Founding A University

The founding of Cornell University brought together all of the themes that were important in Ezra Cornell’s life: his deep and abiding concern for education, his interest in agriculture, his philanthropic impulse, and his political sense. The opportunities also were there. In 1862 the Morrill Land Grant Act had been passed, appropriating public lands to aid education in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.” By 1864, Cornell’s family, his personal philanthropies, and the Public Library required only a small part of his considerable fortune. He had been elected to the New York State Senate, where he made the acquaintance of Andrew Dickson White of Syracuse. Through discussions with White, the idea of a university grew in Cornell’s mind. When the Legislature met in 1865, White introduced a bill in the Senate “to establish the Cornell University and to appropriate to it the income of the sale of public lands granted to this State.”

After much political maneuvering, the bill was passed in the Assembly on April 21, in the Senate on April 22, and was signed by Governor Reuben E. Fenton on April 27. The first meeting of the Board of Trustees was held on April 28. Cornell endowed the university through an outright gift of $500,000, to which would be added the sum realized by Cornell’s purchase of the Morrill land scrip from the state.

Cornell was closely involved in all aspects of the new university. He superintended construction and purchased equipment, books, and collections of artifacts. On October 7, 1868, Inauguration Day, 412 students, the largest entering class admitted to any American college up to that time, came to Ithaca. Cornell gave a brief address, concluding with the University’s newly adopted motto: “Finally, I trust we have laid the foundation of an University—an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

Ezra Cornell. Letter to Mary Ann Cornell. Albany, New York, August 4, 1866.
[zoom]
| View/download a PDF of this item

The struggle is over at last and I have just mailed 200 pieces of land scrip to Mr. Woodward and have written him that we will start for the west by Tuesday the 14th. . . . I now feel for the first time that the destiny of the Cornell University was fixed, and that its ultimate endowment would be ample for the vast field of labor it embraces, and if properly organised for the developement of truth, industry and frugality, it will become a power in the land which will controll and mold the future of this great state, and carry it onward and upward in its industrial developement, and support of civil and religious liberty, and its guarenty of equal rights and equal laws to all men.
State of New York Number 145. In Senate, February 7, 1865.
[zoom]
| View/download a PDF of this item

Ezra Cornell, ca. 1864. From The Photographic Senatorial Album of the Empire State, 1864-65. Albany, N. Y.: Churchill & Dennison, [1865].
[zoom]
Andrew Dickson White, ca. 1864. From The Photographic Senatorial Album of the Empire State, 1864-65. Albany, N. Y.: Churchill & Dennison, [1865].
[zoom]

The University officially opened on October 7, 1868. Inauguration ceremonies, held in the Cornell Library in downtown Ithaca, included a brief address by Ezra Cornell. Lieutenant-Governor Stewart L. Woodford administered the oath of office to President Andrew Dickson White, and speeches were presented by Cornell, White, and others. Cornell articulated his hopes for the new university:

I hope we have laid the foundation of an institution which shall combine practical with liberal education, which shall fit the youth of our country for the professions, the farms, the mines, the manufactories, for the investigations of science, and for mastering all the practical questions of life with success and honor. I believe that we have made the beginning of an institution which will prove highly beneficial to the poor young men and the poor young women of our county.
Cornell University Charter, 1865.
[zoom]
| View/download a PDF of this item

On April 27, 1865, New York State Governor Reuben E. Fenton, in his chambers in the old State Capitol in Albany, signed the bill that constitutes the charter of Cornell University. Cornell University celebrated its first inauguration on October 7, 1868 in the Cornell Library, Ithaca’s first public library. At the ceremonies, Lieutenant Governor Stewart L. Woodford administered the oath of office to President White and presented him with the Charter, Seal, and keys of the university.

The Cornell Seal
[zoom]

While Ezra Cornell expressed the words of the motto in his inaugural speech, its wording first appears on the original great seal, authorized by the trustees in November of 1866 and adopted as the corporate seal on October 6, 1868. A letter from Ezra Cornell to Andrew Dickson White, February 23, 1868, includes the first mention of the motto, accompanied by preliminary sketches of the seal. With its profile likeness and famous words of Ezra Cornell, the Great Seal first appeared on the cover of The Cornell University Register, 1868-69. It was used for every diploma awarded by the University, originally printed with this embossing device.

Diploma of John Moulton Knowles, Class of 1873.
[zoom]
Detail of seal
[zoom]

Previous Page | Next Page