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George Washington's Service To Education

( Originally Published 1916 )


Washington's ideas concerning education have the approval of educators of our day. He was in advance of his age; it is a question if we have quite caught up with him. Of the two plans of his mature years and ripened experience, one has been realized, the West Point idea, which brings together, from every State and Territory of the Union, young men to be trained for military service; that other plan of a National University, with schools of administration and statesmanship, is yet being considered.

Washington shared neither the least nor the most of the educational advantages of his colony. The elder brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, had realized their father's hopes, and had been sent to England for their schooling as he had been for his, but the early death of the father defeated that plan for George, so he obtained the early preparation for his life work from the home university," over which Mary Washington presided, a loving and wise head. At times George was with his brother Augustine at Bridges Creek, to be near the best parish school, and then he was at home ; but all the time he was advancing rapidly in that school of men and affairs. " He was above all things else, a capable, executive boy," says Woodrow Wilson in his biography. " He loved mastery and he relished acquiring the most effective means of mastery in all practical affairs. His very exercise books, used at school, gave proof of it." As he did these things with care and industry, so he followed with zest the spirited diversions of the hunt and the life in fields and forests. Very early he put his knowledge of the surveyor's art to practical test, and applied the chain and logarithm to the reaches of the family lands. His skill came to the notice of Lord Fairfax, who wished to know the extent of the lands he had inherited in the New World. Washington, though but sixteen, was equal to the task; in a month's time, after fording swollen streams and penetrating the forests, he presented to Lord Fairfax maps and figures which showed him the extent and boundaries of his estate. For three years Washington followed this fascinating yet perilous work, and then, being strongly recommended by Lord Fairfax, and himself being able to show in clear, round style his mastery of the art and science of surveying, he received in 1748 from the President of William and Mary College the appointment as official surveyor for Culpeper County; such a certificate was equivalent to a degree of civil engineer in those days.

Thus from an institution of higher learning, George Washington received the first public recognition of service, and of merit. It was the turning point in his life; it opened up fully the path to those experiences which equipped him for that efficient service in the French and Indian War, and the Revolution.

The honorable position of Chancellor had been held by the Bishops of London from the foundation of the College in 1693 to the Revolution. The old statute defining the duties of the office is interesting: "The Chancellor is to be the Maecenas, or patron of the College; such a one as by his favor with the King and by his interest with all other persons in England may be enabled to help in all the College affairs. His advice is to be taken, especially in such arduous and momentous affairs as the College shall have to do in England. If the College has any petitions at any time to the King, let them be presented by the Chancellor." We can imagine a grim smile on Washington's countenance as he read the provisions made concerning the functions of his office, especially that of conferring with the King.

In his letter to Samuel Griffin, Esq., Rector of the College, accepting his appointment, he says: " Influenced by a heartfelt desire to promote the cause of science in general and the prosperity of the College of William and Mary in particular, I accept the office of Chancellor in the same, and request you will be pleased to give official notice thereof to the learned body who have thought proper to honor me with the appointment. I confide fully in their strenuous endeavors for placing the system of education on such a basis as will render it most beneficial to the State, and the Republic of letters, as well as to the more extensive interests of humanity and religion." This call to the leadership of education in his own State antedated his election to the Presidency of the new Republic by a year, and he continued in that service to the College of William and Mary until the close of his life.

About the close of the Revolution, the State of Maryland began to broaden its educational institutions. The School of Kent County at Chestertown was placed in 1780 under the charge of the Rev. Dr. William Smith, the minister of the parish who had been President of the College of Philadelphia until its charter was revoked. Dr. Smith conducted the Academy at Chestertown with great energy and ability, and in 1782 the Visitors of the Academy asked that it be made a college; the legislature made provision that when a total endowment of five thou-sand pounds currency should be provided for the school, it should be incorporated into a college, with enlarged courses of study and suitable professors, and should be denominated Washington College, " in honorable and perpetual memory of his Excellency, General Washington, the illustrious and virtuous Commander-in-Chief, of the armies of the United States." In five months the energetic trustees raised $14,000; Washington contributed fifty guineas. The College was at once incorporated, and in the following year, at its first commencement, its endowment had increased to $28,000. It was the first college in Maryland ; Washington was elected as a member of the first Board of Visitors, but being with the army at Newburgh, was unable to take his place on the Board, until the second commencement of the College in 1784. Five years later, the College bestowed upon Washington the degree of Doctor of Laws; his letter of acknowledgment expressed the sentiment that, " in civilized societies the welfare of the state and the happiness of the people are advanced or retarded in proportion as the morals and education of the youth are attended to. I cannot forbear on this occasion to express the satisfaction which I feel on seeing the increase of our seminaries of learning through the extensive country, and the general wish which seems to prevail for establishing and maintaining these valuable institutions." The old College has suffered by fire, and the vicissitudes of fortune, yet it has lived through the years, and is today doing a prosperous and noble work.

The Potomac and Virginia Company, and the James River Company were among those organizations for transportation which Washington aided for the opening up of the country. There was a recognition of his services to the country, and the legislature of Virginia in 1785, through Patrick Henry, then Governor, gave Washington fifty shares in the Potomac and Virginia Company, and one hundred shares in the James River Company. Washington replied that he had resolutely shut his hand against every pecuniary recompense during the revolutionary struggle; and that he could not change that position. He added that, if the legislature would allow him to turn the gifts from his own private emolument to objects of a public nature, he would endeavor to select objects which would meet the most enlightened and patriotic views of the Assembly of Virginia. The proposition met with hearty approval, and Washington held the stock in both companies, awaiting the time when proper and worthy objects should be found for the benefactions.

In 1785 he proposed to Edmund Randolph and Thomas Jefferson, that the revenue of the stock in those companies be used for the establishment of two schools, one upon each river, for the education of poor children, particularly those whose parents had fallen in the struggle for liberty. The idea was a noble one, yet Washington's call to the large service of the College of William and Mary as its Chancellor, and to the country as its President, pre-vented him from carrying it out. He carried out the spirit of his idea by giving fifty pounds a year for the instruction of poor children in Alexandria, and by making large provision for the education of the sons of soldiers. In 1783 he honored a Prince-ton commencement by his presence, and bestowed upon the College a gift of fifty pounds. A tour through Georgia in 1790 gave him opportunity to visit and approve of the Academy of Augusta. About the same time the indomitable Kirkland, missionary to the Iroquois, was trying every source of influence and money in behalf of an academy in Oneida County, New York, to be located near the old Property Line, where both the sons of the settlers and the children of the forest might be educated. His visit to Philadelphia secured a generous benefaction from Washington, and at the same time his influence and that of others, so that Congress appropriated $15,000 yearly to " instruct the Iroquois in agriculture and the useful arts."

Washington had now matured his idea of a national university. He was ready to lay it before the country, and to be the first contributor to its endowment. Virginia was taking new interest in its schools and the influence of William and Mary College was widening : there was a demand for more thoroughly equipped academies. The school at Augusta, which the Revolution had been the means of christening Liberty Hall, had become prominent. In 1796 Washington settled upon Liberty Hall as the proper recipient of the one hundred shares in the James River Company to augment its endowment. In accepting the gift the name of the academy was changed, and the trustees were able to sign themselves, " the trustees of Washington Academy, late Liberty Hall." Washington was greatly touched by the honor, and ascribed his ability to make the donation to " the generosity of the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia."

The institution prospered. About 1802 a new charter was granted with larger powers, under the name of Washington College. John Robinson, a soldier of the Revolution under Washington, gave, in emulation of his illustrious commander, his entire estate to Washington College; from it the trustees realized $40,000 toward the endowment. The stock of the James River Company, which Washington transferred to the College, to-day yields an in-come of six per cent. on $50,000, and, after prospering years, the College has now a productive endowment of $600,000, and a property worth $800,000. The country has passed through many critical periods since Washington's day, and the Union is stronger than ever. The old College is a witness to the all-healing power of time and kinship, for its name has again been added to : it is Washington and Lee University now; and thus is joined with the name of the Father of His Country the name of one whom the South has ever loved, whom the North long since forgave, and whose memory the country will ever cherish.

The Revolutionary War was a costly experiment of education in military affairs in the field; it cost heavily in blood and treasure. Washington realized that preparation for service in the army must be had in military schools.

From the very beginning of the war until the end of his life, by official message and by letter, Washington urged the importance of military instruction. In his message to Congress in 1796 he said : " The institution of a military academy is recommended by cogent reasons. However pacific the general policy of a nation may be, it ought never to be without an adequate stock of military knowledge for emergencies. In proportion as the observance from the necessity of practicing the rules of the military art, ought to be its care in preserving and transmitting by proper establishments the knowledge of that art. A thorough examination of the subject will evince that the art of war is extensive and complicated; that it demands much previous study; and that the possession of it in its most important and perfect state is always of great moment to the security of a nation." Congress did make provision for the carrying out of many of the President's recommendations; it created a new grade in the army, that of Cadet, to which young men exclusively were admitted, and money was appropriated for their education in the science of war that they might be prepared for positions of command. But Congress delayed the potential part of the plan; it did not collect the regiment of artillerists and engineers at a single station, nor did it erect buildings for the uses of education.

The idea did not die ; in 18o2 Congress made the first of those provisions for a military academy with the plan and scope which Washington had so persistently urged. West Point was chosen as the place of its location. That academy has more than once demonstrated the wisdom of the far-seeing Washington.

West Point is the realization of Washington's plans for a national school of military instruction. To-day it represents to the country the important features of that plan for a National University. By his last will and testament, Washington bequeathed the fifty shares of stock in the Potomac Company to the establishment of a National University in the central part of the United States; he made provision that until such a university should be founded the fund should be self-accumulating by the use of the dividends in the purchase of more stock, to still further augment the endowment fund. In the transfers and changes of commercial life apparent record of that stock has been lost, yet that last will bequeathed an ideal which in indirect ways is still inspiring our national educational system.

Let us take our place by the side of a student of our national history and institutions, as after a walk through the buildings across that noble plain at West Point he sits down to meditate, on the granite steps of the " Battle Monument." He is where the history of yesterday abides, but about him is represented the strength and life of the nation, and the strong military figures of officers, cadets, and soldiers from every section of our country. He feels the wisdom of that great desire of Washing-ton's that the life and thought of the widely separated sections of the rising empire should become homogeneous and unified by the meeting of the young men of the land in a central school, during the years of training for the country's service at arms. This student of history would feel how that hope had been fulfilled by the loyal service which the sons of West Point to so large a degree rendered the Union in its days of peril; and with deep gratitude would he acknowledge that enthusiastic loyalty with which the North and South, the East and West, as represented at West Point and throughout the country, rushed to its service to release those islands of the sea from the thraldom and tyranny of a medieval monarchy.

Then the vista of the future would open before him, and he would see that larger hope and plan of Washington's realized in the city of his name. There in that center in the Nation's life he would see young men assembling in the national schools of administration, commerce, consular service, and finance, to study questions of government and international relations. He would see reaching to all the lands of earth a peace more beautiful than that of the river below him ; and wider and deeper than that Western ocean where now is flying our flag of hope and promise.

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