Question of the Week

What is the name of the first college chartered in the United States under the Constitution? Hint: the charter was signed in September 1783.

Monday, 9/19/11

Answer: Dickinson College

Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA was the first college chartered in the United States under the Constitution. Signed in September 1783, the college’s charter was prepared by Benjamin Rush, a prominent Philadelphia physician who believed that in order for the new United States to succeed, it needed the support of an educated citizenry. 

Less than a week after the Treaty of Paris formally ended the Revolutionary War, the charter for Dickinson College was signed. In the shaping of a new national culture, Rush worked to make education a priority for Americans and sought to open a new educational institution in western Pennsylvania. At Rush’s request, president of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania (a title now similar to governor) John Dickinson agreed to lend his support and his name to the new college. A grammar school in Carlisle, PA, then a frontier town about 25 miles west of the Susquehanna River, served as the foundation of the college. During his term, Dickinson donated 500 acres of land to expand the college grounds. Dickinson and Rush also designed a seal for the college which featured a liberty cap, a telescope, and an open Bible. The image they created remains the official college seal today.

In the decades prior to laying the groundwork for Dickinson College, Benjamin Rush signed the Declaration of Independence, practiced medicine in Philadelphia, and earned a reputation as a progressive political and intellectual thinker.  He opposed of slavery, supported equal education for women, defended the rights of the mentally challenged, and generously provided health care to impoverished Philadelphians.

The Library Company of Philadelphia holds an important collection of manuscripts of Benjamin Rush (that are administered through HSP).  His papers can also be found in the Dreer collection (#175), the Pennsylvania Prison Society records (#1946), and the James Hamilton papers (#1612).  HSP also holds collections that contain further information on John Dickinson, such as the R. R. Logan papers (#383).

Image: “Dickenson College,” facsimile print by B. Tanner after a sketch by A. Brackenridge (undated), Society print collection (Collection V89), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania  


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