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Susquehanna Life

Interview with Roger Williams, author of Frederick Watts and the Founding of Penn State

Nov 08, 2021 10:40AM ● By Erica Shames

Frederick Watts came to prominence during the nineteenth century as a lawyer and a railroad company president, but his true interests lay in agricultural improvement and in raising the economic, social, and political standing of Pennsylvania’s farmers. After being elected founding president of The Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society in 1851, he used his position to advocate vigorously for the establishment of an agricultural college that would employ science to improve farming practices. He went on to secure the charter for the Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania, which would eventually become the Pennsylvania State University. Roger Williams, author of the recently published book, Frederick Watts and the Founding of Penn State, tells us more about Watts, his world, and his influence.

What was the thinking behind so-called agricultural colleges in the 19th century? Why were they brought into being?
The movement to found agricultural colleges in the 1850s was part and parcel of a larger movement toward scientific agriculture—the effort to infuse traditional agricultural practices with scientific knowledge, particularly chemistry, to improve farming practices and productivity.

The agencies pushing for agricultural colleges were state agricultural societies, founded mainly in the 1840s and ‘50s to advance the lot of the American farmer. The United States was an overwhelmingly agricultural nation before the Civil War; indeed 85% of the population was rural and the thinking was that state and federal governments needed to do more to advance the lot of the farming community.

In Pennsylvania, the state agricultural was founded in 1851 and Frederick Watts of Carlisle was elected as its founding president. A lawyer, reporter for the state Supreme Court, private college trustee, railroad company president, and “gentleman farmer,” Watts’s greatest interest was agriculture. His lifelong cause was improving the economic, political, and social standing of Pennsylvania’s farmers—a huge constituency that he argued had been ignored and “left behind” by politicians and governmental officials.

Was Frederick Watts the true “father” of Penn State? 
A few early historians used that term, although it has become somewhat antiquated by modern standards. The better term is prime mover, as he had many colleagues in the state agricultural society working with him toward the goal of establishing an agricultural college with a statewide reach. 
But Watts certainly took the lead. He wrote the first business plan for the institution, drafted its charters (1854 and 1855), and served as founding president of the Board of Trustees for the Farmers’ High School (1855-74). He adroitly led the school as it was sited, built, and financed, opening for students in 1859. He hired the brilliant Evan Pugh as founding president, who with Watts quickly made it the first successful agricultural college in America. Most important, they secured the state’s designation as its land-grant college and fended off later attempts by legislative adversaries to remove the school’s exclusive claim to the land-grant fund. 

What was the Land-Grant College Movement, and how did it affect Penn State?
This was the push to found colleges providing instruction in practical subjects—primarily agricultural and engineering—that would serve the “industrial classes” such as farmers, mechanics, laborers, tradesmen, etc. Most colleges before the Civil war were literary or classical institutional—small, religiously oriented, and focused on Latin, Greek, and other traditional studies.

The movement culminated in the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862. This act provided federal lands to the states who were to sell it off and use the proceeds to establish at least one college whose purpose would be: “Without excluding other scientific and classical studies, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.” 

What were the challenges and impediments Watts faced as president of Penn State’s Board of Trustees?
The biggest challenge was financial – gaining funding from the state to support the institution. The original charters did not provide for state funding, which angered Watts greatly. Not until 1857 did the school receive its first appropriation, $25,000, to help construct the main building. After the unexpected death of President Pugh in 1864, Watts’s primary challenge was to prevent the legislature from sub-dividing the land-grant fund and giving the proceeds to other schools. 

There is, however, an ironic arc to Watts’s leadership. For all his success in creating, building, and launching the institution, he nearly brought it to the brink of closure through a series of disastrous presidential appointments after Pugh’s death. Furthermore, Watts concurred with the various curricular reforms these presidents recommended, effectively abandoning the land-grant mission in which agriculture and engineering were to be the “leading objects” and allowing the school to devolve into a backwoods classical college. Not until the 1880s, under the leadership of President George W. Atherton, would things begin to turn around.

Frederick Watts and the Founding of Penn State is now available from Penn State University Press. Find more information and order the book here: Save 30% with discount code NR21.

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