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Collegiate Republic

Cultivating an Ideal Society in Early America
Margaret Sumner

BUY Cloth · 272 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813935676 · $45.00 · Jun 2014
BUY Ebook · 272 pp. · ISBN 9780813935683 · $45.00 · Jun 2014

Collegiate Republic offers a compellingly different view of the first generation of college communities founded after the American Revolution. Such histories have usually taken the form of the institutional tale, charting the growth of a single institution and the male minds within it. Focusing on the published and private writings of the families who founded and ran new colleges in antebellum America--including Bowdoin College, Washington College (later Washington and Lee), and Franklin College in Georgia--Margaret Sumner argues that these institutions not only trained white male elites for professions and leadership positions but also were part of a wider interregional network of social laboratories for the new nation. Colleges, and the educational enterprise flourishing around them, provided crucial cultural construction sites where early Americans explored organizing elements of gender, race, and class as they attempted to shape a model society and citizenry fit for a new republic.

Within this experimental world, a diverse group of inhabitants--men and women, white and "colored," free and unfree--debated, defined, and promoted social and intellectual standards that were adopted by many living in an expanding nation in need of organizing principles. Priding themselves on the enlightened and purified state of their small communities, the leaders of this world regularly promoted their own minds, behaviors, and communities as authoritative templates for national emulation. Tracking these key figures as they circulate through college structures, professorial parlors, female academies, Liberian settlements, legislative halls, and main streets, achieving some of their cultural goals and failing at many others, Sumner's book shows formative American educational principles in action, tracing the interplay between the construction and dissemination of early national knowledge and the creation of cultural standards and social conventions.


Collegiate Republic recovers the rich and diverse experiences of previously neglected men and women and represents a signal revision of our understanding of higher education in antebellum America. Sumner sets the mark for all future studies of these institutions.

Mary Kelley, University of Michigan, author of Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic

Collegiate Republic is highly original, based on extensive work in primary sources, and full of interesting information. It cites a huge amount of secondary literature and is written in a beautiful style. Particularly rewarding aspects of the book include discussions of the mission of the colleges to nurture virtue, the stress placed on the control of passion, the contrast between the political partisanship of the older colleges and the nonpartisanship of the newer ones, and the involvement of colleges in the temperance and colonization movements.

Daniel Walker Howe, UCLA, author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848

Sumner thoroughly and effectively analyzes the underexplored gendered, racial, and class identities of antebellum collge educators and their families. Where earlier historians denied the relevance of antebellum colleges to American society, Sumner's original and insightful contribution reinforces recent scholarship, positing the cultural significance of these collectivist institutions that implored Americans to think and act with more than their baser instincts.

Journal of Southern History

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