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Pledged Funds

What Were “Subscribers”?

The benefactors of the University of the South were not “donors” as we understand the word today. Rather, they were subscribers. They did not give money to the university in a lump sum. Instead, they pledged an amount and then were expected to pay that obligation in equal installments over a designated number of years. The trustees adopted the plan probably in part to make giving to the movement more affordable in a region where even the very rich were often tight for cash except at harvest time. They also did so to assure potential backers who were reluctant to hand over a large sum of wealth for a speculative enterprise like the founding of a new university. They further eased benefactors’ concerns by designating that subscribed funds would be held in trust by individual Episcopal dioceses, which would annually forward only the interest earned on the reserves, thereby protecting the original capital base. This plan, Louisiana Bishop Leonidas Polk (1806-1864) and Georgia Bishop Stephen Elliott (1806-1866) contended, “renders the University permanent, by preserving its endowment from diminution. It is as rich at the close of each year as it was at the beginning.” Furthermore, if the University failed to materialize or went bankrupt, subscribers would be able to recover their investment because the original dioceses, not the University itself, maintained control over the endowments.* The Bishops Polk and Elliott laid out their plan in Address of the commissioners for raising the endowment of the University of the South (1859).

*Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., discusses this plan in Sewanee Sesquicentennial History (2008)

Two early “subscribers”: John Armfield (top) and Issac Croom (bottom)

The Plan for Fundraising 

The fundraising occurred in several stages. The first phase launched in July 1858, when the Board of Trustees met in Beersheba Springs, Tennessee, near the present site of the University. The Trustees, envisioning an institution the equal of any in the North or Europe at the time, set an initial goal of raising $500,000 and appointed the Bishops Polk and Elliott “to canvas the Dioceses associated [with] this undertaking.” Their fundraising journey began in January 1859.

Bishops Polk and Elliott began their campaign in the plantation regions around New Orleans in Polk’s home diocese. Already by January 1859, three men—John Armfield in Tennessee (1797-1871), Thomas Davis Warren in North Carolina (1817-1878), and Isaac Croom in Alabama (1795-1863)—had each promised $25,000 to the University. The trustees hailed them as shining examples of Southern Christian charity. Within a short time, Polk and Elliott had raised an additional $77,000. These efforts were boosted by the former Governor of Louisiana, Henry Johnson (1783-1864), who himself promised $20,000 to the Southern University. These fundraising successes were trumpeted by Southern newspapers, which reported that all this money had been raised “with little effort [and] without touching the city of New Orleans.”

Stephen Elliott to Robert R. Habersham, February 8, 1859, found in University of the South Archives
Stephen Elliott to Robert R. Habersham, February 8, 1859, found in University of the South Archives
Stephen Elliott to Robert R. Habersham, February 8, 1859, found in University of the South Archives

The bishops entered that city in February 1859 and remained for a month and a half. According to Elliott, the time and effort were “rewarded by the most cordial, generous, and unanimous response” and an additional $200,000 in subscriptions. After that, Polk stayed in Louisiana to continue fundraising, and Elliott went to Alabama, where he picked up major subscriptions from prominent planters, including Isaac Croom and Alexander Ratcliffe Bell Sr. (1816 -1885). Alabamians promised more than $47,000 in March 1859. Almost half the funds came from parishioners of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery. Episcopal bishops in Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina did their part in raising pledges, and by August 1859, the fundraising efforts had reached the goal of $500,000. Oliver J. Morgan, one of the largest enslavers in Louisiana, committed the final $40,000 to found a Professorship of Agricultural Chemistry. Money continued to come in such that by the years of the Civil War, pledges totaled $1,185,275. 

The amount of money pledged to found the University of the South, not to mention the short few years in which it was raised, was astonishing for its time. Harvard’s endowment in 1860 was about $1.1 million more than 200 years after its founding. Stephen Girard, the wealthiest person in America when he died in 1831, left a single bequest of $2 million to found Girard College in Philadelphia. The Episcopal bishops’ success in raising nearly $1.2 million for the University of the South was a different order of magnitude, a network of wealth generation encompassing ten of the eleven “plantation states,” as Polk called them.

Coverage of Oliver J. Morgan’s Donation in The New York Herald on September 06, 1859.