James Manning (1738-1791), first president of Brown University, was born October 22, 1738 in Piscataway, New Jersey, the son of James and Grace (Fitz-Randolph) Manning. He studied at the Latin Grammar School conducted by Isaac Eaton in Hopewell, New Jersey, and graduated second in a class of 21 from the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) in 1762. He was licensed to preach by the Scotch Plains Baptist Church, February 6, 1763, and ordained April 19, 1763. He married Margaret Stites on March 23, 1763. That same year he was sent by the Philadelphia Association of Baptist Churches to Rhode Island for the purpose of establishing a college to be principally under the direction of the Baptists. The college was chartered March 3, 1764. In April 1764 Manning opened a Latin school in Warren, Rhode Island, and became the first pastor of the Warren Baptist Church founded in November 1764. In September 1765 he was elected the first president of Rhode Island College. Manning was the only professor until 1767, when the increase in students presented a need for an additional instructor. David Howell, a graduate of the College of New Jersey was engaged as a tutor and was appointed professor of natural philosophy in 1769. In September 1769 the first Commencement was held. Seven students received the degree of Bachelor of Arts and 21 honorary degrees were awarded. On the evening of Commencement the Corporation appointed a committee to select and buy a site for the College and to solicit subscriptions. A lively competition arose, as the inhabitants of East Greenwich, Newport and Providence vied for the location of the college in their towns. When the final decision rested between Newport and Providence, depending on which raised the higher subscription of funds, Manning himself favored Providence and entered into the contest by writing an “anonymous” letter to Nicholas Brown, in which he outlined a strategy by which the fact that the Browns could build the edifice themselves at less cost in Providence could be taken into account in calculating the amount of the subscriptions. The College Edifice was built in Providence in 1770, and Manning moved to Providence and lived in Benjamin Bowen’s house while the president’s house was being built. The Revolutionary War soon interrupted the life of the College, when the Edifice was taken over from December 7, 1776 to May 27, 1782, and used as barracks and as a hospital by American and French troops, and left in dilapidated condition. The war left Rhode Island short of food, as a large part of the state was in the hands of the enemy and provisions could not by law be brought from another state. Manning was commissioned to visit Connecticut and confer with the government on this matter, after which the restrictions were removed and contributions of money and provisions were sent to Rhode Island. On April 29, 1779 he left Providence with Mrs. Manning, and traveled to Philadelphia, visiting relatives in New York and New Jersey, preaching in churches along the way, and returning to Providence on September 29, at which time he wrote in his journal, “Reached Providence at six o’clock, the road better than usual; being just five months to an hour absent from home.”
When the war was over, the College reopened, poor, with few students and a damaged building. David Howell had resigned as professor in 1779, leaving the College with no faculty other than the president. A subscription was begun to raise funds for the repair of the Edifice. Asher Robbins, a graduate of Yale, was appointed as tutor. In 1783 John Brown offered to pay half the price of a “compleat Philosophical Apparatus & Library,” and the other half was quickly raised. In 1784 two professors were appointed, Joseph Brown as professor of experimental philosophy, and Benjamin Waterhouse as professor of natural history, both of whom “engaged to give Lectures in their respective Branches, without any Expence to the College while destitute of an Endowment.” A Commencement was held in 1783 for six graduates, who had been students before the war or had studied privately with Manning, but it was not until 1786 that more students were ready for graduation. The number of students increased steadily from twenty in 1784 to fifty in 1786.
In 1786 Manning was appointed by a unanimous resolution of the General Assembly to represent Rhode Island in the Congress of the Confederation. At first he tried to decline but, on the advice of Corporation members who were men of high political standing, he left the College under the care of Perez Fobes as vice-president, and took his seat. He explained his reasons for accepting the appointment in a letter to Reverend John Rippon in England on April 7, 1786, “Pray, don’t be alarmed should you hear that I am in Congress. The motive of my accepting this most unexpected, unsolicited, but unanimous appointment of the State to that office, was the recovery of a considerable sum due to the College, for the use taken of the Edifice, and the damage done to it by the public during the late war.” The years after the war were difficult for Manning, and he thought seriously of leaving Providence. On November 12, 1785 he wrote to Reverend Samuel Jones, who was establishing a school in Kentucky:
“I really wish, should my Life be spared, that my connections here would any how admit of my going out with you in the Spring. I feel my Spirit moved to it, but as yet see no way open, but by disengaging myself at once from Providence at all events; & I see not how I can consistently do this, at least, before the next Commencement: My feelings have long since prognosticated that I shall not spend all the remnant of my days in Providence, unless they are few indeed.”He had not been paid his salary as delegate to the Congress and could not obtain payment in good money. He wrote to Hezekiah Smith about the sad state of his affairs on January 18, 1787:
“At the last session I petitioned them to pay my advances, and the remainder of my salary as delegate, amounting to upwards of four hundred dollars. This they offered to do in their paper, but in no other way. ... A more infamous set of men under the character of a legislature, never, I believe, disgraced the annals of the world. And there is no prospect of a change for the better. Of all the arrearages of tuition for the last year, and the quarter advanced in this, I have not received ten pounds. I was taken sick the day after the second great snow, with no provisions in the cellar except one hundred-weight of cheese, two barrels of cider, and some potatoes; with not a load of wood at my door; nor could I command a single dollar to supply these wants. The kindness of my neighbors, however, kept me from suffering. But when a man has hardly earned money, to be reduced to this abject state of dependence requires the exercise of more grace than I can boast of. ... I have serious thought of removing to the farm at the Jerseys, and undertake digging for my support. Should things wear the same unfavorable aspect next year, I believe I shall make the experiment, if my life is spared.”Added to his financial distress was unpleasantness at the College. He had expelled two students, one of whom had connections with powerful local families, who, advised and assisted by David Howell, had appealed to the Corporation. On July 23, 1787, he wrote to Samuel Jones,
“The College Horizen, to me, is cloudy at Providence, but what will be the final result God only knows. I expect some trying scenes between this & Commencement. ... John Brown ... has conferred with me several times on the subject, & I have told him plainly that if I must be subject to the pointed censure of David Howel, whether I execute, or dispense with the Laws (which has been of late the case); & if he must lay hold of every opportunity to injure the Authority of College, & be supported in it by the influential men in the Corporation, they may take the Presidential Chair that choses, for I will not hold it. ... It is the opinion of many that he wishes to displace me from the College. This I believe is the truth; but it not so agreeable to be pushed out.”Manning did, in fact, spend the rest of his days as president of the College. On July 24, 1791 he was seized by a fit of apoplexy while at prayers in his home and died on July 29, 1791. His funeral on the following day was reported by the Providence Gazette to have been “the most numerous and respectable even attended in town.” He was laid to rest in the North Burying Ground, next to Nicholas Brown, who had died a few months earlier.
A footnote in Reuben Guild’s Early History of Brown University, including the Life, Times, and Correspondence of President Manning, published in 1897, contains this interesting commentary on Manning’s appearance:
“In his youth, says Judge Howell, who knew him well, he was remarkable for his dexterity in athletic exercises, for the symmetry of his body, and gracefulness of his person. Had he lived in our day he could easily have been captain of a base-ball nine or of a foot-ball club. In his maturer years he weighed upwards of three hundred pounds. Concerning his bulk the Hon. Wm. Hunter, one of his pupils, thus writes: – ‘His motions and gestures were so easy and graceful, that ordinary observers thought not of his immense volume of flesh, and those who critised, admired the manner in which it spontaneously wielded.’”Professor Goddard attested to Manning’s physical prowess, “He sometimes made his own stone wall; and in the use of a scythe, he acknowledged no superior among the best trained laborers in the meadow.” For his wall building services, the Corporation records note that on September 3, 1777, “President Manning laid before the Corporation an Accompt for making thirty two Rods of Stone wall on the College Land.” Manning’s own description of his life as president of the college and pastor of the First Baptist Church was reported thus by Benjamin Waterhouse:
“I shall never forget what Dr. Manning, in great good humor, told men were among his trying ‘experiences.’ He told me that ... he performed all the duties of President of the College; heard two classes recite every day; listened to complaints, foreign and domestic, from undergraduates and their parents of both sexes, and answered them, now and then, by letter; waited, generally, on all transient visiters into college, &c. &c. Nor was this all. ‘I made,’ said Dr. Manning, ‘my own garden and took care of it repaired my dilapidated walls; went nearly every day to market; preached twice a week, and sometimes oftener; attended, by solicitation, the funeral of every baby that died in Providence, visited the sick of my own Society, and, not unfrequently, the sick of other Societies; made numerous parochial visits, the poorest people exacting the longest, and, in case of any seeming neglect, finding fault the most.‘”He also at times took boarders, among them two sons of Robert Carter of Nomony Hall in Virginia, who wrote to Manning in February 1786 of George and John Tasker Carter, “they to be Sent from Boston immediately upon their Arrival there to your College in Providence. I beg leave to appoint you their Foster Father intimating that my desire is that both my Said Sons shd. be active Characters in Life ... The prevailing Notion now is, to Continue the most abject State of Slavery in this Common-Wealth – On this Consideration only, I do not intend that these my two Sons shall return to this State till each of them arrive to the Age of 21 years.”
There were 165 graduates of the College during Manning’s administration. Of these, 43 were clergymen, 29 lawyers, 19 physicians, 19 teachers, 12 judges, 12 business men, 6 professors, 6 congressmen, 2 college presidents, 2 United States ministers, 1 United States consul, 1 governor, and 1 librarian. Of the 43 clergymen, it should be noted, the majority were not Baptists, as might have been expected. Twenty-six were Congregationalist, twelve Baptist, one Episcopal, one Unitarian, and three of unknown denomination.