Frederick A. P. Barnard

Three years  later, in 1876,  a second petition calling for the admission of women into Columbia College was directed at its trustees. It came from Sorosis, a network of women’s clubs with a chapter in New York City under the leadership of  Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This, too, was summarily rejected by the Columbia board. Although there is no evidence that Columbia’s president Frederick A. P. Barnard dissented from the board’s action, it may have been the occasion for him to begin to have second thoughts about the conventional wisdom to which his colleagues on the board so faithfully adhered. Columbia’s 10th president was by constitution and habit a contrarian and, with his wife’s urging,  something of a feminist. 11]

  1. The Admirable Frederick

In the spring of 1879, then in his 15th year as president of Columbia College, the 70-year-old Frederick A. P. Barnard publicly launched his own campaign to open his conservative 125-year-old New York institution  to women. Little could he have known then or in the decade thereafter before his death in 1889  that the  failure of this quixotic effort would nonetheless assure  him a modest  place in posterity by having his name  attached to a woman’s college, albeit a college whose gender-exclusiveness was  precisely what he had faulted about the all-male Columbia of his day.

Barnard was one of those rare persons  who became more progressive  with age. Born in 1809 in the southwest corner of Massachusetts to Episcopalian parents, he entered the Presbyterian-infused Yale College in 1824. In his  senior year Yale’s president and faculty published a spirited defense of the College’s prescribed classical curriculum,  to which most other colleges of the day fully subscribed. Yet Barnard later in his own academic career became a proponent of the “free elective”  system championed by Harvard presidents Josiah Quincy and Charles William Eliot. A slaveholder as a professor at the University of Alabama and president of the University of Mississippi in the 1850s, he became  at the outbreak of the Civil War an ardent supporter of Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation. As the tenth president of Columbia College (1864-1889), this lifelong Episcopalian and the product of all-male Yale College challenged fellow Episcopalians on the Columbia board to open the College to “every religious creed and race – and sex.”

While Barnard’s public championing  the cause of women’s higher education came late in his life, he readily acknowledged the outsized role  women played throughout it. They included his mother,
Another was Catherine Beecher, the feminist educator and founder of the Hartford Female Seminary, who hired Barnard after being let go as a Yale tutor (either because of his Episcopalianism or his incipient deafness). Beecher was helpful in  securing his next position at  the  New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. Intent on securing a collegiate position, and finding none in the northeast, in 1838 he accepted a mathematics professorship at the new and decidedly raw University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. It was there where, after several years as a bachelor and a reputed drinker, and only modest success as a popularizer of astronomy and physics,  met a visiting schoolteacher from Ohio, Margaret           . In 1849 the 40-year-old Frederick and the 24-year-old Margaret married and the drinking , likely by pre-nuptial agreement, stopped.   Margaret  thereafter  never  left his side, encouraging  him to revive his stalled academic career even as his deafness became nearly total. In 1854, after securing ordination as an Episcopalian minister (You never know) , Barnard and his wife departed Tuscaloosa  for Oxford when he accepted the presidency of the University of Mississippi. When the Civil War broke out seven years later, the Barnards quietly laid plans to escape the Confederacy with their two young sons in tow, doing so while on a diversionary visit to Norfolk, Virginia. Once behind Union lines they declared themselves admirers of President Lincoln and were welcomed to Washington DC by Frederick’s younger brother, then in charge of the defenses around the nation’s capital.

Barnard’s election as the 10th president of CC in 1864 was something of a fluke. Shortly after his arrival in Washington, Columbia announced an opening in physics (the incumbent had defected to the Confederacy) and friends who had secured his election to the National Academy of Science of Barnard submitted his name. While he did not get that job, his application was given to a trustee committee charged with finding Columbia its next president. Anxious to fill the post and impressed with Barnard’s credentials as an ardent (if only recent) Unionist at a time the Columbia board was under suspicion of harboring Confederate sympathizers), as well as his being a life-long Episcopalian, the search committee elected him president sight unseen.

Bob McCaughey
July 24, 2017
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