Founder's Day 2012

The 1802 Charter

The 1802 Charter

By Bill Kimok

A 210-year-old legislative act that was the model for Ohio University’s founding document will be featured during the University’s 2012 celebration of Founders Day. This so-called “1802 charter,” the original of which will be on display on the 4th Floor of Alden Library for the next few weeks, created the legal authority for the first institution of higher education in the Northwest Territory, which was initially known as the American Western University.

In 1787 the Ohio Company, a group of New England entrepreneurs purchased from the federal government land in the Northwest Territory upon which it was agreed that a university would eventually be built. Three years later, in keeping with their contract, the Company asked members Manasseh Cutler and Rufus Putnam to “apply to Congress for the ‘Establishment of Instructors in the University and procuring a Charter for that Seminary.’ ”[1] But, it was not until a decade later when Cutler, a Connecticut-born, Yale-educated pastor, finally submitted his proposal for creating the university.

The preamble of Cutler’s charter is especially worth noting, as it reflected a contemporary belief that was commonly held by America’s founding fathers, who often stressed the importance of public access to education as a means of cultivating good citizenship. For instance, the Continental Congress in 1778 had resolved that, "Whereas true religion and good morals are the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness. . . That it be, and it is hereby earnestly recommended to the several states, to take the most effectual measures for the encouragement thereof. . .”[2] In 1786 Thomas Jefferson wrote that “by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people.[3] Of course, more appropriately in relation to Ohio University, there are the words of Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, some of which may have been contributed by Manasseh Cutler himself, stating that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”[4] Ohio University historian Thomas Hoover described Cutler’s proposal for the American Western University best when he wrote: The preamble beautifully phrased the American faith in education: "Institutions for the liberal education of Youth [are] essential to the progress of Arts and Sciences, important to morals and religion, friendly to the peace, order, and prosperity of Society, and honorable to the Government which patronizes them." The charter provided for the establishment of the "American University," governed by a board of trustees composed of the president and vice president of the university and eleven other members. The trustees were empowered to elect and dismiss the president, vice president, professors, tutors, instructors, and other officers and servants; to provide for annual commencements and approve the granting of degrees; and to prescribe the duties of the faculty and require quarterly examinations of students. . . . Finally, this charter provided that the first trustees should be named in the legislative act establishing the university, and that one of them should call the first board meeting.[5] 

On January 9, 1802, one year before Ohio gained its statehood, the territorial legislature, which had been formed in 1798, accepted Cutler’s text as the basis for the legislative act establishing the American Western University in Athens. Although this is the document that is being featured for this year’s Founders Day celebration, as Robert Daniel wrote in his wonderful book Athens, Ohio; the Village Years, “The American Western University was never more than a paper institution. No effort was made to implement the legislation, for the territory’s leaders were fully occupied . . . in drafting a state constitution [for Ohio] and in creating a bureaucracy for the new state.”[6]

Nevertheless, creating and passing the 1802 act was hardly a waste of anyone’s time. Once statehood had been achieved, the structure and content of the 1802 document eventually served as the model for the official charter for the founding of Ohio University on February 18, 1804. 

The 1802 act establishing the Western American University in Athens is written in ink on both sides of parchment. The document appears to be the only remaining original. Indeed, there apparently is no existing counterpart original document for the act of 1804 which actually did establish the Ohio University in Athens. Even though the document is in good condition and the handwriting is relatively legible, printed transcripts of the 1802 document have been produced. The document also exhibits at least one element of spelling that was characteristics of some 18th-century English writing: the so-called “short s rule” which occurs when an f is substituted for the first s in a compound word rather than using a double s. 

Finally, Founders Day 2012 is actually not the first occasion for which the historical 1802 document has been a focal point of the celebration of Ohio University’s anniversary. It was also featured during the 1962 Founders Day observances as President Vernon R. Alden was beginning his second month in office. At that time, it was reported that the document had been “uncovered by OU Treasurer Paul O’Brien,” and that it was going to be immediately “placed in the university’s library” for temporary display and permanent preservation.[7]

[1] Thomas Nathaniel Hoover, The History of Ohio University, Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1954, p. 12.

[2] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 MONDAY, OCTOBER 12, 1778 American Memory, The Library of Congress website, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. [accessed January 30, 2012].

[3] Thomas Jefferson letter to George Wythe, August 13, 1786. website Jefferson Quotations on Education [accessed January 30, 2012]

[4] Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume 32, American Memory, The Library of Congress website, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. [accessed January 30, 2012]

[5] Hoover, p. 15.

[6] Robert L. Daniel, Athens, Ohio: The Village Years, Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, p.44

[7] “Yellowed Document to Feature OU Founders Day Event Sunday," newspaper clipping found in folder 11, drawer 4, Mahn Center vertical files, Room 5-East, Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Athens, Ohio.

Ohio University Charter
Founder's Day