A Narrative in the Documents: The Gibbs Affair

Interesting narratives that are interwoven into Columbia University’s history can unravel simply by creating an online inventory for a collection. Recently, a series of letters was discovered within the Columbia College Papers that elucidate past events involving administrative prejudice, academic politics, and the Civil War.

After James Renwick, Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Chemistry, retired from his professorship at Columbia College in 1853, Free Academy professor Oliver Wolcott Gibbs was nominated for the position in 1854. Gibbs, a Unitarian, faced the prejudice against the denomination that several Columbia College Trustees, unlike many New Yorkers at the time, held. Although there were some members of the Board of Trustees that supported Gibbs’ nomination the predominately Episcopalian board, which included six clergymen, chose to reject Gibbs based on his religious affiliation. The decision fueled bitterness amongst trustees and alumni that led to a postponement of centennial celebrations in what became known as the “Gibbs affair.”

One of the letters in this series of correspondence came from a special committee of the
United States Senate that was investigating whether or not Columbia’s Board of Trustees violated anti-discriminatory terms within the charter. The Senate committee asked a broad series of questions regarding the hiring practices of the Board of Trustees, one of which asked if the board has ever rejected a candidate “on account of his peculiar tenets in matters of religion?”.

Senate Questionnaire

The Board of Trustees invoked their Fifth Amendment rights for this question and the committee concluded that although individual board members may have violated charter’s terms, the Board of Trustees as a whole was not guilty.

Gibbs eventually became a distinguished researcher at Harvard following the affair, but the professor chosen instead of Gibbs, Richard Sears McCulloh, forged a very different reputation. On September 25, 1863, McCulloh submitted his letter of resignation to the Board of Trustees, stating “that one, born and reared a Southerner, prefers to cast his lot with that of the South.”

McCulloh Resignation Letter

McCulloh left New York for Richmond, Virginia where he became a consulting chemist for the Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau.

The Board of Trustees initially acknowledged his resignation in correspondence with colleagues, but McCulloh’s decision to join the Confederacy prompted them to expel him from the faculty, as noted in the Board Minutes, rather than officially accepting the resignation. McCulloh went on to develop a lethal chemical gas for the Confederate Army, which was never used in combat. After his subsequent imprisonment he became a Professor of Mechanics and Thermodynamics at Washington College, where Robert E. Lee served as President, until 1878.

This rich story, spanning the course of a decade, was unearthed in a collection that holds countless narratives waiting to be told. An inventory of the Columbia College Papers will be made available online in the near future.

-Ian Post, Pratt SILS Intern