The Lafayette Story

On Christmas Eve in 1824, the Easton Centinel carried a notice calling upon residents of Northampton County “friendly to the establishment of a COLLEGE at Easton” to meet three days later at White’s Hotel on Center Square.

Led by James Madison Porter, a prominent local lawyer; Joel Jones, another lawyer and graduate of Yale; and Jacob Wagener, a local miller’s son notable for his interest in mineralogy and botany, the assembled citizens worked out a plan for a college “combining a course of practical Military Science with the course of Literature and General Science pursued in the Colleges of our Country.”

At the time, the country was in a fever over the farewell tour of the aging Marquis de Lafayette, whom Porter and other Easton citizens had greeted in Philadelphia the previous September. Consequently, the founders voted to name their new college for the French hero of the Revolution “as a testimony of respect for [his] talents, virtues, and signal services . . . in the great cause of freedom.”

The governor of Pennsylvania signed the new college’s charter March 9, 1826, but getting the charter proved to be considerably easier than launching the College. In 1832, the Reverend George Junkin, a Presbyterian minister, agreed to move the curriculum and student body of the Manual Labor Academy of Pennsylvania from Germantown to Easton, and to take up the Lafayette College charter.

On May 9, 1832, classes in mathematics and the classics began in a rented farmhouse on the south bank of the Lehigh River, where the 43 students labored in the fields and workshops to earn money to support the educational program.

In their original petition, the planners of the College had cited mathematics as an example of their educational philosophy. “Such branches will be selected and so pursued, as will not only discipline the mind, and induce habits of patient investigation, but also directly subserve the purposes of life.” That sound principle animated the subsequent curricular development at Lafayette—much as it does today.

The founders noted in 1824 that “the language most neglected in our seminaries of learning is the English.” In 1857, Lafayette became the first American college to establish a chair for the study of the English language and literature, with emphasis on philology. Francis A. March, its first incumbent, achieved international acclaim for his work in establishing English as a pivotal subject in the liberal arts curriculum.

Similarly, the founders conveyed that “civil engineering has of late become a very prominent branch of education, and what is remarkable, not a College in our country (if we are correctly informed) has made it a part of their course.” In 1866, Lafayette secured funds from Ario Pardee, a mining magnate and industrialist, to establish a new course in science and engineering, one of the first in any liberal arts college. The resulting union of arts, sciences, and engineering remains perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Lafayette curriculum.

In 1832, the College acquired nine acres of land on an eminence across Bushkill Creek from Easton. Formally named “Mt. Lafayette,” the elevation soon became more familiarly known as “College Hill.” Two years later on its summit, the first of the College’s own buildings was built, on a site now incorporated into South College. Today, the campus comprises about 100 acres of land and more than 60 buildings as well as various outlying properties and structures on College Hill and elsewhere.

Like the physical plant, enrollment grew steadily. By the turn of the century, it stood at about 300, passed the 500 mark in 1910, and reached 1,000 during the 1920s. It more than doubled again as returning veterans swamped the College after World War II. As the GI tide ebbed, the enrollment dropped back to about 1,500.

Addition of women to the student population—they now make up about 50 percent of the student body—raised the total enrollment to about 2,100. Today, Lafayette enrolls about 2,400 students.