Note: Image is George Cooke’s View of Athens from Carr’s Hill (1845).

This summer, I am taking a course on the history of higher education in the United States. For my dissertation, I looked at histories of literary and composition studies in America: Thomas Miller, Nan Johnson, Sharon Crowley, Brian Horner, Shirley Wilson Logan, and more. Since then, I have broadened my scope on examining the history of higher education in America to include a more comprehensive and overarching view of institutional life and policy. As such, a course that traces the long view of higher education in the US is fascinating to me. Today, I want to write about a couple of items that have stuck out to me in my initial readings for this course.

One of the required texts for the course is John R. Thelin’s Essential Documents in the History of American Higher Education (2014). Basically, Thelin’s book is a collection of documents that traces higher education from the colonial period through the present. These texts include college charters, convocation speeches, memoirs from students, legal acts, academic studies, and more. It’s pretty eyeopening.


Reading the University of Georgia’s charter from 1785, I became struck by some of the ideas in the opening paragraph.

As it is the distinguishing happiness of free governments that civil Order should be the Result of choice and not necessity, and the common wishes of the People become the Laws of the Land, their public prosperity and even existence very much depends upon suitably forming the minds and morals of their Citizens. When the Minds of people in general are viciously disposed and unprincipled and their Conduct disorderly, a free government will be attended with greater Confusions and with Evils more horrid than the wild, uncultivated State of Nature. It can only be happy where the public principles and Opinions are properly directed and their Manners regulated. This is an influence beyond the Stretch of Laws and punishments and can be claimed only by Religion and Education.

Here, the founders of UGA laid the foundation for the institution to create “Citizens” of the new republic. What does this entail? Why focus on the whole student and not just on one or two aspects? The founders point out that in order for a democracy ruled by the people to succeed, there needs to a place for “suitably forming the minds and morals” of those who will ultimately partake in that society.

This admonition to center on the construction of citizens who will benefit the whole permeated the early republic. We need only look at the idea of Republican Motherhood to see a corollary in the home. Here, women were tasked with educated the children, specifically the boys, in all things religious and moral that would make them beneficial members of society.

The purpose of an educated citizenry, in the new republic, was to hopefully eliminate the “Confusions” and “Evils” of the society and eventually lead to “public prosperity.” This idea, of course, differed from previous educational endeavors because in Europe, and especially Britain, the universities existed “existed under the jurisdiction of the monarchy” (Thelin). Thus, descent would be mitigated. While the UGA charter espouses democratic ideals, we must also remember that the founders of most institutions had an agenda, whether explicitly stated or not. They restricted access, and by this restriction, they sought to cultivate within the students the ideas that would expand the new republic and uphold the values they held dear. These thoughts lead to the second part of the first paragraph.

It should therefore be among the first objects of those who wish well to the national prosperity to encourage and support the principles of Religion and morality, and early to place the youth under the forming hand of Society that by instruction they may be moulded to the love of Virtue and good Order. Sending them abroad to other countries for their education will not answer these purposes, – is too humiliating an acknowledgment of the Ignorance or Inferiority of our own, and will always be the Cause of so great foreign attachments that upon principles of policy it is not admissible. This Country in the times of our common danger and distress found such Security in the principles and abilities which wise regulations had before established in the minds of our countrymen, that our present happiness joined to pleasing prospects should conspire to make us feel ourselves under the strongest obligation to form the youth, the rising hope of our Land to render the like glorious & essential Services to our country. And whereas for the great purpose of internal education, divers allotments of land have, at different times, been made, particularly by the Legislature at their Session in July One thousand seven hundred and eighty three, and February One thousand seven hundred and eighty four, all of which my be comprehended and made the basis of one general and complete establishment.

What caught my attention here was nothing really new, but I found it interesting. After declaring the role of the university in creating “Citizens,” the founders move on to proclaim that students must shed their dependence on Britain and Europe for their education. This does not come as a shock considering this is the end of the Revolutionary War and a moment when the new nation wants to set itself apart from Europe.

For me, the humiliation the founders express in sending students abroad brings to mind the countless discussions about the formation of a distinctly American literature and culture. “[T]he Ignorance or Inferiority of [America]” at this stage causes embarrassment and pushes individuals abroad. When this occurs, then America, although free of British rule, becomes subservient to British culture and ideas. Does this, the founders ask, help to raise the new nation? The answer would be no. American education exists as “the strongest obligation to form the youth, the rising hope of our Land to render the like glorious & essential Services to our country.” This cannot be done with foreign education.

The opening paragraph of UGA’s charter is important because of the ideas it espouses. By constructing education as important to the formation of moral and religious citizens, the charter highlights the role of institutions to mold the entire student, not just certain aspects that may lead to a high paying vocation. This is an issue that still appears in debates about higher education today, and it is one that I will pick up on in the next post when I look at a section Thomas Dew’s address to students at William and Mary in 1836.

The other aspect that arises is the the founders’ desire to remove themselves from the cultural control of Britain and Europe. As I said, this is not out of the ordinary. I am interested in this aspect because it provides a different angle and view, apart from literature, to see the ways that the early republic sought to construct its own identity. Again, this is something that Dew addresses almost fifty years later.

What are your thoughts? As usual,  let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.




1 Comment on “The History of American Higher Ed in UGA’s 1785 Charter

  1. Pingback: Are Colleges Just Vocational Schools? | Interminable Rambling

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