Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

Motivations and Purpose

What was Packer trying to accomplish with his new polytechnic college? Although we have Bishop Stevens' address on the "origins and aims" of Lehigh University, we have no such creed from Packer.  Examining the memorial addresses at the first five Founder’s Day celebrations provides insight into how Packer’s contemporaries viewed him and his actions.  They cover a range of opinions, undoubtedly influenced by each speaker’s religious and political affiliations, and by putting together these separate ideas we can gain a better understanding of the founder’s vision for Lehigh.  According to these interpretations, Packer’s motivations were mainly seen as philanthropic, patriotic, and practical.

The first Founder’s Day was held on October 9, 1879, thirteen years after the official opening of Lehigh University, to commemorate Asa Packer’s death earlier that year.  Every October since then, Lehigh has celebrated Founder’s Day to remember Packer and his generosity.  The first memorial address was given by Bishop De Wolfe Howe, who became President of the Board of Trustees after Bishop Stevens stepped down in 1872.  Bishop Howe attributed Packer’s endowment to his Christian sense of generosity and desire for others to have the education he lacked.  Howe refers Packer’s own limited education, which ended at the age of 12.  Echoing Bishop Stevens’ account that Packer had “long contemplated doing something for the benefit of his State”, Howe explained, “It was a design which had long occupied his thoughts and which doubtless had been suggested by the peculiar circumstances of his own life.  He had met many occasions on which he would have found great advantage if to his practical skill he could have added that scientific knowledge of metallurgy, mining, and civil engineering, which is now freely imparted in this University.”  Howe believed that Packer’s career as a railroad magnate could have benefitted from instruction in these areas that are now the hallmarks of a Lehigh education.  Howe added,

“He saw that all around him were human capabilities that were waiting development and culture, whose enlightened exertion would be demanded to bring out and apply the treasures hidden beneath their feet – youths born of vigorous stock, sound in mind and in body, who, with the advantages of education, could abide in the rough places of their nativity, draw from the secret stores of Divine bounty, and dispense them to mankind.  These considerations gave direction to the Christian benevolence which warmed his heart, and the sense of duty to God which reigned in his conscience.”  

Howe also touches on Packer’s almost clairvoyant nature that enabled him to anticipate the needs of those around him, which is usually discussed in reference to Packer’s role in building the Lehigh Valley Railroad while canals were still the dominant form of transportation.

The second memorial address was given by Hon. Thomas F. Bayard, a lawyer and prominent Democratic politician, in 1880.  Bayard identified an egalitarian vision from Packer for educating students of all classes and preparing them for the future.  He wrote, “This great truth seems to have been fully comprehended by Judge Packer, and this University is the grandest and the noblest act in the line of that thought that this country or any other has witnessed; for, when the founder’s mind had formed this scheme of education, he made its advantages absolutely free – FREE TO ALL.  Any youth of good character… who comes to this gate, shall have it opened at his knock, shall have his faculties educated, his intellect instructed, his whole mental and moral nature strengthened, fully equipped and prepared for the great battle of life, on any field of endeavor which he may select as suited to his capacities – without cost or fee.”  It is worth noting here that tuition at Lehigh was not free at its inception.  Of course Packer’s generosity and commitment to his university are exemplary, but it is unclear whether he founded Lehigh as an equalizing institution.  Tuition was originally $90 to $100 (for schools of special instruction) and was increased in 1869 to $125 for underclassmen and $150 for upperclassmen.  Tuition was abolished in 1871 after low enrollment rates and nationwide financial trouble and was enabled by yearly additional gifts from Packer.  Therefore, free tuition appears to have been a consequence of the times rather than a goal of Packer’s, but this example illustrates how quickly after his death Packer’s already great story was mythicized and embellished.

The Hon. Samuel J. Randall gave the third memorial address in 1881.  Like Bayard, Randall was a prominent Democrat who served in the House of Representatives.  Randall saw Packer’s gift as an egalitarian venture for all classes, following Bayard’s claim that Lehigh had always been tuition free, but he went further in associating it specifically with the industrializing world and the need for America to remain competitive within it.  Randall viewed Lehigh as an opportunity “afforded to young men of limited means to acquire, beside liberal education, a knowledge of those branches of science which directly bear upon the industrial pursuits concerned in developing the natural resources of the country in schools of civil, mechanical and manufacturing engineering, of chemistry, architecture and construction.” He added, “If in the race and competition with other nations, we shall dominate the markets of the world with our manufactures and agricultural productions, we must keep abreast of every improvement in labor and cost-saving machinery.  This can best be done by keeping up the supply of that high scientific education which is here provided, by the foresight of one man, forever free.”  Bayard therefore connected Packer's school with his role in industrialization and found economic motivation for his decision to establish a university.

Daniel Agnew, the speaker for the fourth Founder’s Day in 1882, served as chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  Agnew viewed Packer’s endowment as a selfless gift, not for glory or recognition but for the benefit of those “unlighted by the lamp of Knowledge.”  He also saw it as a response to Packer’s own lack of education, as a gift for young, underprivileged men to “[drink] large draughts of learning from this free fountain of Knowledge.”   Like Randall, he noted that having educated citizens is beneficial to the nation in a political sense.  Agnew explained, “There is a feature growing out of the Founder’s gift to his country which claims attention – its influence on American citizenship.  The dissemination of a knowledge which makes men better citizens, and more capable of giving direction to the affairs of government, bears directly on the welfare of the people individually and the nation collectively.”

For the fifth Founder’s Day in 1883, Eckley B. Coxe, an industrialist, philanthropist, Democrat, and member of the Lehigh Board of Trustees gave the memorial address. Like Randall in the 1881 address, Coxe associated the university with fulfilling the needs of an industrializing nation, and, more specifically, the Lehigh Valley.  Coxe wrote, “When the success of [his railroad] was no longer in doubt, and when great wealth had come to him as the result of his foresight and fixity of purpose, in looking around, as he had done before, to see what was most wanted in the region in which he had made his home, he recognized the fact that while the public schools were providing education for the millions, yet in a country teeming with industries of all kinds populated by an intelligent and rapidly increasing  number of people, there was great need of an institution devoted to higher education, in which the young men who were growing up and in whose hands would be placed the direction of the industries of this part of Pennsylvania could be educated, so that no one, no matter to what position he might aspire, would be obliged to leave the Valley to obtain an education.”  Just as America needed to educate its students to remain competitive in the world, the success of the Lehigh Valley depended on having educated and capable young men.  As Coxe explained, "He now turned his attention, his energy and his capital to the higher purpose, the establishment of a great institution which was not only to assist us to develop more fully our industries and to utilize our resources, to the best advantage, but also to enable us, when by our labor and our intelligence we had accumulated wealth, to enjoy it better and more fully.”

The five addresses presented here are just a sample of the many attempts to analyze Packer’s intentions.  Of course, these men were reflecting on Packer's intentions in hindsight, so they were no doubt influenced by their own backgrounds and the course of the university, whether or not it followed Packer's original goals.  However, taken together they provide a clearer picture of Packer's motivations: a religious sense of philanthropy, a civic commitment to his country, and a pragmatic approach to the demands of industrialization.  Furthermore, they demonstrate just how quickly Packer's story was embellished and why it is now so difficult to make a man out of the myths. 


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