Monmouth College history in 15 minutes


By William Urban

A few years ago I was asked to give a fifteen minute summary of the history of Monmouth College. What I did instead was to distribute the following essay, then answer questions. I was never asked to do it again, but I thought it is still worth sharing. After all the fall semester is not far off, and we need to think of something besides politics.

Higher education in America began with small colleges founded by religious bodies — from Harvard, Yale and Princeton right to Knox Manual Labor College in 1841 and The Monmouth College in 1856. Before the 1862 Morrill Act establishing Land Grant universities the exceptions were few — Dartmouth and William and Mary for Native Americans, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina for everyone — but many well-known universities resembled small colleges until the post-World War II boom.

As Americans spread west, they founded church-related colleges everywhere. As one wit said, “It’s a poor town that does not have a poor college.” In curriculum and student life all were similar — in general more demanding than today. Students got to know one another; all could complain about the food, the lumpy beds and lack of privacy, the dull lectures, the religious atmosphere (rules against smoking, drinking, playing cards and dancing); after the Civil War many found friends and amusement in the new fraternities and sororities, in sports, innovative pranks, and class rivalries. They made close friendships with faculty who worked long hours for very little pay and without retirement benefits. They got to know administrators because there were so few of them and some taught classes. Costs were low, and those with no family wealth could often find a low-paying job on campus or in one of the rooming houses. Dormitories were rare and Spartan. Clothing was formal, social activities were closely monitored.

Monmouth College was begun by members of the Associate Presbyterian Church who wanted a high school at a central location where respectable families were willing to provide room and board for their children. Their patriot grandparents had split with the Presbyterians in South Carolina during the Revolution — they were also anti-slavery, favored women’s rights, and believed fervently in the value of a good education. Western Illinois, though no longer frontier country, had cheap land, good soil and winters.

The Academy was started in 1853. In 1856, when the first seniors were ready to graduate, trustee Abner Harding helped get a charter from the Illinois legislature that exempted all college-owned property from taxes, which was important because many gifts to the college were in the form of farms; this later helped the college survive difficult times. Since the student body was soon too large for the brick Academy building on North A, President Wallace advocated having a separate structure for the collegiate program — one somewhat distant from the dissolute life around the city square.

It is worth noting that women were never admitted to the college — they were there from the beginning. No Seminary Street, as in Galesburg, to remind everyone that Knox women were once kept separate. But co-education was still rare, and when David Wallace came from Massachusetts, he made stops at those few colleges with female students to ask about their experiences.

Wallace soon learned that money and politics were greater problems than having women in classes. Monmouth College students were mostly Associate Presbyterians or Protestants who shared their ideas. When the students wanted to have a Lincoln-Douglas debate, he discouraged them, fearing that this would make the vicious local debate over slavery worse. Another problem was that not a single student was willing to speak for the Democrats’ platform. When the Civil War came, most of the men of military age enlisted — the 232 soldiers compared favorably to Dartmouth and Princeton. The ensuing dearth of male students caused a financial crisis — one that would be repeated during most of America’s great wars — but made worse because Wallace had just begun to build Old Main on a hill east of downtown overlooking Valley Beautiful.

The post-war college was very dynamic, with the women founding the first and third female fraternities in the nation (It would have been the first and second, but even then students got their paperwork in late.) The depression of 1873 was a hard blow, but the college expanded its base into Iowa by absorbing Washington College. The 1896 Auditorium reflected the growing importance of the music program.”

This is a good place to pause, for the next years were a flurry of crises, each worse than the one preceding it. It seemed that Monmouth College would go the way of so many small colleges in the Midwest. Why didn’t it?

Review Atlas (August 4, 2016), 4.