Washington’s Interest in Education, by By Julia K. Ordway

Washington and Lee University

Washington’s Interest in Education

By Julia K. Ordway

Note: The following essay is taken from the May 1890 issue of The New England Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly (vol. 8; new ser., vol. 2, pp. 347–58), which was published in Boston by the New England Magazine Company. Its author, Julia K. Ordway (d. 1917), apparently taught at the Girls’ Latin School in Boston when she submitted a paper, “Vergil’s Portrayal of Women,” at the 1912 annual meeting of the Classical Association of New England.



By Julia K. Ordway.

LITTLE is generally known of Washington’s interest in education, or of his wise and generous plans for its advancement. His idea of education was so comprehensive, and his standard so much higher than that of his time, that to-day, when the best methods of making education a means for the safety and improvement of society obtain such earnest consideration, his opinions and projects are of special interest.

In Washington’s early youth, learning had made comparatively little progress in America. In Massachusetts, it is true, schools had been established at the time of settlement, and later laws had been passed, providing that every town of one hundred families should support, in addition to a common school, a grammar school, and that if any town of fifty families failed to support a schoolmaster, it should be fined ten pounds. But in Virginia a less enlightened spirit prevailed, and education, especially for the common people, was for many years little regarded.

In 1671, Governor Berkeley wrote: “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing-presses; and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years.” Another governor taxed schoolmasters at twenty shillings a head. Many, including the royal governors, opposed education on the ground that it would rouse in the people a spirit of rebellion, and make them less submissive to His Majesty’s good pleasure. Others, occupied with the business of their plantations, and delighting in cock-fighting, hunting, fishing, racing, and all vigorous bodily exercise, were too ignorant to know the worth of intellectual training. Nor were they more ignorant than the rest of their age. An attorney-general of Charles II. had replied roughly to some Virginia commissioners, pleading the cause of learning and religion, and remarking that the souls of the king’s subjects needed attention as well as their bodies: “Damn your souls,—grow tobacco.”

The best explanation, however, of the general lack of learning is probably found in the sparseness of settlement. In Massachusetts the people congregated in towns, but in Virginia the most important class were the large land-owners, who were the sole monarchs of their immense plantations. Travelling was accomplished either on foot, on horseback, or in boats, and the taverns and roads were bad. In this state of society there was little chance for the interchange of thought and knowledge. Norfolk was the only place that could pretend to the name of town. Williamsburg, indeed, contained the college buildings and during the session of the House of Burgesses was gay with the pomp of a mimic court. The only professional men were the clergy, for until the Revolution there were few lawyers and fewer doctors.

For fifty years there were no schools, and down to the Revolution there were few. In these the instruction was confined to the English branches. The sons of the wealthy planters were sent to England to attend the universities, make the grand tour, visit court, and come home fine gentlemen, but oftentimes with little solid knowledge. Those who stayed at home studied a little with their parish clergyman, entered the college of William and Mary, and graduated with a fair education, to exercise their abilities in managing their plantations and making laws for the colony in the House of Burgesses. The women had still less chance for mental development. They could not attend the college, and generally had more work and less contact with the outside world.

When such was the general system of education which prevailed in Washington’s youth, it is interesting to consider his special training. Deficient in many respects as his education was, the knowledge and experience which he gained in early life was certainly a fitting preparation for his subsequent career. The mother of Washington was a woman of superior intelligence and foresight, and much that was good in his early training was due to her. At three years old he was taken to the banks of the Rappahannock to learn his alphabet under the charge of the sexton of the parish. After his father’s death, he lived with his brother Augustine, and attended a small school kept by a Mr. Williams. The boy acquired the elements of a fair English education, studying reading, writing, and bookkeeping. His exercises were neat and correct, for he had even then established the valuable habit of order. His body also had developed; he was strong, muscular, and active, delighting in all out-of-door sports and feats of daring. When about fifteen he began to study surveying, intending to make it his profession, and soon after took up his abode with his brother Lawrence. This residence with his brother was of great benefit to Washington. Lawrence had married the daughter of William Fairfax, and here Washington was in the society of cultivated men and women. Here he met Thomas, Lord Fairfax, who had exiled himself from England and come to live on his great possessions in the New World. This nobleman was graduated from Oxford, had written for the Spectator, and mingled much in the world of letters. Between this rather eccentric man and Washington there seems to have been a bond of sympathy. Washington was hired to survey his estates, and journeyed with him to his land in the wilderness. In this rough life he was hardened to privations, and gained wisdom, skill, and foresight. His range of reading was also increased, for at Greenaway Court, Lord Fairfax’s rude lodge, the young surveyor found the best of English authors. In 1751 his mind was further enlarged by a journey to the West Indies with his brother Lawrence.

His education strengthened him in mind and body, and taught him the valuable lessons of honesty, wisdom, and self-reliance; but no one realized the defects of his education more than he. Later in life he studied French, and acquired a correct and perspicuous English style by practice, care, and the study of the best authors. In whatever work he engaged, agriculture or war, he added the knowledge of the best writers on that subject to that which his own ingenuity and experience furnished him. He was fond of music and history, and we read with interest his order for busts of Alexander, Charles XII., Cæsar, Frederick of Prussia, Marlborough, and Prince Eugene, and for statues of two wild beasts. Although he had never attended college, he fully appreciated, perhaps with regard to himself rather over-estimated, the benefits of a college training. He labored to repair defects in writing and spelling, and it is almost pathetic to see how his own limited education haunted and troubled him. When urged by Humphreys to prepare a history of the war, he replied: “In a former letter, I informed you, my dear Humphreys, that if I had talent, which I have not, I have not leisure to turn my thoughts to commentaries. A consciousness of a defective education, and a certainty of lack of time, unfits me for such an undertaking.” When the chancellorship of the college was conferred upon him, he was much pleased, but accepted it only with the greatest diffidence, and after he had ascertained that no duties were required which he was not qualified to perform. Then he strove to place the institution on the best possible basis. “I rely fully,” he wrote to the directors, “on your strenuous endeavors for placing the system on such a basis as will render it more effective to the state and to the republic of letters, as well as to the interests of humanity and religion.”

Doubting his own ability, he relied on Hamilton, at the time of his presidency, to clothe and polish his thoughts, although he could “express himself with nervous force, and genuine and stately eloquence when moved.” His lack of schooling, however, only made him more anxious that others should have what he had missed. He paid the most earnest attention to the education of his own family, and gave bountifully to aid others. After reading his correspondence, one is surprised to see how fully he realized its importance, and how constantly he strove for its advancement.

Although Washington believed so strongly in application to books, his views of education were not so narrow as to be limited to this. He believed in practical knowledge also. He desired that young men should be prepared for their life work by knowing the business they were to pursue. He wished them to know how to care for their property, and to learn self-reliance. Nor did his scheme of education omit time for rest and exercise.

Washington had charge of the education of his wife’s son and grandson, and in his letters to them, written with the greatest care for their welfare, we gain much advice that might well be followed to-day. After his marriage to Martha Custis, Washington took care of the education of her son John. He made the youth his friend, and spent much time and thought on his education, securing the best instructors for him, and giving strict personal attention to his progress. At the age of sixteen John Custis had been placed under the charge of the Rev. John Bouchier in Annapolis. Soon after, a plan for travel in Europe was devised by the teacher and pupil, and Mr. Bouchier wrote to Washington to gain his consent. He hesitated, on account of the expense and the youth of Mr. Custis. The following letter to the tutor is interesting as showing Washington’s views on travel and education:—

My own inclinations are still as strong as ever for Mr. Custis pursuing his travelling scheme, provided court should approve of the expense, and it should appear, when his judgment was a little more matured, that he was desirous of undertaking the tour upon a plan of improvement rather than a vague desire of gratifying an idle curiosity or of spending his money. Not that I think his becoming a mere scholar a desirable education for a gentleman, but I can say the knowledge of books is the basis upon which other knowledge is to be built, and in travelling he is to become acquainted with men and things rather than books. At present, however well versed he may be in the principles of the Latin language (which is not to be wondered at, as he began the study of it as soon as he could speak), he is unacquainted with several of the classical authors which might be useful to him. He is ignorant of Greek, the divine advantages of learning which I do not pretend to judge, and he knows nothing of French, which is absolutely necessary to a traveller. He has little or no acquaintance with arithmetic, and is badly ignorant of mathematics, than which, at least so much as relates to surveying, nothing can be more necessary to a man possessed of a large landed estate, the bounds of some part or other of which are always in controversy.

The travelling scheme was finally abandoned, and in 1773 John Custis became engaged to Emily Calvert. Washington, fearing that ill might result from the marriage, on account of the age of the young people, urged that it be postponed, and it was agreed that Mr. Custis should be sent to King’s College, New York, for two years. Washington accompanied him to college, and introduced him to the president, Dr. Cooper. Several letters to this gentleman show that he was as careful as ever of the young man s welfare. In May, 1773, he writes, enclosing bills for one hundred pounds, to be placed at interest to defray Mr. Custis’s expenses in college. He asks Dr. Cooper to check the youth’s extravagance, and closes by inviting him to pay a visit to Mount Vernon. John Custis, however, did not remain long at King’s College, and in December Dr. Cooper received a letter from Washington expressing his pleasure at the favorable account he had received of Mr. Custis, and his sorrow that he must leave college on account of his approaching marriage. The letter ends by thanking him sincerely for his attentions to young Custis.

A few years after his marriage John Custis died, and Washington adopted his son and daughter as his own children. No father could have cared more earnestly for their moral and intellectual welfare. Nelly was instructed in music, and had her piano and harpsichord. Washington’s namesake, George Washington Parke Custis, received all the care which had formerly been bestowed upon his father. Amid all the care of the presidency he found time to write to him at college. Of the many letters which passed between Washington and his adopted son one, written in 1798, is interesting as giving minute directions for the disposal of his time, and bestowing much excellent advice. He begins by telling the young man that “system in all things should be aimed at, for in execution it renders everything more easy,” and continues with the day’s programme:—

If now and then of a morning, before breakfast, you are inclined to go out with a gun, I shall not object to it, provided you return by the hour we usually sit down to that meal. From breakfast until about one hour before dinner (allowed for dressing, and preparing for it, that you may appear decent) I shall expect you to confine yourself to your studies, and diligently to attend to them, endeavoring to make yourself master of whatever is recommended to or required of you. While the afternoons are short, and there is but little interval between rising from dinner and sitting down to tea, you may employ that time in walking or any other recreation. After tea, if the studies you are engaged in require it, you will doubtless perceive the propriety and advantage of returning to them until the hour of rest. Rise early, that by habit it may become familiar, agreeable, healthy, and profitable. It may for a while be irksome to do this, but that will wear off, and the practice will produce a rich harvest forever after, whether in the public or in the private walks of life. Make it an invariable rule to be in place (unless unusual circumstances prevent it) at the usual breakfast, dining, and tea hours. It is not only very disagreeable, but it is also very inconvenient for servants to be running here and there, when their duties and attendance on the company who are seated render it improper. Saturday may be appropriated to riding, to your gun, and to other amusements. Time disposed of in this manner makes ample provision for exercise, and for every useful and necessary recreation, and at the same time that the hours allotted to study, if really applied to it, instead of running up and down stairs, and wasting it in conversation with any one who will talk with you, will enable you to make considerable progress in whatever line is marked out for you.

John and George Custis were not the only boys who received Washington’s paternal care. At various times different nephews were educated by him. In his correspondence we find a series of interesting letters to George S. and Lawrence Washington, beginning when they were at school at Alexandria. Mr. Hanson, the boys’ tutor, seems to have been uncongenial to them, and the first letters are rebuking them for various misconduct. In a letter to George, written May 5, 1788, he chides him for absenting himself from his lodgings without permission. He commands him to be strictly obedient to Mr. Hanson in future, and urges him to remember that his future character and reputation depend very much upon the habits and manners contracted at this period of his life. The boys, however, did not agree any better with Hanson, and in August Washington writes to him, stating that he had found Lawrence, who had run away from chastisement, at home. Although he rebukes George for aiding his brother’s escape, he probably thought that the fault was not all on one side, as he gives strong advice to Hanson to treat his nephews as friends rather than as schoolboys. George, as the elder, received the greater share of the letters. One is interesting, recommending to him industry and application in his studies, and ending with directions about his clothes, the wearing of his best suit, etc. The boys were finally placed in charge of James Craik, and in September, 1789, Washington writes him from New York, expressing his pleasure at their good conduct, and stating the branches of study which he thinks necessary. “Those kinds of learning,” he writes, “which are to fit them for the most useful and necessary purposes of life, among which writing well and the less abstruse branches of mathematics are to be certainly comprehended, ought to be particularly attended to, and it is my earnest wish that it should be so.”

Washington’s letters so well represent his sympathy and interest in studies, that abundant quotation from them is the best method of showing how constantly the thought of education was in his mind. In October, 1789, James McWhis received this letter concerning his nephews:—

I have received your letter of the 12th ultimo, and am glad to learn from it that my nephews apply themselves with diligence to arithmetic and English composition. These branches I have always thought them deficient in, and have ever been pressingly desirous that they should be well acquainted with them. George may be instructed in the French language, but Lawrence had better apply himself for the present to his arithmetic, writing, and composition. As you failed in your endeavors to obtain a mathematical tutor, it is not probable that any success would attend an advertisement in a paper here. However, I shall have one inserted. I can give no particular opinion respecting the boy, whom you represent to be an uncommon genius. But I would cheerfully give any reasonable encouragement towards the cultivation of talents which hid fair to be useful.

At the close of this series of letters Washington sends to his nephews from Philadelphia a college prospectus, wishing them to decide about coming, and impressing upon George, if he comes, the necessity of studying and wasting no time. Washington also educated and counselled his nephew, Bushrod Washington. In 1793 he requested the widow of George A. Washington to allow him to educate her son, Fayette. Washington did not, however, limit his efforts in behalf of education to his own private family. Young men whom he knew to be earnest were gladly and generously aided by him. At the death of General Greene he wrote to his widow, offering to educate one of her sons. He did not wish that the young men aided should feel burdened by his help. Nothing can be more sincere or considerate than the following letter, proffering such assistance:Ô

MOUNT VERNON, January 29, 1769.


Having once or twice heard you speak highly of the New Jersey College, as if you had a desire of sending your son William there (who, I am told, is a youth fond of study and instruction, and disposed to a studious life, in following which he may not only promote his future happiness, but the future welfare of others), I should be glad, if you have no other objection to it than the expense, if you would send him as soon as convenient, and depend on me for £25 a year for his support, so long as it may be necessary for the completion of his education. If I live to see the accomplishment of this term, the sum here stipulated shall be annually paid and if I die, this letter shall be obligatory upon my heirs or executors to do it according to the true intent and meaning hereof. No other return is expected or wished for this offer than that you will accept it with the same freedom and good-will with which it is made, and that you may not consider it in the light of an obligation or mention it as such, for be assured that from me it will never he known.

Many were his private charities in behalf of education. He was specially interested in a school for the instruction of indigent children in Alexandria. In December, 1785, he writes to the trustees of the Alexandria academy as follows:—

It has long been my intention to invest at my death £1000 current money of this state, the interest only of which to be applied in instituting a school in the town of Alexandria for the purpose of educating orphan children who have no other resource, or the children of such indigent parents as are unable to give it, the objects to be considered and determined by the trustees for the time being, when applied to by the parents or friends of the children who have pretensions to this provision. It is not in my power to advance the above sum but that a measure that may be productive of good may not be delayed, I will, until my death, or until it shall be more convenient for my estate to advance the principal, pay the interest thereof, to wit £50, annually. Under this state of the matter, I submit to your consideration the practicability and propriety of blending the two institutions together, so as to make one seminary under the direction of the president, visitors, or such other establishment as to you shall seem hest calculated to promote the objects in view, and for preserving order and good conduct in the institution. My intention, as I have before intimated, is that the principal sum shall never be broken in upon, and the interest only he applied for the purpose above mentioned. It was also my intention to apply the latter to the sole purpose of education, and of that kind of education which would he most extensively useful to people of the lower class, so as to fit them for mechanical purposes, namely, reading, writing, and arithmetic. The fund, if confined to this, would comprehend more subjects; but if you shall he of the opinion that the proposition I now offer can he made to comport with the institution of the school which is already established, and approve of an incorporation in the manner before mentioned, and thereafter, upon a full consideration of the matter, should conceive that this fund would he more advantageously applied towards clothing and schooling than solely to the latter, I will acquiesce in it most cheerfully; and I shall he ready, as soon as the trustees are established upon a permanent footing, to vest the aforesaid sum of £1000 in them and their successors forever, with powers to direct and manage the same agreeably to these my declared intentions.

This proposal was accepted by the trustees, who agreed to do all in their power to comply with the benevolent intention of the donor. They also stated that it was best, in their opinion, that the fund should be appropriated to the institution as then established, and wholly for schooling. Washington was not satisfied with merely contributing money towards the support of this school. Some years later, answering a letter from James Muir, a clergyman, requesting his annual donation, he expresses his pleasure in appropriating and paying money for such a purpose. “I confess, however,” he adds, “I should derive satisfaction from knowing what children have hitherto received the benefit of it, and who are now in enjoyment of it. Never since the commencement of this institution have I received the least information, except in a single instance, on this head, although application for it to individuals has been frequently made.” The letter concludes by begging Mr. Muir to be kind enough to gratify his wish. In reply he received a particular account of each child, most of whom were of the poorer class and destitute of other aid. At his death Washington gave £4000 to this school, the principal bequeathed in perpetuity, and the interest alone to be used.

He felt sympathy in the efforts of other states or individuals to further the cause of education. In 1785 we find him writing to Chase concerning public schools:—

The attention which your Assembly is giving to the establishment of public schools for the encouragement of literature does them honor. To accomplish this ought to he one of our first endeavors. I know of no object more interesting. We want something to expand the mind, and make us think with more liberality, and act with sounder policy, than most of the states do. We should consider that we are not now in leading strings. It behooves us, therefore, to look well to our ways.

Nothing that would be of the least benefit to educational institutions did Washington consider too trifling to be done by him. At one time, although burdened with heavy cares, he consented to sit for a picture to be presented to Harvard College, declaring himself most happy to aid it in this way. After his election as president, he wrote thanking Harvard and Dartmouth for their congratulatory addresses. His letter to the president of the University of Pennsylvania expresses his delight at being “considered by the patrons of literature as one of their number.” Lamenting his lack of abilities to make his service greater, he states his full appreciation of the influence “which sound learning has in religion, manners, government, liberty, and laws.” He also hoped that the arts and sciences might flourish more vigorously.

Washington, however, had broader plans for the advancement of education than what he might do for individuals or for the institutions of his state. The scheme of his old age, the founding of a National University, is of the deepest interest. To him it was more than “an enlarged plan”; it was a full idea. In his speeches to Congress, and in his private letters, he repeatedly considers this project, and carefully investigates any chance that is likely to further it.

The material basis for its advancement was gained through his interest in another plan to benefit the nation,—the opening of the great West. To show the many-sidedness of Washington’s character, it will not be inappropriate to sketch briefly his part in this work. From his youth Washington had realized the immense value of the western lands. As early as 1749 his brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, had been prime movers in the Ohio Company, for the colonization of the Ohio valley. Washington himself had borne a gallant part in the struggle between the English and the French for the possession of the West, and he had gained there, as bounties for his military service, immense tracts of land. Before the Revolution he had striven to incorporate a company for the extension of the navigation of the Potomac; but this plan was frustrated by the outbreak of the war in 1775. At the close of the war his mind turned again to the establishment of a water communication between the eastern and western territory; and even before the final declaration of peace he journeyed over the Mohawk route. Three months later he started on a more extensive exploring tour along the headwaters of the Ohio, and formed a project of establishing communication between the rivers flowing into the Ohio and those flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. Such a connection between East and West was badly needed, if they were to form one country. The western settlers, hemmed in by the Spaniards and the English, their rights disregarded, as they thought, by Congress, became more and more desperate, and even contemplated seeking support from England. “The western states,” Washington truly wrote, “stand as it were upon a pivot. The touch of a feather would turn them any way.̵ Considering also the great commercial value of such a connection, Washington wrote, on his return, to Benjamin Harrison, governor of Virginia, giving prospectus of routes, pointing out the advantages that would arise from the opening of the trade with the Indians and settlers, and insisting on the necessity of binding together East and West. The Virginia legislature took up the question, appointed a commission for surveys, and organized two companies, the Potomac and the James, to carry the plans into effect.

As a testimony to “the unexampled merits of George Washington towards his country,” he was presented with fifty James and one hundred Potomac shares. Although deeply grateful to the legislature, the thought of personal emolument was intolerable to Washington “How would this matter be received by the eye of the world, ” he writes to Governor Harrison, “and what would be the opinion of it, when it came to be related that George Washington has received twenty thousand dollars and five thousand pounds sterling of the public money as a mark of interest therein?” He was, however, unwilling that the undertaking should be hindered by his action, and therefore decided, if agreeable to the Assembly, to hold the shares in trust for “objects of a public nature.”

Nothing seemed to him more likely to advance the national welfare than the establishment of educational institutions. A letter to Edmund Randolph shows his first plan for the disposal of the shares.

Although it is not my intention to derive any pecuniary advantage from the generous vote of the Assembly of this State, in consequence of its gratuitous gift of shares in the navigation of each of the rivers Potomac and James [he writes], yet, as I consider these undertakings of vast commercial importance to the states on the Atlantic, especially to those nearest the centre of the Union, and adjoining the western territory, I can let no act of mine impede the progress of the work. I have, therefore, come to the determination to hold the shares which the treasurer was directed to subscribe on my account, in trust for the use and benefit of the public; unless I should be able to discover before the meeting of the Assembly that it would be agreeable to it to have the product of the tolls arising from these shares applied to a fund, on which to establish two charity schools, one on each river, for the education and support of the children of the poor of this country, particularly the children of those men of this description who have fallen in defence of the rights and liberties of it. If the plan succeed, of which I have no doubt, I am sure it will be a very productive and increasing fund, and the moneys thus applied will be a beneficial institution.

In October, I 785, Washington communicated to the legislature through Patrick Henry, then governor, his “profound and grateful acknowledgments for so signal a mark of their beneficent intentions” towards him.

But [he adds] I must pray that their act, so far as it has been for my personal emolument, may not have its force. But if it should please the General Assembly to permit me to turn the destination of the fund vested in me from my Private emolument to objects of a public nature, it will be my study in selecting them to prove the sincerity of my gratitude for the honor conferred upon me, by preferring such as appear most subservient to the enlightened and patriotic views of the legislature.

The Assembly passed an act by which the shares were assigned to such public objects as he should direct during life or by will. As before stated, the purpose which he had in view was the encouragement of education, and he now set about determining the most efficient means for the advancement of his views. His original purpose, as shown in his correspondence with Edmund Randolph and Thomas Jefferson, was to appropriate the Potomac and James River stock for the establishment of two charity schools, one on each of the above rivers, for the education and support of the children of the men who had fallen in defence of American liberty. Afterwards he declared his conviction that it would be better to concentrate all the shares upon the establishment of a national university in the District of Columbia, under the auspices of the national government. Yet, from a desire to reconcile his gratitude to Virginia with great public good, he decided to lay the matter before the Assembly, and concentrate all upon the university, or divide it, as they willed. Writing to Robert Brooke, governor of Virginia, he states that it has ever been his desire to appropriate the shares to a worthy object. He continues that he has seen with regret the youth of the United States going abroad to college, and that the time has now come to establish a plan of universal education in the United States. “It has been represented,” he writes, “that a university considerably endowed is contemplated to he established in the Federal City.” As it was near to Virginia, he proposed to donate to it the Potomac shares. The James River shares, as he thinks it will be more agreeable to the legislature, he will reserve for a seminary in that state. He closes by stating his opinion that it would be better to give all the shares to the proposed university, and begs that the letter be laid before the Assembly. They resolved that the plan for the national university deserved the countenance of each state, and that the Potomac shares be appropriated for it, but “that he be requested to give the James River shares to some seminary in the upper country of Virginia.”

In September, 1796, Washington announced to Robert Brooke his intention to give, in accordance with their wishes, the James shares to Liberty Hall Academy, at Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia. “ I am disposed to believe,” he writes to the governor and legislature of Virginia, “that a seminary of learning upon an enlarged plan, but yet not coming up to the full idea of a university, is an institution to be preferred for the position which is chosen. The students who wish to pursue the whole range of science may pass with advantage from the seminary to the university, and the former by a due relation may be rendered co-operative with the latter.” Liberty Hall Academy was incorporated in 1789. In 1798, in consideration of this endowment, it was named Washington Academy, and in 1812 was chartered as Washington College. In 1821 the stock was so valuable that the annual income from the donation was two thousand four hundred dollars. Since the presidency of General Robert E. Lee, and his death there, the name of the college has been changed to Washington and Lee University.

Strangely enough the Potomac shares, in which Washington placed such great hopes for the founding of a national university, have never become productive, and the national university has never advanced beyond the recommendation of the first President. Yet for the success of this favorite scheme Washington strove with great earnestness, and nothing which hinted at a promise of advancing it was counted unworthy of his careful consideration. Before the manner of dividing the shares had been decided, he wrote to Edmund Randolph, asking him to lay his plans before the Virginia Assembly, that he might know what steps to take with regard to the university. This letter, marked private, is as follows:—

PHILADELPHIA, December 15, 1794.

DEAR SIR,— For the reasons mentioned to you the other day, namely the Virginia Assembly being in session, and a plan being on foot for establishing a seminary of learning upon an extensive scale in the Federal City, it would oblige me if you and Mr. Madison would endeavor to mature the measures, which will be proper for me to pursue, in order to bring my designs into view, as soon as you can make it convenient. I do not know that the enclosed or sentiments similar to them are proper to be engrafted in the communications which are to be made to the legislature of Virginia, or to the gentlemen who are named as trustees of the seminary which is proposed to be established in the Federal City; but as it is an extract of what is contained in my Will on the subject, I send it merely for consideration.

The extract from the will referred to in this letter is well worth quoting, as showing what great importance Washington attached to the founding of a national university, and the studies in which he thought it necessary for such an institution to ground its pupils. After stating the manner in which he became possessed of the James and Potomac shares, he proceeds:—

I proceed, after this recital, for the more correct understanding of the case, to declare that, as it has always been a source of serious regret to me, to see the youth of these United States sent to foreign countries for the purposes of education, often before their minds were formed, or they had imbibed any adequate ideas of the happiness of their own country; contracting too frequently, not only habits of dissipation and extravagance, but principles unfriendly to republican government, and to the true and genuine liberties of mankind, which thereafter are rarely overcome; for these reasons it has been my ardent wish to see a plan devised, on a liberal scale, which would have a tendency to spread systematic ideas through all parts of this rising empire, thereby to do away with local attachments and State prejudices, as far as the nature of things would, or indeed ought to admit, from our national councils. Looking anxiously forward to the accomplishment of so desirable an object as this is (in my estimation), my mind has not been able to contemplate any plan more likely to effect the measure, than the establishment of a university in a central part of the United States, to which the youths of fortune and talents from all parts thereof might he sent for the completion of their education in all the branches of polite literature, in the arts and sciences, in acquiring knowledge in the principles of politics and good government; and, as a matter of infinite importance in my judgment, by associating with each other, and forming friendships in juvenile years, he enabled to free themselves in a proper degree from those local prejudices and habitual jealousies, which have been just mentioned, and which, when carried to excess, are never-failing sources of disquiet to the public mind, and pregnant with mischievous consequences to the country. Under these impressions so fully dilated, I give and bequeath in perpetuity the fifty shares, which I hold in the Potomac Company (under the aforesaid acts of the legislature of Virginia), towards the endowment of a university to he established within the limits of the District of Columbia, under the auspices of the general government, if that government should incline to extend a fostering hand towards it; and until such seminary is established, and the funds arising on these shares shall he required for its support, my further will and desire is, that the profit accruing therefrom shall, whenever the dividends are made, he laid out in purchasing stock in the hank of Columbia, or some other hank, at the discretion of my executors, or by the treasurer of the United States for the time being, under the direction of Congress, provided that honorable body should patronize the measure; and the dividends proceeding from the purchase of such stock, are to he invested in more stock, and so on until a sum adequate to the accomplishment of the object shall he obtained, of which I have not the smallest doubt before many years pass away, even if no aid or encouragement is given by legislative authority, or from any other source. The hundred shares, which I hold in the James River Company, I have given, and now confirm, in perpetuity, to and for the use and benefit of Liberty Hall Academy, in the county of Rockbridge, in the commonwealth of Virginia.

In 1794 and 1795 a plan was proposed which seems so impracticable than we cannot believe that Washington would have thought it even worth his consideration, had it not been connected with his beloved university. A revolution had demolished the college at Geneva, and proposals were made to Washington, John Adams, and other leading Americans, by M. D’Ivernois, a Genevan, for the transferrence of the college to America. The plan seems to have been to remove to the United States all the professors, and to establish the academy under the supervision of the government, and supported, in part at least, by it. Washington’s chief objections to the scheme are set forth in this letter to the Vice-President, John Adams:—

I have not been able to give the papers herewith enclosed more than a hasty reading, returning them without delay that you may offer the perusal of them to whomsoever you shall think proper. The picture drawn of the Genevese is really interesting and affecting. The proposition of transplanting the members entire of that place to America, with the requisition of means to establish the same, and to he accompanied by a considerable emigration, is important, requiring more consideration than under the circumstances I am capable of bestowing on it. That a national university is a thing to he desired has always been my decided opinion; and the appropriation of grounds and funds for it in the Federal City has long been contemplated and talked of, but how far matured, or how far the transplanting of an entire seminary of foreigners, who may not understand our language, can he assimilated therein is more than I am prepared to give an opinion upon; or indeed, how far funds in either case are attainable. My opinion, with respect to emigration, is, that except useful mechanics and some particular descriptions of men or professions, there is no need of encouragement; while the policy or advantage of its taking place in a body (I mean the settling of them in a body) may he much questioned; for by doing so they retain the language, habits, and principles, good or had, which they bring with them. Whereas, by an intermixture with our people, they or their descendants get assimilated to our customs, measures, and laws; in a word, become one people. I shall, at any leisure hour after the session is fully opened, take pleasure in a full and free conversation with you on this subject.

Although Washington desired the establishment of a university, he wished it to be more essentially American. He did not think the transplanting of professors advisable, as it would not only lead to the spread of foreign ideas, but exclude Americans of ability, and thus remove a desired impetus to study. Although the matter was discussed in the letters of Washington and other prominent men, the plan was finally abandoned and other projects for a university were considered. Indeed, as Professor Adams says, “Washington’s letters after 1794 are full of allusions to this new scheme, and he never tires of expatiating upon the advantages which would arise from a school of politics where the future guardians of liberty might receive their training.” He expresses his intentions and sentiments concerning such an institution in a letter to the commissioners of the Federal District:—

GENTLEMEN,—A plan for the establishment of a university in the Federal City has frequently been the subject of conversation, but in what manner it is proposed to commence this important institution, or on how extensive a scale, the means by which it is to be effected, how it is to be supported, or what progress is made in it are matters altogether unknown to me. It has always been a source of serious reflection and sincere regret with me that the youth of the United States should be sent to foreign countries for the purpose of education. Although there are many who escape the danger of contracting principles unfavorable to republican governments, yet we ought to deprecate the hazard attending ardent and susceptible minds from being too strongly and too early prejudiced in favor of other political systems, before they are capable of appreciating their own. For this reason I have greatly wished to see a plan adopted by which the arts, sciences, and belles-lettres could be taught in their fullest extent, thereby embracing all the advantages of European tuition, with the means of acquiring the liberal knowledge which is necessary to qualify our citizens for the exigencies of public as well as private life; and (which with me is a consideration of great magnitude) by assembling the youth from the different parts of the rising republic, contributing from their intercourse and interchange of information to the removal of prejudices which might sometimes arise from local circumstances. The Federal City, from its centrality and the advantages which in other respects it must have over any other place in the United States, ought to be preferred as a proper site for such a university. And if a plan can be adopted upon a scale as extensive as I have described, and the execution of it should commence under favorable auspices in a reasonable time with a fair prospect of success. I will grant in perpetuity fifty shares in the navigation of the Potomac River towards it. What annuity will arise from these shares, when the navigation is in full operation, can at this time only be conjectured; and those who are acquainted with it can form as good a judgment as myself. As the design of this university has assumed no form with which I am acquainted, and as I am equally ignorant who the persons are, who have taken or are disposed to take the maturing of the plan upon themselves, I have been at loss to whom I should make this communication of my intentions. If the commissioners of the Federal City have any particular agency in bringing the matter forward, then the information which I now give is in proper course. If, on the other hand, they have no more to do with it than many who are desirous of seeing so important a matter carried into effect, they will be so good as to excuse my using them as a medium for disclosing my intentions; because it appears necessary that the funds for the establishment and support of the institution should he known to the promoters of it, and I see no mode more eligible for announcing my purpose. For these reasons, I give you the trouble of this address.

In March of this same year, 1795, in a letter to Jefferson, he states that he was always disposed to give the shares to found a national university, and mentions his letter to the Federal Commissioners, here quoted. He sets forth his reasons for preferring the Federal City for the location of the proposed university. As the seat of government it would be free from local prejudices, and because of its centrality it could be easily reached. The general government could then have jurisdiction over it, and the pupils, by attending the debates, might learn the principles of government. Then, too, Virginia would profit by such a situation.

Nor did Washington’s efforts cease with private letters. He strove zealously for the advancement of education, in his official capacity. In his first speech to Congress, after begging them to provide a proper military establishment, he made an elaborate appeal in behalf of education, and urged the foundation of a national university. He said:—

Nothing can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the earnest of public happiness. In one in which the measures of government receive their impression so immediately from the community as in ours, it is proportionately essential. To the security of a free country, it contributes in various ways; by convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration, that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people; and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their rights, to discern and provide against invasion of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority, between burdens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last, and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments with an inviolable respect to the laws. Whether this desirable object be best promoted by affording aids to seminaries and institutions of learning already established, or by the institution of a national university, or by any other expedients, will he worthy of a place in the deliberations of the legislature.

In 1796 he again urgently called the attention of Congress to the subject of education, and forcibly represented to them the benefits which would result from the founding of a university, concluding:—

Among the motives for such an institution, the assimilation of the principles, opinions, and manners of our country-men by the common education of our youth from every quarter well deserves attention. The more homogeneous our citizens can be made in these particulars, the greater will be the 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 can be 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?

Washington had desired to insert a clause concerning a national university in his Farewell Address, but Hamilton persuaded him to urge it in this last speech to Congress instead. Yet even in the address his thoughts turned to education as an important factor in the welfare of a country. In his Farewell Address to the people of the United States, Sept. 17, 1796, he exhorts them to promote the cause of learning. “Promote, then,” he urges, “as objects of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

It is probable that all the benefits which Washington desired would not have sprung from the founding of a national university; yet the comprehensiveness of the scheme, both in regard to the branches of study to be pursued, and the effect of such an institution upon the nation, makes it well worthy attention. As has been shown, Washington’s letters clearly define his ideas on this subject. The university was to be strictly national. Here the pupils were to gain knowledge of the true glory of their country, and establish principles which would make them wise and loyal citizens. Here they would learn to love their country as one and indivisible, and the “local prejudices” and sectional jealousies which Washington had just reason to deplore deeply would vanish before this broader view of union. This institution also was intended to furnish the tools with which the future of the nation should be shaped. In the Federal City the students could see the practical workings of the government. The “principles of politics and good government” are maintained as worthy of special attention in the course of study at the university.

In these days of striving for a broader knowledge of economic laws [says Professor Herbert Adams], for a better civil service, and for a thorough understanding of the principles of legislation, is it not well to consider for a moment Washington’s plan for the education of our youth in the science of government? Since it is purely a matter of fact that the most trusty and efficient servants of whom this country can boast are trained at a government institution which was suggested by George Washington in a speech to Congress as second only to a national university, it is not unlikely that there may he some essence of political wisdom even in the larger project. Washington said, ̰the art of war is at once comprehensive and complicated; it demands much previous study.’ The American people found out some years ago that Washington was right; and they are now beginning to suspect that even the art of government requires study, and that possibly a ‘flourishing state of the arts and sciences contributes to national prosperity and reputation.’

This university, however, was to be no mere school of politics. Washington wished the advantages for intellectual training which it should offer to equal those of the best universities in Europe. He fully appreciated the civilizing influence of literary culture, and regarded such training of the mind as essential to the highest welfare of a nation. He knew that if the experiment of a republic was to succeed, public sentiment must be pure and enlightened. He wished that at this university the youth of the United States might be able to complete “their education in all branches of polite literature,” and “in the arts and sciences.” His extensive scheme even included botanical gardens.

Although each state in the Union provides, and for the most part generously, for the education of its people, we cannot avoid regretting that Washington’s experiment was not tried. The plan of such a national school appears feasible and wise yet it remains for future generations to make the desire of our first President a reality.