The Early History of Norwich University and Its Boundary-Breaking Founder

By Alex Kershaw

Editor’s note: Former NU President Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon said that to think of Norwich is to think of its founder, Captain Alden Partridge (1785–1854). In celebration of NU’s Bicentennial, the following is an abridged excerpt from Citizens & Soldiers: The First 200 Years of Norwich History by bestselling author and historian Alex Kershaw.

It began with a mutiny, by a man who held such iron convictions that he turned his back on his government and began his own revolution, one that would profoundly impact American education. In 1817 America’s fifth president, James Monroe, sent a new man to become superintendent at West Point, the nation’s first military academy. Capt. Sylvanus Thayer, 32 years old, who was ordered to take charge of the institution, arrived in July and walked onto the Plain at West Point. He was met by Capt. Alden Partridge, Thayer’s superior in the Corps of Engineers.

“You are reporting to me, Brevet Major Thayer?” asked Partridge.

Thayer simply handed Partridge a letter that read, “On receipt of this you will deliver to Maj. Sylvanus Thayer, U.S. Engineers, the command of the Post of West Point and the superintendence of the Military Academy.”

Beloved by his cadets and having devoted himself utterly to West Point during its infancy, Partridge was far from pleased. He stormed off and left West Point the following day. Six weeks later, on August 29, Partridge returned and was met by several cadets who were delighted to see him. Soon others were throwing their hats in the air and cheering. He went to find Thayer and asked whether he could return to his quarters. Thayer refused, and Partridge asked again the following day, this time handing Thayer a message: “Orders: Captain Partridge having returned to West Point in conformity with the provision of the Law establishing the Military Academy, taking it upon himself for the present, the Command and Superintendence of the Institution as Senior Officer of Engineers present.”

Believing the cadets would not support him, Thayer left West Point. However, Partridge’s coup lasted only 48 hours. Thayer returned with the aide-de-camp to the inspector of the Academy, who placed Partridge under arrest. The charges were serious and included mutiny. If convicted, Partridge could be stripped of his rank and imprisoned. Who was this extraordinary visionary and rebel?

Alden Partridge was born on a farm in Norwich in Vermont, then a sovereign republic, on January 12, 1785, and came from good Yankee stock. His father was Samuel Wright Partridge, a gentleman farmer “thoroughly imbued with the martial spirit of the early days of the Republic” who had fought during the Revolution as part of the forces that defeated Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777. A studious and active child who loved to read and hike in the Green Mountains, Partridge entered Dartmouth in 1802 at age 16. John Hubbard, the professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Dartmouth, soon spotted his potential, believing Partridge had a “good moral character” and was “well qualified for instructing a school.” Another professor wrote, “He is well reputed for genius and moral character.” In the words of one contemporary who knew him well in his youth, he was “never known to utter a vulgar or profane word … or to use tobacco in any form. Such he was through life, and a most constant attendant upon Sabbath services.”

In 1805, three years after the academy had been established, Thomas Jefferson appointed Partridge to West Point as a cadet, the first West Point cadet to be commissioned as a first lieutenant, one of only two cadets to ever be so honored. Notably, he graduated from West Point in 1806, alongside the son of the famous Ethan Allen, who had led the legendary “Green Mountain Boys” of Vermont during the American Revolution. Partridge then taught engineering and mathematics at West Point.

Following the 1812 war against the British, which exposed serious deficiencies in the U.S. military, Partridge was determined to expand West Point’s curriculum to include more of the humanities and to modernize the institution so it could properly prepare young men for leadership on the battlefield. In 1815, at age 29, Captain Partridge became superintendent of West Point. He did his best to raise standards, introducing many of the daily rituals that persist to this day.

Partridge left an indelible impression on West Pointers, and his views on what military education should entail were as bold as his appearance. He believed that large standing armies maintained in peacetime posed a threat to the American republic. To avoid this, he pushed the idea that America should educate citizen-soldiers, a vision far different from that of President Monroe’s administration, which wanted to “shape West Point on the French model, as a school exclusively for career officers.” Partridge insisted that West Point should instead “train both militia and regular army officers.” He also disagreed with those who believed West Point should become a “national science university.” These differences lay behind the extraordinary events of July 1817 and Partridge’s arrest.

On November 11, 1817, Partridge was found guilty of mutiny. “The court sentences the prisoner, Captain Alden Partridge of the Corps of Engineers, to be cashiered.” But the court also recommended that “in consideration of the zeal and perseverance which the prisoner seems uniformly to have displayed in the discharge of his duties … beg leave to recommend him to the clemency of the president of the United States in the hope that the punishment above awarded may be remitted.”

President Monroe allowed Partridge to resign rather than suffer further disgrace. It didn’t take long for the flinty revolutionary to dramatically snub those he believed had betrayed him. On October 20, 1819, Partridge informed his former superior, Gen. Swift, inspector of West Point Academy, that he planned to set up a “Literary, Scientific and Military Academy” that would quickly better West Point as the main supplier of the United States’ officer class. It would outshine West Point because it would not be run by men who were, he railed, “ignorant of the first requirements both of military and every other science.”

Partridge found support for his proposed academy in the place he knew best and where he and his family had extensive connections: Norwich, Vermont. According to one account, when Partridge presented his plans for a new academy to the local public, “the citizens of Norwich offered the site and subscribed money to build a commodious barracks.” Norwich also suited Partridge because it was remote and rural, a better place than a city or large town to enact his “plan of discipline.” Besides, the “opportunity of practical engineering field work among the hills of Vermont could not be excelled elsewhere.”

The cornerstone of what would become known as the Old South Barracks was laid on August 6, 1819. The founding of Partridge’s “American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy” was a bold enterprise, especially courageous given the economic climate. Financial panic had swept the 11 free and 11 slave states that constituted the United States. The Panic of 1819—described by one astute historian as “a traumatic awakening to the capitalist reality of boom-and-bust”—was no time to begin a revolution in American education.

Norwich’s first students, who included veterans from the War of 1812, began their studies on September 4, 1820. The first student listed on the roster was 22-year-old Thomas W. Freelon, a lieutenant of the Navy, from New York City. The majority of his peers ranged from ages 13 to 16, and many also were from Norwich. Partridge’s recipe for producing healthy citizen-soldiers was simple and effective: combine eight hours of study with eight hours of sleep, add three hearty meals, three hours of lectures, and finish off with two hours of exercise or military drill, the latter being perhaps the most vital ingredient, given that one of Partridge’s favorite mottos was “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.” Reveille in the summer was at sunrise, breakfast at 6 a.m., and cadets had to be in their rooms by 8 p.m.

Partridge’s new college formed a marching band, one of the earliest in the United States, and offered one of the first courses in civil engineering. There was no specified time allotted to completing studies; students were encouraged to proceed as quickly as they wanted. Some received their diploma after just one year, while others took up to six. Within a few years the academy’s halls were “filled with the scions of the most prominent families of the country,” who wore dark blue “coatees” with long tails, high collars, and three rows of pewter buttons. Many hailed from Southern states, particularly South Carolina, and so it was that the “sturdy sons of New England” rubbed elbows with the “budding chivalry of the South.” Before the Civil War, students also arrived from as far away as the West Indies and South America, marking the beginning of a long history of welcoming those from abroad.

Although he had never served under fire, Partridge wanted to produce nothing less than “an accomplished soldier, a scientific and practical agriculturist … an intelligent merchant, a political economist, legislator and statesman.” From the start, the United States’ first private military school aimed to create not just warriors on the battlefield but also successful civilians who had benefited from the rigors of military discipline. A citizen militia was required, in Partridge’s words, to be “an impregnable bunker around the Constitution and liberties of the country.” Education should enable young Americans to “discharge, in the best possible manner, the duties they owe to themselves, to their fellow-men, and to their country.” Partridge was, however, no idealist who hoped for man’s better angels to forge a peaceful future; he was a realist who stressed that the United States, less than 50 years old upon Norwich’s founding, would always need civilian soldiers because mankind “is doomed to suffer the evils of war and bloodshed, and that consequently that state which intends to maintain its independence, free from encroachments of avarice and ambition, must be prepared to repel force by force.”

Above all, youths required discipline and structure if they were to learn to be dutiful servants of the country or, indeed, if they were to achieve anything substantial as citizens. Order, strict routine, and vigorous exercise were critical to molding successful young Americans.

Physical and mental fitness were co-dependent. According to one account:

“Everything in the internal regulations of the academy is calculated to establish the cadet in habits of regularity and order, to inure him to the hardships of active life, and to give him a practical knowledge of the several sciences to which his attention is called. In these things consists its principal superiority over the other literary institutions of our country, in which students acquire but little practical information, contract habits of bodily inactivity, and lose their health, and destroy their usefulness.”

Partridge believed that exploration, contact with the world beyond the college gates, was critical—hence his enthusiasm for “pedestrian excursions.” As early as 1821 he pioneered experiential learning in the United States by leading a party from Norwich to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to climb Mount Washington, described by Partridge as “the most elevated eminence in the United States.” In a report on a trek across New Hampshire in June of 1822, it was noted that many of the plucky young cadets, “with their equipage for a burden … scarce advanced to the age of 14 years,” struggled to keep up with their elders in the Corps as they trudged through extreme heat up one mountain after another.

Partridge often set an extraordinary pace, as on one four-day excursion that covered the 150 miles from Norwich to Manchester, Vermont. He adored “hard reading and climbing mountains” and thought nothing of hiking 40 miles a day as he led groups of up to 80 students to the windswept summits of the highest peaks in Vermont and New Hampshire. These were not so much forced marches but superb field studies, during which “Old Pewt” would teach the basics of surveying, taking barometrical readings at various summits to measure elevation.

The adventures through New England also offered opportunities for Partridge to demonstrate military strategy in the field, re-enacting key maneuvers from great battles. By all accounts he had no peer when it came to bringing the past to life. “He showed complete mastery of the tactics, maneuvers, and situation of the great battles,” recalled Luther Marsh, NU 1829. “In one, he gave us a minute description of the Battle of Waterloo, and, taking exceptions to some remarks in Scott’s Life of Napoleon, then recently out, he said, ‘Neither Sir Walter Scott nor any other man can stop the march of truth.’”

Partridge was a Democrat and served as Vermont’s surveyor general from 1822 to 1823, explaining in part the zeal with which he led these excursions. But the canny surveyor had ulterior motives—the treks were also excellent opportunities to advertise his business. Villagers gathered to watch the processions and, impressed by the smart uniforms and discipline of Partridge’s cadets, would consider sending their own sons to the Academy.

At times, trips across the Connecticut River involved displaying Norwich cadets’ military prowess before Dartmouth College men—many of whom hated this perceived invasion. One cadet recalled that the Dartmouth men “seem to be affected by our regulation dress somewhat as a mad bull is said to be by a red flag.” Partridge appeared to delight in provoking the Dartmouth men, one day marching 150 of his boys “in full uniform and with fixed bayonets and fife and drum corps” around the campus, perhaps expecting there would be trouble. But there was none, perhaps because of the bayonets.

In its first five years Partridge’s institution flourished. Some 500 students had attended, making the often arduous journey to Vermont from around the nation. Norwich had proved to be an excellent home to the Academy, but the restless Partridge decided he should move closer to water to better address the needs of the Navy by teaching navigation and other nautical subjects. According to future president Gen. Ernest Harmon, when the community of Middletown in Connecticut offered Partridge buildings and land some 20 miles from the ocean, he “did what Yale had already done—just relocated.” Parents from as far away as South America, reading the academy’s prospectus, could see how tight a rein the founder still kept on their offspring. There were rules and regulations for every aspect of a cadet’s life. The 1825 prospectus stressed that “no candidate can be admitted a member of the institution, who is under nine years of age, who is not of a good moral character, and who cannot read and spell correctly, and write a fair, legible hand.”

Even so, the move to Connecticut proved ill-fated. Not for the first time, Partridge’s vigor and vision were met with resentment. Connecticut’s spiteful refusal to grant him a charter caused Partridge to close his academy overlooking the Connecticut River on June 1, 1829. He reopened two years later, in 1831, back in Norwich, once again close to the Connecticut River but more than 150 miles north of Middletown.

Returning to Vermont was fortuitous. Three years later, in November 1834, Vermont’s legislature granted the academy a charter. Its name changed from the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy to Norwich University, which could now confer degrees rather than diplomas. The college’s twenty-five trustees were “to provide for a constant course of instruction in military science and civil engineering.” Notably, they were forbidden from “establishing any regulations of a sectarian character, either in religion or in politics.”

On January 17, 1854, the University’s founding father died in Norwich at age 69. Partridge’s widow, Ann, with whom he’d had two sons, would survive him by 48 years, living to the age of 92. Partridge left a remarkable legacy. He had written forceful letters to legislators and editors in the 1830s, urging the creation of the Virginia Military Institute, and had instilled traditions at West Point that last to this day, including its famed gray uniform. According to biographer Gary Lord, Norwich had served “as a model for almost a score of private military academies and colleges founded by Partridge, or his students, at scattered locations throughout the United States before his death.” They included academies in Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and several other states.

Partridge’s most enduring legacy would have failed if not for the faculty and President Bourns, who stabilized the college’s finances and calmed relations with the locals while maintaining the same educational approach as Partridge. In the words of college historian William A. Ellis, “The teaching at the University was not to lead the cadets to adopt a military career, but to become good citizens and be ready in case of necessity to fight for the defense of our country.” The defense of the nation, growing rapidly in territory and with a population approaching 30 million, was, tragically, not far off.

The Norwich Record | Spring 2019

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