A Brief History of Clemson University
by Andrew C. Land
That Clemson University is today the institution of higher learning that we know and love, and that it has experienced great growth in size and scope over the 118 years of its existence is due to the vision of its founder, Thomas Green Clemson. Following his education at the Royal School of Mines in Paris, Mr. Clemson, a Philadelphian by birth, settled in Washington, DC, in the 1830s. While in Washington during these years, he met Anna Maria Calhoun, the daughter of South Carolina statesman John Caldwell Calhoun. The two were married in 1838 at Calhoun’s home, the Fort Hill mansion, which still graces the center of Clemson’s campus.
Moving south, Mr. Clemson came to observe the plight of farmers in the region. These observations were met by sympathetic feelings in Mr. Clemson, who previously had worked with Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont and others to craft the policy that is manifest in what is today known as the Land Grant (or Morrill) Act of 1862. Mr. Clemson, a scientist and agriculturalist, was also known for his work with President James Buchanan to establish what is today the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A longtime proponent of agricultural education, Mr. Clemson debated throughout the 1870s his possible contributions to the region. Following Mrs. Clemson’s death in 1875, Mr. Clemson determined to offer the tract of land known as Fort Hill and the bulk of his estate to the State of South Carolina upon his death, provided that they support the establishment of a college on the property to focus on the teaching of agriculture. A will was composed to reflect these wishes, and in it was a provision for the school’s governing body. The school’s Board of Trustees had seven life members, who formed a self-perpetuating group, and up to six members appointed by the General Assembly of South Carolina. Thus, the Board became a public body corporate, and this structure survives today.
Mr. Clemson died on April 6, 1888. Following a trying battle in the legislature, the act accepting the provisions of his will was signed by Governor John P. Richardson on November 27, 1889. The Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina was thus created, and it was designated as a South Carolina Land Grant institution a short time later.
The first class, composed of 446 cadets (Clemson was until 1955 a military school), entered in June 1893 and graduated in 1896. They were taught by fifteen faculty members, and their curriculum, which focused on mechanical arts, agriculture, and military tactics, was rigorous. Enrollment grew steadily in the subsequent years, and eventually reached levels near those of today in the 1970s.
The University has awarded more than 50,000 degrees, has had fourteen presidents, and has committed itself to the tripartite mission of teaching, research, and public service in its 118 years. In those years, Clemson has also seen two world wars, a change from military to civilian orientation, the admission of women, and peaceful integration. Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina ceased to exist as of 1964; that year, the name was changed to Clemson University. This change was sought and made to reflect the broadening scope of the institution, which in addition to its scholarly achievements has had a colorful athletic history, winning numerous national championships in various sports.
The campus has grown, the student body has changed, but the sense of time, place, and spirit that was and is Clemson has remained. “Tradition and vision—they add up to Clemson,” said President Emeritus Robert Cook Edwards (1958 – 1979) at the University’s Centennial Celebration in 1989. That this statement still rings true is a monument to Mr. Clemson and all who have helped to further his dream through the years.