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Distinguished Delaware historian Carol Hoffecker says the first
figurative “heartbeat” of the University of Delaware came in 1743 when
Francis Alison founded a school. Hoffecker holds one of her books,
"Familiar Relations: The Du Ponts and the University of Delaware."
University of Delaware traces its roots to the school founded by the
Rev. Francis Alison in New London, Pennsylvania, about eight miles from
the University’s home today in Newark, Delaware.
To mark the 275th year
since the University of Delaware's founding, distinguished Delaware
historian Carol Hoffecker recently shared her thoughts on the
University’s historical beginnings. She also reflected on some of the
themes that have continued through the centuries to create the
institution of today and inspire its hopes for the future.
Hoffecker, Richards Professor Emerita of History, is a 1960 graduate
of UD and was a member of the faculty from 1973 until her retirement in
Q: Francis Alison’s school underwent several name changes and
moves to different locations after its founding, and it wasn’t even
called the University of Delaware until 1921. Is it historically
accurate to mark 1743 as a milestone?
A: If you’re going back to the beginnings of the institution that
would become the University of Delaware, then yes, that’s the date to
use. If you’re talking about the legal creation of the University, its
charter with that name, then no. But the first heartbeat of the
University? That’s Francis Alison’s school.
Q: Historical accounts always emphasize that Francis Alison was a
Presbyterian minister as well as a classical scholar. How important was
religion in his decision to start his New London Academy?
A: Francis Alison was Scots-Irish, educated in Ireland and Scotland
and a member of the clergy before coming to the United States. In that
tradition, he had really solid academic training, not only in reading
the Bible but reading it in Greek and Hebrew. It was a very mentally
challenging and demanding approach to religion, and he wanted to educate
other young men in that same way.
He wanted to train them to read the ancient texts and understand the
foundations of Christianity as he saw them, in a way that he hoped would
lead some of them to become members of the clergy. One of the main
reasons he founded his school, I think, was in reaction to what was
called the Great Awakening of the 1730s and ’40s.
Q: What was that movement?
A: It spread widely, throughout the Colonies, but it actually began
in Delaware with a man named George Whitefield, who landed in Lewes
[from England] in 1739. He brought with him a new kind of religious
enthusiasm and began preaching to people of southern Delaware, who
hadn’t been especially active in churches before. It was a very
emotional approach to Christianity, and it became a major factor in the
lives of many people who lived in this region.
But one of the critics of this Great Awakening was Francis Alison. He
really found everything about it abhorrent because, to him, it was just
enthusiasm without any knowledge or education about Christianity and
its foundations. In his school, he would demand serious Biblical
studies. He wanted to foster academic, intellectually demanding
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Carol Hoffecker has written numerous books about the history of Delaware and of the University, including this selection.
Q: Alison’s New London Academy
had many students in its first class who would go on to great things,
including three signers of the Declaration of Independence [George Read,
who also signed the U.S. Constitution, and Thomas McKean of Delaware
and James Smith of Pennsylvania]. How remarkable was this?
A: Francis Alison was teaching classical languages, as well as
subjects like philosophy and ethics. There weren’t many schools at that
time, certainly not in this area, where students could get that kind of
very demanding education. So his students, and especially that first
class, were really the intellectual elite.
And he wasn’t just training people who were going to be Presbyterian
ministers. He was training people who were going to be sitting in the
pews too, and who would go on to have very distinguished careers as
lawyers and judges and civic leaders.
Q: Alison actually moved to Philadelphia in 1752, but the school
he founded continued through various name and location changes. Did his
influence and interest continue?
A: Yes, I think so. I think his interest continued, although he also had responsibilities at other schools and as a minister.
I think there was a time when it stopped being particularly
Presbyterian. Once people recognized that the way to get ahead—the way
for their sons to get ahead—in life was to get a good education, they
looked around and saw that the place where that was available in this
area was the school in Newark. [The school moved to Newark in the 1760s
and was chartered as the Academy of Newark in 1769.] That’s when it
started attracting a wider range of students.
Q: The University today values innovation, and it sounds like
Francis Alison could be considered an innovator himself in many ways
because he started the kind of school that just didn’t exist in this
area at the time. Is that one way to view him, in addition to his
accomplishments as a scholar?
A: I think the whole history of the University of Delaware, beginning with Francis Alison, is about innovation and change.
History is all about change; if things didn’t change, you wouldn’t
need it. It’s really about how people foresee and adapt, and that’s
especially so with the creation and involvement of schools and
universities. You see needs, and you adapt. In a sense, you’re always
creating a new world.
Looking at the University today, I see it continuing to adapt and
change and develop. I’ve been so impressed, especially in terms of
opportunities for women and minorities. I see innovation, and that’s a
good thing—not resting on your laurels but continuing to grow and expand
in this new environment.
Q: Has this been a theme throughout UD’s history?
A: Yes, I sincerely believe that. I’ve looked at some leaders through the years who were real innovators:
There’s Francis Alison, of course.
Willard Hall [an original trustee of Newark College, chartered in
1833], who came from Massachusetts to a state [around 1803] that didn’t
have any real public schools or training for teachers, and he brought
ideas to Delaware about the importance of public education. That would
go on to be really significant later in starting the Women’s College, in
educating women in order to produce the teachers for the public
schools. And the University of Delaware has ever since been a major
factor in public education in the state.
H. Rodney Sharp and P.S. du Pont, because it was their financial
support that helped the growth of the sciences and also the development
of the University’s physical facilities. The construction of buildings
[beginning around 1915] on The Mall [now called The Green] also brought
the Men’s and Women’s Colleges closer together.
Emalea Pusey Warner, who was an activist in the community and
really beat the drum for the creation of the Women’s College [in 1914].
You know, it didn’t become the University of Delaware until the Men’s
College and the Women’s College got together. And that didn’t happen
until 1921—later than many students today might think.
Q: Where do you see UD heading? Is that an appropriate question for a historian?
A: Absolutely appropriate. The point of studying the past is to show
how it led to the future, how it produced the future from its time. And
that’s true no matter what kind of history you’re studying.
I think one of the things you can say about the University of
Delaware is that it’s always stayed a step ahead in producing students
who are capable of moving on and fulfilling the needs of their time, and
as long as it keeps doing that it will continue to be successful.
For example, I know there’s an emphasis today on entrepreneurship.
When I was a student, no one thought about entrepreneurship. We all
wanted to go work for a company like DuPont. The big companies were the
entrepreneurs, and we were going to be the workers. Today, in the
current situation, we’re evolving into a time when starting your own
business is a real career path for many people.
History is about change, how people foresee and adapt. That’s
especially so with a university; It can direct the development of
Q: You’ve had such an impressive career. After you graduated from
UD and went to Harvard for your Ph.D., you must have had many options.
Why did you choose to come back to Delaware to work?
A: I loved Cambridge, and I loved Harvard. I did my doctoral
dissertation on Harry Truman. The dissertation was OK, but I couldn’t
put my heart into it. I just knew that I wanted to study Wilmington. So I
contacted Hagley [Museum] and asked if they had a scholar position.
That was around the time of the 1968 riots in Wilmington, a time of
extreme racial tensions, and I wanted to understand how this had all
come to pass. I was interested in how Wilmington had undergone such
dramatic changes in the nature of its employment and housing and how
that had resulted in changes such as white residents’ hostility to black
residents. I wanted to understand how the city had evolved.
I wrote Wilmington, Delaware: Portrait of an Industrial City, 1830-1910. Then I joined the University faculty in 1973 and stayed for 30 years.
Hoffecker went to graduate school at Radcliffe College and Harvard
University, where she earned her doctorate in history. She taught at
Northeastern University and Sweet Briar College before returning to her
native state as a resident scholar at Hagley Museum and then as a member
of UD’s history department faculty.
While at UD, Hoffecker served as president of the Faculty Senate,
chairperson of the Department of History and associate provost for
graduate studies, in addition to her duties in teaching and research.
She is the author of several books, including Wilmington,
Delaware: Portrait of an Industrial City, 1830-1910; Brandywine Village;
Corporate Capital: Wilmington in the Twentieth Century; Delaware: A
Bicentennial History; Beneath Thy Guiding Hand: A History of Women at
the University of Delaware; Familiar Relations: The Du Ponts and the
University of Delaware; Honest John Williams: U.S. Senator from
Delaware; Federal Justice in the First State; and—a book familiar to many from their early school days—Delaware, The First State.
At Commencement in May 2009, the University awarded Hoffecker an honorary doctor of humanities degree.
In 2018, the University of Delaware celebrates 275 years
since its founding in 1743, when Presbyterian minister Francis Alison
opened his "Free School" in his home in New London, Pennsylvania. At the
dawn of our country’s founding, UD helped change history, and now it’s
changing the world. As a time marker in the middle of the milestone
250th and 300th anniversary dates, 275 provides the perfect moment for
the University to look back on its roots and past successes; take stock
of what it has become today; and stand on the edge of tomorrow to peer
into its third century and beyond.
The University of Delaware: A History is a comprehensive
account by noted Delaware historian John A. Munroe, a UD alumnus and
member of the faculty from 1942-1982, who died in 2006. The book was
published in 1983, in connection with the 150th anniversary of the 1833
charter granted by the Delaware state legislature to the institution
then known as Newark College.
Detailed information about UD’s history is also available on the University Archives website.
The site includes a list of additional resources about UD and its predecessor institutions and materials from a series of exhibitions focusing on the history, activities and accomplishments of the University.
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Kathy F. Atkinson