A closer look at the university’s founding in “1743”
Despite the university's attempts to say otherwise, a local historian argues that the university, as it is currently known, may not have been founded in 1743.
It’s the first, and in some cases only, piece of knowledge that students acquire in their time at the university – that the University of Delaware was founded in 1743.
Many students learn this before they even enroll, seeing the date on admissions pamphlets and university merchandise. If not, they’re sufficiently inculcated during their first few days on campus through the “1743 Welcome Days.” It seems innocuous enough, but when one traces the lineage of the school, the prized date becomes questionable.
According to historian John Munroe, Presbyterian minister Francis Alison opened a small “free school” in the fall of 1743 in New London, Pa. The school aimed to educate young men in ancient languages, philosophy and divinity, with hopes that they would go on to serve in the Presbyterian Church. Alison was notoriously ill-tempered and considered unpleasant, but his school was respected nonetheless.
Alison left in 1752, and under new leadership the school entered an unsteady period of opening and closing, relocating to Cecil County, Md. and eventually landing in Newark around 1760. In 1769 the former “Seminary of Learning” received a long sought-after legal charter, becoming a corporate entity titled “The Academy of Newark.” So, it was not until 1769 that the school first became legally legitimate.
The academy closed in 1777 and then again from roughly 1793-1802, having lost its charter during the American Revolution. It reemerged under unstable Presbyterian leadership, short on resources and struggling to receive legal acknowledgement for the next thirty years. In 1833, however, the state of Delaware granted the school its long-awaited charter and the College of Delaware assumed its current position as a public institution. And it was not until around 1870 that the university achieved its status as a land-grant university.
So, a string of loosely related, fledgling seminaries and dedicated Presbyterians leads one back to Francis Alison’s school in 1743. But to say that the university, in its currently understood form, was founded in 1743 is perhaps a stretch. However, the university has good reason to choose 1743 as opposed to 1833. In 1743, the school’s contemporaries would have been the likes of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, William and Mary and the University of Pennsylvania. Later dates align the university with other public universities, detracting from 1743’s colonial authenticity.
And the date certainly leaves a favorable impression on students. Freshman Thomas Swayne said that it gives him a certain degree of confidence in the university.
“It makes the school seem experienced,” Swayne said. “Having been founded in the early 1700s, it’s been given more time to mature. It makes it feel more authentic.”
According to history professor Bruce Bendler, it’s not uncommon for towns and institutions to trace their foundings in this manner.
“Sometimes I think they’re [founding dates] the first manifestation of any kind of life whatsoever,” Bendler said. “So for the university, I don’t think it’s totally wrong to go back to 1743.”
Regardless of how you might interpret it all, the university has undoubtedly drifted from its claimed heritage. The school’s original intentions as a tuition-free, liberal arts institution hardly apply today. Moreover, in his history of the university, Munroe wrote that Newark appealed to the Presbyterian leaders because of its “absence of temptations to the moral youth,” which does not seem to characterize the area anymore, either.