A.M. Degree before the Civil War?

Peter Knupfer's picture

How did one earn an A.M. degree in the United States before the Civil War?  I am researching Marcius Willson (1813-1905), a textbook author who claimed to have an A.M. degree and was called "Professor," but I can only find evidence that he received an A.B. from Union College, Schenectady, NY, in 1836.  He went on to a few other teaching posts at prep schools and academies, but the most advanced post was at Poughkeepsie Collegiate School, where he was listed as a faculty member with an A.B. degree.  While there he published a political science textbook, and for his next teaching post in 1844 he is listed has having the A.M.; that first text might have served as a thesis, but nowhere does it say so.  By 1860 he was a contract writer for Harpers and fully embarked on his career as author.  So I thought I'd ask the network about this degree -- did it usually require a thesis? could it be earned without residency or registration on a campus?

Thank you,

Peter Knupfer, Michigan State University

Few colleges, if any, had actual curricula leading to the master of arts degree before the Civil War. Instead, some colleges conferred the degree automatically on their bachelor's alumni. Harvard did this. The University of Georgia gave a master's to any alumnus who showed up at commencement three years after he'd graduated, paid a small fee, and proved that he hadn't served prison time. I don't know about Union specifically, but it may well have had a similar policy. I suggest you check its catalog; that may either say explicitly how Union awarded master's degrees or at least list recipients—note if they're all alumni from x years earlier.

Michael Cohen, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Author, Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War

Possibly a long shot, but I believe that before the US Civil War, several institutions in the Northeast would admit graduates of other colleges and universities ad eundem gradum (at the same degree). If an AM from Harvard, for example, moved to Connecticut, he could apply, pay a fee, and be admitted as an AM at Yale. He could then participate in the collegiate life of an alumnus without having to travel back to Cambridge. It seems to have been a relatively common practice in the US throughout the late-18th and early-19th centuries. The practice was largely abandoned in the late-19th century, partly because of abuses by people taking advantage of the lack of communication. Yale stopped granting degrees ad eundem gradum in 1874. Is it possible that Willson may have convinced someone to grant an ad eundem degree on false pretenses?

It was fairly typical for antebellum colleges to award an M.A. or A.M. based on the graduate's experience (often several years in the ministry) or upon his good character. I seem to recall that this practice was common during Eliphalet Nott's long tenure as president of Union College (1804-1866). Eventually, the practice became somewhat controversial and in the post-Civil War era it was mostly abandoned in favor of earned graduate degrees. Admittedly, it has been a while since I have researched this topic, so unfortunately I cannot recommend a source citation, but there may be a biography of Eliphalet Nott (or an institutional history of Union College) that addresses this issue.

Brian Ingrassia, West Texas A&M University

Many thanks to the H-Education subscribers who offered very useful clues both on- and off- the network, all of which appear to apply to the Union College situation.  For those interested in this particular case, Union College's laws of 1815 did provide:

Chap. XI. Of Commencement and Degrees.

Sec. 12. Persons who have received a degree in any other college or university, may upon proper application, be admitted ad eundem, upon payment of the customary fees to the President.
Sec. 13.  Every bachelor, in the third year after his first degree, if he shall have sustained a fair character, and shall perform such exercises as may be assigned him for commencement, and shall have paid the same perquisites for the first degree, shall on information of this being given to the board of trustees, be entitled to the degree of master of arts"

I'm not sure what "paid the same perquisites for the first degree" means.  None of the alumni listings I have found from his graduation in 1836 through 1845, when he indicated the A.M. in publications and professional posts, includes Willson's name beyond the A.B. degree.  There are still a few sources I can check, though.

Again, thank you H-Education for coming through on this one!