October 7, 2005

The Presidential Tradition

"... By July 1868 the trustees had abandoned hope of building the college's endowment and asked of Thornton only that he make the college self-sustaining...."

Howard College struggled to secure long-term leadership after the Civil War, running through several presidents in quick succession. Howard College professor Edward Quinn Thornton was among them, serving from July1868 through the end of the 1868-1869 session.

Thornton was our fourth president, but at some point in Samford's history he simply disappeared from collective memory. Thornton was still listed as Howard College's fourth president as late as 1894. Historian Mitchell Bennett Garret recorded his presidency in his Sixty Years of Howard College, 1842-1902, and James F. Sulzby used Garrett's information in his two-volume Toward A History of Samford University, but Thornton is otherwise overlooked. For decades, he has been excluded even from Samford's official tally of its fully-empowered presidents (as opposed to those who served in an interim capacity).

Before serving Howard College as a professor of chemistry and modern languages, Thornton studied at the University of Alabama and at various European universities. He was among the many professors, administrators and students who left Howard to serve in the Confederate States Army, rising from the rank of lieutenant in the 39th Alabama Infantry regiment to become an assistant adjutant general. He returned to Howard only a few years before his elevation to the presidency.

Eight months before selecting Thornton as successor to the high-profile J.L.M. Curry, the trustees of the college announced to the state Baptist Convention that, "the unparalleled prostration of the financial affairs of the country has fallen with particular severity upon the college." By July 1868 the trustees had abandoned hope of building the college's endowment and asked of Thornton, apart from tending the college's property, only that he make the college self-sustaining. They stepped back even from this goal, finally agreeing to Thornton's counter-offer to obtain only sixty of the 100 students required to make the college self-sustaining, with the trustees taking responsibility for the remainder.

The college enrolled 115 students for the 1868-69 session even though Thornton established rigorous new entrance examinations in English, Latin, Greek and Algebra. Though apparently successful, Thornton found that he preferred the classroom to the presidency and resigned at the end of the session to focus on teaching both at Howard and across town at Judson College. His brief tenure seems to be the cause of Thornton's ultimate disappearance from the official roll of Samford presidents.

More Information