Amherst College was founded in 1821 as an outgrowth of Amherst Academy, which had been established in 1814. The founders of the college were residents of Amherst and nearby towns. More than 1,300 of them contributed money, materials, and labor to the enterprise, and the college was named for the town (which itself was named in honor of Jeffery Amherst, Commander of British forces in the French and Indian War). The first president of the Board of Trustees was Noah Webster, the lexicographer. The first president of the college was Zephaniah Swift Moore, who came from the presidency of Williams and brought fifteen Williams undergraduates with him to comprise about one-third of the original student body of forty-seven. Although the college was founded primarily to prepare young men for the Congregational ministry, from the start it has been an independent, non-sectarian institution; its charter, granted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1825, bans tests of religion in choosing students and teachers.
Today a distinguished liberal arts college of approximately 1,800 undergraduates, Amherst has been educating both women and men since the introduction of full coeducation in 1976.
The college has enjoyed a long and close association with the town and its residents, particularly with such poets and other writers as Emily Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson, David Grayson (Ray Stannard Baker) and Robert Frost. Its relation to the surrounding communities continues to be of great importance to the college, symbolized by the cooperative sponsorship of Hampshire College and by participation in Five Colleges, Inc.
Amherst has been well served by historians. The third president of the college, Edward Hitchcock, wrote Reminiscences of Amherst College (Northampton, 1863). The work combines personal anecdote, geological speculation, and political reflection. The first full-scale history of the College is William S. Tyler's A History of Amherst College During the Administration of its First Five Presidents (New York, 1895). Tyler's book is now itself a historic document that gives at firsthand flavor of the college during the final quarter of the nineteenth century. The most sustained general history of the college is Claude Moore Fuess's Amherst: The Story of a New England College (Boston, 1935). The eleventh president of the college, Stanley King, wrote of two aspects of Amherst in a way that gives them general interest and significance: A History of the Endowment of Amherst College (Amherst, 1950); The Consecrated Eminence: The Story of the Campus and Buildings of Amherst College (Amherst, 1951).
In 1972, as part of its sesquicentennial observance, the college published two volumes: The Development of the Art Collection of Amherst College, by Professor Charles H. Morgan, and Poetry Amherst, an anthology of verse written by students and alumni over one hundred and fifty years, edited by Richard Aldridge.
While there are many special studies that analyze the ideals and the broils in Amherst's past, three might be of particular interest to new members of the faculty. William Gardiner Hammond's Remembrance of Amherst, An Undergraduate's Diary 1846-1912 (New York, 1946), edited by George Whicher, offers delightful insight into the character of undergraduate life in the mid-nineteenth century. Thomas Le Duc's Piety and Intellect at Amherst College 1865-1912 (New York, 1946) is a study of the controversies that waxed and waned at Amherst between the Civil War and the First World War. A book that is an outgrowth of a senior honors essay surveys a wider canvas and introduces the comparative approach. George E. Peterson's The New England College in the Age of the University (Amherst, 1964) deals with Wesleyan, Dartmouth, Williams, Union, and Bowdoin, as well as Amherst, arguing that the crises within the New England colleges during the last two decades of the nineteenth century mirrored a general collapse of the traditional conservatism of higher education.
Those interested in the innovative curricula initiated at Amherst in 1947 and 1978 will find an excellent treatment in Education at Amherst: The New Program (New York, 1955), edited by Gail Kennedy, and Education at Amherst Reconsidered: The Liberal Studies Program (Amherst, 1978), edited by Hugh Hawkins, Professor of History and American Studies Emeritus. Essays by members of Amherst's faculty, commissioned and edited by President Peter R. Pouncey, were published in 1991 in a volume titled Teaching What We Do.
Black Men of Amherst (Amherst. 1976), by Harold Wade, traces the experience and contributions of Amherst's African-American students from the earliest graduate in 1826 to the mid-1970s.
Two histories of the town are The History of the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts (Amherst, 1896), by Edward W. Carpenter, and Essays on Amherst's History (Amherst, 1978), edited by Theodore P. Greene, Professor of History Emeritus.
Black Women of Amherst College (Amherst, 1999), by Mavis C. Campbell, Professor of History Emerita, and Race and Class Matters at an Elite College (Temple University Press, 2008), by Elizabeth J. Aries, Clarence Francis 1910 Professor in Social Sciences (Pyschology) are two more recent books by members of Amherst's faculty that also shed light on the college's history.
These books, and others, reveal what reflection confirms, that in the seemingly tranquil life of a New England town many live out their lives with unusual intensity.
To learn more about the history of Amherst College, please visit A History of Amherst College.