Dwight, Timothy (1752-1817)
Timothy Dwight (1752-1817)
President of yale college
Reformer . As president of Yale, Timothy Dwight was not only that college’s most influential leader but also one of the young nation’s most important educators. During Dwight’s twenty-one years at Yale, he found able and inspiring teachers, launched the teaching of science and medicine, planned the creation of schools of law and theology, and gave the faculty and president a central role in running the school.
Restless Energy . Timothy Dwight was born on 14 May 1752 in Northampton, Massachusetts. Dwight’s mother, the daughter of theologian Jonathan Edwards, had seen to his early education, and by the age of four he was reading the Bible; at six he taught himself Latin. Dwight had entered Yale at thirteen, and four years later graduated with the highest honors, though he made himself nearly blind in the process. He began teaching, but in 1777 he joined the Continental Army, serving at West Point, where he instructed soldiers and also wrote patriotic songs. Returning to Northampton when his father died in 1779, Dwight ran two farms, preached in the local church, and established a school which became so popular that he had to hire two assistants. His neighbors elected him to the county government in 1781 and 1782, and they would have elected him to Congress had he not decided to become a minister in 1783. At Greenfield, Connecticut, he established a school, drawing nearly a thousand students from across the country during its twelve years of operation. Dwight also wrote prolifically, publishing The Conquest of Canaan, an epic poem, in 1785. In 1788 he wrote The Triumph of Infidelity, an attack on Voltaire, and other works which made Dwight the intellectual voice of conservative Federalism, particularly after his cousin, Aaron Burr, killed Alexander Hamilton, Federalism’s chief intellectual, in an 1804 duel.
Ambition . Politically and religiously conservative, Dwight, like his cousin Burr, had tremendous energy and ambition. In 1795 he declined the presidency of Union College but within a few weeks accepted the presidency of Yale, transforming that institution into a modern university, though with a firm reliance on New England Calvinism. So great was Dwight’s restless ambition even he feared it, saying just before his death, “I have coveted reputation and influence to a degree which I am unable to justify.” He was directly involved in all aspects of Yale: teaching rhetoric, logic, ethics, and metaphysics, serving as professor of theology and preaching in the college chapel. (He gave a series of sermons over a four-year period, so all students would hear each one.) Some students called him “Pope Dwight.”
Politics . He expanded Yale’s curriculum and was involved in other institutions for the betterment of mankind: the Andover Theological Seminary, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the Missionary Society of Connecticut. A bitter enemy of Jeffersonian republicanism, Dwight’s vision for mankind’s improvement rested on a certainty of God’s punishment and his belief that men could only live happily in stable and orderly societies. His sermons, The True Means of Establishing Public Happiness (1795), The Nature, and Danger, of Infidel Philosophy (1798), The Duty of Americans, at the Present Crisis (1798), and Discourse … on the Character of George Washington (1800) all touch on these themes. On Jefferson’s election he said, “We have a country governed by blockheads and knaves; our wives and daughters are thrown into the stews; can the imagination paint anything more dreadful this side of hell.” In 1799 Dwight became embroiled in a controversy with Josiah Meigs, a mathematics and natural philosophy professor. Dwight suspected him of Republican tendencies and forced him to state his political beliefs publicly and to deny that he was an “enemy to the constitution and liberties of my country.” Dwight died in New Haven on 11 January 1817.
Charles E. Cuningham, Timothy Dwight 1752–1817: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1942);
Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), an American Congregational minister, was president of Yale College and New England's leading religious politician.
Timothy Dwight was born in Northhampton, Mass., into one of New England's most extraordinary families on May 14, 1752. His maternal grandfather was the famed theologian Jonathan Edwards. His mother, a woman of great intellect, educated him according to her own ideas. A child prodigy, Timothy was ready for college at 8, but Yale did not enroll him until he was 13. Studying 14 hours a day, he earned highest honors at graduation in 1769 but also developed an eye ailment that plagued him all his life.
Dwight assumed the headship of the Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven, Conn., for 2 years before returning to Yale as a tutor. There he joined the brilliant "Connecticut Wits," John Trumbull and Joseph Howe, who were patriotic belles-lettrists ambitious to make America "the first in letters as the first in arms." When Yale's aging president was forced to resign in 1777, Dwight, only 25, was pushed by some for the presidency. But the Yale Corporation had other opinions of the witty young man and called for his resignation instead. Before he left, Dwight married Mary Woolsey on March 3, 1777.
The following October the U.S. Congress appointed Dwight chaplain of the Connecticut Continental Brigade. A year later, on his father's death, he returned to his family in Northampton. He spent 5 vigorous years running two farms, preaching, sitting in the Massachusetts Legislature in 1781 and 1782, and founding a coeducational academy in 1779 to teach modern subjects as well as Latin and Greek. He left the school for the pulpit of Greenfield Hill, Conn., on July 20, 1783, where he established another school.
Dwight's journalistic assault against Yale started in 1783 in the Connecticut Courant; he used the pen name Parnassus. But when Yale's president Ezra Stiles prevented any legislative "intermeddling in college affairs," Dwight returned to the writing that had earned him prominence among the Connecticut Wits. The Conquest of Canaan, written earlier but published in 1785, was the first epic poem produced in America.
On June 25, 1795, Dwight accepted the presidency of Yale, a few weeks after the death of Stiles. For almost 22 years "Pope Dwight" (as the unregenerate called him) administered the college with great ability, ushering it into its modern era. No scholar himself, he had the vision to appoint men who were or would become scholars, and he allowed greater faculty participation in college government, traditionally the monopoly of the Yale Corporation and the president. Student relations were significantly improved, though Dwight held autocratic sway. Besides administering an exuberant college and giving counsel of weight in the affairs of state to visiting dignitaries, he taught the moral philosophy course to the seniors, supplied the college pulpit twice a Sabbath, and served as professor of divinity.
On Jan. 11, 1817, Dwight ceased to reign. His stormy life had personified the contradictions and strengths of New England Puritanism wedded to Federalism.
The definitive biography of Dwight is Charles E. Cunningham, Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817 (1942). Kenneth Silverman, Timothy Dwight (1969), is a scholarly study. See also Leon Howard, The Connecticut Wits (1943). Ralph Henry Gabriel, Religion and Learning at Yale: The Church of Christ in the College and University, 1757-1957 (1958), contains a chapter on Dwight and American Protestantism.
Cuningham, Charles E., Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817: a biography, New York: AMS Press, 1976.
Wenzke, Annabelle S., Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1989. □