© Yale University Library, 2008
Eli Whitney (B.A. 1792) and John
C. Calhoun (B.A. 1804) (at left). Whitney, a resident of New Haven,
played an unexpected, yet pivotal role in the advent of the Civil War. The
summer after his graduation Whitney traveled to the South to visit the widow
of General Nathanael Greene, a hero of the American Revolution. There he
invented the cotton gin. His invention coronated "King Cotton," transformed
the southern economy, and in turn changed the nature of American slavery.
The cotton gin made the production of cotton quick and profitable throughout
the South by increasing the production potential and value of slaves. After
returning to New Haven and failing to secure a patent for his cotton gin,
Whitney was awarded a contract from the Federal Government for 10,000 guns.
To fill this order, he opened a gun factory, the Whitney Armory, in New
Haven and introduced interchangeable parts. This marked the beginning of
the Industrial Revolution in America, forever changing the northern economy.
Ironically, the guns that were produced at Whitney's New Haven gun factory
would later be used in a war over the existence of slavery in America.
Many of the South's most prominent sons came to Yale in the first half of the nineteenth century out of their cult-like adoration for the cult-like figure of John C. Calhoun. In 1830, 69 southerners were enrolled at Yale, compared to 17 at Princeton, and 16 at Harvard. However, this preference for Yale among the Ivy League schools should not be misinterpreted as evidence of peaceful relations between northern and southern students. Many of those attracted to Yale by Calhoun's influence formed the Calliopean Society, a by-product of the slowly dissolving Union.
John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the validictorian of his class, was the most influential American politician to have graduated from Yale during its first two centuries. During his long tenure in U.S. politics, he held the positions of Congressman, Secretary of War, Vice-President, Secretary of State, and Senator. Calhoun's numerous letters to Yale faculty and alumni reflect his sense of connection to Yale. New Haven, a bastion of Federalist support for a strong central government in the Early Republic, solidified Calhoun's anti-federalist, state rights commitments.
The pro-southern sentiments of Calhoun and the Calliopean Society, however, represent only one perspective of antebellum southerners at Yale. One man in particular, Cassius M. Clay of Kentucky (B.A. 1832), stood in stark contrast with many of his fellow southern students. Clay complicates many preconceived notions about the homogeneity of the antebellum South, and about the southern experience at Yale. Rather than reacting negatively to the opposing viewpoints of his new environment, he embraced them and returned to the South with a new vision. Even though he was the son of a slaveholder, Clay became one of the South's leading abolitionists after hearing the fiery rhetoric of the abolitionist champion William Lloyd Garrison in New Haven. During the Civil War, Clay intermittently served as a major-general of the Union Army and as Minister to Russia.
In the ten years leading up to the Civil War, the campus and the city saw the warning signs of the coming violence. In 1853, the Calliopean Society dissolved, and many southerners returned to the South. When the society disbanded, the center of southern social and intellectual life collapsed and southern enrollment plummeted. In 1850, 72 southerners were enrolled at Yale, 65 at Harvard, and 115 at Princeton. By 1860, only 33 remained at Yale while Harvard and Princeton remained stable with 63 and 113 respectively. The dramatic increases in southerners at Harvard and Princeton can be attributed, in part, to those universities' shifts away from a local perspective to a national one by mid-century. For the southern students who remained, the sectional instability only increased.