Department or Program

American Cultural Studies


Bates College marketing posits that the school was founded by abolitionists and has been open to all from our start, and that these historic facts make our campus particularly inclusive and committed to social justice. This framing of our college is limited at best and damaging at worst. As a leading progressive institution with a stated mission to educate a diverse student body, we face a moral imperative as well as a practical benefit to more accurately tell our complex origin story. Bates College was founded by Oren Cheney, an abolitionist. It was also funded in part by enslaved people’s labor through a large donation from cotton textile tycoon Benjamin Bates. This thesis outlines this paradox and provides historical context regarding capitalism, abolitionism, and higher education in antebellum America. In doing so, I argue that Bates College did not and has not escaped the ubiquity of American slavery. Cheney’s acceptance of the Bates donation exemplifies the compromises that often occur when individuals that benefit from a system attempt to work against it. That this inconsistency was common and likely unavoidable does not diminish the paradox’s impact; rather, Bates College needs to acknowledge and address this impact as it continues to benefit the institution. I describe the rising awareness on campus of this complicated history and reflect on my own journey to understand this material. It is my hope that this thesis provides historical information, contemporary analysis, and practical tools for those that carry this work forward.

Level of Access

Open Access

First Advisor

Hall, Joseph

Date of Graduation


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Number of Pages


Open Access

Available to all.