House Divided, a Civil War research engine at Dickinson College, has identified seven former slaveholders who are honored with named buildings or sections of campus. The project says they can be divided into two categories: those who freed their slaves and came to oppose slavery or those who never renounced slavery.
John Dickinson, Benjamin Rush and James Wilson were all Founding Fathers of the nation. Rush and Wilson both signed the Declaration of Independence, and Wilson and Dickinson signed the Constitution.
Rush envisioned establishing a college on what was then considered the edge of the frontier in Carlisle, and gained the support of Dickinson, who became its namesake. Wilson was a founding member of the board of trustees, serving from the college’s beginning in 1783 to his death in 1798.
Of the three, Dickinson held the most slaves. Between 1777 and 1781, he freed more than 50 slaves, turning many of them instead into indentured servants. He spoke out against slavery at the Constitutional Convention. Rush advocated the abolition of slavery even though he owned a slave, whom he freed over the course of time.
House Divided names four men who never renounced slavery: John Armstrong, James Buchanan, Thomas Cooper and John Montgomery.
Montgomery, who served on the college’s board of trustees, bought and sold slaves.
A graduate of Dickinson College, Buchanan inherited slaves whom he freed, but kept in his service as indentured servants. He was elected president of the United States in 1856, and became known for his pro-slavery stance.
Cooper was a scientist who served as a faculty member at the college for a brief time before becoming the president of a South Carolina college. Later in his career, he became known as a pro-slavery intellectual.
Montgomery, a member of the board of trustees, held eight slaves in 1780, making him one of the largest slaveholders in Carlisle. He added five more slaves to that number through slave births during the next decade. He never freed his slaves, and even advertised slaves for sale. His slaves were sold as part of his estate when he died in 1808.