Yale: A Short History

The Breed of Student

  Members of 1870 at the old pump

Who could participate in this joyful brotherhood? Everyone who was admitted. But who was admitted? Apparently almost any boy who applied and was at least partially prepared. Was it only the orthodox Congregationalists who applied? Or the sons of the well-to-do "ruling families" who made up the Yale classes which by 1815 were not yet 100 strong? When, for example, did the first Catholics come to Yale, or the first Jews, or the first women, or the first blacks? To these questions the records supply only fragmentary answers.
We know that Church of England sympathizers joined the student body and faculty so very early that they could not at first be digested by the frail and struggling College (witness the dismissal of Cutler, 1722); but by the 1730s some undergraduates were being drawn back into Anglicanism, and it was the occasional Anglican graduates who became the backbone of the native ministry in Connecticut. As for Jews, there were few in the colonies and (but for Newport) almost none in New England. One Isaac Isaacs, "of Jewish extraction," graduated in 1750, but his father seems to have been an ardent Anglican. We know that President Ezra Stiles esteemed the Jews and their learning, and Hebrew was sometimes a required study (Jews and Protestants looked back to a common tradition in the Old Testament). About 1755 one Jacob Pinto settled in New Haven, and his three sons Abraham, Solomon and William all came to Yale and took part in defense of the town against the British invasion. But the father joined the First Ecclesiastical Society and the sons apparently "renounced Judaism and all religion." Again we know that in 1825-27 a southerner, Judah P. Benjamin (later called "the brains of the Confederacy"), attended the College before being mysteriously expelled. But thus far research has not identified the earliest orthodox and practicing Jew to graduate from our "School of the Prophets." Until after 1763 and the successful ejection of France from North America, one may surmise that any Catholics, as probably of French descent and certainly "Papists," would have been refused admission by our sturdy New England divines (had any so far forgotten themselves as to apply). In our struggle for independence, the aid of Lafayette and Rochambeau, with the French alliance, must have modified those predispositions; but the excesses of the French Revolution, and Napoleonic ambitions, reestablished the revulsion.
"Gracious living in Lyceum Flats"  
John W. Sterling, B.A. 1864, later to become one of Yale's great
benefactors, with his roommate In Connecticut Hall, 1863

So one of the earliest Catholics to matriculate may well have been a Brazilian, Carlos Ferdinand Ribeiro, class of 1838, who studied also at the Law and Medical Schools and went home to a career in law and politics. He was shortly followed by the Irish-born William Erigena Robinson, B.A. 1841, from Queens College, Belfast, who had a distinguished career at Yale, founded The Yale Banner and helped to found the Junior fraternity of Psi Upsilon, then served as orator at the first St. Patrick's Day in New Haven (1842), and went on to a career of "Twisting the Lion's Tail" in both journalism and Democratic politics. Thereafter Irish Catholics seem to have taken advantage of Yale's Law School courses but it was almost the end of the century before they came to Yale College in numbers.

Yung Wing. B.A. 1854; as he appeared on graduation in the class albums  

As for Orientals or Pacific Islanders, now and again one would turn up - as in 1809 when the Hawaiian waif Obookiah, brought to New Haven by a trader, was taken into a Senior's room to learn English, then passed on to President Dwight for the care of his soul - became converted - and helped interest Dwight, Asa Thurston, B.A. 1816, and Hiram Bingham, M.A. 1819, in Pacific missions. In 1854 the enthusiastically youthful Yung Wing, sent from Canton by a Yale missionary, would graduate B.A. from Yale: the first Chinese anywhere to earn that western degree - and he became the promoter of a stream of Chinese students to Connecticut. During the early slave controversy New Haven and the Yale Faculty seem to have maintained a conservative stance: in 1831 abolitionist efforts to establish a Negro college met effective resistance. Yet in I839, when the African Cinque and the Amistad captives were being held in the County jail, it was the ingenuity of the Yale Professor of Sacred Literature, who exchanged signs for sounds and then combed the New York waterfront to discover some sailor who could speak their (Mendi) tongue, which set them on the road to freedom. After the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the general atmosphere changed - "Beecher's Bibles" or rifles went forth to "Bleeding Kansas" from the New Haven Green - while Yale's strong contingent of southern students shrank to a trickle from the border states. No blacks attended Yale College as students, however, until after the Civil War when Edward Alexander Bouchet earned his B.A. with the class of 1874, and went on two years later to win his Yale doctorate in physics: the first Ph.D. of his race in the country.
Edward Alexander Bouchet, B.A. 1874, Ph.D. 1876; class album photograph  
Women? Women were as a matter of course excluded from the masculine college. Not that they might not have qualified intellectually. In 1784 President Stiles noted that he examined "Miss Lucinda Foot aet. 12... [in] the four first Books of the Aeneid, & St. Jn's Gospel in Greek. I exam'd her not only where she had learned but indifferently elsewhere in Virgil, Tully & the Greek Testament, and found her well fitted to be admitted into the Freshman Class." Stiles gave her a parchment to this effect-but that was as far as such frivolity could go. Accordingly, the first women to gain admittance to Yale were those who were enrolled in the new Art School (1869), among them President Porter's daughters. In 1892 women were officially admitted to the graduate program for the Ph.D. -they had been attending for some time - and by 1900 Yale had conferred more doctorates on women than any other university. From its start in 1894 the Music School accepted them; and gradually they gained entrance to Law (first degree in 1886) and to Medicine, finally also to Divinity and to Forestry, long sealed off by the clerical or summer encampment traditions. Yale College, however, remained serenely and triumphantly masculine.
As for poor boys, however, the case was altogether different. From the earliest beginnings local ministers kept their eyes open for bright youngsters from shop or farm and would tutor them and send them on. Their tuition and their living costs were modest, and college was a way into the ministry or a promising career. Of course, hands were so scarce that just the absence of a son in New Haven must have meant genuine family sacrifice. But they came, and kept coming, because they wanted to come. Perhaps half the boys in each colonial class were from families of no social standing.

An Art School class c.1907

In the nineteenth century Yale continued to attract and to care for many of most modest means: symbolically and pragmatically Yale was the poor boy's Harvard. The Old Brick Row were unpretentious barracks (not always finished inside), and tuition was religiously kept low: by 1850 it was just $39, and as late as 1914 it still stood at $155, when it was raised to $160.

"It is an object of high importance, to keep down the expenses, within the reach of persons in moderate circumstances. From these we are to expect the most vigorous and successful efforts while they are here; and the greatest amount of good to the community, when they enter upon the business of life."
James Luce Kingsky, Remarks on the Present Situation of Yale College, 1823

"Yale is one of only a handful of institutions on the
globe that is equipped to respond to the educational
needs of the ablest persons in each generation.

There is no telling where these ablest will appear. They
may come from the farm or the ghetto. They can
come from families of wealth or of poverty; but Yale
is committed to finding them wherever they are, men
and women, every race, every color, every nationality."

J. Irwin Miller, Fellow of the Yale Corporation, 1974

In 1903 Yale's Chicago alumni set up a regular alumni scholarship, to be followed by Philadelphia, Cleveland, St. Louis, Hawaii, Seattle and more than a score of alumni associations near and far, to the benefit of more than 100 students every year. In 1930 the University Regional Scholarships were added; and the traditional tuition rebates now helped almost 100 more. Gradually - and of late rather more rapidly - the tuitions had to be raised, for those who could afford to pay; while various combinations of scholarships, loans, and student employment opportunities were expanded for those who could not: at least 40% of each Freshman class are still aided in this way. So through almost three centuries ambitious self-help students have constituted a substantial and respected element in Yale College, and have had access to the social opportunities and intellectual riches of the place.

Back to Resources on Yale History

Contents | The Beginnings | Church and State | The Government of the Faculty | Teaching and Great Teachers | Course of Study
The College System | The Breed of Students | Residential Colleges-and Coeducation | The Making of the University | Recent Developments
Yale's Graduates and the Nation | Rectors and Presidents | Books about Yale | Factual and Statistical Data