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Ebony and Ivy: Slavery and the Ivies

In his most famous essay, the historian and philosopher Isaiah Berlin quoted an ancient Greek poet: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Craig Steven Wilder, a historian at MIT, has written a hedgehog of a book that exposes the omnipresence of slavery and racism in the first two centuries of American higher education. Like malignant tumors insinuating themselves into and around society’s vital organs, the practice of slavery and its increasingly intellectualized justification can be found throughout the halls of American higher education, from its 17th-century inception well into the 19th century.


Wilder identifies in great detail an extraordinary number of such cases, starting at the very beginning. “The birth of slavery in New England was also the dawn of slavery at Harvard,” he observes. A “Moor” who “served Harvard’s earliest students” in the late 1630s was “the first enslaved black person documented in the colony, and his life more tightly braids the genesis of slavery in New England into the founding of the college.” Wilder’s overall argument: “The academy never stood apart from American slavery—in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”

That refrain appears frequently throughout the book: “The first five colleges in the British American colonies…were instruments of Christian expansionism, weapons for the conquest of indigenous peoples, and major beneficiaries of the African slave trade and slavery,” he says. And a few pages later: “Colleges were imperial instruments akin to armories and forts.” Wilder’s exhaustive mining of the evidence produces a mountain of information about the colleges’ founders, benefactors, presidents, students, professors, and alumni, and the roles they played in the growth of empire and higher education. “Slaveholders became college presidents. The wealth of the traders determined the locations and decided the fates of colonial schools. Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts. And the politics of the campus conformed to the presence and demands of slaveholding students as colleges aggressively cultivated a social environment attractive to the sons of wealthy families.”

Already deep into his research when Brown University’s “Slavery and Justice” Report (in which I was not involved) was published in 2006, Wilder took heart from its publication and similar work going on at other institutions and completed what had seemed for a while to be “too massive an undertaking.” Future students of higher education will be glad that he finished his task.

The differences between Wilder’s book and the Brown Report, however, highlight some of the book’s limitations. The Committee, headed by historian James Campbell (now at Stanford), undertook both “to examine the University’s historical entanglement with slavery and the slave trade and to report our findings openly and truthfully,” and to “reflect on the meaning of this history in the present, on the complex historical, political, legal, and moral questions posed by any present day confrontation with past injustice.” That kind of reflection is largely missing from Ebony and Ivy, where the causal analysis is rarely any deeper than the sweeping generalizations quoted above.

Like Wilder’s book, the Brown Report notes that slavery was “an institution that permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island, the Americas, and indeed the Atlantic world.” But while slavery was everywhere, it wasn’t everything. Missing from Wilder’s story are complicating or countervailing factors, and their absence makes it hard for him to explain the rise of criticism of and resistance to slavery as the 18th century wound down. Consider, for instance, the Brown family: they were slave traders, but they weren’t onlyslave traders; they dealt in many enterprises. And after the disastrous slave-trading voyage of the Sally in 1764-65, the Brown Report notes, “three of the four [Brown] brothers…withdrew from direct participation in the slave trade.” Shortly after that, one brother, Moses, became an abolitionist, freed his slaves, and even sued his brother John for his continued (illegal) participation in the slave trade.

On a more abstract level, Wilder’s book identifies the 18th-century Enlightenment almost exclusively with dubious empirical efforts to define racial hierarchy and determine its roots. The implication is that the only debate was between academics who saw black inferiority rooted in nature and those who associated it with nurture. The Brown Report, on the other hand, quotes the late David Brion Davis: “By the eve of the American Revolution there was a remarkable convergence of cultural and intellectual developments which at once undercut traditional rationalizations for slavery and offered new modes of sensibility for identifying with its victims.” The Report goes on: “Enlightenment ideas about human equality and shared human nature also played an important part in this process, as did the rapid growth of evangelical Christianity. The Revolution itself was an important catalyst to anti-slavery thought.” Because Wilder does not look at the other half of the equation, he leaves the reader with no way to determine the extent to which changing racial attitudes and the emerging antislavery movement influenced American campuses between the Revolution and the Civil War.

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The early American college itself is not clearly present in this book. Or to put it another way, the colleges are empty boxes: we meet the men who built them and went into them and came out of them, but see virtually nothing of what went on inside them, as faculty went about educating gentlemen and ministers (and, eventually, others), first in the Bible and the classics, then in an expanding curriculum increasingly recognizable today. If we are to accept Wilder’s assertion that early colleges “stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage,” we need to hear more about just how they did so, in the classroom and the chapel, and elsewhere, on and off campus. How did the curriculum and the ideas propagated there reinforce slavery and racism? And (as David Brion Davis’s point reminds us) how did the curriculum also start to undermine them?

Finally, there is the matter of proportionality. Before the American Revolution, there were only nine colleges in the British North American colonies. They were tiny. Between its founding in 1636 and 1700, Harvard graduated no more than 465 students, an average of less than eight students per year. In 1710 Yale enrolled 36 students. In 1771 Harvard graduated its largest pre-Revolution class: 63 students. It didn’t graduate as many as 100 in a class until 1860. If early colleges themselves were a “pillar” of a civilization built upon slavery, they were a very slender one.

As a moral accounting that shows that higher education was frequently complicit in a great social evil, Wilder’s compendium of stories about founders, trustees, alumni, and so on, is highly useful. But moral accounting is not the same as delineating and explaining all of the intellectual, social, and cultural forces that influenced the colleges and were influenced by them—especially if that accounting ignores factors on the other side of the ledger, such as Enlightenment thought, Revolutionary idealism, and evangelical Christianity. As the 19thcentury went on, those ideas had an impact on society, and at the same time colleges were springing up all over the country. A full accounting would require noting that at least some of them could be considered havens for antislavery sentiment. But Wilder continues along his narrow path, searching for (and finding) examples only of proslavery tendencies. Even Oberlin College, founded in 1833—and, one might argue, a pillar of the antislavery movement—does not rate a mention.

Of course, a full accounting would have required a much longer book than this one (288 pages of text, plus over 100 pages of footnotes). Much remains to be said on this subject, and it may seem surprising that so little has been done so far. But the history of higher education in general is one of the truly under-studied topics in the field of history. Like goldfish looking out at the world from their bowls, oblivious to the water around them, academic historians generally have taken their own environment for granted.

The result is that much of what people, including academics, know about the history of America’s colleges comes from admissions offices, development offices, alumni offices, and the like, whose interests run more to promoting the institution’s perceived, immediate interests than to historical accuracy or thoroughness. Despite its limitations, Wilder’s book helps us see how deeply enmeshed the early colleges were in their own times and places. We need to know much more about what that meant—and finding out about it is a task not for flaks, but for both foxes and hedgehogs.


Luther Spoehr
History News Network

Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer at Brown University, teaches courses on the history of American higher education.