Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

The Founding

Packer’s most enduring accomplishment is the founding of Lehigh University, yet he never left a mission statement or blueprint for his school, leaving room for speculation both during and after his life.  In addition to why Packer would want to found his own university, when he decided to do so is also unclear.  In 1879, an article published in the Scientific American connected Packer’s desire to found a university with his experience breaking up the Easton strike in 1843.   It explained, “It was an outburst of passionate ignorance, he reasoned, and his answer to the outrage was a great Free School.  It would take a generation to disperse the ignorance, but the rising generation should have the benefit of all that free tuition and the wise disposal of his wealth should give it."  At the sixth Founder’s Day in 1884, William Hammond also traced Packer’s desire to the 1840s.  He recalled meeting Packer when he was a young boy forty years ago and mused, “Perhaps, even at that time, he had it in his mind to found this University.”

Regardless, the earliest definitive mention of Packer’s intentions is in 1864, when Bishop Stevens recorded in his diary:

“He came to my house in Philadelphia, and said that he had long contemplated doing something for the benefit of his State, and especially the Lehigh Valley.  From that valley he said he had derived much of the wealth which GOD had given to him, and to the best interests of that valley he wished to devote a portion of it in the founding of some educational institution, for the intellectual and moral improvement of the young men of that region.  After conversing with him a little while, and drawing out his large and liberal views, I asked him how much money he purposed to set aside for this institution, when he quietly answered that he designed to give $500,000.” 

After informing Stevens of his plans and asking him to be a guiding force, Stevens and Packer moved forward with their plan to establish a university and selected their Board of Trustees.  The next to be informed was Robert Sayre, who wrote in his diary on May 12, 1865, “Went up as far as Slatington with Judge Packer and returned home to dinner.  Judge spoke to me of his design to build a college at Bethlehem South, proposing to appropriate $500,00 for that purpose.”  Packer then left for Europe, missing the first three meetings of his newly created Board of Trustees, which included Bishop Stevens, Robert Sayre, his sons Robert and Harry, and John W. Maynard, Joseph Harrison, and Garrett Linderman.  Upon his return, Packer’s friends threw him a party to commemorate his endowment and many prominent Pennsylvanians were in attendance, a testament to Packer’s social standing within the community.

Why start his own university?  Already in the Lehigh Valley were Moravian College, founded in 1742, Lafayette College, founded in 1842, and Muhlenberg College, founded in 1848. According to Lafayette, they approached Packer about using his money to create an engineering school, but when “it was disclosed that Lafayette was controlled by the Presbyterian Church", Packer lost interest because "he would have nothing to do with a Presbyterian College.” Packer instead “determined to create a scientific school of his own which would have the advantage of proximity to the Pennsylvania coal fields."  He chose a spot in South Bethlehem, within walking distance of the offices of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.  This story, although difficult to verify from Packer's point of view, appears to be the first example of a clash between Lehigh and Lafayette, a dispute that would grow into The Rivalry. 
Perhaps Packer intended to do something entirely new and preferred to have his own university to mold as he liked.  As Stevens attempted to construct a vision for the new university he looked to existing ones for inspiration and apparently found none.  Moravian was a theological preparatory school that only received its charter to grant degrees in 1863, Muhlenberg was still known as the Allentown Collegiate Institute and Military Academy, and Lafayette was in the process of building its own scientific department with the help of Ario Pardee.  Religion was likely influential in Packer’s decision to found his own university, especially because the three existing ones had religious affiliations (Moravian, Presbyterian, and Evangelical Lutheran) that did not match his own.

This page has paths: