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.
Imagine, if you will, that it is 1824 and you are in the picturesque town of Easton, Pennsylvania, nestled in the forks of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers. The United States of America is still very young, and you can feel something in the very air around you; a richness of promise and opportunity. This feeling is mixed with a very real sense of urgency to act on it, to build a country worthy of such limitless bounty.
It was in this historic atmosphere that an idealistic lawyer by the name of James Madison Porter was appointed attorney general of Northampton County, of which Easton is the county seat. His father, Andrew Porter, had served in the Revolutionary War, and the younger James was well familiar with how much his newfound freedoms had cost. In 1824, a few years after he received his appointment, a bustle of excitement overtook Philadelphia, a day’s journey to the south. The exceedingly popular Marquis de Lafayette, a French general whose success and inspired leadership in the Revolutionary War had made him a hero, had just started a momentous 24-state visit to the United States to celebrate the nation’s upcoming 50th anniversary.
Porter was among 200 Easton residents who traveled to Philadelphia that September to pay respects to Lafayette. He was moved by his conversation with the aging general and by Lafayette’s recollections of Porter’s father and uncle from the Battle of Brandywine in 1777.
David Bishop Skillman, class of 1913, recounts the conversation in his book, “The Biography of a College.” Upon hearing his surname, Lafayette said, “Porter, Porter, I remember that name. Any relation to Capt. Porter, whom I met at Brandywine?”
“Yes, sir, a son,” replied Porter.
“Well, sir,” said the general, “I bless you for your father’s sake. He was a brave man. He had with him there a young man, a relative I think, whose name I have forgotten. They fought very nearly together.”
“Was it Parker?” asked Mr. Porter.
“That was the name,” said Lafayette.
“He was my mother’s brother,” Mr. Porter explained.
“Ah, indeed; well, they were good soldiers and very kind to me when I was wounded. Farewell, young gentleman, I wish you well for their sakes,” said the French general. Porter took his leave, basking in the experience of having one of the nation’s greatest heroes fondly reminiscing about his father and uncle.
Not long after that meeting, he traveled to the Military Academy at Norwich, Vermont, where the idea of founding a college at Easton first came to mind. The concept gained further traction when Porter visited the grounds of Dartmouth College, the liberal arts college founded in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1769. The enthusiastic attorney returned to Easton to begin building the foundation for his dream.
On December 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.”
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 records are silent as to whose happy thought it was to name the college ‘La Fayette.’ But the suggestion must have received an enthusiastic response from the citizens, 200 of whom had so recently traveled to Philadelphia to pay homage to the grand old soldier and grasp his hand . . . . It is likely that Mr. Porter, who so recently had been singled out by Gen. Lafayette and shown personal attention, suggested the name at the same time as he suggested the establishment of the college.”
It’s interesting to note that the spelling ‘La Fayette’ went on to be used in official government records and in many early college documents. The correct and current spelling wasn’t formalized until 1876, when Dr. William C. Cattell, President of Lafayette from 1863-83, made his own investigations in France. Dr. Cattell found Lafayette, the spelling used by the Marquis himself in his own signature, was also used in the inscription on his tomb, by his family when publishing the general’s “Mémoires et Correspondence,” and in a number of biographical writings by his countrymen.
When the governor of Pennsylvania signed the new college’s charter on March 9, 1826, he gave the state’s blessing to the launch of the new college, a much bigger task than the pen stroke that created it. In 1832, the College purchased nine acres of land 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. Also that same year, the Reverend 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. Mathematics was a priority for the founders, along with English. In fact, Lafayette was 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.
Two years later, on the summit of College Hill, Lafayette’s first building was constructed on a site now incorporated into South College. The founders also knew that a growing country needed a solid infrastructure to allow that growth. That’s why they made Civil Engineering another priority; Lafayette was one of the first – and possibly even the first – college in America to create a civil engineering curriculum.
The resulting – and ongoing – union of arts, sciences, and engineering remains perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Lafayette curriculum.
Throughout its history, the College continued to shape itself to best serve its educational mission, supporting the tradition of liberal arts education while responding to the challenges 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 reached out for opportunities in higher education.
In 1970, the first women entered the student population— now women make up about half the student body—raising total enrollment to about 2,100. Today, Lafayette enrolls about 2,400 students, gathered together on 100 acres of land in more than 60 buildings across the campus on College Hill and elsewhere.