Today in 1795, one day before Yale’s annual commencement ceremonies were scheduled to take place, the college officially instated Timothy Dwight IV as its new president.
Dwight would be the eighth man to preside over the venerable college, which had been founded in 1701 and was the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The 43-year-old Dwight was certainly no stranger to Yale: He had graduated as a member of the Class of 1769 and remained attached to the college as a tutor for several years before moving to Fairfield to preside over the Greenfield Hill Congregational Church. A consummate man of letters, he remained productive in the years before returning to Yale as its president, publishing numerous hymns, sermons, philosophical treatises, political essays, and even penning what is considered to be the first American epic poem, The Conquest of Canaan.
Yale enjoyed a period of robust expansion under Dwight’s 21-year tenure; the student population nearly doubled (from 150 to about 275 students), necessitating more tutors, more classroom space, and the establishment of Yale’s first full-time Professor of Law. Among the most memorable hallmarks of Dwight’s presidency was his enthusiastic embrace of religious revivalism brought on by the Second Great Awakening in the early years of his presidency. His embrace of traditional Christian morals and antipathy toward the trendy deist philosophies of the 1780s earned him praise from religious luminaries and derisive nicknames like “Pope Dwight” from his adversaries.
While serving as Yale’s president, Dwight kept up a robust schedule of research, reading, and writing, penning one of the most meticulously detailed travelogues in Early American history: a four-volume tome titled Travels in New England and New York. He remained President of Yale until his death in 1817 at the age of 63, at which time Yale had become the largest institution of higher education in the United States. In 1935, Yale named one of its new residential colleges “Timothy Dwight College,” in honor of both Dwight and his grandson, Timothy Dwight V, who also served as Yale’s president in the late 19th century.
Andy Piascik, “Timothy Dwight Provides Religious, Military, and Educational Services for a Young Country,” connecticuthistory.org
Frederick B. Dexter, “Student Life at Yale College Under the First President Dwight (1795 – 1817),” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society