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The Hedrick "Indiscretion"

The Hedrick "Indiscretion": Academic Freedom and the Slavery Issue

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the issue of slavery proved the greatest barrier to academic freedom in southern colleges and universities. Textbooks written by northerners were considered anti-slavery and anti-Southern and were prohibited. Anyone believed to harbor abolitionist sympathies was viewed with suspicion or labeled a "Black Republican," a derisive term used to describe members of the newly formed Republican Party. Free discussion of the slavery issue on campus became impossible by the 1850s. The dismissal from UNC of chemistry professor Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick in 1856 is perhaps the most notorious example of a clash between academic freedom and the slavery issue.

Photograph, Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick

Photograph, Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick, Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick Papers (#325), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Benjamin Hedrick graduated from UNC in 1851. After a short time in Massachusetts, he returned to UNC to teach analytical and agricultural chemistry. On 11 October 1856, he was dismissed from the faculty for having expressed anti-slavery views.

Article, “Hedrick’s Defense,” North Carolina Standard,  4 October 1856

Newspaper article, Hedrick, Benjamin. “Hedrick’s Defense.” North Carolina Standard, Raleigh, 4 October 1856. Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick Papers (#325), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Professor Hedrick’s downfall began when he answered a question about who he would vote for in the 1856 presidential election.   Hedrick replied that he supported John C. Fremont, leader of the Free Soil party. The Free Soilers, or "Black Republicans," as they were known in the South, were unpopular among many southerners for opposing the extension of slavery into the western territories of the U.S.

Hearing of Hedrick’s statement, the editor of the Standard, William Holden, published an article declaring "Let our schools and seminaries of learning be scrutinized and if Black Republicanism be found in them, let them be driven out." Although he was not mentioned by name in the article, word about Hedrick’s political views spread. Hedrick wrote a reply to the Standard editorial in which he explains his support for Fremont.  In the reply, he also declares his loyalty to the state and denies that faculty at the University attempt to influence the students’ political views.

The reaction to Hedrick’s letter was swift and angry. For making his unpopular viewpoint known, University officials declared him unfit to teach and voted to remove him. He was burned in effigy by students at the University and denounced by most of the state.  After his dismissal from the University, Hedrick moved to New York where he worked as a chemist, clerk, and teacher. In 1861 he moved to Washington, D.C., where he was eventually appointed chief examiner in the U.S. Patent Office.

Drawing, of David Lowry Swain

Drawing of David Lowry Swain, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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David Swain served as governor of North Carolina from 1832 to 1835 and as president of the University from 1835 to 1868.

Document, Proceedings of the Faculty, October 6, 1856 <br />

Proceedings of the Faculty, 6 October 1856, General Faculty and Faculty Council Records, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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At midnight on 6 October, President Swain called a meeting of the faculty to discuss Hedrick’s "indiscretion" in making his political opinions public. Swain and most of the faculty resolved to distance the University and themselves from Hedrick, and declared that the views he expressed were "not those entertained by any other member of this body." On 11 October, the executive committee of the board of trustees resolved that "Mr. Hedrick has greatly, if not entirely destroyed his power to be of further benefit to the University in the office which he now fills."

Letter, President David L. Swain to Trustee Charles Manly, Chapel Hill, 7 October 1856

Letter, President David L. Swain to Trustee Charles Manly, Chapel Hill, 7 October 1856, University of North Carolina Papers (#40005), University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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In this letter Swain makes his recommendations about how to handle the Hedrick affair. Removing Hedrick from his teaching position, Swain counsels, presents the risk of making him a martyr. On the other hand, doing nothing may strengthen his position.

Swain also writes about being reprimanded for allowing a student to publicly "advocate a dissolution of the union."  He alludes to the difficulties inherent in censoring speech, adding "no one knows when, and what issues may arise, and freedom of speech on religious and political matters must be restrained, if restrained at all, very skillfully."

Letter, Hinton R. Helper to Benjamin S. Hedrick, October 15, 1856

Letter, Hinton Rowan Helper to Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick, New York, 15 October 1856, Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick Papers (#325), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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This letter from fellow North Carolinian Hinton Rowan Helper is just one example of the statements of support Hedrick received from abolitionists and other sympathizers outside the state.   The year after writing this letter, Helper published The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, which was credited with helping to elect Abraham Lincoln.