Personalizing Miami’s History: Samuel McKee

By Daniel Willis

The story of Samuel McKee, born November 5th, 1833, died December 11th, 18981, begins with his grandfather, Samuel McKee (henceforth called “the elder Samuel”). The elder Samuel was born in Virginia and fought during the American Revolution. In 1783 he left his home in Virginia and went to Kentucky to settle the frontier and start a family2. In 1797 the elder Samuel was blessed with a son, James McKee3. James would go on to marry Sallie Wilkerson, a woman born in Kentucky and descended from North Carolinians who came to the state following Daniel Boone. In 1833, Samuel McKee was born to James and Sallie in Mount Sterling, Kentucky. In 1854, at the age of 21, he enrolled in Miami University which laid the groundwork for his future career in politics. The story of the McKee family reflects arguments laid forth by Craig Wilder’s argument in the book Ebony and Ivy; namely, that higher education in the United States was an “imperial institution” used to develop and spread the ideals of the nation.

Samuel McKee’s family —both his maternal and paternal grandparents— came into Kentucky when it was largely unsettled (by white Americans) frontier and displaced the Native Americans in the region to carve out homesteads. This is captured best in speech by notable Cincinnatian Daniel Drake in an address he made before the Miami University Union Literary Society in 1834. In his address he states, of the native inhabitants of Kentucky, that “many of them exist only in the memory of the first settlers of our own race”4. He goes on to explain that the “red man” is faithless and cruel for resisting the arrival of white settlers into the region5. Drake’s address shows the colonial and imperial mindset that Craig Wilder explores in Ebony and Ivy. The white settlers of Kentucky benefitted from driving the natives from their home land. With these tracts of land, the white settlers of Kentucky, including the McKee family, were able to generate immense amount of wealth. By 1850, the household of James McKee was valued at $12,000 (roughly $360,000 today). To put this into perspective, the families listed immediately before and after the McKees in the census both had a property value of $2500 (or $75,000)6. This shows that James McKee greatly benefitted from his father’s settling of the frontier. The wealth James obtained would allow him to send his sons to college to continue the cycle of privilege and wealth. Additionally, the 1850 census listed a black laborer, Joseph Garrett, as a member of the McKee family. While his status as a slave is difficult to determine, as he is not listed in any slave schedule nor does he appear in other records, it is worth considering that he was in all likelihood enslaved. (Joseph may not have been enslaved directly by the McKee family it is possible that he was hired out by another slaveowner.) The practice of slaveowners hiring out their slaves was common in antebellum Kentucky7 meaning that while the McKees may not have owned slaves themselves they still benefitted from slavery overall. Furthermore, given that the McKee family has many ties to the south it is worth considering that slavery played a role in the development of their wealth prior to their arrival in Kentucky.

The McKee family’s ties to the south reflect the ties many early American colleges had to the south, and to slavery in general. Higher education played a major part in the growth of the United States; early colonial colleges helped establish the early educational architecture of the nation and also helped develop a national identity. Craig Wilder connects the growth of early higher education to the economy created by the slave trade in the Americas. He suggests that the ties higher education had to the slave industry created a feedback loop in which the institutions took slave money and in turn taught pro-slavery curricula. Wilder focuses primarily on institutions founded in the 17th and 18th centuries and while Miami University was founded in 1809 some the arguments Wilder lays out apply. For example, Wilder’s statement that “colleges were imperial instruments”8 can be seen with the history of Miami University. With the phrase “imperial instrument”, Wilder means that the early American colleges existed to create statesmen and ministers in order to spread the influence of the colonial governments. He focuses on the role colleges played in creating missionaries who then went out to convert the native populations of the colonies in order to civilize savages and spread Christianity. Miami University was founded in this tradition, though much later than earlier colleges such as Harvard and others. According to Curtis Ellison, the university had a strong Presbyterian tradition and worked in tandem with local seminary schools in order to create a new generation of ministers9. The role of Miami University as an imperial institution can be seen in an address made by Daniel Drake, a Cincinnati doctor, to the Union Literary Society of Miami University in 1834. In this address Drake states that the students will leave the university as men and go on to establish civil governments in the Mississippi Valley10. He goes on to say that the students attending will, “contribute to raise up a mighty people, a new world of man, in the depths of the new world of history, and the friends of liberty, literature, and religion”11. This shows that, in Daniel Drake’s eyes, Miami University, like the colleges in Wilder’s work, was seen as a nation building institution.

Graduates of Miami University would go on to become professors, ministers, and lawyers. Others became politicians on the national stage, for example, Benjamin Harrison would become president in 1889. This reinforces Wilder’s view of higher education as an imperial force, Miami University, like Harvard or Yale, created a new generation of leaders. Samuel McKee became one of those leaders. After his graduation in 1857 he attended to law school in Cincinnati and then returned to his hometown to practice law. In 1862 he joined the Union army as a captain in the Fourteenth Kentucky Cavalry. In 1864, after his service expired, Samuel returned home and resumed his law practice. His time as lawyer was cut short when he became the Assistant Elector for the Ninth Judicial District for the Republican Party in 1864. In 1865, he was elected into the House of Representatives as a congressman and was reelected two years later12. For his first election he ran as an Unconditional Unionist and for his second he ran as a Radical Republican13. He was known for being a forceful speaker and for defending his radical views even when it was politically inexpedient to do so. His skill as a debater, coupled with his radical views, caught the eye of Ulysses S. Grant who, in 1869, rewarded Samuel McKee with a position as a pension agent in the administration14, a position he served in from 1896 to 1871. After leaving his post as a pension agent he returned home to practice law and records of his life from this period on are vague. However, his actions from 1865 to 1871 are the most useful to focus on when examining Miami University’s role in his professional career. McKee’s professional career was built on a series of strategic choices. He chose to be a radical Republican immediately after the Civil War, a choice which allowed him to gain influence in the Grant administration. He leveraged that influence into a career as a pension and in 1871, as the winds turned against reconstruction and Grant, he disappeared back into a private life as a lawyer.

Samuel’s time at Miami University was instrumental in shaping his future career path. Like Harvard or Yale, Miami University had a student body made up of young men from both northern states and southern states. This meant that while Samuel was attending the college he was exposed to a wide range of views, from pro-slavery to radical abolitionists. At Miami, in the various literary societies (extracurricular groups that debated topics outside of the approval of the university faculty) students argued over all sorts of political and social events relevant to the day15. When he attended Miami University, Samuel McKee was an active member in the Erodelphian Literary Society. He served as a President of the Society in 185616. His involvement in the Society and the debates it proctored helped develop his skills as an excellent debater — a skill which allowed him succeed as a congressman. It may also explain where he began to experience the radical points of view that he would later utilize to advance his political career. The history of Miami University’s views on slavery, the topic that helped start McKee’s career, began in the 1820’s when Miami faculty and trustees argued in favor of the American Colonization Society, a compromise for abolition which advocated returning slaves to Africa17. Slavery remained a topic of debate on campus until slavery ended in 1865, with the ratification of the thirteenth amendment.

The fact that Miami Trustees were arguing for the abolition of slavery, in any capacity, seemingly contradicts some of the arguments put forth by Wilder. Wilder argues that in the colleges of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the reliance on slave-based money meant that those schools developed pro-slavery views. For example, he states that Dartmouth’s earliest buildings were built on land cleared by slaves using wood donated by slave traders18. He also mentions that the trustees of early colleges were made up of members of the merchant class who directly benefitted from the expansion of slavery and whose wealth from slavery allowed them to help fund education19. All of this led to the early colleges developing in favor of slavery. Miami’s origins were different; it was founded after the Revolutionary War using land granted by the federal government in territory were slavery was illegal20. Because of the difference in the origins of Miami and the institutions mentioned by Wilder the reliance on slave money is less noticeable at Miami. However, Miami’s position near the Ohio-Kentucky border meant that there were students attending Miami who came from slave states. Given that education was largely obtainable only for the wealthy it is a near certainty that a portion of Miami’s early funding was coming from households that owned slaves. Students came to Miami from a wide assortment of southern states, including places like Mississippi and the Carolinas. While it is difficult to find records of precisely what was being taught at Miami during the antebellum period the fact remains that the university attracted students who came from regions of the nation where slavery was endemic. To further speak to this, President of Miami University from 1854 to 1866 (the time Samuel McKee attended the college), John W. Hall, was a southerner21. This suggests that, in some way, Miami University reinforced the systems of slavery that permeated the south. In fact, after the Civil War and the abolishing of slavery there was a decline in the number southern students attending Miami University. This resulted in the university suffering a period of lower enrollment numbers and financial hardship22.

The story of Samuel McKee is just one piece of the larger history of Miami University. His time spent at the university helped establish the skills and opinions he needed to succeed as both a lawyer and a politician. His attendance of the university was made possible by the wealth his family accumulated over several generations—made possible by the removal of Native Americans which allowed them to have land, and by the exploitation of slave labor, which helped further enhance their wealth. Samuel McKee was one of many southerners who attended classes at Miami University prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. In one way or another these southerners all benefitted from the practice of slavery in the United States. Miami University, in turn, benefitted from the money these students brought in. When these students stopped attending the university fell on hard times and had to reorient its priorities in order to make up for the lack of funding these students had brought in. Like the colleges of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Miami University’s early years are intrinsically tied to the wealth generated by the practice of slavery.

Daniel Willis is a senior majoring in History.



  1. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  2. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Kentucky of the Dead and Living Men of the Nineteenth Century. (Cincinnati, J. M. Armstrong Company, 1878), 145.
  3. 1850 Federal Census. Montgomery County, Montgomery, Kentucky. Family 109.
  4. Daniel Drake, Discourse on the History, Character, and Prospects of the West, (Cincinnati, Truman and Smith, 1834),
  5. Ibid,
  6. 1850 Census
  7. Bridget Ford, Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland, (University of North Carolina Press. 2016), 93.
  8. Craig Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, (New York, Bloomsbury Press, 2014),
  9. Curtis W. Ellison, Miami University, 1809-2009: Bicentennial Perspectives, (Athens, Ohio. Ohio University Press; 2009.), 29-31.
  10. Drake, Discourse, 43.
  11. Ibid, 44.
  12. Biographical Encyclopedia,
  13. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  14. Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America, (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1901), 269.
  15. Ellison, Miami University, 63.
  16. Erodelphian Society, Minutes/Records: 1854-60, 1.
  17. Ellison, Miami University, 60.
  18. Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, 135-136.
  19. Ibid, 48
  20. Ellison, Miami University, 18.
  21. Ibid, 73-74.
  22. Ibid, 75.



1850 Federal Census; Montgomery County, Montgomery, Kentucky. Image 18. Accessed on November 12th, 2018.

Anderson, Charles. An Address Delivered for the Society of Alumni of Miami University. Oxford, Ohio:          John B. Peat [printer].

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. “McKee, Samuel.” Accessed November 12, 2018.  

Drake, Daniel. Discourse on the History, Character, and Prospects of the West. Cincinnati: Truman and Smith, 1834.

Erodelphian Society, “Minutes/Records: 1854-60.” Student Life; Erodelphian Society. Miami University Archives.

Ellison, Curtis W. Miami University, 1809-2009: Bicentennial Perspectives. Athens, Ohio. Ohio       University Press; 2009. Oxford, Ohio.

Ford, Bridget. Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland Chapel Hill: The      University of North Carolina Press. 2016.


Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America. Vol. 17.          Washington: Government Printing Office. 1901. pg. 269.


Miami University Alumni Catalogue: Centennial Edition 1809-1909, Reference Collection, Miami         University Archives.


The Biographical Encyclopedia of Kentucky of the Dead and Living Men of the Nineteenth        Century. Vol. 1. Cincinnati, Ohio: J. M. Armstrong Company, 1878.  pg. 145.

Third Session, Forty-Second Congress. Executive Documents Printed by Order of the House of  Representatives. 1872-’73. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1873. pg. 180.

Twenty-Ninth Annual Circular of Miami University, Comprising the Triennial and Annual       Catalogues, The Course of Studies, &c, May 1854. pg. 21. Miami University Catalog         [Bound]; 1832-65.

Thirty-first annual circular of Miami University, Covering the Triennial and Annual Catalogues,       The       Course of Studies, &c, May 1856. pg. 20. Miami University Catalog [Bound];



Thirty-Second Annual Circular of Miami University, Comprising the Triennial and Annual       Catalogues, The Course of Studies, etc., May 1857. pg. 20. Miami University Catalog         [Bound]; 1832-65.

Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014.

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