One hundred and ninety-two years ago a group of political and social leaders in Potsdam, NY, received a charter from the State Board of Regents for a publicly supported academy. In those days an academy was a place where students could complete their secondary education and also be trained to become school teachers themselves. In the next fourteen years, the school, called St. Lawrence Academy, would produce some forty teachers for the North Country. As we all know, St. Lawrence Academy went on to become one of the state Normal schools, a Teacher’s College, and now SUNY Potsdam. By virtue of this pedigree, we are the oldest public university in the State of New York. As we celebrate the birthday of the College today (the actual charter was dated March 25), I would like to take a look at the historical environment in which the school developed.
The year 1816 was one about which few of us know very much today. As a historian myself, it actually is a bit too modern for my own research, but let me share with you some of what I have discovered. The War of 1812 had recently ended. Although a truce was signed between England and the United States in late 1814, the Battle of New Orleans occurred in early 1815 because word had not yet reached them that the war was over. The war was important for us in the North Country because some of it occurred here. As we know Lakes Ontario and Erie were theatres of operations in the war. So the village of Potsdam was enjoying the cessation of hostilities and the prosperity that followed the war.
Elsewhere, Indiana was admitted as a State in 1816. Closer to home, plans for the Erie Canal were reaching their conclusion, with work beginning in 1817. Two important events occurred in 1816 for Blacks in the US. In that year the African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded, providing a church home for millions of Blacks, independent of the rapidly growing Methodist Church, which increasingly had turned to evangelization of whites along the American frontier. The second event of 1816 was the foundation in Philadelphia of the American Colonization Society. This agency was founded by American whites and blacks to purchase land in West Africa to provide a place where freed slaves could resettle. While to our modern sensibilities this seems like an exclusionist action, for the time it was seen as very enlightened. That effort eventually resulted in the creation of the nation of Liberia. Of financial importance, the First Bank of the United States was founded. It was a precursor to our modern Federal Reserve System. It was empowered to both print money and control the circulation of coins. The country had been relying, until this time, on coins minted in Mexico, and on paper money issued by the states, and other local entities. It was also the year of no summer for folks in Potsdam and New England, caused by the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia. There were snowfalls of 10 inches in parts of New England. Lastly, Lewis and Clark would have returned from their monumental journey and their reports would be capturing the imagination of the country.
In Europe, 1816 saw the continent coping with the end of the Napoleonic era. Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo by the British in 1815. He was exiled to St. Helena off the coast of Africa. As a result, the French nation reestablished the monarchy in 1815 under the reign of Louis XVIII. In Spain, following the defeat of Napoleon, who had invaded the Iberian Peninsula and placed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne, the monarchy was also re-established and Alfonso VII became monarch, governing under a new constitution for the country and its colonies. Nevertheless, in the Americas, the colonies are embroiled in Wars of Independence. In 1816, Argentina continued to assert its Independence from Spain under the leadership of Jose de San Martin. In Chile, a group of local liberals had revolted from Spanish domination under the leadership of Bernardo O’Higgins. In northern South America, Simon Bolivar called for the creation of a newly independent country of Grand Colombia, including modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. In Mexico, the War for Independence was entering a guerrilla phase, with the capture and execution of the early leaders Manuel Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende, and Jose Maria Morelos.
On the popular culture front, people were reading the latest novel from Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, which was published in 1811. Hot on the music scene were the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven. One should also point out that by this time he was largely deaf. Music lovers in Europe were also whistling the tunes from Rossini’s new opera, “The Barber of Seville,” which premiered in 1816. Lastly that well known tune-smith, Robert Schuman, was well along in writing his collection of lieder, popular songs converted into classical favorites.
This, then, was the historical context in which those founders of St. Lawrence Academy were operating. It was an era of unprecedented change. For historians, we say that the Age of Revolutions was coming to an end. Nevertheless, the changes that lay ahead were simply unimaginable. The economy of the United States would expand rapidly following the War of 1812. Likewise, settlers would flood westward, opening up the Midwest. Immigration would continue to grow. While significant, it was nothing compared to what would happen after the Civil War.
In Potsdam and Northern New York, the time had come to establish those institutions that would consolidate the growth of the village. After all, the village had only been incorporated two years earlier. An important component in the plan for the development of the region was the Academy. It would complete the public school education of children at the same time that it would train the brightest and best of these for positions as teachers. Remarkable for the time, the Academy was open to both boys and girls, men and women. While elementary school teaching has become a highly gendered activity, with the overwhelming majority of teachers being women, in those days it was not. There were “school marms” but teaching was highly male dominated. St. Lawrence Academy welcomed both men and women. So not only are we the oldest public university in the State, we are also the oldest coeducational school still in existence.
We have much to be proud of as the heirs of this tradition. It was a college founded upon the highest hopes and aspirations of a small group of local leaders. It has served the North Country, state, and nation for one hundred ninety two years. We deeply respect the traditions of the past while we look to an ever brighter future. You, students, are the true heirs of this tradition. I call upon you all to take up the mantle offered by those men and women who founded the College, and wear it proudly into the twenty-first century.
Now, let’s celebrate with a bit of Birthday Cake.