Massachusetts Hall, Bowdoin College
This modest three-story brick structure is the oldest building on Bowdoin's historic campus. Construction of this building began in 1798, only a few years after the college's founding. At that time, Maine was part of Massachusetts and Bowdoin College was the easternmost college in the entirety of the United States at the time it was chartered in 1794. Bowdoin is the first college in the State of Maine, being assigned to the jurisdiction of the newly formed legislature of Maine following the Missouri Compromise, which granted Maine its independence from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and also created the state of Missouri while keeping the numerical balance of free and slave states. Bowdoin retains a strong liberal arts tradition that continues to prepare students for a variety of careers while also teaching the skills and values that form the foundation of citizenship. The college is highly selective and enrolls about ten thousand students at the time of this article. Among its graduates stand some of Maine’s most influential politicians and artists.
Backstory and Context
The recorded history of Bowdoin College begins over 100 years before its charter by the State of Massachusetts in 1794. The story of the college begins with Pierre Baudouin, a French immigrant who came to Maine in 1686, living for a time in the Portland area. Shortly after his arrival, Baudouin moved to Boston where he pursued a living as a merchant and captain, finding great success.
Baudouin’s son, James, would later change his last name to an anglicized version of the name Baudouin spelled “Bowdoin.” James Bowdoin I carried his father’s business to even greater success following his father’s death, becoming one of the richest men in Boston. His son, James Bowdoin II, would become the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts shortly after the American Revolution.
Following James Bowdoin II’s term as governor, the General Court of Massachusetts would vote to charter Bowdoin College, named in his honor. The bill to charter the school was signed by none other than Revolution-era hero Samuel Adams. Bowdoin College would commence its first academic year with only eight students, the youngest of which was only 13. According to Bowdoin College’s website, this young student was a boy named George Thorndike. George Thorndike is credited with planting the acorn that would grow into one of the most precious of Bowdoin’s landmarks: The Thorndike Oak.
James Bowdoin II’s son, James Bowdoin III, donated incredible sums of money to the school to encourage its growth. When he passed away with no children of his own, he left Bowdoin College his art collection and his personal library, both of which were incredible in scale. The art collection was housed in Massachusetts hall, starting public viewing in 1812 and becoming one of the earliest fine art museums in the United States. His will also bequeathed a collection of scientific equipment to the school.
In 1816, Parker Cleaveland created the United State’s first successful book of geology, which received international praise. Cleaveland would go on to be the sole professor in the Bowdoin medical school. His Brunswick, Maine home later became the school’s official presidential residence. During his time as leader of the Bowdoin medical school, the State of Maine would gain its independence from Massachusetts and the medical school would subsequently separate from Bowdoin College proper, becoming its own subsidiary school under the administration known as the Medical School of Maine.
The Medical School of Maine was responsible for providing the State of Maine with a vast majority of its doctors throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s. By the time the school closed, 100 years after its founding, it had graduated over 2000 doctors.
In addition to having a remarkable impact on the history of the State of Maine, a number of Bowdoin graduates had a lasting impact on the country as a whole. Bowdoin’s legacy in literature is particularly notable; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne were both graduates of the school, and Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin on campus while her husband taught theology at the school.
Bowdoin College was the Alma Mater of John Brown Russwurm, the third African American to graduate from an American college. In honor of his legacy, the College named its African-American Center the John Brown Russwurm Center.
Bowdoin College was also the Alma Mater of Joshua Chamberlain, a Brigadier General who served honorably (receiving a Medal of Honor) during the American Civil War, fought at Gettysburg and was present for the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House. In addition to an incredible military career, Chamberlain served as governor of Maine and for some time as president of Bowdoin College. Chamberlain is considered a hero across much of Maine, being immortalized in the form of a statue on the Bowdoin campus, a bridge that stretches across the Penobscot River between Bangor and Brewer in central Maine, and in various other plaques and statues across the State.
Bowdoin’s position on slavery and the Civil War is one of unfortunate complexity. The administration of the school at various times endorsed pro-slavery and Confederate leaders, such as Jefferson Davis, who was granted an honorary degree and also had an award at the school named after him which was to be given to students who excelled in specific courses. While the award was discontinued in recent years after a motion by the leadership of the college, Jefferson Davis’ honorary degree has never been rescinded. A number of alumni went on to fight for the Confederacy, though considerably more fought for the Union. In addition, Bowdoin was the Alma Mater of Franklin Pierce, 14th president and vocal supporter of slavery.
In spite of this, the college also awarded many anti-slavery figures honorable degrees, including president and general Ulysses S. Grant. Senator John Parker Hale, a graduate of the school, fought in court on the behalf of antislavery activists who rescued an African-American man named Shadrach. Shadrach had fled Southern slavery. Hale also fought to defend anti-slavery activists who attempted to halt the return of Anthony Burns to the man who had enslaved him. Boston governor John Albion Andrew was a graduate of Bowdoin and was responsible for the creation of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, a heroic all-black regiment who stormed Fort Wagner in South Carolina.
Following such a muddied relationship with slavery and the Civil War in general, Bowdoin has made efforts to honor the Union and the anti-slavery heroes who had called the school their home. In 1882, the school completed the construction of “Memorial Hall,” which was a commemorative building dedicated to the 288 alumni who fought on the Union side of the war. As of the creation of this article, the school has, in recent decades, taken deliberate action to honor civil rights and distance itself from those who fought for the preservation of slavery.
As the turn of the century approached, the school turned its attention to sports and the arts, growing its collegiate sports teams considerably and constructing a new art building following a sizable donation by Harriet and Mary Sophia Walker. The art building stands proudly to this day, having undergone restoration and renovation in the early 2000s.
Throughout the early to mid-1900s, Bowdoin sees a number of noteworthy graduates including Polar explorers Robert E. Peary and Donald MacMillan, Olympian Frederic Tootell, and biologist and sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who published the controversial text “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” In 1971, Bowdoin celebrated its first female graduate and its conversion to a fully co-ed institution.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the college saw numerous renovations and restorations of historical buildings including the reconstruction of the Bowdoin Chapel. In 2007, the school officially re-opened the Bowdoin College Museum of Art following an extensive restructuring and renovation which resulted in the construction of a new building that housed considerably more galleries. This project also resulted in the construction of a large auditorium and music facility.
Bowdoin College is a flourishing private school to this day and is largely held in good reputation by locals within the State. In addition to its incredible resumé of graduates, Bowdoin College has set out to make history in other ways as well in recent years. The school has undertaken extensive sustainability projects with the stated goal of reaching complete carbon neutrality by or before 2020.
History of Bowdoin College. Bowdoin College. Accessed September 02, 2017. http://www.bowdoin.edu/about/history/index.shtml. A timeline and slideshow created by the school's administration that showcases images and records of the school's history