Story Stream
recent articles

On this date 152 years ago, Cornell University first opened its doors to students on the bucolic campus overlooking the waters of one of upstate New York's picturesque Finger Lakes.

Officially chartered by state law soon after the Civil War ended -- only two weeks after Abraham Lincoln's assassination -- Cornell was made possible by Lincoln's signing of the 1862 Land-Grant College Act. That legislation enabled states to take possession of unused federal lands to establish colleges and universities. Its principle sponsor, Justin Morrill of Vermont, was one of the founders of the Republican Party and a man so esteemed by his colleagues that by the time he died while in office in 1898s, his colleagues respectfully referred to him as "Father of the Senate."

So why was the Ivy League school in Ithaca, N.Y., named Cornell and not Morrill? 

The only Ivy League school that began as a land-grant college, Cornell welcomed its first 412 students to classes on Oct. 7, 1868. Its earliest benefactor, other than Sen. Morrill and President Lincoln, was a Bronx-born entrepreneur named Ezra Cornell. Born into a Quaker family that disavowed him over his mixed marriage (he wed a Methodist), Cornell was poor for much of his life -- until he co-founded Western Union.

Late into middle age, he entered politics, and was serving as a Republican state senator in Albany when the legislature voted to create a new college in Ithaca. Cornell's role in passing the enabling legislation was the opposite of a politician enriching himself by using inside information: Ezra Cornell helped New York establish one of the first land-grant schools by donating $500,000 for seed money and then deeding land he controlled to the college -- resulting in a $5 million endowment.

Naming it after him seemed small recompense.

That pioneer class I mentioned was all male and all white. This being upstate New York, however, a hotbed of both abolition and women's suffrage, the face of the student body was destined to change. It didn't take very long. The first black student, William Bowler of Haiti, arrived on campus in 1869. The following year, Kanaye Nagasawa of Japan became Cornell's first Asian student.

At the same time, the school began offering foreign language instruction in Japanese and Chinese. The 1870 school year was also when the first woman, Jennie Spencer, enrolled. Finding the lack of living accommodations for women too inconvenient, she dropped out. But other women followed in her footsteps, coed dorms were built, and by 1873 Emma Sheffield Eastman became the college's first female graduate.

This was Ezra Cornell's own vision, one he expressed in writing -- for posterity's sake -- to someone he wasn't trying to spin for political purposes. It was actually someone quite close to his heart: his 4-year-old granddaughter, Eunice Cornell.

"I want to have girls educated in the university as well as boys, so that they may have the same opportunity to become wise and useful to society that the boys have," he wrote to his eldest grandchild on Feb. 17, 1867. "I want you to keep this letter until you grow up to be a woman and want to go to a good school where you can have a good opportunity to learn, so you can show it to the President and Faculty of the University to let them know that it is the wish of your Grand Pa, that girls as well as boys should be educated at the Cornell University."

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Show comments Hide Comments