The Revoluntionary College Project
An Account

ABOVE - William Smith, An Account of Washington College, in the State of Maryland. Published by Order of the Visitors and Governors of the Said College, for the Information of Its Friends (Philadelphia: Printed by Joseph Crukshank, in Market-Street, between Second and Third streets, 1784). This copy is from the Special Collections, Miller Library, Washington College, and was electronically scanned through the generosity of the Hedgelawn Foundation.

Click above to download a PDF file of the entire pamphlet.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Benjamin G. Kohl is Professor Emeritus of History at Vassar College and a member of the Board of Visitors and Governors at Washington College. He lives in Betterton, Md.

 

Red SwirlAn Account of Washington College, 1784

By Benjamin G. Kohl

An Account of Washington College, in the State of Maryland, written by the College’s first president, William Smith, is worthy of careful and close reading, because it provides the most detailed and reliable account of the founding of Washington College available.  As a portrait of Smith’s aspirations for his “College at Chester” and for the names of the men and women of the Eastern Shore who contributed to its establishment, the Account of Washington College, published in Philadelphia in the summer of 1784, is an exceptionally valuable source.

For the accurate detail it provides on the chartering, endowment, board and faculty, and first Commencement, Smith’s Account is also a unique document on the founding of a college in Federal America, without parallel among the dozen or more colleges founded in the United States at the end of the eighteenth century. 

The pamphlet of fifty pages, which survives in fewer than ten copies, has been little noted in the mainstream literature of early American collegiate education, receiving mention mainly in Horace Wemyss Smith’s eulogistic account of his great-grandfather’s life, in Wethered Barroll’s youthful essay on Washington College in 1783, and Fred Dumschott’s survey of the College’s history.[i]  The copy scanned and made available here is Washington College’s own, which once belonged to Samuel Kerr, a Master at the Public School of Kent County, and sometime instructor at the College. 

Since Smith was apparently intent on documenting his creation as well as singing its praises, the Account contains copies of the original charters, correspondence leading to its adoption in the General Assembly, letters between Smith and Washington on the naming of the College, and the list of the original subscribers (pp. 5-27).  Of special interest is the detailed description of the First Commencement that was held on May 14, 1783, with texts of Charles Smith’s English valedictory address and John Scott’s Latin salutatory oration (pp. 28-40).  These are followed by a briefer account of Washington’s visit and the second commencement, with outline of the curriculum, specimens of daily prayers, and statement of tuition and costs.  

Graduating at the First Commencement in 1783 were several youths from Chestertown who had had intimate connection with the Kent School which Smith ran, and had attended Washington College since it opened its doors in the summer of 1782.  Now in their late teens, five young men, well along in their studies, were selected for public examination by the members of the Faculty and the Board of Visitors and Governors, and admission to the degree of Bachelor of Arts.  They included the President’s third son, Charles Smith, who was accorded the honor of class Valedictorian.  His flowery address, which ends with verses on the progress of sciences and the growing glory of America, can be read on pages 31-36 of the Account.  John Scott served as the College’s first Salutatorian.  His Latin “Oratio salutatoria” appears on pages 37-40, annotated for misprints and a few other errors in Latin in Samuel Kerr’s own hand.  Along with John was graduated a younger brother, James Scott, both sons of the distinguished local physician and Board member, Dr. John Scott. The two other first graduates, William Barroll and William Bordley, were scions of notable local families.

Among adults who received degrees that day were the master of the grammar school, Samuel Kerr, awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts, and the professor of natural philosophy and classical languages, and second president of Washington College, Colin Ferguson, who was granted the degree of Master of Arts.  Samuel Armor, who had fulfilled the requirements for the Master of Arts of the College of Philadelphia, but never received a diploma there, was admitted the Master’s degree ad eundem, that is, from Washington College. Other local students who attended the First Commencement were Thomas Worrell, son of the local innkeeper, Edward Worrell, whose establishment in the southwest corner of Queen and Cannon streets had hosted George Washington on several of his visits to Chestertown, and the President’s fourth son, Richard Smith, who graduated from the College a few years later.  Ebenezer Perkins, Robert Buchanan and Joseph Nicholson were probably first-year students who attended the Commencement festivities dressed in shepherds’ garb.

The Account also records the greatest propaganda coup of President Smith’s long career as a publicist, churchman and educator: in the spring of 1784, he persuaded George Washington to attend the spring meeting of the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors and inscribe himself as a member of that board.   In the summer of 1782, Washington had allowed the founders to name the College after him and promised the gift of 50 guineas as a token of his good feelings toward the institution.  Now in retirement, on April 28-29, 1784, Washington had passed toward Chestertown on his way to the meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati being held in Philadelphia.  William Smith, of course, had news of Washington’s presence at that meeting and composed a letter designed to persuade the great man to grace the Board with his presence on the return trip.  He dispatched one of the area’s most accomplished horsemen, board member Captain John Page, High Sheriff of Kent County and late commander of the horse company of the Kent County militia, to carry the message to Washington in Philadelphia.

The letter, written on May 5, 1784, is worth quoting at length because it illustrates William Smith’s remarkable powers of persuasion at their best:

 

            Most worthy and Hond Sir,

In the Name & Behalf of the Visitors and Governors of Washington College and by their Order, I beg Leave to acquaint you that their annual Visitation is to be held on Tuesday, May 18th instant. At that Meeting they hope for the Presence of the Visitors in General, who are Gentlemen of the first Distinction from every County on the Eastern Shore of this State.  As the General Assembly have dignified this rising Seminary with your Name, & you are a Member of the Body Corporate, your Presence at some one Meeting, if you can make it convenient, is an Honour, which they most earnestly wish for, as it would give the highest Sanction to the Institution & be truly animating to a numerous Body of youth, who may, as a future Day, make a considerable Figure in the World.

In Hopes of acquitting themselves with some Credit in your Presence, they have in Rehearsal the Tragedy of Gustavus Vasa, the Deliverer of Sweden from Danish Tyranny & are to be otherwise examined in the Sciences &c.

The Visitors & Governors of the College hope that your Excellency may now be able to determine as to the Day of your return Southward, and whether you could make it convenient to spend one Day with us in your Way.  If Tuesday the 18 should not be the Day on which you could pass thro’ Chester in Maryland or be at the College Visitation, we can by Adjournment make another Day convenient for us, either before or after the 18th. The Bearer Mr Page is one of the Visitors of the College & will transmit to me, as President of the Board of Visitors whatever Answer you may be pleased to Honour us with.

 I am Sir, with the profoundest Respect. Your most obedt humble servant

William Smith[ii] 

 

George Washington reached Chestertown on the late afternoon of May 19th, after a long ride of perhaps forty miles that began early that morning in New Castle, Delaware, and included a stop for dinner in Middletown.[iii]  As Smith reported in his Account of Washington College, Washington was entertained at the College that evening and joined other members of the Board in attendance: 

 

To the foregoing Account of the public Exercises in May 1783, it is only to be added that in May, 1784, the Seminary was honoured with a visit from his Excellency GEORGE WASHINGTON, Esq. the illustrious Patriot, whose Name it bears, and who took his Seat and subscribed his Name as one of the Visitors and Governors….

The whole List of Visitors and Governors is as follows, viz. His Excellency George Washington, Esquire, Honorable John Henry, and Samuel Chase, Esquire. These are part of the additional Seven Visitors and Governors, whose Residence is not limited to any County (italics in original).[iv]

 

After attending the performance of the play Gustavus Vasa, given in his honor, Washington spent the night in Chestertown, arose early on the morning of the 20th to reach Rock Hall by eight, took the ferry to Annapolis, and arrived back at Mount Vernon on May 23.[v] 

Washington returned to Chestertown only once, at the beginning of his presidential tour of the southern states in March 1791, but William Smith had fulfilled his greatest hope.  He had enrolled Washington on the board, along with two distinguished Marylanders, the future governor, John Henry, and the future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Samuel Chase.  Smith was now in a position to publish his Account of Washington College, with a favorite Philadelphia printer, a compendium of documents on the founding of the College, designed to advertise its greatness and serve as a vehicle for a second round of fund-raising, to augment the over 6,000 pounds that Smith raised from the citizens of the Eastern Shore as required in the original charter.

             

 


 

[i] See Horace Wemyss Smith, Life and Correspondence of the Rev. William Smith, D.D (2 vols. Philadelphia, 1880), 2: 53-90; L. Wethered Barroll, “Washington College, 1783,” Maryland Historical Magazine 6 (1911), 164-79;  Fred W. Dumschott,  Washington College (Chestertown, Md., 1980).

[ii] The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, ed. W. W. Abbot (6 vols., Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 1991-1997), 1:371-72.

[iii]  See the Account of Expenditures in ibid., p. 403.

[iv]  William Smith, An Account of Washington College, in the State of Maryland. Published by Order of the Visitors and Governors of the Said College, for the Information of Its Friends (Philadelphia: Printed by Joseph Crukshank, in Market-Street, between Second and Third streets. MCCLXXXIV), pp. 40, 44.

[v] Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 1:403.


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