The Revoluntionary College Project
A View of Chestertown

ABOVE - (click on image to enlarge) "A View of Chestertown from White House Farm”  Measuring approximately 64” x 26”, painted on four yellow pine boards in the 1790s, the picture shows Simon Wilmer’s farm. Chestertown and the original college building, which burned in 1827, can be seen in the distance.  Long lost, the painting was traced by Art History Professor Robert Janson-La Palme to a Wilmer descendant, the Reverend Richard Hooker Wilmer, who donated it to the college in 1986.  The painting hangs in the reception area of the College President’s office in Bunting Hall.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience

 

 

Red SwirlThe Birth of Washington College

By Adam Goodheart

“It is History that, by presenting bright patterns to the eyes of youth, awakens emulation, and calls them forth steady Patriots to fill the offices of the State. It is not by forming them mere scholars that the State can become flourishing, but by forming them Patriots.”

Dr. William Smith, founder of Washington College, 1753

Washington College traces its history back to the spring of 1782, just a few months after the American victory at Yorktown. With the nation’s political independence barely secured on the battlefield, a group of visionary educators on the Eastern Shore of Maryland declared: “We must attend to the rising generation. The souls of our youth must be nursed up to the love of LIBERTY and KNOWLEDGE … for LIBERTY will not deign to dwell, but where her fair companion KNOWLEDGE flourishes by her side.[1] No new college had been chartered on the continent since Dartmouth in 1769, in the days when Americans were subjects of George III. Now, it was time to found an institution that would educate its students to be not subjects, but rather citizens of the new United States.[2]

The prime mover behind the founding of Washington College was Dr. William Smith. Born in Aberdeen, a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith had earlier been involved in the founding of King’s College (which would become Columbia University) and the College of Philadelphia (which would become the University of Pennsylvania). As longtime provost of the College of Philadelphia and secretary of the American Philosophical Society, he had associated closely with Benjamin Franklin, David Rittenhouse, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and other leading intellectual lights of the revolutionary generation.

Like many of his contemporaries in the first years of national independence, Smith was preoccupied with the question of how to render Americans fit for self-government. As the historian Drew McCoy has written, “Many of the Revolutionaries were inspired to hope that the American people might … conform to the classical notion of virtue and thus become the special kind of simple, austere, egalitarian, civic-minded people that intellectuals had dreamed of for centuries.”[3]  Yet they simultaneously worried that the nation’s fragile experiment in democracy might eventually – like past republics – devolve into demagoguery and anarchy, especially after George Washington and the other unifying, inspirational figures of the Founding generation had passed offstage.

For William Smith – as for Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others – the solution was education. But what is distinctive about Smith’s particular vision is that it also involved a profound faith in the instructive power of history. As early as the 1750s, in proposing a course of study for King’s College, he had recommended the inclusion of American history in the curriculum (the earliest American educator to do so), and written eloquently of how, by studying the past, students would learn to “behold the dreadful effects of tyranny” and “set a just value on … civil and religious liberty.” He even promoted historical education as an antidote to bigotry and intolerance: “The study of history … teaches [youth], as citizens of the world, to do impartial justice to the virtues of every people and nation.”[4]

And now, in the 1780s, with the American republic newly established, these ideas took on a fresh urgency. In order to preserve the ideals and virtues of the Founders into the far-distant future, Smith proposed, young Americans must be taught to keep their memory and legacy alive. Especially, as he envisioned it, they must keep alive the memory of George Washington, whose self-sacrifice and disinterested public service had set a shining example before the entire world. In July 1782, Smith wrote to General Washington himself, who was still encamped with his army along the Hudson awaiting word of the final treaty negotiations across the Atlantic:

In every possible way, your country wishes to erect public monuments to you, even while living, and posterity, without doubt, will greatly increase the number; but none, it is believed, can be more acceptable to you, than a seminary of universal learning expressly dedicated to your name, with a view of instructing and animating the youth of many future generations to admire and to imitate these public virtues and patriot-labours, which have created a private monument for you in the heart of every good citizen.[5]

Washington, taking time from his military duties, graciously consented to the fledgling college’s use of his name, pledged a generous monetary gift to its establishment, and extended his warm wishes for the “lasting and extensive usefulness” of the institution.[6] He would later serve on Washington College’s Board of Visitors and Governors (his only such involvement during his lifetime), pay a visit to its campus, and, shortly after his inauguration as President, receive one of its first honorary degrees. This distinguished connection – along with Washington College’s status as the first college founded in the new nation – would remain a central point of its institutional identity for more than 200 years.

The new college’s location – in Chestertown, the flourishing seat of Kent County, Maryland – must have seemed, in 1782, ideal for an institution of national prominence. A busy Chesapeake port, it also lay squarely astride the main north-south overland route along the Atlantic seaboard, halfway between the plantations of Tidewater Virginia and the burgeoning urban center of Philadelphia. (Indeed, Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and others had frequently passed through town on their way to and from sessions of the Continental Congress.) Some of the wealthiest and most influential citizens of the new republic, like Gen. John Cadwalader and Benjamin Chew, had country estates nearby. The first national Census, in 1790, would even pinpoint Chestertown as – statistically speaking – the center of population in the United States. The lofty ambitions of Washington College’s founders are vividly attested by the fact that the first college building, on a hilltop above Chestertown, was the largest structure of any kind in North America when it was built.


[1] An Account of Washington College, in the State of Maryland (Philadelphia, 1784), p. 4.

[2] Although several other institutions claim founding dates between 1770 and 1781, none possessed college charters or were empowered to grant degrees, and most were merely “log-cabin grammar schools” that evolved much later into full-fledged colleges, according to the authoritative book on the subject, Donald G. Tewksbury’s The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War (Columbia University Press, 1932). Tewksbury accorded Washington College standing as the nation’s tenth-oldest institution of higher learning, directly after the renowned “Colonial Nine.”

[3] Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (W.W. Norton, 1982), p. 70.

[4] William Smith, A General Idea of the College of Mirania (New York, 1753), pp. 50 ff.

[5] An Account of Washington College, in the State of Maryland (Philadelphia, 1784), pp. 24-5.

[6] George Washington to William Smith, August 18, 1782. George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

 


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