Cornell University Charter, April 27, 1865.

“The month of April 1865 was quite a month,” Cornell professor and University Historian Morris Bishop observed in his Centennial Charter Day Convocation Address. He noted, “On the third, Richmond, the Confederate capital, fell to Grant. On the ninth, Lee surrendered at Appomattox. On the fourteenth, President Lincoln was assassinated. On the twenty-seventh…Governor Reuben E. Fenton, in the gas-lit elegance of his chambers in the old Albany Capitol, signed the bill that constitutes the Charter of Cornell University.”

The Charter embodied the dreams of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White to provide educational opportunity for all. They had fought hard to secure the Morrill Land Grant funds for their university, a university whose mission would be:

to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, including military tactics, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life. But such other branches of science and knowledge may be embraced in the plan of instruction and investigation pertaining to the university as the trustees may deem useful and proper. And persons of every or no religious denomination shall be equally eligible to all offices and appointments.

The Charter further stipulated that their university would “be open to applicants…without distinction as to rank, class, previous occupation, or locality.”

These were progressive—perhaps even radical—ideas in 1865. And higher education in America would never be the same.


Charter of Cornell University as amended through May 22, 2002 [PDF]

Originally Chapter 585 of the Laws of 1865, the Charter was amended by the Legislature many times, and the current version appears in the Consolidated New York Education Law, Article 15, sections 5701 through 5716.

Ezra Cornell was elected to the New York State Senate in 1863, 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.”

Speaking to the Senate in March, White pointed out that the bill would meet the “wants of our children and of our children’s children…. to help…what is best in this state for centuries.” 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 ”Ezra Cornell“ Foremost Benefactor award is a small copy of the Hermon Atkins McNeil statue of Ezra Cornell that has stood on the Cornell Arts Quad since 1918. It is given by the university to those donors who have been most generous to Cornell since its creation in 1865. Names arecommemorated on plaques on a terrace adjacent to McGraw Tower, and information is also recorded in a volume: The Builders of Cornell: A Record of Cornell University’s Foremost Benefactors. This statue was awarded to Carl A. Kroch, Cornell Class of 1935, a bookseller and great friend of the Cornell University Library.

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