Williams College President 1793-1815
Ebenezer Fitch, (1756-1833), graduated from Yale College in 1777 as the valedictorian of his class. He was a highly religious young man, a trait that developed as he was attending Yale. While in college, Fitch realized that his life had been blessed and saved repeatedly and that he was “under great obligations to devote (himself) wholly to the service of Him.” This faith would later prove to be one of the deciding factors in Fitch’s selection as the first president of Williams College, as well as the basis for the college’s curriculum in the early years.
Before coming to Williamstown, Fitch had experience as an educator at his alma mater. He served as a tutor from 1780, but later quit in 1783 to become a businessman, a venture that left him with large amounts of useless merchandise and great debt. When he returned from abroad in 1790, he was asked to come to Williamstown and become the preceptor of a free academy for boys as had been designated in Ephraim Williams’ will. He had been “examined” in regard to his religious principles and found . . . sound” by those men involved in finding someone for the job. With much hesitation, Fitch moved out of his native Connecticut to Williamstown. He believed that the Free School needed a lot of work to make it an attractive option, and in Fitch’s hands, the School evolved dramatically and became highly popular. By May 22, 1792, a petition had been submitted to the State Legislature, requesting that the Williamstown Free School become a college.
Dr. Fitch molded Williams College into a religious place, bringing in the Westminster Catechism for the students as theology was studied as part of a liberal education. Fitch himself delivered sermons on Sundays. William Cullen Bryant (Class of 1811) commented on Fitch’s sermons that ” he often preached to us on Sundays, but his style of sermonizing was not such as to compel our attention.” Fitch took it upon himself to cut down on sinful Sabbath day activities by stopping Sunday travelers and holding them until Monday. He was an “aggressive Federalist,” and there were rumors in the local newspapers that he would not allow the students to celebrate July 4th.
During his time as president of the college, Fitch married the widow of an old friend that he had known in his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut. Fitch took his dead friend’s children as his own and would eventually be father to eleven more children. The Fitch family lived in the first president’s house at Williams, Kellogg House, when it stood where Hopkins Hall is today. Kellogg was built in 1794 and is the oldest frame structure on the Williams College campus.
As there was only one other faculty member in the earliest days of the college, Fitch taught many classes himself. To the seniors, Fitch taught Mental Science, Moral Philosophy, and Law of Nations, and under him, Williams College grew in “celebrity and influence” as well as academic esteem. Class size grew each year for his first few years as president, although the Fitch administration would run into problems as the years progressed. As he became older, Fitch showed “failing tact and lessening grip,” and he was seen as “older and slower,” whereas the other professors were young and vital.
Problems with grading of exams in 1802 caused student rebellion for the following years. Fitch comments that:
Three classes in succession were in a good state of insurrection… For ten days we had a good deal of difficulty; but the faculty stood firm and determined to give up no right. At least, without the loss of a single member, we reduced all to due obedience and subordination.
But with the rebellion, the tutors felt they should resign if they could not maintain the respect of the students. The sophomore class was so discontent with two tutors that they composed a petition to dispose of them in 1808. The only other professor at Williams at that time, Professor Olds, insisted the students write apologies to the discharged tutors, but the students refused and enlisted the support of President Fitch. Soon, Professor Olds resigned as well, and went to teach at other institutions, including Amherst.
Class sizes gradually began to drop off as the years continued under President Fitch. In 1815, Fitch’s last year, only 24 students were enrolled. Other colleges sprouted up that sparked interest in potential students, and the funds at Williams were small. One Hampshire county newspaper urged, “what has Williamstown, that can attract the attention of the public or that can render a term of four years’ residence agreeable or pleasant?. . . Many scholars . . . having entered the institution . . . soon became sick of the place and obtained dismissions.”
Although the blame for the plan to relocate Williams to the Connecticut River valley is placed on second college president Zephaniah Swift Moore, President Fitch came up with the idea as well. On May 10, 1815, Fitch wrote to Abel Flint, “Under these local disadvantages, the College has for several years declined, and must continue to decline. In my opinion, there is no way to save it from extinction but to remove it to the County of Hampshire.” Because of his belief that the future of the college was bleak, Fitch announced to the Board of Trustees that he would resign on September of that year.
Following his resignation, Fitch was named pastor of a church in New York where he remained until he died on March 21, 1833. He was originally buried in New York, but was later reinterred in the Williams College cemetery.
By Elizabeth O’Grady
Spring, Leverett Wilson. A History of Williams College. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917.
Perry, Arthur Latham. Williamstown and Williams College. Norwood Press, 1899.
Durfee, Rev. Charles. A Sketch of the Rev. Ebenezer Fitch, D.D. Boston, 1865.
Fitch, Ebenezer. Letter to Abel Flint, May 10, 1815.