the procession. The committee were dubious about the fitness of women in this ceremony, but they arranged--"should any female attend"--to have them march together, first the unmarried, dress in white, then the matrons. They were followed by the students of the University, marching according to their classes. Next came the University trustees, finally the president of the board and the three members of the faculty.
The procession, two abreast, arrived duly at the south door of the college where the column halted, facing inward, and the line of march reversed, those in the rear marching between two files and into the chapel room.
"Suitable odes" were sung by a choir. There were three prayers, two addresses, the charge to the president, and finally Dr. Bishop's inaugural address.
Some of the speaking was high-flown: "Here, lately a wilderness, has the sun of science begun to dawn. Within these consecrated walls is now erected a standard, around which the sons of the south and west are rallying to receive that instruction which will make them the lights and safeguards of our beloved country. Here the ancient wisdom of sciences, the morals and religion of the sacred scriptures, will invite, amuse, improve and reform the youthful mind."
President Bishop's own words were sturdy, warmed with measured optimism, and shrewdly prophetic: "All things considered, our situation this day, perhaps, as encouraging as that of Oxford, in England, was in the days of Alfred, of that of Cambridge, in New Old England, not two hundred years ago.
"Not sixty years ago all the county west and south of the Allegheny mountains was a wilderness. There are now in that region nine states and three territories, and a population of not less than three millions.
"Twenty years ago the state of Ohio was just organized with a population of not more than forty thousand. In 1792 Voney describes Cincinnati as not much superior to an Indian Village. We have now a population of upwards of 600,000; and we have farms, and cities, and manufacturing establishment, which vie with those of the oldest states in the Union. Other sixty years hence, the population and improvements will, in all probability, be extended to the Pacific ocean.
"We are, my friends, in the good providence of God, a part of this mighty nation. The institution which we are now organizing is one of the outpost of her extended and extending possessions. Only a generation hence, and what is now an outposts will be the center."
The band played again while the convocation streamed out into the spring sunlight. The first college ceremony had ended.