`Which came first?' colleges ask

SUN JOURNAL

Rivalry: Washington and Dickinson both claim to be the first college chartered in the new nation - an assertion that rests on when exactly the United States was founded.

February 07, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

It may seem like a petty squabble, the academic equivalent of arguing over a parking space: Which college has the right to claim to be the first one formed in the new United States?

But what is at stake in the dispute between Washington College and Dickinson College, the schools say, is nothing less than the historical truth about the founding of the nation.

For more than two centuries, Washington has proudly proclaimed its status as the first college founded in the newly created United States of America. It was chartered in 1782, making it the 10th college in the Thirteen Colonies but the first one formed after the Declaration of Independence.

Now, however, the small private college in Chestertown is fending off a challenge from Dickinson, in Carlisle, Pa., which two years ago started marketing itself as the first-in-the-nation school.

Dickinson was chartered Sept. 9, 1783. This, the school argues, makes it the first college founded in the new America - if you date the nation's birth to the signing of the Treaty of Paris on Sept. 3, 1783. The treaty ended the Revolutionary War and secured England's recognition of the United States.

The question, the two sides agree, is of great historical significance: Was the United States' true beginning in 1776, when its founders proclaimed its independence, or in 1783, when its former ruler recognized it?

"It's generally agreed by historians everywhere that [the United States] began with the Declaration of Independence in 1776," says Washington College President John S. Toll.

Counters Dickinson President William G. Durden: "1776 was obviously a critical and a proud moment. But the date that was really significant was the moment that self-proclaimed independence transformed into an internationally recognized independence. At that point, Britain said, `You are a nation. You are cut free.'"

Both presidents say that they are keeping the dispute in perspective and that it hasn't gone beyond a few phone calls, letters, and barbs exchanged at conferences. At the same time, both say that their claim to being the first is central to their school's mission and tradition, and that they aren't about to give in.

"I've talked to them [Dickinson] and told them it's important they recognize the primacy of Washington College," says Toll, a former president of the University of Maryland. "It's up to them to decide how they do that."

Dickinson has changed the wording on its Web site and stationery from "first college chartered in the new nation" to "first college chartered in the newly recognized nation" to try to mollify its rival, but it refuses to drop the claim completely.

"We're of revolutionary stock here. We were founded by revolutionaries, and we believe our claim as the `first college in the newly recognized nation' is a totally justified claim," says Durden, a former administrator at the Johns Hopkins University and Sylvan Learning Systems. "I am flabbergasted they would wish to have us do away with" the claim.

As it turns out, the colleges' rivalry dates to their founders. Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence who founded Dickinson, feuded with George Washington, who gave 50 guineas to Washington College, served on its board and consented to have the school named for him.

Rush, who treated Continental troops during the war, complained publicly about the quality of medical care for the army and pushed secretly to have Washington removed as commander in chief - a move that backfired when the general learned of the campaign.

Both colleges have turned to historians to buttress their position, but historians themselves are divided on the question.

University of Maryland historian Alison Olson sides with Dickinson, saying a sizable minority of colonists, the Tories, remained loyal to England until the end of the Revolutionary War. Also, she said, the outcome of the war - and the fate of the Colonies - was in doubt until shortly before the Treaty of Paris was signed.

"The British got tired out with the war, but we got tired out, too, and there was some question about whether we were going to get tired out first," she says. "The treaty settled the outcome - after 1783, there was no turning back."

The country has traditionally celebrated 1776 as its founding, she adds, because that was the date that served the wartime cause. "It paid the American propagandists to play up the Declaration, to get people to fight enthusiastically," she says.

Olson dismisses Washington College's argument that nations such as France and Holland had recognized the United States as early as 1778, saying those were simply wartime deals to undercut England. Americans who were lobbying for help in Europe, including Benjamin Franklin in Paris and John Adams in Holland, were there as ministers, not ambassadors of a recognized nation, she said.

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