Morton’s College Years

J. Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day, spent his college years at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where his record was not entirely unblemished. James C. Olson, Morton’s biographer, noted that his “ardent temperament and lively social habits” sometimes got him into trouble.

On May 5, 1854, just six weeks before he was to receive his degree, Morton was expelled “on account of his general remissness and inattention to all his college duties, and particularly for long continued neglect of recitation, and for his manifest contempt of the authorities of the University.” Morton’s expulsion was part of a larger episode. On May 4 Dr. J. Adams Allen, popular head of the university medical department, had been dismissed by Dr. Henry Tappan, the university president. That evening the citizens of Ann Arbor held a meeting of protest at which Morton was one of the speakers. Exactly what he said at the meeting is unknown, but his subsequent expulsion was thought to have been a result of his remarks.

The sentiment among the faculty was that if Morton would make some concession, he would be restored to the privileges of the university. So Morton signed a statement in which, according to him, he admitted that “if the charges in the resolution of removal were correct, then the removal was just; and that if he had committed faults, he sincerely regretted them.” However, Tappan subsequently released to the press his own version of Morton’s statement which seemed incompatible to Morton with the document he had signed.

Morton wrote a blistering letter to the Detroit Free Press about the situation, and the faculty expelled him again on May 19, observing that the student had failed to attend any classes since his reinstatement. Though he was not allowed to graduate with his class, Morton was granted an honorary Bachelor of Arts degree in 1856 by Union College in Schenectady, New York, President Tappan’s alma mater. It has been suggested that Dr. Tappan might have asked that the degree be granted Morton, because he felt that the University of Michigan had not been completely fair to the young student. This seems probable in view of the action of the University of Michigan in September of 1858 adopting a remission of expulsion and granting Morton a diploma.

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