Yale celebrated its 300th anniversary this year by inviting back a host of famous alumni ranging from former presidents to cartoonists.
But if the original founders of the small college that later became Yale University had ever envisioned the school’s tercentennial, they surely would never have imagined Yale President Richard Levin and others celebrating the school’s diverse academic resources and student population.
When Puritan clergyman John Davenport helped found the independent colony of New Haven in 1640, he dreamed of building a religious college in the new colony.
Harvard University was founded in 1636 in Boston to train young New Englanders in ministry and the classics, but by the late 17th century Connecticut colonists believed Harvard had strayed from its Puritan roots.
In response to this dissatisfaction, five Connecticut Puritan ministers convinced the colonial legislature to make a grant for the Collegiate School of Branford, Conn. The grant gave permission to start a college “wherein youth may be instructed in the Arts and Sciences who through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Public employment both in Church and Civil State.”
After several changes in location, the school finally settled at its current location in New Haven. Two years later administrators renamed the school Yale College in honor of Elihu Yale, the London philanthropist who bailed the school out of early financial difficulties.
Yale soon amassed the largest collection of books in New Haven and developed a strict schedule for its earliest students.
Yale produced many famous graduates in its first years, including 1720 graduate Jonathan Edwards. Years after his graduation, he became a leader of the first large-scale American cultural movement: the Great Awakening, which was a religious revival movement that swept through the colonies.
Flexing young muscles
The Great Awakening was only the first of many early national movements in which Yalies took an active role.
During the years right before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Yale students began to express strong support for the protests against Great Britain. Students trained in a company on New Haven Green in 1775.
Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale graduated in the class of 1773. The British later captured Hale, who was a spy, and before his execution he mythically uttered one of the most famous patriotic lines in the nation’s history.
“I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” he said in September 1776, according to tradition.
In the political spectrum, Yale had 14 of its alumni present at the Continental Congress and four alumni who signed the Declaration of Independence.
Relations between town and college gradually deteriorated as Yale and New Haven developed separate identities.
As its economy grew, New Haven became more of a shipping center than a university town.
Fights broke out between students and townsfolk in the late 18th century and continued into the mid-19th century. Occasional riots occurred, and eventually firearms entered these battles, which sometimes involved hundreds of people.
In 1850, a mob armed with two cannons attacked Yale students and chased them back to the college.
The riots eventually ended, but a tense relationship has continued to exist between the school and the city at times.
Yale at war
As the Civil War approached, New Haven and Yale felt the tension. New Haven was the site of the famous Amistad trial starting in 1839. A group of slaves on a Spanish ship mutinied and were jailed in the city before the U.S. Supreme Court acquitted them in 1841, marking a landmark victory for abolitionists.
Yale, too, experienced the tension of sectional conflict. Yale had attracted the sons of Southern elite in the past, but as the war neared, these students no longer came to Yale.
In 1861, the small number of remaining Southern students nearly started a riot by raising the Confederate flag on Old Campus. And in the war, 166 Yalies lost their lives fighting for both the Union and Confederate armies.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Yale was a blossoming university celebrating its bicentennial and preparing for a century in which Yale would bravely step onto the world stage.
Yale quickly jumped to the support of the British and French at the outbreak of World War I. Although strong cultural connections made this alliance likely, Yalies advocated preparing for conflict long before most Americans even accepted war as a possibility.
Yale became an informal military camp with mandatory artillery training for all students, and, in all, 227 Yalies lost their lives in the war.
While the University escaped from the Great Depression relatively unharmed, less than 25 years later Yale found itself mobilizing for war again.
This time, however, Yale found itself a bastion of isolationist sentiments. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, those feelings disappeared.
Civilian life at Yale almost ceased to exist, and over 20,000 future soldiers were trained at Yale. A total of 514 Yalies lost their lives in World War II.
The great changes
Yale experienced its greatest social changes during the 1960s, as the student population changed drastically.
The stereotypical Yalie at the beginning of the decade was a blue-blooded preppy. But by the end of the decade, President Kingman Brewster had revolutionized the admissions process. Graduating classes became more and more diverse, and in 1969 the first female undergraduates arrived.
Yalies became active in the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests, as well, but major violence was avoided. In May 1970, though, Yale experienced perhaps its most famous protest.
Black Panther Bobby Seale was arrested in New Haven and accused of murder, and students and civil rights activists petitioned for the trial to be moved to a different location. More than 15,000 protesters converged on the New Haven Green to protest, and the Connecticut governor deployed the National Guard to maintain order. The charges against Seale eventually were dropped.
As the protest era ended, Yale entered tough times. Financial difficulties and security questions plagued the school, but under the leadership of Yale President Richard Levin the school rebuilt and resurfaced as one of the world’s greatest institutions.
The same basic goal
Yale was founded because Connecticut authorities believed Harvard had forgotten its mission of religious education. Ironically, Yale too has lost sight of this original purpose, but in doing so it has become so much more.
The world now looks to what once was a small religious college for leadership and knowledge in all subjects. But even with its expanding offerings and more diverse student body, Yale still lives up to one of its founders’ most fundamental goals as it continues to be better than Harvard.