The University of Oregon, 1876 : A Commemorative Forum
Shankman, Steven, Oregon Historical Quarterly
The Oregon Humanities Center was honored that President Dave Frohnmayer asked us to organize an event on the campus of the University of Oregon on November 2, 2001, as part of the convocation ceremony in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the University of Oregon. That event drew on what university faculty do best --- teaching and research -- and presented "The 1876 Lectures," in which five faculty members explored the year that the University of Oregon was founded. The papers included here, all of them composed by University of Oregon faculty members, were originally delivered on that occasion. They discuss the mood of the nation as a whole, the state of higher education, the architecture of the university's first building, and the music of the day. The final essay sketches the early history of the University of Oregon.
The authors of these essays are Professors James C. Mohr, an authority on the history of the United States in the nineteenth century; C.H. (Toby) Edson (emeritus), an expert on the history of higher education in the United States; Donald L. Peting of the School of Architecture, who specializes in historic preservation; Marian Smith, a historian of the music of the nineteenth century; and Rebecca Force, the author and chief producer of a forthcoming video documentary on the history of the University of Oregon (the first part of which was premiered following the 1876 lectures at the convocation ceremony). Force is also the producer of the Oregon Humanities Center's weekly television program "UO Today" and is an adjunct faculty member in the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon.
Oregon's history is relatively short -- compared with, say, the states of the eastern seaboard -- and Oregonians are not in the habit of reflecting often enough on their past and on how it continues to influence the present. The 125th anniversary of the University of Oregon provides an opportunity for just such reflection. As is apparent in the following essays, the years 1876 and 2001 share some remarkable affinities. Both, for example, began in the wake of bitterly disputed presidential elections; and people in both eras argued for the importance of higher education to the healthy economic growth of the state. I am delighted that the Oregon Historical Quarterly has given us the opportunity to present the work of these faculty members to those interested in the history of the state, which the University of Oregon has helped shape.
THE UNIVERSITY'S INAUGURAL YEAR
A National Context
By James C. Mohr
Anniversaries offer the occasion to think about an institution in a longer-term perspective than might ordinarily be the case. To think that way meaningfully, however, requires some knowledge of the context in which the institution began, for institutions emerge at particular times and under specific circumstances. The context in which an institution is founded can offer insights about the origins of that institution as well as some basis upon which to assess its subsequent development and directions. The University of Oregon, following four years of political and financial campaigning on the part of those who wanted to bring it into existence, opened its doors in 1876. Consequently, the principal events and national dynamics of that extraordinary and symbolic year in American history are germane to an analytical appreciation of its 125th anniversary.
In the years immediately preceding 1876, the intense animosities of the Civil War had begun to recede across the United States. The prevailing popular mood favored sectional reconciliation, and Americans looked for ways to promote their restored unity and celebrate. Because 1876 was exactly one hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it was declared to be the centennial of the nation; and the United States enjoyed a great round of festivals and ceremonies throughout the year. The most prominent event was the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, but virtually all state and local governments jumped happily and enthusiastically onto the immense self-congratulatory bandwagon that rolled across the nation in 1876. The launching of a new state-sponsored, nonsectarian university was completely consistent with that spirit of civic renewal.
One hundred twenty-five years later, it is tempting to see those centennial celebrations through a somewhat jaded lens. Those fetes now look to us somehow puerile, vaguely self-deceiving, or just plain corny. Our contemporary view, however, is profoundly affected by what has happened in the world since 1876. We now take for granted the ability of democracies to survive and flourish. Indeed, we regard various forms of self-rule as natural, desirable, and inevitable; and we regard monarchies and other forms of centralized authoritarianism as the doomed exceptions. That was simply not the case in 1876. Americans were extremely proud that they had fought the world's first successful anti-imperialist war of national liberation when they had broken from the British Empire. They also regarded their constitutional republic as the only large-scale and successfully sustained example of popular self-government that the world had known for more than a thousand years.
Today, we are aware that American self-government was far from perfect in 1876. The Constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote, for example, was still more than forty years in the future, and the National Woman Suffrage Association staged a dramatic and highly visible protest over that issue at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Women in Eugene echoed that national protest with local rallies of their own. Virulent racism saturated and polluted social relations throughout the country. Yet, relative to the rest of the world, the United States stood out plainly as a largely successful experiment in popular government. To be part of that experiment proved genuinely exhilarating to the vast majority of Americans involved in it. Perceiving themselves to be almost alone in a world dominated by monarchical empires and blooded aristocracies, Americans had a commitment to self-government, a sense of public purpose, and a belief in the possibilities of individual advancement.
Perhaps the most obvious way in which the American experiment seemed to be succeeding in 1876 was in the growing power of its economy, symbolized famously at the centennial fair by the giant Corliss steam engine that dominated one of the main pavilions and provided energy to the entire site. Three years earlier, the panic of 1873 had triggered what was becoming the longest period of uninterrupted economic decline in U.S. history. The depression of the mid-1870s, in turn, affected Reconstruction policy in the South, labor policy in the North, and a host of other things, including efforts in Eugene to raise the funds required to open the University of Oregon. Americans in 1876 had been through economic ups and downs before, however, and they realized that the long-term indicators were positive.
In about the same year as the centennial celebrations and the founding of the University of Oregon, the United States overtook England to become the world's leading producer of industrial manufactures. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States would account for an astonishing 35 percent of the world's total industrial production. The benefits of that economic burst were not evenly divided. A few of the so-called captains of the new industrial order -- men such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Leland Stanford (all of whom would later be involved in private higher education) -- grew extremely rich, and millions of workers suffered. Violent disputes over working conditions were so extensive in the United States during the second half of the university's first academic year that historians still regard 1877 as nineteenth-century America's most violent non-war year. Even so, the booming economy was already attracting millions of immigrants from all over the world to swell and diversify the nation's population. The nation's great surge of industrialization would change profoundly the ways in which most Americans lived and worked, and it laid the groundwork for the rise of the United States to superpower status in the twentieth century. The University of Oregon was founded upon the crest of that huge breaking wave.
The abiding emblem of America's economic juggernaut was the railroad industry. The construction of the railroads stimulated industrial production, created a vast continental market, and knitted together previously disparate sectors of the nation. Completion of a central transcontinental trunk line in 1869 was followed shortly by parallel trunk lines along more northerly routes and by branch lines up and down the Pacific seaboard. The Oregon and California Railroad had tied Eugene to Portland in 1871, and the ease of access it provided was almost certainly a major factor in the willingness of the legislature to locate the university at the top of the Willamette Valley. Instead of being a relatively isolated little city in a rather arbitrarily claimed state, Eugene could look forward to the benefits of direct access to the burgeoning American economy. Henry Villard, president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, would become the new university's principal private donor in the 1880s. When the people of Eugene thought about starting a university, they could -- for the first time -- be fairly confident and optimistic about where their political and economic futures seemed to be headed.
The grand centennial celebration of successful nationhood and the rise to world leadership in industrial production, however, were not the only significant or portentous events of 1876. The president of the United States was Ulysses S. Grant, who was completing his second term. During his first administration, he had tried to bring order to the nation's ongoing and bitterly conflicted relations with North America's indigenous peoples. The so-called Peace Policy, which President Grant had implemented over the objections of most of his old friends in the army, had begun to fall apart in the mid-1870s. The situation worsened following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. As thousands of white miners poured onto Native lands, fighting erupted. In response, the U.S. Army, determined to reassert its ability to maintain order, sent an expedition to subdue the tribes of the High Plains.
While engaged in those operations, the flamboyant Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led his force of 264 soldiers into a reckless confrontation with the largest Native American fighting force ever assembled. On June 25, 1876, Northern Cheyenne and Sioux warriors under Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull overran Custer's isolated forces. Custer and all of his men were killed. News …
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Publication information: Article title: The University of Oregon, 1876 : A Commemorative Forum. Contributors: Shankman, Steven - Author. Journal title: Oregon Historical Quarterly. Volume: 102. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2001. Page number: 480. © 2009 Oregon Historical Society. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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