On his arrival to take charge of his duties as President of Middlebury College in October, 1840, he found himself in a discouraging situation. For reasons outlined in the Joshua Bates biography, the number of students had fallen from 168 in 1836 to 46 in 1840, and through entanglement in the religious controversies of its time, the College's repuation was seriously impaired.
At the time of its great prosperity the reputation of Middlebury College drew students from nearly all the Eastern States, and even from as far south as Georgia. But at this time the University of Vermont, which it was rumored fueled the fires of past controversies at the expense of Middlebury’s reputation, was in successful operation. Dartmouth College on the eastern and Williams College on the southern borders of the State and Union College not far off, had risen in their endowments and standing.
“But deep and saddening as was this darkness of 1840,” said President Labaree, in a baccalaureate discourse on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his Presidency, “For seven weary years the Institution struggled against neglect and poverty, suspicion and distrust, carefully balancing between hope and fear, and painfully oscillating between life and death, until the afflictive Providence of God was added to the unfriendly agencies of man, and we were borne down into the deep, dark valley of sorrow and despondency. During the Fall Term of that year, two of our valuable instructors died, two resigned, and one was prostrated with sickness. An epidemic prevailed among the students, many were ill, and three or four were removed by death. At this time, too, the question of uniting the College with the University was projected among us; and it demanded much time, care and thought, occasioned a protracted correspondence of no little perplexity, and filled our friends with painful apprehensions that the end of the College was drawing nigh. In December, 1847, we might have made the following record,—‘The Faculty consists of a President and one Professor, the College has almost no endowment, and is deeply in debt. Three clergymen, men of position and character, had successively been employed to raise funds to relieve the Institution, and each in sadness had reported that nothing could be done.’ From this state of facts, some of the warmest friends and oldest sons of the College came to the conclusion, painful as it was, that Middlebury College had done its work, and that nothing more remained for her, but calmly to fold her robes around her, and lie down to her long repose.”
But hope still lingered. With strong faith and undaunted perseverance the worthy President entered upon his Herculean task of lifting the College from its discouraging situation. The first objects of immediate and pressing necessity were, a Faculty and funds. A scattering subscription from 1840 to 1848 had been obtained for $9,300 but that was hardly a beginning. The first endeavor to procure men to fill the vacant chairs of instruction was crowned with success and at the Commencement of 1848 it appeared that a valid subscription of $25,000 had been secured. Two years later occurred the semi-centennial anniversary of the College, when the graduates of all ages and professions returned to their Alma Mater to renew old friendships and enjoy a brief season of social festivity. It was a more enthusiastic and inspiring occasion; the number of Alumni in attendance far exceeded that of any previous commencement. Stirring addresses were given by prominent Alumni and past officers of the College. At the corporation dinner which followed, several addresses were made and there was a characteristic poem by John G. Saxe, ’39. This anniversary had a decided influence in advancing the interests of the College. It led to a higher appreciation of the practical value of the education here obtained, in a good measure restored confidence and awakened a strong desire for the perpetuity and enlargement of the College. This was manifested in a practical way by the Associated Alumni in a proposition to raise the sum of $35,000 within one year for the relief and permanent endowment of the College. This was immediately adopted and eight subscriptions of $500 each and several smaller ones were made on the spot. The whole subscription was complete in 1852. In 1853 a friend of the College offered a donation of $10,000 on condition that a further sum of $20,000 should be raised, the whole to constitute a permanent and temporary scholarship. This condition was complied with. Soon after $10,000 was received from the estate of Joseph P. Fairbanks, or St. Johnsbury.
These gentle rays of prosperity continued to shine until they culminated in 1861 in a new college edifice—Starr Hall. It was built largely or wholly with money given by those ever generous benefactors of the College, Charles and Egbert Starr. The corner store was laid with appropriate ceremonies on the first of November, 1861—the sixtieth birthday of the College. In it was placed a tin box containing among various other documents a copy of the New York Tribune with an account of the storming of Sumter and over it a record that in this time of peril Middlebury College was loyal to the Union. She was loyal even to the sacrifice of her own children. A company comprising nearly every member of the student body was organized and assumed the name of the Middlebury College Guards. Arms and uniforms were procured and drills held daily. Pros. Henry M. Seely was the captain and the other officers were chosen from the different classes. Many, especially of the lower classes, left College for the army; a few returned to complete their studies when the war was over but most of them disappeared forever from the College records.
The feeling of gloom cast by these events was greatly intensified by the burning of Starr Hall on Christmas day, 1864. But through the generosity of the former benefactors the Hall was rebuilt and again occupied in the following autumn. The “Old East College” was given up and forever abandoned for College purposes. During this period the Museum had been largely built up, at first through the efforts of Charles B. Adams who was Professor of Chemistry and Natural Science from 1838 to 1841. The Zoological and Geological collections are chiefly due to him. In the latter part of President Labaree’s administration the College received the sum of $1500 from the estate of the late Rev. Thomas A. Merrill, D. D., a former tutor in and Trustee and Treasurer of the College. This was the foundation of the Merrill prizes for the best speakers of the Sophomore class. After a successful administration of twenty-six years Dr. Labaree resigned his position in 1866. He was appointed Lecturer on Moral Philosophy and International Law at Dartmouth in 1871 and held the office till 1876. He lectured on these topics also at Middlebury College in 1874. The degree of LL. D. was conferred upon him by Dartmouth in 1865.
President Labaree died in Walpole, NH, on November 15, 1883.