Pratt v. Wheaton College

In the early years of Wheaton College, one could say in the early decades, as well, the college relied heavily upon the enrollment of local students. Though it broadly drew students from the region, it was the Wheaton community that served as the “bread and butter” of its tuition dollars.

In 1860 the transition of leadership from Lucius Matlack to Jonathan Blanchard, from the full control of Wesleyan Methodists to the inclusion of Congregationalists, brought new energy and resources. It also brought a different perspective. For over one hundred years a member of the Wheaton College community could not be a member of a secret oath-bound society. Of any sort. The Illinois Institute and, afterward, Wheaton College were founded on several principles: abolition, temperance and anti-secretism. It was these last two, in tension, that brought forth Wheaton College’s encounter with the Illinois legal system.

Edwin Hartley Pratt (1849-1930), a local student, was enrolled in the Academic program at Wheaton. He and several other students joined a local Good Templar’s lodge. Known officially as the Independent Order of Good Templars, this fraternal organization stood for many of the principles that Wheaton, and Jonathan Blanchard, held dear: equality for men and women, racial non-discrimination and temperance. It’s motto sounded very good and biblical — “Friendship, Hope and Charity.” However, it was still a secret society and Jonathan Blanchard would have none of it (having believed that the slave system was the work of secret societies).

So, the administration of Wheaton College (i.e. Jonathan Blanchard), tossed out Pratt and his co-secretists.

In response Pratt’s father sued Wheaton College under the belief and assumption that his son had done nothing illegal and therefore could not be expelled. A legal battle (Pratt v. Wheaton College) ensued that made its way to the Illinois Supreme Court. In a precedent-setting decision the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the right of Wheaton College, and any other school, to establish rules to govern the lives and discipline of its students, much in the same way that a parent would. As the ruling stated, “A discretionary power has been given, … [and] we have no more authority to interfere than we have to control the domestic discipline of a father in his family.” This firmly established the principle of in loco parentis.

In loco parentis is the legal doctrine that outlines a relationship that is similar to that of a parent to a child. The concept goes back hundreds of year and was embedded in English common-law that was borrowed from by American colonists. The Puritans put this idea to use and it found its way into American elementary and high schools, colleges, and universities. The legal system in the nineteenth century was unwilling to interfere when students brought grievances, particularly in the area of rules, discipline, and expulsion. However, this would change in the 1960s as all forms of authority were challenged.

One may wonder what ever happened to Pratt. After leaving Wheaton, he became a noted homeopathic physician and surgeon in Chicago and was known for his professional writing and work. He wrote Orificial Surgery And Its Application To The Treatment Of Chronic Diseases (1891 and dedicated to his father) and The composite man as comprehended in fourteen anatomical impersonations (1901 and published in several editions). He served as President of the Illinois Homoeopathic Medical Association and served on several medical boards and commissions. In 1877 he married Isadore M. Bailey (a Wheaton student from 1875-1877) with the Rev. C. P. Mercer of the Central Swedenborgen Society officiating. Pratt joined the Chicago Society of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgian) in 1881.

Oddly enough, Pratt v. Wheaton College wasn’t the only time that Pratt was before the Illinois Supreme Court. In 1903 Pratt was sued for not gaining consent before conducting a hysterectomy on a mentally-ill patient. Pratt lost the case and was fined $3,000. He fought the ruling seeking redress before the Supreme Court. Yet, again, the court failed to rule in his favor.


People ex rel. Pratt v. Wheaton College

40 Ill. 186

April 1866

Mr. JUSTICE LAWRENCE delivered the opinion of the Court:


E. Hartley Pratt, a student in Wheaton college, joined a secret society known as the Good Templars, in violation of the college rules. For this the faculty “suspended him from the privileges of the institution until he should express a purpose to conform to its rules.” His father thereupon applied for a mandamus to compel the college to reinstate him as a student. The mandamus was refused, and the relator has brought the case here.


Wheaton college is an incorporated institution, resting upon private endowments, and deriving no aid whatever from the State or from taxation. Its charter gives to the trustees and faculty the power “to adopt and enforce such rules as may be deemed expedient for the government of the institution,” a power which they would have possessed without such express grant, because incident to the very object of their incorporation, and indispensable to the successful management of the college. Among the rules they have deemed it expedient to adopt, is one forbidding the students to become members of secret societies. We perceive nothing unreasonable in the rule itself, since all persons familiar with college life know that the tendency of secret societies is to withdraw students from the control of the faculty, and impair to some extent the discipline of the institution. Such may not always be their effect, but such is their general tendency. But whether the rule be judicious or not, it violates neither good morals nor the law of the land, and is therefore clearly within the power of the college authorities to make and enforce. A discretionary power has been given them to regulate the discipline of their college in such manner as they deem proper and so long as their rules violate neither divine nor human law we have no more authority to interfere than we have to control the domestic discipline of a father in his family. It is urged that the Good Templars are a society established for the promotion of temperance, and incorporated by the legislature, and that any citizen has a right to join it. We do not doubt the beneficent objects of the society, and we admit that any citizen has a right to join it if the society consents. But this right is not of so high and solemn a character that it cannot be surrendered, and the son of the relator did voluntarily surrender it when he became a student of Wheaton college, for he knew, or must be taken to have known, that by the rules of the institution which he was voluntarily entering, he would be precluded from joining any secret society. When it is said that a person has a legal right to do certain things, all that the phrase means is, that the law does not forbid these things to be done. It does not mean that the law guarantees the right to do them at all possible times and under all possible circumstances. A person in his capacity as a citizen may have the right to do many things which a student of Wheaton college cannot do without incurring the penalty of college laws. A person as a citizen has a legal right to marry, or to walk the streets at midnight, or to board at a public hotel, and yet it would be absurd to say that a college cannot forbid its students to do any of these things. So a citizen, as such, can attend church on Sunday or not, as he may think proper, but it could hardly be contended that a college would not have the right to make attendance upon religious services a condition of remaining within its walls. The son of the relator has an undoubted legal right to join either Wheaton college or the Good Templars, and they have both an undoubted right to expel him if he refuses to abide by such regulations as they establish, not inconsistent with law or good morals.

Judgment affirmed.