Asa Messer (1769-1836), third president of Brown University, was born in Methuen, Massachusetts on May 31, 1769. He prepared for college under Reverend Hezekiah Smith of Haverhill, Massachusetts, came to Rhode Island College as a sophomore, and graduated in 1790. He was named tutor in the College in 1791, professor of learned languages in 1796, and professor of natural philosophy in 1799. He was also librarian from 1792 to 1799. In 1802 he succeeded Jonathan Maxcy as president pro tempore for two years before being named president in 1804. He was licensed to preach by the First Baptist Church in Providence in 1792 and ordained in 1801, but was never a pastor. In 1818 he was appointed a justice of the state supreme court, but declined, finding the appointment incompatible with his college office. He patented two inventions, “Flume for a Mill” (1822) and “Water-wheel and Flume” (1824). He owned a farm in Fishersfield, New Hampshire, and an interest in a cotton-mill in Wrentham, Massachusetts.
The style of Messer’s administration was described in Brown University under the Presidency of Asa Messer, S.T.D., LL.D., a pamphlet published anonymously in Boston in 1867, but known to be written by Silas Axtell Crane 1823.
“His policy was that of demand and supply. He offered the country such a college education as it could pay for; and such, too, as the necessities of its condition then compelled it gladly to accept. Here we have the rule by which he fixed the requirements for matriculation, and the whole subsequent course of undergraduate studies. Here, too, we see the reason for that system of rigid economy, which under his management pervaded every department of the institution. It was to bring the benefits of college life and instruction within the reach of as many as possible, and we may add, in passing, that this was then in full harmony with the spirit of the times. President Messer did all he could to invite and encourage young men of literary aspirations. For all such he had the tenderness of a father. Hence the plan of college commons. Hence, too, the disposition of the vacations, assigning the long one to the winter, that the students might help out their scanty means by teaching the common schools of the country, then taught almost only in that season of the year. ... hundreds of young men who had otherwise been doomed to a life of comparative ignorance and inefficiency were able to lay the foundations of intellectual culture and future usefulness.”Messer’s administration was marked by increased unruliness of students, some of whom he “rusticated” for acts of vandalism. Burning the privy and removing the chapel doors and furniture during the night were reasons for sending the culprits to the country to continue their studies for a time under the direction of clergymen, after which they might return to their classes without having fallen behind. Meanwhile, Messer’s habit of offering prayers at the First Congregational Church, which had become Unitarian, was met with disapproval by the authorities. Their disapproval was only compounded when, as the Dictionary of American Biography phrased it, “Heretical Harvard conferred the degree of doctor of divinity upon him in 1820.” The increase in student disturbances was attributed by Messer to the instigation of certain members of the Corporation. In October 1824 students “broke open the Library: they beat down the Pulpit: they prevented or disturbed for several weeks a regular recitation: they even assailed our house, in the night, and broke the windows.” The problems of the University were made public in communications to the local newspapers. One by “Vindex” in the Independent Inquirer on May 5, 1825, suggested that the Corporation was looking for a reason to dismiss the president. Another letter in that newspaper on August 18, 1825, stated that the cause of the Corporation’s opposition was “simply, because these gentlemen imagine that he differs from them in matter of Religion.” After that two anonymous pamphlets came out, the second of which openly called for the removal of the president. Messer resigned as president on September 23, 1826. His letter of resignation recalled his long service and his hope that, on leaving the world, “I may be enabled to think that I have served my GOD as faithfully as I have served Brown University.” After leaving the University, he remained in Providence, was an unsuccessful candidate for Governor of Rhode Island in 1830, and died on October 11, 1836. Reverend Edwards Amasa Park 1826 wrote the following description of Messer:
“No one who has ever seen him can ever forget him. His individuality was made unmistakable by his physical frame. This, while it was above the average height, was also in breadth an emblem of the expansiveness of his mental capacity. A “long head” was vulgarly ascribed to him, but it was breadth that marked his forehead; there was an expressive breadth in his maxillary bones; his broad shoulders were a sign of the weight which he was able to bear; his manner of walking was a noticeable symbol of the reach of his mind; he swung his cane far and wide as he walked, and no observer would doubt that he was an independent man; he gesticulated broadly as he preached; his enunciation was forcible, and now and then overwhelming, sometimes shrill, but was characterized by a breadth of tone and a prolonged emphasis which added to its momentum, and made an indelible impress on the memory. His pupils, when they had been unfaithful, trembled before his expansive frown, as it portended a rebuke which would well-nigh devour them; and they felt a dilating of the whole soul, when they were greeted with his good and honest and broad smile.”