Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Caswell, Alexis

Alexis Caswell (1799-1877), sixth president of Brown University, was born in Taunton, Massachusetts, on January 29, 1799, with his twin brother Alvaris. He was descended from Thomas Caswell, one of the first settlers of Taunton, but, according to later family members, he was not, as has been frequently recorded, descended from Peregrine White, who was born on the Mayflower. He studied at Taunton Academy and graduated first in the class of 1822 at Brown. He then became a tutor at Columbian College (now George Washington University) in Washington and studied theology with its president, William Staughton. In 1827 he was ordained and installed as minister of a Baptist church in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Called to Providence to aid the ailing Stephen Gano at the First Baptist Church, he arrived just before Gano’s death and served temporarily as its minister. At this time Alva Woods resigned his professorship at Brown and Caswell took his place. He was professor of mathematics and natural philosophy from 1828 to 1850, professor of mathematics and astronomy from 1850 to 1855, and professor of natural philosophy and astronomy from 1855 to 1863. When required he also taught ethics and constitutional law. He was involved in the creation of the museum of natural history and the raising of the library fund of $25,000 in 1831. He served as president pro tempore of the University in 1840-41 while President Francis Wayland traveled in Europe, and was appointed regent of the University to assist the president from 1852 to 1855. When Wayland resigned in 1855, some expected that Caswell, then the senior member of the faculty, would succeed him, but it was decided that a new president from outside the University would be an advantage, and Barnas Sears was chosen. Caswell continued his teaching, spending the year 1860-61 visiting observatories and attending meetings of scientific societies. In 1863 he retired and became president of the National Exchange Bank and the American Screw Company in Providence.

In 1868, after both Martin B. Anderson and Ezekiel Gilman Robinson had declined the offer of the presidency of Brown University, Caswell was persuaded to accept the office. He was at that time 69 years old and a vigorous presidency was not expected. There was, however, progress during his four years in office. The funds of the College increased from $327,000 to $602,000. Tuition was raised, as were faculty salaries. The enrollment increased from 186 in 1868 to 224 in 1872. Caswell revived the alumni association by inviting the alumni to meet with him on the day before Commencement in 1868. After that, annual meetings were held and led to a permanent association in 1872. Caswell’s administration also saw an increase in intercollegiate competition in baseball and boating. He was not required to teach, and George Ide Chace continued to teach moral and intellectual philosophy, which traditionally were the subjects taught by the president. In September 1868 an Advisory and Executive Committee was created and empowered “to give to the President the assistance of their counsel when it is desired by him ... to act on occasions of emergency ... to see that the Laws of the Corporation are carried into effect by the officers, and observed by the students.” Caswell resigned in 1872 at the age of 73, having, in the words of Professor John Larkin Lincoln, “administered the Presidential office in a spirit of manly independence, and stood firmly, at whatever cost of personal convenience and personal interest, to the responsibilities which devolved upon him.”

Beginning in 1831 Caswell made regular meteorological observations for Providence, and his “Meteorological Register; Providence, R.I.” from 1831 to 1860 was published in volume 12 of Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge. He continued his observations until 1876. His obituary notice in the “Brown University Necrology” noted, “He had no taste for the preparation of text-books. The few productions of his pen which have been printed have appeared for the most part in scientific or literary magazines, or in the annual reports of learned societies.” In 1858 he delivered a course of lectures at the Smithsonian Institution. He was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1858. When the National Academy of Science was created in 1863, Caswell was one the fifty members chosen. He was vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1855, and at the meeting in 1858 presided in the absence of the president and vice-president. From 1875 until his death he was president of Rhode Island Hospital. He died in Providence on January 8, 1877.