The fascinating history of two storied universitiesDec 01, 2023 11:41AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
“Knowledge is the light of the mind.” - University of Delaware motto
Most people are not aware that one man played a role in the beginnings of two major educational institutions well known throughout the region. Those venues—the University of Delaware and University of Pennsylvania—stand today among the oldest and most respected in their states. This individual was a highly renowned classical scholar, an authority in both Greek and Latin studies, considered an expert in his field. That man was Francis Alison.
Francis Alison was born on January 1, 1705 in County Donegal, Ireland. He was likely first educated in a little-known Presbyterian academy in Dublin, but is believed to have attended both the University of Glasgow and the University of Edinburgh, where he earned a Master’s Degree in 1733. Alison emigrated to America in 1735, going first to Talbot County, Maryland and later to the village of New London in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Alison was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1737 and became pastor of a church in New London. Early on, he served as a tutor to the Dickinson family, whose son John Dickinson would study law and become known as the “Penman of the American Revolution” through his many writings. Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” were instrumental in formulating colonial opposition to British policies, printed in newspapers throughout the colonies.
In 1743, Alison founded the New London Academy, today considered one of the oldest schools in the American colonies, where he was a tough, but effective taskmaster and an inspiration to his students. One can judge the effectiveness of a teacher by how well their students perform later in life. Some of Alison’s would influence the future course of our nation. Historian John Munroe wrote that Alison’s first graduating class was “possibly the most distinguished in terms of later achievements of its members … of any class in any school in America…” Charles Thomson would serve as the Secretary of the Continental Congress for its entire existence, from 1774- 1789. Three of Alison’s other students- Thomas McKean, George Read and James Smith- would become signers of the Declaration of Independence. McKean would also serve as Governor of both Delaware and Pennsylvania. Two historic markers in New London highlight many of these accomplishments.
Alison’s expertise became well recognized around Pennsylvania. He impressed another scholar- Benjamin Franklin- who wrote a letter about him to Joshua Babcock, saying “I beg leave to introduce you to the Revd. Mr. Alison… a person of great Ingenuity & Learning… and what is more, an Honest Man.” Alison’s New London Academy became the Presbyterian seminary for Philadelphia’s “Old Style” synod from 1743 to 1752 during the early years of “The Great Awakening,” a period of religious revival in America. In 1752, Alison was asked to become rector of the Academy of Philadelphia and leading teacher at its Latin School. Even though Alison was an Irish Presbyterian, the Anglican trustees of the Academy overcame their hesitance and hired him due to his outstanding abilities as a Latin scholar. Ezra Stiles, at one time the President of Yale, called Alison “…the greatest classical scholar in America, especially in Greek.” Alison was later made vice-provost of the Academy after it was granted a collegiate charter in 1755 and became the College of Philadelphia, precursor to the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1767, New London Academy moved to Newark, Delaware, becoming the Newark Academy. An historical marker standing at the intersection of Academy and East Main Street in Newark states “Founded at New London, Pennsylvania… by Dr. Francis Alison, removed in 1752 to Cecil County, Md., and in 1767 to Newark. Chartered by Thomas and Richard Penn 1769. Closed from 1777 to 1780 on account of Revolutionary War. Merged with Newark College (now University of Delaware) 1834… Many famous men were educated in this school.” Although Alison was in England when news of the Declaration of Independence reached their shores, he was known to support liberty for the Americans- exemplified by the actions of his students. He passed away on November 28, 1779.
Newark College was renamed Delaware College in 1843; in 1867 it was designated as one of America’s Land Grant colleges. A women’s college opened in 1914 with 58 students. In 1921, the two schools merged to become the University of Delaware. The main campus is in Newark, with branch campuses in Wilmington, Dover, Georgetown and Lewes.
The University of Delaware’s “blue and gold” have an interesting history. According to the University website, the faculty of Delaware College chose blue and gold as the school’s colors in 1889, right before their first football season. Reflecting the hues shown on the Delaware state flag, they represent the colors of General George Washington’s uniform—blue and buff—and also the colors of Sweden, whose settlers were the first permanent colonists in Delaware. Since the 1950s, the University of Delaware has quadrupled its enrollment, adding dozens of faculty members and numerous academic studies. Many people know their athletic teams as the “Fightin’ Blue Hens,” who have won 22 Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) Championships since 2001. The women’s field hockey team won the NCAA Division 1 Championship in 2016.
After automotive operations ceased, the University purchased a 272-acre plot which had been the location of the Chrysler assembly plant. Today the site hosts the University’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus and is also home to the Health Sciences Complex. Current plans include further development of the venue for business, research and other educational activities.
So, if you wonder whether knowing Greek or Latin can help achieve great things, look no further than the campuses of two of the region’s finest Universities, which came to life partly because one man believed strongly in the diffusion of knowledge- and doing so, helped chart the course of American history.
Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His 11 books focus mostly on the history of the Chester County/mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s latest book is “Heritage of the Brandywine Valley,” a beautifully illustrated hardcover book with over 250 images showcasing the fascinating people, places and events of this region over more than 300 years. His books are available on his website at www.GenePisasale.com and also on www.Amazon.com. Gene can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].