Filling in the Gaps: Nisbet and Dickinson College’s Early Resource Problem

Anja-Silvia Goeing Blog Post

Blog Post Author: Stephen F. Haller Ph.D.

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Figure 1: Rev. Charles Nisbet (January 21, 1736 - January 18, 1804) moved from Scotland to become the first principal of Dickinson College in July 1785. The young college did not have the financial resources to build a suitable library, so he took it upon himself to build a text for his students.


            As Dickinson College began offering classes in fall 1785, one major concern weighed on the mind of the Rev. Charles Nisbet (January 21, 1736 - January 18, 1804), the new principal: how would the college find appropriate books? Dickinson had been granted its charter in 1783 and its principle founder, the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, had worked to secure funds and resources for the school. Rush wanted to model the institution on Scottish universities, and as such chose a Scot to run it and the title (principal) that Scottish university presidents were given. He was successful in securing some books and money, but getting the necessary resources continued to dog him. As the first principal, Nisbet took it upon himself to develop two methods to help his students. The first was to deliver his lectures slowly so students could copy his words verbatim. The second resource tapped into Nisbet’s expansive intellect, which Nisbet called “Questions and Answers on Moral Philosophy.” The manuscript of nearly 340 pages was quite literally a series of questions and corresponding answers which Nisbet kept in the library for students to sign out and copy on their own. There are three extant copies of the resource, each held at the Dickinson College Archives.  Moral philosophy was not the only field with this style of resource. Nisbet encouraged other professors at Dickinson, particularly the professor of natural philosophy, to adopt this technique (Sellers, Dickinson College, 97). Nisbet used this to inculcate his students with what he observed as the most important ideas on the subject.

             The Dickinson College library did not have many texts Nisbet believed were useful to his students. The development of these tools not only helped to remedy Dickinson’s resource issue, which required substantial funds to ultimately correct, but also illustrate Nisbet’s larger significance. Nisbet’s concern over the style and type of education that his students received can be seen in his resources. When the “Questions and Answers on Moral Philosophy” is looked at as a whole it becomes evident almost immediately that Nisbet’s breadth of knowledge and his ability to recall different scholarly arguments is gargantuan. Nisbet’s questions are often quite short, with responses only occupying a few lines, as his first question illustrated: Nisbet asked, “What is Moral Philosophy?” (Nisbet, “Questions and Answers on Moral Philosophy,” 1). And though the question may seem simply answered, Nisbet provided a thorough response in a few short lines. He replied, “That part of philosophy which has for its object human actions of which it unfolds the principles, and investigates the laws of nature to which they are subject.” The many responses in the text range from brief one or two line objective statements, to multiple page lists of characteristics or discussions of philosophical ideas. Aside from the readability of the “Questions and Answers” its breadth of material was extensive. The resource covered philosophical principles from the ancients to Nisbet’s contemporaries.

            The collection of books that Dickinson College had in its early years were donated from many different sources. The size of Dickinson’s library was comparable to those of other older American colleges in the late eighteenth century, though many of the texts present in the library were not suitable for the use of its students, as many were medical texts and Dickinson had no medical students (Phillips, “Sources of the Original Dickinson College Library,” 113-114). As early as November 1786 Nisbet had written to the Board noting his displeasure with the books for students, and pointed out that of the books in the collection, “none fit for their use are [held] here.” Additionally, Nisbet noted that even if there were useful books to be used, access to them was very limited. By the late 1780s, there had not been the appointment of a librarian for the college, which meant students could only access the library when staffed by professors, and limited students’ ability to freely copy the “Questions and Answers” (Nisbet, “Present State”).


Charles Nisbet’s Different Resources


            When Nisbet entered the lecture hall at the beginning of class, he would open his notebook and begin to read the lecture for the day, inserting anecdotes as examples, which students referred to as his “heresies.” And though Nisbet’s lectures included some editorial comments about society or current events, his “Questions and Answers on Moral Philosophy” remained nearly identical throughout the different years that he provided the course. The copies retained at the Dickinson College Archives illustrate this. When looked at together, the available copies show a continuity in the series and scope of the questions year after year (Thomson and Bloodgood, “A Classical Economist,” 195-196).

            Nisbet was not alone in the tradition of professors developing resources for their students. Other professors, particularly those trained at Scottish universities, began to compose their own texts. Many of these texts emerged out of course lectures, and then were compiled into larger editions. Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid and Adam Smith had all developed their early lectures into books later in their careers (Lindberg, “Charles Nisbet’s,” 26). In many ways this is what Nisbet was doing with his collection of lectures and the development of the “Questions and Answers.” His approach allowed for the development of different curricular pieces, which could have been more fleshed out and turned into a full length text. Nisbet never took the next step that many of his predecessors had taken to turn their curricular tools into publishable books.

            One such curricular tool that was turned into a full length book was Francis Hutcheson’s A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy. Hutcheson compiled this book from his start as the chair of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow beginning in the late 1720s, and finally released as a full length book in 1747. Within a decade of it being written the book was being used throughout the English speaking world as the foundational text for moral philosophy courses. It was first used in North America by Francis Allison, another transplanted Scot, at the College of Philadelphia, at least as early as 1756. It also received wide circulation throughout Scotland, England, Wales and other institutions in America (Heydt, “Hutcheson’s ‘Short Introduction,’” 297-298).       

            Hutcheson’s text does not represent a distinct phase of philosophical thought, but rather the importance of it comes from the fact that the book was meant to show students a broad array of philosophical topics. Nisbet’s lectures and “Questions and Answers on Moral Philosophy” followed a different track. Hutcheson remained impartial in his writings, Nisbet tried to remain impartial but occasionally betrayed his sympathies and let his impression of certain topics be known (Nisbet, “Questions and Answers,” 6). Nisbet revealed his beliefs on topics by discrediting certain theories as he lectured on them. When discussing the different types of governments, Nisbet noted the particular benefits of both democracies and monarchies, but a careful reading of the text shows his preference to democracies (Nisbet, “Questions and Answers,” 20). Even more distinctly, Nisbet’s discussion of the aspects of human nature included a survey of what previous scholars had written about the topic, and instead of simply explaining that different schools of philosophers had given a certain class of traits to humanity, and others had disagreed, Nisbet dismantled these opinions piece by piece. He stated, “Some say men are not disposed to society,” and then turned to show that men are in fact disposed for society, and are inclined to improve it (Nisbet, “Questions and Answers,” 58-59).

            Nisbet’s “Questions and Answers” were never meant to be a textbook which provided a survey of the different trends in philosophical thought, but rather to show students the Scottish principles of moral philosophy, as he understood them. Because Nisbet allowed his students to see his biases, it is easy to use both the “Questions and Answers” and his course lectures on moral philosophy to understand his position on the major topics within eighteenth century moral philosophy.

Q&A 2


Figure 2: The “Questions and Answers on Moral Philosophy” covered the range of topics in Nisbet’s lectures and was a way for students to have a text they could read and study from. Unlike many other professors who developed resources, Nisbet did not conceal his opinion on philosophical schools, but rather expressed which opinions he believed mistaken. Students were asked to copy their own version from a master copy, and memorize the answers.



Charles Nisbet’s “Questions and Answers on Moral Philosophy”


            Nisbet’s students were required to copy down their own version of the “Questions and Answers” outside of class. Nisbet permitted his students to put their responses in their own words during classroom discussion, and he corrected their answers where there was error. This allowed students to grapple with more of the complex philosophical ideas. A study of the questions shows the limited variation in the responses that were permitted (Sellers, Dickinson College, 97). One student noted that Nisbet wanted them to develop their own voice in responding to the “Questions” so they could learn to “think, to form an opinion, and not depend merely upon memory” (Sellers, Dickinson College, 106-107). Although Nisbet allowed for students to verbally respond in their own words, he obviously kept tight reigns on their written responses, as there are great similarities among the different students’ editions.

            The work shows the range of subjects to which he wanted to expose his students. Nisbet’s topics covered the subjects of human nature to economics, and legal obligations in contracts to the role of governments. Nisbet also cited a wide variety of authors from throughout Europe. Along with his discussion and citing of Aristotle, Epicurus and Socrates, Nisbet discussed the views of Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and David Hume, as one would expect when discussing the topic of moral philosophy. He also cited Rousseau, Bacon, Huet, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and Descartes (Thomson and Bloodgood, “Classical Economist,” 200 footnote 13).  Though Nisbet infrequently named the major philosopher that he discussed or criticized, he mentioned their theories and how they fitted into the larger picture of the subject. He often mentioned the “moderns,” by which he meant his contemporaries. The impressive list of people to which Nisbet referred and cited helps illustrate his attempt to compensate for the lack of resources that Dickinson had.

            Although no single topic dominated his lectures, Nisbet conceded that he tried to fit as many different topics into his course as he possibly could.  In a letter to a close friend in 1792, Nisbet listed the topics that he offered to his students, as his occupation was to “read lectures on Logic, Metaphysics, & Moral Philosophy, to which I promise a short account of the Greek & Latin Classics, a course of Lectures on the History of Philosophy.” Nisbet allowed for this brief description of his lectures to his friend as an illustration of what he hoped other institutions would adopt. Earlier in the letter, Nisbet discussed the poor quality of the instruction students received at other colleges throughout the United States. He criticized their pedagogy and the books they read, and offered his rather comprehensive list as a remedy to the problems of American education (Nisbet to Alexander Addison, May 11, 1792, Alexander Addison Papers, The University of Pittsburgh Archives).


Charles Nisbet’s Teaching Style


            Once Nisbet was installed as the principal of Dickinson he began to deliver the moral philosophy courses for those students about to graduate. As Nisbet taught all of the students before their commencement, he called it the “President’s year.” In his lectures, Nisbet criticized American education and one enduring criticism was the lack of “prelection,” or lecturing to students. Nisbet believed the common practice where students merely read lectures then sat for exams was a waste of time, as it allowed for no discussion of the topics throughout this course.  Nisbet noted that all of the colleges throughout the United States followed this poor style of education, as he observed that, “it is not the Custom in any of the American Colleges, to teach by Prelection but merely by Way of Exercise & Examination, tho’ the Lecture was sometimes read” (Nisbet to Alexander Addison, May 11, 1792). He then pointed out that changes had arrived at Princeton with the ascension of John Witherspoon, another transplanted Scot who began reforms at his institution.

            Nisbet’s pedagogical style, in which he slowly read his lectures, allowed him to discuss ethics, logic, moral philosophy and metaphysics. He also noted that in some lectures he would begin with a brief and critical discussion of a classic author. In his third lecture on moral philosophy, Nisbet began the lesson by discussing how novels may teach a person ethics. His first example illustrated the ways Homer’s Odyssey established a set of ethics for the reader. He then turned to the topic of contemporary authors who had done the same (Nisbet, “Lectures on Moral Philosophy,” Lecture 3, December 2, 1788). By the end of the term, students would then have a text on the many topics he had covered throughout their course.

            The “Questions and Answers on Moral Philosophy” were used in a catechistic style of teaching. They acted as a memorization tool so students could remember major topics in moral philosophy, but also permitted Nisbet to allow for further discussion and depth on the material. In his early years at Dickinson, Nisbet encouraged the other professors at Dickinson to teach in this manner. Nisbet used this practice to question his students who then would provide responses, Nisbet liked when students were able to put the responses in their own words, and though he would correct any errors they may have made, he enjoyed when students could make their own judgments (Sellers, Dickinson College, 106-107).




            Charles Nisbet’s arrival in the United States and at Dickinson College greatly discouraged him in his work as a professor. He was consistently disappointed with the style and manner of education that students throughout the young nation received. He took it upon himself to better form the students that passed through his charge, and attempted to fight the Board of Dickinson for more resources. Nisbet was in a difficult position however, as he held no seat on the Board, and he feared there was a constant quest to remove more power from him (Nisbet to Addison, May 11, 1792). Dickinson was a colossal disappointment to Nisbet, especially compared to the universities with which he was most accustomed in Scotland. And though his power was limited, Nisbet certainly attempted to make changes wherever he could, particularly in his classroom. As discussed above, Nisbet tried to teach a wide array of topics within his moral philosophy course, ensuring that his students would receive exposure to the different ideas even if they could not read them because of the lack of books.

            Though this ostensibly was his task, Nisbet was never shy in giving his students a critical opinion about the topics within Moral Philosophy. He frequently recounted the obligations they bore toward their fellow citizens, and almost more importantly to him, he allowed for great criticism of those who fell short of fulfilling such duty. Nisbet’s concern for the work of morality and the ideals of obligation to others is a cornerstone of his concern for the new nation, and fulfilling this became an essential aspect of his lectures. Nisbet divided his lectures with each focusing on a specific characteristic, attribute of duty, or virtuous citizenship. His lectures illustrate the significance he assigned to each topic, and the duty that his students bore to those around them.

            Nisbet’s “Questions and Answers on Moral Philosophy” was written as an instructional guide, different from those that others had written. It had no pretenses of impartiality or straight textbook on the subject of moral philosophy as Hutcheson’s text was to be. He wanted his students to understand their role in the United States, but also for them to bear the knowledge of their duty towards others. Nisbet believed leaders needed to be virtuous and educated. It was his duty to ensure his student were trained to fulfill these roles.





Charles Nisbet Sources


Alexander Addison Papers. University of Pittsburgh, University Library System, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Series III. Charles Nisbet to Alexander Addison, May 11, 1792.  <<, accessed Oct 10, 2018>>. 


Nisbet, Charles. “Questions and Answers on Moral Philosophy,” Dickinson College Archives, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Recorded by John Young, Nisbet 38.


Nisbet, Charles. “Present State of Dickinson’s College, 13th November 1786,” Dickinson College Archives, Reports of the President, RG 1/1 2.1.2.


Nisbet, Charles. “Lectures on Moral Philosophy,” Dickinson College Archives, Recorded by Samuel Mahon, Nisbet 5.


Secondary Sources


Heydt, Colin. “Hutcheson’s ‘Short Introduction’ and the Purposes of Moral Philosophy.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 26, No. 3 (July 2009).


Lindberg, John. “Charles Nisbet’s Use of the Scottish Curriculum at Dickinson College.” John and Mary’s Journal, 11 (Summer 1988).


Phillips, James W. “The Sources of the Original Dickinson College Library,” in Bulwark of  Liberty: Early Years at Dickinson. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, Publishers, 1950.


Sellers, Charles. Dickinson College: A History. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.


Thomson, Herbert F. and Willard G. Bloodgood. “A Classical Economist on the Frontier.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 26, 3 (July 1959).





Figure 1: Rev. Charles Nisbet (January 21, 1736 - January 18, 1804) moved from Scotland to become the first principal of Dickinson College in July 1785. The young college did not have the financial resources to build a suitable library, so he took it upon himself to build a text for his students.


Figure 2: The “Questions and Answers on Moral Philosophy” covered the range of topics in Nisbet’s lectures and was a way for students to have a text they could read and study from. Unlike many other professors who developed resources, Nisbet did not conceal his opinion on philosophical schools, but rather expressed which opinions he believed mistaken. Students were asked to copy their own version from a master copy, and memorize the answers.