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Sesquicentennial Plus 10

Northwestern University officially founded 160 years ago on May 31, 1850

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June 1, 2010
Need a refresher on the famous people, places and events of Northwestern's history? Watch the video to see 160 years in six minutes. Produced by Matt Paolelli

While the Northwestern University seal carries the familiar date 1851, the year the University received its charter, the actual founding took place in 1850, and May 31 marked the 160th anniversary of that event.

Northwestern's founders met for the first time in a law office above a hardware store in Chicago on May 31, 1850. The nine men were members of what was then called the Methodist Episcopal Church. They had made their homes and, for some, the beginnings of their fortunes, in the small, but rapidly expanding, city of Chicago. Young, no doubt ambitious, and certainly energetic, the founders looked forward to the establishment of a regional university (hence the name Northwestern, reflecting what was then called the Northwest Territory and is now the Midwest) that would grow - in the "interests of sanctified learning" - under the patronage of their church.

In this effort, the founders were much like others of that time engaged in the formation of denominational colleges and universities. Those schools were rapidly dotting the American landscape, following in the wake of westward expansion. The reasons behind the origins of denominational schools are many but not least among them would be rivalry between faiths, attempts to cement religious affiliations of the young and, from a business perspective, an effort to gain market share in the competition for souls. The Methodists, then the most sizeable denomination in Chicago, were quick to stake a claim in the area, and Northwestern became the first university established in northeastern Illinois.

Northwestern's founders included representatives of the city's professional and commercial elite: physician John Evans; businessmen Orrington Lunt and Jabez Botsford; and attorneys Grant Goodrich (in whose office they met), Henry Clark and Andrew Brown. Clergymen Richard Haney, Richard Blanchard and Zadoc Hall completed the group and gave the new institution a solid veneer of denominational respectability.

Early plans for the appointment of University trustees stipulated that no fewer than 24 in number would be drawn from the Methodist clergy of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin - further identifying the school with the church but also ensuring that its outlook was broadly based and encompassed the region beyond Chicago. Despite these formal church ties and the strong Methodist character that shaped the institution during its formative decades, however, Northwestern was never strictly sectarian in either its admission of students or appointment of faculty. From its outset, the University maintained both an endowment independent of church control and strong, lay leadership of its Board of Trustees. These essential characteristics allowed Northwestern to adapt without major difficulty to the changing religious and social dynamics of the city, region, nation - and now, world. Also key, the absence of strict sectarianism permitted the University to revise its pedagogy and expand its curriculum according to the worldly needs and interests of students and faculty. Indeed, early University documents are replete with language that emphasized the practical value of intellect trained and applied to useful endeavor.

Its signal characteristics settled, the founders and the members of the institution's first Board of Trustees quickly went about the business of securing a charter from the State of Illinois, appointing a president and selecting a site for its campus. The charter, approved by the Illinois legislature on Jan. 28, 1851, laid out the prosaic but necessary affairs of institutional governance but also noted specifically that the University would establish its home in or near the city. Subsequent amendments to the charter were more important to the school's later development. After the trustees purchased land in an uninhabited area north of Chicago, they began to plat a community, calling it Evanston in honor of John Evans. One amendment to the charter enacted a ban on the sale of liquor within four miles of the University, reflecting the Methodist support of the temperance movement and strongly influencing the character of the University's surrounding community for more than a century. Of even more lasting importance, the legislature granted the University the right to hold property "forever free from taxation for any and all purposes."

The selection of a University president was made from within the ranks of Northwestern's newly appointed trustees. Clark Titus Hinman, a Methodist clergyman who received his denomination's license to preach at the age of 19, represented Michigan on the board and was known for his piety and his oratorical skill. Taking office at age 34, Hinman's background, abilities and youthful energy made him a natural choice to take on the responsibility of establishing an institution that existed at that point only on paper and in the minds of its backers.

Hinman's primary goals as president were to raise an endowment for the University and to make Northwestern the central Methodist-affiliated institution of the region. Hinman journeyed frequently across northern Illinois and the wider region in pursuit of those goals. He spoke on behalf of the University to gatherings of clergy and was responsible for much of the institution's initial fundraising. (After 160 years at least some work of a president hasn't changed all that much.) Although Hinman lived in Chicago, University founder John Evans credited him as instrumental in the selection of a site for the University's home removed from the corruptions associated with an urban location and, more importantly, an open location that would permit the acquisition of significant land holdings and room to grow. Hinman died suddenly in 1854, but his work had given Northwestern the basis for its physical development and marked the close of the University's foundational years.

Happy birthday, Northwestern!

- Written by Kevin Leonard, University Archivist