A College built from the hopes and dreams of a young nation by inspired citizens who named it for a Revolutionary War hero. A pioneering institution that continues to reshape itself to best serve its educational and philosophical missions.
The Concept for a College
Even before the American Revolution, Easton had established itself as a strategic hub of commerce at the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers. By the time war broke out with the Great Britain, Easton had dwarfed its neighboring communities of Bethlehem and Allentown in size and influence, sending one of its own, ironmaster George Taylor, as a delegate to the Continental Congress to sign the Declaration of Independence. Easton was among the first locations in the nation outside of Philadelphia to hear a public reading of the document.
Easton’s population continued to expand through the end of the 18th century and into the early 1800s with the discovery of vast deposits of anthracite coal in northeastern Pennsylvania. Immigrants flocked to the city to help build and later work on a canal system that would deliver coal and other raw materials to markets in Philadelphia.
By the 1820s, Easton’s surging prosperity and prestige took another step forward with the creation of one of its signature institutions.
James Madison Porter, a young attorney born outside of Philadelphia who would become U.S. secretary of war, arrived in Easton in 1818 to serve as deputy attorney general for Northampton County.
Porter, the son of an American Revolution veteran, understood, like many Americans, the significance when the Marquis de Lafayette, the last surviving major general of the war, arrived in the United States to begin his final, triumphal tour in 1824.
That same year he and 200 other Easton residents eagerly traveled to Philadelphia to meet the aging French hero who would draw large, enthusiastic crowds at events held in his honor, reenergizing the old spirit of 1776 across a nation preparing for its 50th anniversary.
Porter was moved by his conversation with Lafayette, who remembered Porter’s father and uncle who served with him at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, according to The Biography of a College by David Bishop Skillman, Class of 1913.
Not long after his encounter with Lafayette, he traveled to the Military Academy in Norwich, Vt., and Dartmouth College, where the idea of founding a college in Easton first came to his mind. Porter returned to Easton, knowing that the prosperous city was fertile ground on which to establish a college where he would eventually teach jurisprudence and political economy and serve for decades as president of the Lafayette College Board of Trustees.
The Origins of a Name
On Dec. 24, 1824, newspapers carried the following message: “The citizens of the County of Northampton, friendly to the establishment of a college at Easton, in which, besides military science and tactics, the various other branches of education, including the German language, shall be taught, are requested to meet at the Easton Hotel on Monday evening 27th inst. at half past six o’clock to adopt the necessary measures to procure a charter of incorporation.”
In March 1826, the citizens of Easton received a charter signed by Pennsylvania Gov. John Andrew Shulze establishing Lafayette College. Article 1 of the College charter states directly: “In memory of and out of respect for the signal services rendered by General Lafayette in the great cause of Freedom, the said College shall be forever hereafter called and known by the name Lafayette College.”
Skillman recounts in his book: “That as a testimony of respect for the talents, virtues and signal services of General La Fayette in the great cause of freedom, the said institution be named, ‘La Fayette.’ The spelling was formalized to Lafayette in 1876 by William Cassidy Cattell, president of Lafayette from 1863-83, based on the spelling used by Lafayette in his own signature.
The Early Years
In 1832, the College purchased nine acres on a hill across Bushkill Creek from Easton. Initially named Mount Lafayette, it quickly became known by the name still in use today: College Hill. That same year, the Rev. George Junkin, a Presbyterian minister, agreed to move the curriculum and student body of the Manual Labor Academy of Pennsylvania from Germantown to Easton and take up the Lafayette College charter.
On May 9, 1832, classes in mathematics and the classics began in a rented farmhouse on the south bank of the Lehigh River, where the 43 students worked in the fields and workshops to earn money to support the educational program. Around the time of the American Civil War, Lafayette became the first college in America to establish a chair for the study of English language and literature. Francis A. March, the first professor to hold the chair, achieved international acclaim for his work in establishing English as a pivotal subject in the liberal arts curriculum.
In 1866, industrialist Ario Pardee gave a $100,000 gift “for the endowment of a scientific course at Lafayette College.” The endowment established a curriculum for civil and mining engineering, as well as chemistry, and an additional $200,000 gift brought about Pardee Hall, which housed the departments until 1927.
With Pardee’s gifts, Lafayette became a school of arts, science, and engineering. This sentiment was articulated in an 1866 report from the board of trustees.
They “set the goal of educating not just the engineer” but the whole person “who is able to meet the challenges of a world in which scientific, technological, and human needs have steadily become more complex.”
The resulting—and ongoing—union of arts, sciences, and engineering remains perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Lafayette curriculum.
Growth and Change
Throughout its history, Lafayette College continued to shape itself to best serve its educational mission, supporting the tradition of liberal arts education while responding to the challenges and opportunities of a changing society. Enrollment reflected that: By the start of the 20th century, it had reached almost 300 students. By 1910, enrollment had passed the 500 mark. During the 1920s, it reached 1,000.
After World War II, enrollment more than doubled again as returning veterans sought opportunities in higher education.
In 1970, the first women entered the student population—women now make up about half the student body—raising total enrollment to about 2,100.
Today, Lafayette enrolls about 2,500 students drawn from 43 U.S. states and territories, as well as 52 countries, all gathered together on 340 acres in 69 buildings. Lafayette has 215 full-time faculty members, of whom 99% hold a doctorate or other terminal degree and offers a bachelor of arts in 37 fields and a bachelor of science in 16 fields, including five in engineering.
The Campus Today
New campus facilities continue to meet the needs of the College’s academic programming and enrollment.
The 165-bed, mixed-use McCartney Street residences opened in fall 2020, along with the neighboring Trolley Stop diner and the new College Store and Café, which are open to the public and campus community.
Opened and dedicated in September 2019, the Rockwell Integrated Sciences Center offers a signature space for the biology and computer science departments and environmental science and environmental studies programs.
It also houses the Bradbury Dyer, III ’64 Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Daniel and Heidi ’91 Hanson Center for Inclusive STEM Education, Office of Sustainability, and additional space for neuroscience. Rockwell also houses the multi-disciplinary environmental engineering lab, which is part of the shared space for the new integrative engineering program. Named for Trustee Emeritus S. Kent Rockwell ’66, the $75 million center is the largest capital project in Lafayette’s history.
The Williams Arts Campus, completed in 2016 at a cost of more than $24 million, is the primary gateway between Lafayette’s main campus and the city’s downtown. Encompassing several buildings and most of a city block, the campus offers space for painting, sculpture, and drawing studios for faculty and students, classrooms, the Grossman Gallery, studios for theater, a sound stage, a black box theater, and media and teaching labs.
As Lafayette College prepares for its 200th anniversary in 2026 to celebrate James Madison Porter’s dream, its vision remains clear: to teach the habits and subjects of a disciplined mind, the skills to conduct careful research and come to considered conclusions, and the desire and ability to lead a purposeful life.