Today in 1752, Timothy Dwight IV, scholar, minister, and one of a group of early American poets and writers known as the Hartford Wits, was born. The eldest of 13 children born into an influential family in Massachusetts, Dwight graduated from Yale College in 1769 and shortly thereafter decided to dedicate his life to ministry and education (perhaps inspired by his grandfather, famous Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards).
After graduation, Dwight taught at the Hopkins School in New Haven and as a tutor at Yale, and eventually became settled as the minister of Greenfield Hill Congregational Church in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he also founded a prestigious academy for young boys. During the Revolutionary War, Dwight served with distinction as a chaplain for Samuel Holden Parson’s 1st Connecticut Brigade and was later appointed an honorary member of the Society of the Cincinnati in Connecticut.
Dwight became most famous for his leadership of Yale College, where he served as president from 1795 – 1817. Under his tenure, the college experienced rapid expansion and became the largest institution of higher education in the United States. A veritable polymath, Dwight dabbled in literature, poetry, songwriting, and was active in Federalist politics. His 11-volume work The Conquest of Canaan is considered to be the first epic poem ever produced in America. He was a member of the “Hartford Wits,” a group of young scholars including David Humprheys and John Trumbull (the poet, not the painter) who wrote satirical verse during the 1770s and 1780s.
In the early 19th century, Dwight rose to prominence as the head of Connecticut’s Federalist party, and, as an avid Congregationalist minister, vociferously opposed the disestablishment of church and state that was eventually codified in Connecticut’s Constitution of 1818. Over the course of his lifetime, he gained widespread recognition for his work as a scholar and educator, receiving honorary degrees from the College of New Jersey (present-day Princeton University) and Harvard. After his death in 1817, he was interred in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery. In the early 20th century, Yale named one of its newest residential colleges “Timothy Dwight College” in honor of Dwight and his grandson, Timothy Dwight V, who also served as President of Yale — a fitting tribute to one of Yale’s greatest students, tutors, and presidents, born on this day in 1752.
Andy Piascik, “Timothy Dwight Provides Religious, Military, and Educational Services for a Young Country,” connecticuthistory.org