King’s College was officially opened on July 17, 1754. The idea of founding a college in the province of New York, however, goes back to 1704.
In 1704, Lewis Morris, of New Jersey wrote to the secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. In his letter, he requested
that the society petition the British Crown for 32 acres of land located in New York. Trinity Church had already requested this land, to no avail. Wanting to
build a college there, the church hoped that the society’s request might be taken more seriously. The land was finally given over to Trinity Church in 1702
or 1703. Trinity officials asked the governor, Lord Cornbury, where on that parcel they should build a college. But Lord Cornbury never responded to
them, and they dropped the matter.
The idea of opening a college in the colonies interested the English once again in 1728. Having received approval for opening a college in Bermuda,
Bishop Berkeley left England for the islands in 1729. He never arrived there; his ship made it to Rhode Island instead. While in New England, Berkeley
decided that New York was a better location for a college. He then requested permission to open a college on the North American mainland instead of
Bermuda, mentioning New York as a possible location. Soon after, though, he returned to England at the request of a friend, and no one else pushed for
the establishment of a college until years later.
In 1746, the New York General Assembly approved a measure to raise 2,250 pounds through a public lottery for the colony in general, as well as for the
establishment of a college. By 1751, several lotteries had raised nearly 3,500 pounds, and these monies were used to pay for ten trustees, who had to
decide where to situate the college. Trinity Church proposed the college be built on any of the unused portion of the 32 acres it had acquired almost fifty
years earlier. The trustees decided to use the church’s land, but controversy over this choice soon erupted.
Trinity Church was a Church of England (or Anglican) church; furthermore, seven of the ten trustees who formed the board of governors of the college
were Anglicans, and some were vestrymen at Trinity Church. These facts, along with a proposal by these seven trustees that the board of governors of
the college would always maintain an Anglican majority, created a strong opposition to the college. Led by William Livingston, the opposition sought
approval of the college not by a royal charter but by the General Assembly. In essence, the opposition feared the Anglican affiliation of many of the
individuals associated with the college would lead to the suppression of dissenting religious views held by students and faculty.
Thanks to the assistance of Lieutenant Governor James Delancey whose family happened to be feuding with the Livingstons the English government
finally chartered King’s College on October 31, 1754, by which time classes had already been in session for three months. Reverend Samuel Johnson, an
Anglican clergyman, became the first president of King’s College in July 1754. Johnson was the only instructor that year, and the subjects he offered
included Greek, logic, metaphysics, and ethics. Eight students began their studies that summer in the Trinity vestry room. At the college’s first
commencement, on June 21, 1758, five of the members of the first entering class graduated, along with three transfer students.
Construction of a building for the college was completed in June 1760. In the beginning, however, King’s College trustees failed to find significant financial
backing. Finally, in 1767, the college acquired valuable real estate near the Hudson River, which helped stabilize its financial situation.
The Revolutionary War interrupted studies at the college and eventually helped lead to its redesign. In 1776, there were no students admitted, and the
college’s building became a military hospital, although the board of governors continued to meet occasionally during the war. On May 1, 1784, the
trustees dissolved King’s College and formed Columbia College in its place.
King’s College lasted only thirty years, from 1754 to 1784. During that time, it attracted students from influential families, including George Washington’s
stepson, John Parke Custis. The college also prevailed in the face of significant political controversy and financial challenges.
Lisa Y. Ramos
See also: Education, Higher; New York City; Document: Founding Colleges in America (1754).
Arrowsmith, Robert. Columbia of Yesterday, 1754 1897. Reprinted from the Columbian. Staten Island, NY, 1926.
Coon, Horace. Columbia: Colossus on the Hudson. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1947.
A History of Columbia University, 1754 1904. New York: Columbia University Press, 1904.
Loth, David. “King’s College Controversy.” American Heritage 5:1 (1953): 14 17.
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