Founded in 1785 by the arch-republicans, Benjamin Rush and John Dickinson, Dickinson College rapidly grew into a leading educational center in the state of Pennsylvania, its name assured from the start by the reputation of its founders and by the choice of the scholarly Charles Nisbet as the school's first president. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, the Scotsman Nisbet went on to study theology at Divinity Hall, and in 1760 was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Edinburgh. A strict Calvinist, Nisbet 's influence in the Church of Scotland grew increasingly as his intellectual reputation grew, and by the end of the American Revolution, he was well known on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1783, Nisbet was recognized with an honorary doctorate of divinity from the College of New Jersey, a Presbyterian stronghold headed by his colleague and fellow Edinburgh alumnus, John Witherspoon.
Like Witherspoon, Nisbet was strongly sympathetic with the cause of American independence, and their political and intellectual compatibility led Witherspoon to suggest Nisbet as a candidate to fill the presidency of the new college that Rush and Dickinson had established at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Arriving in Philadelphia in 1785, Nisbet assumed his duties and remained at Dickinson until his death by pneumonia on January 18, 1804.
In addition to serving as president, Nisbet also lectured on logic, mental and moral philosophy, belles-lettres, systematic theology, and pastoral theology. A master of nine languages, ancient and modern, excelling in oratory, and possessed of personal warmth and magnetism, his goal in teaching was to give his students the capacity for independent thought.