U of M Founding DateU_OF_M_FOUNDING_DATE.html


The National Alumni Committee on University History and Tradition Presents its Ideas

The seal now in use by the University bears the inscription, "University of Michigan,  1837." There is nothing on record to indicate what this date means, where it came from,  or when it was adopted, if ever. The Alumni Committee on History and Tradition, after three years of intensive study, determined that the universal custom of universities is to signify their foundation dates by their corporate seals, and determined further that the erroneous common understanding is that Michigan was founded in 1837. In investigating the history and traditions of Michigan,  the committee discovered the University was founded August 26, 1817. As a result, the committee asked the Board of Regents "to require the use of the correct date, August 26, 1817, in all seals, diplomas, catalogues and other literature issued by the University or its authority hereafter."

Regent Lucius L. Hubbard handled the matter for the Board of Regents. Instead of granting the request of the committee, Regent Hubbard at once decided that the "point at issue" was the "significance of the date 1837." Starting off with that false premise, it is not strange he should have arrived at a conclusion widely at variance with the request of the committee. With the "significance of the date 1837'' we have nothing to do.

As the committee looks at it, there are only two questions before the house—i.e., (1) when was Michigan founded and (2) should Michigan's foundation date be upon its seal.

Regent Hubbard saves the committee the necessity of entering into a long legal and historical discussion by admitting two things—i.e., (1) he admits the University was founded August 26,  he admits the common understanding and interpretation of its 1837 seal is that the University was founded in 1837. He seeks to get around these two admitted facts by saying the Board of Regents has the right to declare, signify and confirm the interpretation of the 1837 upon the University seal as meaning the organization date of the University rather than its foundation date, and by further saying there is no obligation upon the Board of Regents to interpret 1837 upon the University's seal other than the University's organization date, however it may have been otherwise construed!

This belated admission of the fundamental fact that Michigan was founded August 26, 1817, is enough to warrant putting 1817 upon the seal, and this admission saves us covering the ground so thoroughly and precisely adjudicated by the several court decisions.  Indeed, the Supreme Court said:

"The present University is the same legal body with the University founded in 1817."

What more could any reasonable man want than that determination in his search for the correct date to put upon the University's seal There can only be one correct date upon the University's seal,  and that date is 1817, the date of its foundation. The legal reason for this is that the seal of the corporation is its signature, and the lay reason is that by universal custom and common use colleges and universities uniformly signify their foundation dates by their corporate seals. So universal is this custom and common understanding that the seal of the University of Michigan is the lone one, solitary exception to the rule!

We ask the readers of this article to test themselves. Before this discussion arose what would you have answered to the question, "The Michigan seal bears the date 1837; when was Michigan founded" You would have fallen into the common error and would have answered, "Michigan was founded in 1837." In this answer you would have been wrong and you would not have been at fault. Your University has led you into this error—it is like the "trick" questions that some academic minds so delight in! We are willing to admit that among people belonging to the same social group, such as professors, doctors, lawyers, or what not, certain conceptions tend to acquire the quality of instinctive truth, because of the accumulated suggestions to which they have been exposed. It is so with 1837.

Ever since 1837 appeared in 1896 upon the seal of our University we have all been exposed to the accumulated suggestions created by constantly seeing the 1837 seal and the effect has been to make us feel there must be instinctive truth in the implication that Michigan was founded in 1837—and this squarely in the face of the now admitted fact that Michigan was founded in 1817! We are also quite aware of elaborately rationalized explanations which are ingeniously devised for the justification of many false statements, but we are aware of no such glaring example of so elaborately rationalized explanations as appear in all the arguments of the 1837 advocates!

If the University of Michigan means anything to us it should mean that we are all seeking the truth. We should not be split up into "advocates for 1817" and "advocates for 1837," but we should all bend our minds to one object, the seeking of the truth; and after the truth has been ascertained, exert our efforts in putting the true foundation date of the University upon its seal. This committee went into this investigation infected with the virus of the accumulated suggestions created by constantly seeing this 1837 seal. We, in common with all others, thought the University was founded in 1837. We were astonished to find the University was founded in 1817 and has had a continuous existence ever since!  We were astonished to find this had been adjudicated by the courts! We have tried to have the foundation date 1817 put upon the University seal. We have been more than astonished at the desperate efforts made to retain 1837 in spite of its admitted false impression!

"ARTES," "SCIENTIA," "VERITAS," "University of Michigan 1837," proclaims the Seal of the University of Michigan, and every impression made by this Seal bears upon its face a lack of knowledge instead of Scientia," and an untruth instead of "Veritas!" The University has had several seals. Its first seal, commonly called the "Epistemia" seal, was adopted September 12, 1817; its second seal, commonly called the "Minerva" seal, was adopted April 5, 1843. This "Minerva" seal was used from 1843 to 1896. It is a fact that there is not a scratch of a pen showing the adoption of 1837 upon the seal of the University,  it just "grew up" and made its appearance in 1896 "out of the air!" For the first seventy-eight years of its history the University's seal was without the date 1837—the date 1837 is a relatively modern invention. All that the Board of Regents proceedings show upon this subject is that on October 16, 1895, "On motion of Regent Dean, the new seal of the University was adopted by a full vote."  What the new seal was is not shown, which lack of description is in strange contrast with the very full description of the "Epistemia" seal adopted September 12, 1817, and the "Minerva" seal adopted April 5, 1843! If 1837 ever was authorized upon the seal no record of the University shows it!

No place in the records is 1837 backed by argument, by evidence, by history, or by official action. Even the letter of President Emeritus H. B. Hutchins destroys itself as an authority for 1837, as he says the question regarding the correctness of the year was never raised in any University body. As the question was never raised in any University body, there could have been no consideration, and hence no decision of the question! The only instance where 1817-1837 was discussed by the Regents was back in the '50's when the enemies of the University argued that the University had no existence prior to 1837 and therefore could not have title to the land deeded to it by the Federal Government and the Territory of Michigan to its ancestor of 1817. We know what the Board of Regents in the 1850's did in regard to that contention—they rushed into court and claimed the University was founded in 1817 and by such claim substantiated by the courts managed to retain the University lands! If someone today should start suit to take away the University’s permanent endowment funds, or rather the seven per cent yearly interest thereon, built out of the sale of those lands by which the 1817 institution was endowed, would the present Board of Regents be willing to concede that the University was not in being prior to 1837 Would they in such case, still cling to 1837, or would they excuse their failure to stand up vigorously for 1817 upon the ground that they hadn't looked up the question, had only given the question cursory attention, or that the necessity for dating the University from 1817 was one where lawyers have perhaps magnified its importance!

The advocates of 1837 are not upon sound ground in any respect. They admit that the University was founded in 1817. They admit the common understanding of 1837 upon the seal is the erroneous implication that the University was founded in 1837. Yet they say—"We are not bound by the common understanding, we construe 1837 to mean the date of the organization of the University in Ann Arbor as distinguished from its birth in Detroit! Fortunately we have the first report of the faculty in Ann Arbor, made December 18, 1841, which states:

Pursuant to instruction from the committee of the Board of Regents, we preceded on the 25th of September 1841, to organize the academic classes of the University. A preparatory department was also organized at the same time. 

So if the Seal of the University is to bear the date of organization of the University in Ann Arbor it should hear the date 1841! Thus again 1837 tumbles into the ashes of error! The date 1837 is neither the foundation date nor any organization date. The foundation date is 1817; the organization date in Detroit is 1817; the organization date in Ann Arbor is 1841. The fallacy of the Hubbard resolution taking the third incorporation date and calling it the organization date is apparent!

Of this University of Michigan of 1817 in Detroit we quote the following from—Harvard Bulletins in Education, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, Number VIII. January 1923. "University of Michigan: Its Origin and Development," by Richard Rees Price. A. M. published by Harvard University.

Page 21 — "It should be clearly understood that the Catholepistemiad of 1817 really functioned and that it fulfilled all of the educational requirements of its day."

What higher compliment could any University pay another today than to say it fulfills all of the educational requirements of its day! Yet that is what Harvard says of the University of Michigan of 1817, and we at Michigan still cling to 1837!

The advocates of 1837 have curiously advanced another erroneous claim. They say, in substance, that on the basis of the claimed 1837 establishment Michigan has been able to claim that it was the first state university which was established and functioned as a state university from the very first, thereby becoming a pattern for all the state universities throughout the Middle West and West. The facts are, and they are correctly so stated in the Harvard publication above referred to, that the University of Michigan from its foundation in 1817 down to 1867 was supported entirely from its Federal Land Grant endowment and the fees derived from students. In 1867 the Legislature made its first appropriation for the University. "Obviously then, until 1867, the institution was not in any sense a state university—it was still a United States Land Grant University."

It is true that the Michigan idea of education,  beginning with the University and stretching down through all the lower grades to the primary school, was the pattern for all the other state universities through out the West, but this idea dates from the University of Michigan of 1817, and it in turn was borrowed from the German and French systems of education in force in 1817. The Catholepistemiad or University of Michigan of 1817 describes accurately a typical German institution of the day in the quaintly pseudo-classic nomenclature which Jefferson very narrowly failed to saddle upon the entire Old Northwest, and which still remains in such names as Rome, Ithaca, Athens,  Sparta, Constantine, etc. No, our idea of a state system of public instruction did not spring into being in 1837, it was embodied in the foundation statute of 1817, and instead of "springing into being" it was borrowed from Germany and France, whereas all the other American institutions of learning up to that time were copied after the English Universities.

History of Higher Education in Michigan, by Andrew C. McLaughlin.

"It may be well to state clearly here the fact that the University of Michigan has had a continuous corporate existence since 1817. So the Supreme Court decided in 1856 in an action of ejectment brought by the regents, the validity of whose claim depended upon their identity with the Board of Trustees. And above all, it is worth while again to state that the system of education which has done so much for Michigan has been in existence ever since it took form in the statute of 1817."

Address by James B. Angell, President of the University of Michigan, University of Michigan, Semi-Centennial, 1887,  pp. 158-159:

"But what we want to keep distinctly in mind today, and to state with clearness and emphasis is that in both the Act of 1817 and in that of 1821, these two early charters of the University, what we may call the Michigan system of education, beginning with the University and stretching down through all the lower grades to the primary school, was distinctly set forth. While we are celebrating today the semi-centennial of the present form of the organization of the University, let us not forget that, without impropriety, a semi-centennial celebration might have been held twenty years ago (1867); that a just conception of the functions of a university was at least seventy years ago made familiar to the citizens of Michigan; that what may be termed the Michigan idea of a university was never entirely forgotten from that day until now; and, therefore, that the memory of the fathers who framed the charter and nourished the feeble life of those earlier universities should be cherished by us today and by our descendants forever."

The above quotation from President Angell is quite significant in that he speaks of the semi-centennial of 1887 as being of the "present form of the organization of the University!"  His address would seem to be a direct command from our dearly beloved President Angell to remember our charter of 1817, the fathers who framed it, and the Michigan idea of a university which was never forgotten from 1817 down through President Angell's time, but which will soon be forgotten if this 1837 heresy is allowed to continue upon the University Seal!

The advocates of 1837 would blot out the first twenty years of the history of the University. Why  We do not know. We can not even venture a guess.  Is it because Father Richard, a Catholic, and John Monteith, a Protestant,  shared the professorships of that 1817 University of Michigan so wonderfully well    The historians of the University and the courts are unanimous in accepting 1817. Surely it is not the fact that there was a clerical element represented by Monteith and Richard in the 1817 University which would make us want to forget it! Are the advocates of 1837 unconsciously carrying down these year the bitterness which was caused when the Legislature abolished the Board of Trustees and put in their place the Board of Regents in 1837 Or do the advocates of 1837 fear that adopting 1817 upon the seal of the University may possibly interfere with the "Ten-Year Program" and the big "pow-wow" planned for 1937 The adoption of 1817 will not interfere with the "Ten-Year" plan, neither will it interfere with any "pow-wow" in 1937 — we can adopt 1817, issue a statement that the Centennial accidentally slipped by in 1917, then go on with our "Ten-Year" plan, hold a good and hold our Sesqui-Centennial in 1967!

The Michigan Alumnus

March 23, 1929, page 463-466

(The Board of Directors of the Alumni Association voted to give the Alumni Committee on University History and Tradition space in The Alumnus to present its official views. The Committee delegated to Mr. Schurtz the duty of writing the article.)

William L. Jenks, ’78, A.M (hon) ’15

Chairman of the National Alumni Committee on University History and Tradition

Shelby B. Schurtz, ’08. ’10l

Spokesman for the Committee,

Who Would Change the Date on Michigan’s Official Seal