When Was Dickinson Founded? The Debate Is Finally Over (?)

Rush Statue in the fall

With the college’s founding date approaching its 240th anniversary, let's discuss why it’s not celebrating its 250th anniversary

by Tony Moore

Back on March 3, 1773, the sons of William Penn donated land in Carlisle so that a grammar school could be built. Fast-forward 8 years, to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Rush, the 35-year-old signer of the Declaration of Independence and a leader of the American Enlightenment.

He decided that he’d like to establish a college on the “western frontier” of what was starting to feel like a new country, and at the time, Carlisle was about as far west as it got. And what better location than where the grammar school was just built? Two years later, that parcel of land was transformed into a college campus, and Rush named the college Dickinson, in honor of his friend John Dickinson, a signer of the Constitution and eventual governor of Pennsylvania, and his wife Mary Norris Dickinson. The charter was signed on Sept. 9, 1783, less than a week after the Treaty of Paris had officially ended the American Revolution. Notably, this timeline established Dickinson as the first college founded in the newly recognized U.S. (Stay tuned for more on this.)

About a year later, Rush and John Dickinson created the seal for the college: an open Bible, a telescope and a liberty cap surrounded by the inscription “Pietate et Doctrina Tuta Libertas,” a Latin phrase generally translated as “Freedom is made safe through character and learning.” There was no date included on the seal, and no one seemed to notice or care for 150 years. Until 1934, when Dickinson’s Board of Trustees decided to add the 1783 charter date to the seal.

And that settled that.

Until six years later, when Boyd Lee Spahr, president of the Board of Trustees, attended the inauguration of Haverford College’s president. Spahr was disturbed, and likely insulted, that the Washington & Jefferson College delegate knavishly marched ahead of him in the procession because of W&J’s earlier (alleged) founding date. In the wake of this snub, and after doing a little research on the common practices of establishing founding dates, Spahr proposed that Dickinson revert to the 1773 founding date, as it could therefore become the second oldest college in the Commonwealth after the University of Pennsylvania, ahead of the not-nearly-as-old W&J. In this, he seemed to prefer the prestige of Dickinson being the second oldest college in the state to the rock star status achieved by its being the first college established in the United States after its founding.

Either way, with Spahr’s case laid out, in December 1940 Dickinson’s board adopted March 3, 1773, as the college’s founding date, and the date on the seal was changed to 1773.

And that settled that.

Until 1999, when members of Dickinson’s Strategic Planning Committee rediscovered the Sept. 9, 1783, charter date. While not changing the seal, the college quickly (once again) embraced this date, and Dickinson (once again) became the first American college chartered after the U.S. was recognized as a country. And besides nailing down that distinction, and being accurate as the true founding date of the college—as opposed to commemorating the year a land grant was made for a grammar school—1783 is more accurate in capturing the spirit of Rush’s mission: to educate leaders for the new American democracy, a democracy that didn’t really exist until the fall of 1783.

And that settled that.

Except that the “founding” date of 1773 has continued to be referenced, even though the college has gone all in on 1783 since the turn of the millennium.

So in the spirit of historical accuracy, in October 2019, the college’s senior leadership, having had just about enough of this, put forward to the board that Sept. 9, 1783, is the accurate date of Dickinson’s founding and should be used everywhere by everyone—on the seal, on documents, on merch. The board agreed. So in January 2020, Dickinson made it official (again), establishing that Benjamin Rush did not, in fact, officially establish the college until the official signing of Dickinson’s charter on September 9, 1783. Per the decree:

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the official founding date of Dickinson College be stated as September 9, 1783, and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Dickinson College seal be amended to reflect 1783 as well.

And that settles that.


Published March 1, 2023