The Naming of a College

Easton, James Madison Porter, and the Marquis

From The Biography of a College by David Bishop Skillman ’13

The year 1824  . . . had been a great one for Easton. It has also been a great year for the United States. Fine emotions had been stirred by the second and last visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to this country. He came on the invitation of President Monroe, who had invited him at the request of Congress to come as a guest of the Republic. The matter was discussed throughout the land, since Lafayette’s itinerary included every state of the Union. A strong attempt was made to have him visit Bethlehem, where he had gone in the Revolutionary days to recover from his wounds. Since this step could not be included in the trip, Easton determined to honor the aged hero by sending her various military organizations to the reception in Philadelphia. Lafayette landed in New York on Aug. 15, 1824. This event was celebrated in Easton. A newspaper writer of the time wrote: “Every countenance beamed with joy and the thunders of our own artillery from the summit of Mount Jefferson announced to the surrounding country brethren the pleasing intelligence.” Immediately, plans were made for the pilgrimage to Philadelphia to honor the great hero . . . . A group of 200 Eastonians marched away on Wednesday morning, Sept. 22, 1824, to join in the greeting to Gen. Lafayette. Two days were spent floating and rowing down the Delaware in Durham boats to Philadelphia and two days walking back. Six days were occupied in the stirring scenes connected with the welcome to the fine, old Frenchman.

When the Easton delegation was presented to Gen. Lafayette, he was introduced to James Madison Porter [a prime mover in the founding of Lafayette College and the first president of its Board of Trustees]. On hearing the name, Lafayette said, “Porter, Porter, I remember that name. Any relation to Capt. Porter, whom I met at Brandywine?”
“Yes, sir, a son,” replied Porter.
“Well, sir,” said the general, “I bless you for your father’s sake. He was a brave man. He had with him there a young man, a relative I think, whose name I have forgotten. They fought very nearly together.”
“Was it Parker?” asked Mr. Porter.
“That was the name,” said Lafayette.
“He was my mother’s brother,” Mr. Porter explained.
“Ah, indeed; well, they were good soldiers and very kind to me when I was wounded. Farewell, young gentleman, I wish you well for their sakes,” said the aged general, as Mr. Porter moved on.

Within a short time after Mr. Porter had this delightful experience with Gen. Lafayette, he took his trip to the Military Academy at Norwich, Vermont, where the idea of founding a college at Easton first presented itself to his mind.

So strong was this idea in the mind of Mr. Porter that he desired to secure immediately information about college organization and methods. He had not attended college himself. Before leaving Norwich, Mr. Porter secured from Capt. Alden Patridge, principal of the academy, a letter of introduction to the Rev. Bennett Tylers, president of Dartmouth College, and he visited the institution at Hanover, New Hampshire, before returning to Easton.

Easton’s Citizens Meet

Filled with enthusiasm, Mr. Porter returned to the borough at the forks of the Delaware. He consulted with a number of the citizens and distributed a circular letter urging the project. Finally, on the day before Christmas in 1824, the letter appeared in the newspapers of Easton, the famous call of the citizens to attend a meeting Dec. 27 to take steps to establish a college at Easton.

“The citizens of the County of Northampton, friendly to the establishment of a college at Easton, in which, besides military science and tactics, the various other branches of education, including the German language, shall be taught, are requested to meet at the Easton Hotel on Monday evening 27th inst. at half past six o’clock to adopt the necessary measures to procure a charter of incorporation.”

* * *

As a result of Mr. Porter’s presentation of the subject, both in conversation and in his circular letter, the question of the establishment of a college at Easton had been thoroughly discussed prior to the night of the meeting . . . . How many attended the meeting, and just who they were is not known. But through the complete minutes recorded by Jacob Weygandt Jr., who was elected secretary, we know that Col. Thomas McKeen presided, and we know the meeting determined to establish a college at Easton. Furthermore, it resolved, “That as a testimony of respect for the talents, virtues and signal services of General La Fayette in the great cause of freedom, the said institution be named, ‘La Fayette.’”

The records are silent as to whose happy thought it was to name the college “La Fayette.” But the suggestion must have received an enthusiastic response from the citizens, 200 of whom had so recently traveled to Philadelphia to pay homage to the grand old soldier and grasp his hand . . . . It is likely that Mr. Porter, who so recently had been singled out by Gen. Lafayette and shown personal attention, suggested the name at the same time as he suggested the establishment of the college.

The name was spelled “La Fayette” in the official records and in many college documents during the early years. The form “Lafayette” came more and more into general use. Finally, in 1876, Dr. William C. Cattell [president of Lafayette 1863-83] made some investigation of the matter in France and found the latter spelling used by the Marquis in his own signature, in the inscription on his tomb, by his family in publishing Mémoires et Correspondence, and in a number of biographical writings by his countrymen. After this, the old form dropped completely out of use.