After his graduation in 1800, Carnahan served as tutor at Princeton, studied theology with President S. Stanhope Smith, and preached for six years, before resigning because of a throat aliment that troubled him all his life. He then founded and conducted a classical seminary in Georgetown, D.C. , and had been there eleven years when he was notified of his election to the presidency of the College.
Not having kept in touch with developments at the College, Carnahan was unprepared for what he found when he assumed the presidency: the divided counsels of the trustees and the conflicting views and interests left by Ashbel Green's administration. He thought of resigning at once, but young Professor John Maclean, Jr., persuaded him to carry on. The period of decline continued, reaching its lowest ebb five years later, when enrollment dropped to eighty students. Carnahan thought of recommending the closing of the institution, but John Maclean proposed a plan for strengthening the faculty that resulted in his being elected vice president of the College.
From that time on, as a trustee later observed, the College had an administration ``in which two colleagues labored as one man.'' Reviewing the achievements of this partnership on his retirement in 1854, Carnahan was able to report a restoration of harmony between the trustees and faculty, the doubling of student enrollment and the tripling of the faculty, the erection of East and West Colleges and Whig and Clio Halls. Carnahan paid tribute to Maclean's energy, zeal, and devotion. Maclean for his part praised Carnahan's freedom from personal ambition and said that his faithfulness and success in conducting the affairs of the College entitled him to the lasting gratitude of its alumni and friends.
Carnahan was genuinely modest about his own achievements. What he hoped people would remember about him, he sometimes told his family during his last years, was that it was he who planted the trees in the front Campus.
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