The Founding Fathers and Liberal Education - Part I
In recent years the public debate over the value of a liberal arts education has included arguments citing high returns on investment due to a greater likelihood of achieving positions of leadership, higher financial earnings, and even statistics confirming greater job satisfaction and increased happiness. Meanwhile, against tremendous positive data, there remains a steady stream of arguments about the relevance of a broad-based liberal education in a society evermore obsessed with entry-level skills, impatience, and quick, but shallow rewards.
Naysayers could do themselves a favor and take one of those history courses they undervalue to appreciate how the founding of our nation and the creation of American liberal education are inextricably linked. The Founding Fathers were progressive intellectuals whose collective experiment was one of the great byproducts of the Enlightenment.
William Smith was named Provost of the College of Philadelphia (forebear of the University of Pennsylvania) in 1755. He introduced the first systematic course of study and degree program in the colonies. It is fitting that he would serve as the inaugural President of the first college founded in the new United States. It is even more fitting that this institution, Washington College, would be established under the aegis of its namesake. George Washington was a member of the board during the College’s early years, stepping down when he accepted the U.S. presidency.
George Washington’s belief in the critical role education would play in our national development continued throughout his career of public service. The draft of his first inaugural address embraces the foundation of liberal education:
Whenever the opportunity shall be furnished to you as public or as private men, I trust you will not fail to use your best endeavors to improve the education and manners of a people; to accelerate the progress of arts & sciences; to patronize works of genius; to confer rewards for invention of utility; and to cherish institutions favourable to humanity. — G. Washington, Draft of the First Inaugural Address, c. January 1789
In his final annual address to Congress, Washington outlined his dreams for a new nation, calling for the formation of a national university and a national military college:
I have heretofore proposed to the consideration of Congress the expediency of establishing a national university and also a military academy. The desirableness of both these institutions has so constantly increased with every new view I have taken of the subject that I can not omit the opportunity of once for all recalling your attention to them.
The assembly to which I address myself is too enlightened not to be fully sensible how much a flourishing state of the arts and sciences contributes to national prosperity and reputation.
True it is that our country, much to its honor, contains many seminaries of learning highly repeatable and useful; but the funds upon which they rest are too narrow to command the ablest professors in the different departments of liberal knowledge for the institution contemplated, though they would be excellent auxiliaries.
Amongst the motives to such an institution, the assimilation of the principles, opinions, and manners of our country-men by the common education of a portion of our youth from every quarter well deserves attention. The more homogenous our citizens can be made in these particulars the greater will be our prospect of permanent union; and a primary object of such a national institution should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic what species of knowledge can be equally important and what duty more pressing on its legislature than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country? — G. Washington, Eighth Annual Address, 7 December 1796
Washington was not alone in his patronage of the intellectual future of the republic. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was established in 1780. Its founders were John Adams, John Hancock, and James Bowdoin. Among the members inducted the following year were Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
The five authors of the Declaration of Independence were public intellectuals of the highest order. Robert Livingston was a distinguished man of letters who amassed a personal library of over 4000 volumes. John Adams, as noted above, was a founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Roger Sherman was a member of the Yale University faculty and served as the University’s treasurer. Benjamin Franklin provided the leadership to create the College of Philadelphia, which became the University of Pennsylvania. Of all his accomplishments, Thomas Jefferson took his greatest pride in having established the University of Virginia.
George Wythe, the first of the seven Virginians to sign the Declaration of Independence was our nation’s first law professor. At the College of William and Mary he provided instruction and mentorship to Jefferson, James Monroe, John Marshall, and Henry Clay. It is hard to overestimate his role in preparing a generation of leaders to bring forth our nation. In a letter to John Banister, Jr., Jefferson wrote:
When college education is done with, and a young man is to prepare himself for public life, he must cast his eyes (for America) either on Law or Physic. For the former, where can he apply so advantageously as to Mr. Wythe? — T. Jefferson, Paris, 15 October 1785.
Other Virginia patriots provided important educational leadership. James Madison and James Monroe were charter members of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, and Madison succeeded Jefferson as Rector of the University. Patrick Henry helped to establish the charter of Hampden-Sydney College in January of 1776, making it the last college founded in the colonies. On 5 December of that same year, Phi Beta Kappa was founded at William and Mary.