By Megan Carey
Reverend Nathaniel Sheldon Wheaton was the second president of Trinity College, then Washington College from 1831-1837. Before he became president he was a major contributor to the establishment of the college, the second secretary of the Board of Trustees and went on a mission to Europe to acquire academic and financial aid for the new school. After his time as president he moved to New Orleans, Louisiana to continue his work with the Episcopal faith as a rector of Christ Church in New Orleans. According to the 1840 United States Census during his time down south, Wheaton enslaved a man between the age of 36 and 50. There is no other information available about this individual, which demonstrates the power of the archive from this time period.
Wheaton returned to Hartford, Connecticut in the late 1840s to become Professor of the Institutes and Evidences of Christianity under the presidency of John Williams. Perhaps Wheaton’s experiences in the south and his direct involvement with slavery sparked a desire to become more proactive in the debate over the institution. He was involved with the American Colonization Society as a member and a donor. In the 1853 African Repository and Colonial Journal, Wheaton is listed with three Trinity College students. This journal was published during his time as full-time professor at Trinity College and demonstrates that his teachings may have discussed the concept of colonization given that three Trinity students joined the American Colonization Society. Additionally, in 1850, Wheaton delivered a “Discourse on St Paul’s Epistle to Philemon; Exhibiting the Duty of Citizens of the Northern States in Regard to the Institution of Slavery” at Christ Church in Hartford, Connecticut. This sermon is laced with proslavery rhetoric, focusing on religion as a defense of slavery. He uses a story from the New Testament as a defense of slavery. He clearly believed that religion can be used as a defense for slavery and that since slavery is not prohibited by God, it therefore, is acceptable.
Wheaton gave this speech in Hartford in 1850, just eleven years before the commencement of the Civil War. If he was this open about his cultural beliefs, even in his religious practice, what does this say about how he composed himself around his students in the 1850s and all of those he oversaw as president in the 1830s? All of these actions and events allow for the understanding of who Nathaniel Wheaton was, throughout his life, but specifically with regard to Trinity.
In 1966, Trinity College began the construction of its new freshman dormitories. Situated in a “concrete jungle,” as it would become known, the college gave each of these buildings a name. One of the buildings was designated ‘Wheaton Hall’ after Trinity’s second president, Reverend Nathaniel Sheldon Wheaton. From 1966 to the present day, this dorm was a part of many Trinity students’ lives, specifically first year students.
As a liberal arts institution that hopes to portray inclusiveness and diversity, I believe that it would be in the interest of the community to hold another listening tour or town hall meeting that would allow for the members of Trinity’s community to voice their opinions and concerns about that fact that a building on campus, especially one that houses first-year students, is named after Nathaniel Wheaton. This listening tour would discuss a name change to the building that would better reflect someone who our school should honor. Many of the buildings on this campus are named for donors to the institution, however, this building constructed in 1966 was nearly one hundred years after Wheaton was a part of the Trinity College community. A college campus should be a safe space and a living space, meaning that not only should the students who attend the school feel safe and secure on the campus and within the community, but there also should be a recognition that the campus should change to fit the needs and metamorphosis of the community.
By removing the name of a man who held values that do not correctly align with the goals of Trinity College today we are able to keep the campus updated to better reflect the morals that we want to express and are proud of. The campus discussion about renaming would allow for the school community to understand where the motivation to do so came from and would be part of the education process on Trinity’s past. Nathaniel Wheaton is not someone we should erase from Trinity’s history, he is someone we should not honor on the building where first years live and that was constructed long after he was a member of the Trinity community. In the time since Wheaton was a president of the school in the 1830s and a member of the faculty in the 1850s, Trinity became co-ed and Trinity allowed members of color to join the student body. These developments demonstrate that the Trinity Wheaton was a part of is vastly different from the Trinity today and for these reasons I feel that it is necessary to update the name on Wheaton Hall to better represent the current cultural climate on Trinity College’s campus.
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