The University of North Carolina was anticipated by a section of the first state constitution drawn up in 1776 directing the establishing of "one or more universities" in which "all useful learning shall be duly encouraged and promoted." State support, it directed, should be provided so that instruction might be available "at low prices." The American Revolution intervened and it was not until 1789, the year that George Washington became president of the new nation, that the University was chartered by the General Assembly.
Despite constitutional instructions to the contrary, no state appropriations were made, and the trustees were left to secure land and money themselves. On October 12, 1793, the cornerstone was laid for a brick building on a hilltop near the center of the state amidst the colorful fall foliage of dogwood, oak, and tulip trees.
The site, lying at the crossing of north-south and east-west roads, was marked only by a small Anglican chapel that soon shared part of its name -- New Hope Chapel Hill -- with the community that developed there. Legislator and trustee William R. Davie, who had been instrumental in securing passage of the charter, took the lead in organizing the University. Davie presided over the Masonic ritual of the laying of the cornerstone. In time he came to be called "the Father of the University." Many years later a large poplar or tulip tree, first mentioned in 1818 and still standing near the center of the old campus, was called Davie Poplar in his honor.
The first building and, indeed, the only building for two years, was a two-story brick structure that came to be called Old East. It is now a National Historic Landmark, the oldest state university building in America. Opened to students on January 15, 1795, The University of North Carolina received its first student, Hinton James of New Hanover County, on February 12. By March there were two professors and forty-one students present.
The second state university did not begin classes until 1801 when a few students from nearby academies assembled under a large tree at Athens, Georgia, for instruction. By then four classes had already been graduated at Chapel Hill and there were to be three more before the first diplomas were issued in Georgia. The next building on the Carolina campus was Person Hall, begun in 1796 and long used as the chapel. The cornerstone of Main or South Building was laid in 1798. All three are older than any other American state university building.
During the early nineteenth century the trustees began a period of strong support in the development of the young University. Even though their proclaimed initial goal for the University had been to provide trained leadership for the state, the curriculum followed the customary classical trend. In 1815, however, the natural sciences were given equal place, and in the 1820s Professors Denison Olmstead and Elisha Mitchell prepared the nation's first geological survey. In 1831 the first astronomical observatory at a state university was built under the direction of President Joseph Caldwell. Student enrollment increased steadily, and by 1860 only Yale College had more students.