Southern honor and Northern piety: Henry Tutwiler, Alva Woods, and the problem of discipline at The University of Alabama, 1831-1837

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University of Alabama Libraries

The University of Alabama opened its doors in April 1831, and over the next six years, the first president, Alva Woods, was confronted by numerous episodes of student misdeeds. Knife fights, dueling, shootings, slave baiting, hazing, the torture of animals, and the destruction of property were common events on campus. Woods--a Baptist minister from Vermont--was never able to end the troubles; in fact, student defiance ultimately led to mass resignations by the faculty and the installation of a new president. However, the traditional reading of Woods' tenure at Alabama has not taken into account deeper issues. At the heart of Woods' difficulty was a contest for discipline. He came to Tuscaloosa determined to establish a religiously orthodox vision of virtuous conduct for the future leaders of Alabama. Woods himself was the product of New England's theological schism between Calvinism and Unitarianism. At that time he was mentored by his uncle Leonard Woods, who instilled in him a challenge to counter the spread of liberal theology by teaching the ethics of Christian piety. This was the charge that he pursued first at Columbian College, then as interim president of Brown University, as president of Transylvania University, and finally at Alabama. While resolved to carry out his mission, he was met by seemingly constant waves of student insubordination. The students hailed from the homes of the planter elite where their rearing supplied them with ideals of privilege, and where spiritedness and indulged independence were rewarded rather than harnessed. Honor not piety was the Southern way and this premise was juxtapose Woods' theory of moral discipline. These two guiding principles remained at loggerheads until 1837 when Woods retreated to New England. Moreover, these are the two ideologies that have been neglected in the historiography of The University of Alabama. The first six years of the University's history must be understood not just as an era where boys were being boys or where student actions are summed up as the expected exaggerations of adolescence; rather, it was an era shaped by the clash of two great cultures, honor and piety.

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Higher education administration, History of education, History, United States