In the Middle Ages, the pelican was a common Christian image used to symbolize Christ, who suffered on behalf of humanity. Taken from Psalm 102:6, the medieval pelican was depicted as piercing its own breast in order to feed its young. I argue that in the same way as the symbolic pelican who suffered for the sake of its young, Charles Nisbet positioned himself as a Christian martyr who endured the hardships of frontier life in Pennsylvania in order to educate the students at Dickinson College.
Below is the abstract for my presentation.
This paper is based on original research and analysis of over 150 manuscript letters written by the Scottish minister Charles Nisbet (1736–1804) who emigrated to America. In 1785 Nisbet traveled to Carlisle, Pennsylvania to become the first principal of Dickinson College, one of the nation’s earliest institutions. As an outspoken advocate for the American cause during the War of Independence, and a friend and colleague of John Witherspoon, Nisbet was the favorite choice for Benjamin Rush and the other trustees at Dickinson College. Rush had helped secure Witherspoon as the president of the College of New Jersey in 1768, and wanted to invite another orthodox Scottish Presbyterian minister to head this new educational venture at Carlisle. But unlike Witherspoon, Nisbet failed to appreciate America. Soon after his arrival in Pennsylvania, Nisbet’s relationship with Rush and the other trustees deteriorated. The new principal resented the absolute control of the trustees over the college, and quarreled with them for years about the late payments of his salary. Nisbet found America to be an overall distasteful place to live, especially for a man of letters living on the Pennsylvania frontier. The sweltering heat of the summers, the unmotivated students, and the uncultured atmosphere of Carlisle with its Francophile residents all contributed to his general contempt for a nation that he once admired. Ignored by the trustees and feeling like an exile (he referred to himself as a “pelican in the wilderness”), Nisbet used his letters to lash out at the sources of his frustrations. This alleviated some of the tensions of living in America while also irritating the trustees at Dickinson College.