Although Yale was known for its anti-establishment elan during the Vietnam War, rebellion at Yale is deeply rooted in the soil of an insurgent American history. Four Yalies signed the Declaration of Independence. Students-turned-soldiers trained on the New Haven Green in 1775. Upon death’s threshold, class of 1773 graduate Nathan Hale uttered his famous words: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
Since then, sons and daughters of Eli have left their marks on many of the nation’s institutions, monuments and works of art — the National Review, the Presidency, the Supreme Court, the sitcom “The Simpsons,” and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.
First named the Collegiate School, the university moved to New Haven from Old Saybrook in 1716. It was named Yale College in 1718 after Elihu Yale, a generous benefactor. From its inception the school was a contrarian’s refuge, saving souls from the damnation of a liberal Harvard education.
Yale’s move to New Haven began a relationship that has endured for almost three centuries, although town-gown relations have not always been as placid as they are now. As its economy grew, New Haven became less of a university town and more of a shipping hub. It has tried to develop an independent identity ever since. From the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th, fighting erupted between denizens and Yalies, at times including firearms. In 1850, New Haven citizens began firing cannons on Yale students. Today, students are involved in many city causes and relations are much more congenial.
When slaves on a Spanish ship mutinied and were held captive, they were tried and acquitted in New Haven. The conflict, known as the Amistad trial, was a landmark win for the abolitionists and foreshadowed the start of the Civil War in 1861. The war brought conflict to Old Campus, where a group of Southerners raised a Confederate flag, nearly triggering a riot. Southern student matriculation declined during the fighting, in which 166 Yalies — fighting for both the North and South — lost their lives.
The University celebrated its bicentennial at the beginning of the 20th century, but conflict across the sea would soon turn gregarious students into soldiers of World War I. During the war, artillery training was required of all students, and 277 alumni somberly fulfilled their call of “for God, for Country and for Yale.”
Wary of entanglement in global conflict, Yalies embraced an isolationist stance when European nations once again took arms against one another. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, however, galvanized Yalies to support the war effort, and 20,000 future soldiers were trained at Yale. The death toll of 514 for Yale graduates was almost twice what it had been in the previous war.
The admissions process changed drastically under President Kingman Brewster. The student body became increasingly diverse, and women were allowed to study at Yale in 1969. Yale was no longer a school for the sons of white, upper-class families. Yalies championed the civil rights movement and protested the Vietnam War. When Black Panther Bobby Seale was arrested in New Haven and accused of murder, Yalies once again flocked to the New Haven Green, asking that his trial be moved to ensure fairness. The Connecticut governor deployed the National Guard to New Haven, but anger died down when the charges against Seale were dropped.
Entering its fourth century, Yale is moving forward with its commitment to globalization. In a sense, there are two histories of Yale: the history of Yale within its walls, and the history of Yale in the outside world. For four years Yale students participate in the world within, all the while preparing for the world outside.