Chapter 8


W.F. Marshall

Presbyterianism since its very early years in Scotland has been accompanied by a great concern and desire for education. Both the religion and the love of learning come from the dedication of John Knox to the Calvinism he had met in Geneva.

Protestant Reformer John Knox

In the mid 16th century he proposed for Scotland a system of parish schools similar to those he had seen in Switzerland. Although it was the next century before the parochial system was adopted, yet the Scots were so enthusiastic for the Presbyterian religion and learning in that century and ever since that they would seem to have a natural instinct for both. Along with the system adopted was an arrangement for special help to promising scholars, so that even the poorer could attain to University education. From those far-off days right to the present day, the same ambitious concern for education has been evident among the people of Scotland generally. It has also been very apparent among those of the Scottish race who settled in Ulster and their descendants down through the years as well. Among early settlers in America, it led to the rapid spread of popular education, initially among those that were of that race. The Ulster Scots took with them as pioneers, even into the most remote parts, the same zeal for the Presbyterian religion and for learning. The settlements were not long established till the church was built, and this was soon followed by a school. The minister was the only one qualified to teach the young, so the Bible was the daily reader and the curriculum would be largely confined to the three R’s.

If one were able to glance back into a log-cabin school, it would be to see the students sitting on roughly hewn benches labouriously writing with their quill pens under the stern gaze of the dominie. The more gifted pupils would be noticed and additional learning in Latin and Greek and other subjects necessary for higher education would be willingly given. The major part played in establishing widespread education in the American colonies by Ulster Scots in the 18th century was well confirmed by a statement of Dr. Hogg of New Jersey in 1928. He had been carrying out a very detailed investigation of early American education and he wrote, “Ninety Percent of the primitive religious education and university work begun in America was done by the Scotch Irish”. When pleas for more Presbyterian ministers came from the early settlers, the response to provide these was immediate and enthusiastic. It was thus decided that colleges must be established in America itself to provide training for the ministry, that had previously been supplied by the Scottish universities. It would seem that although individual clergymen met this teaching need, the desire to help was widespread. Certainly the founding of the early Presbyterian classical colleges gave a great kickstart to American education generally. The Rev William Tennant was the minister prominent in the founding of the first such college, Born in Co Armagh in Ulster he had obtained his own education in Edinburgh. There, he was a distinguished scholar in Greek and Latin. He had married in 1702 the daughter of Rev. Gilbert Kennedy of Dundonald outside Belfast and they had four sons, who were later to become well-known ministers in America. Shortly after emigrating, William Tennent began preaching at Neshaminy in Pennsylvania. He was helped by James Logan, from Ulster, the secretary to the Penns and a cousin of his mother’s, with a grant of 50 acres of land on Neshaminy creek. On this he was soon able to build the school. This erection, roughly 20 feet by 20 feet, was completed in 1726 and became known as the Log College. Small though It was, it had a tremendous effect on subsequent higher educational system. From it emerged eventually the great Princeton foundation and ultimately the University of New Jersey. Indeed Woodbum claimed it helped to lay the foundation of American intellectual life. Although preceded in time by the New England Puritan Colleges of Yale and Harvard, it outshone them afterwards in importance. It furnished 18 graduates who became members of the first Continental Congress. In the formation of the first National Government. 9 members had been educated at Princeton, 4 at Yale and 3 at Harvard.

Well might H.J. Ford state that probably no other school provided so many eminent men In proportion to the numbers of Its pupils. Well might he also record that It became the leading national institute in those critical days – “a school of statesmanship for the formation of a nation.” No small tribute to the educational establishment which owed its beginnings to the courage of and genius of a humble Ulster clergyman. It was also fitting that a president of Princeton, Dr. John Witherspoon, who spent himself in the cause of American learning and of liberty, was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. It was fitting too that another President of Princeton Woodrow Wilson, should become one of the many men of Ulster blood who reached the highest office of American political life, president of the USA, itself.

Striking as is the number of leading statesmen and citizens provided by the remarkable educators of Princeton, the increase in the number of schools both elementary and advanced, brought about by former students of the original Log College and Princeton, throughout the whole country, was probably of as great importance to the young of the fledgeling nation. Scholars from William Tennent’s College went out from it, not only to serve as ministers but to found colleges themselves which in tum became famous and again in turn, sent out more learned men to found further colleges and thus spread even wider the much needed education for the people. Among those going forth from the Log College were two Ulster men, Rev. Samuel Blair, who established the college at Fagg’s Manor in Pennsylvania, and Samuel Finley, born in County Armagh In 1715, who began the Nottingham Academy In Maryland in 1744. Tennent’s four sons, Gilbert, William, Charles, and John were all students at their fathers college. They too became ministers, but although active in education were not individually responsible for the setting up of any new schools. One of the students at Fagg’s Manor College, was Robert Smith. who founded the Pequea Academy In Pennsylvania about 1750. Ulster born Francis Allison. one of the teachers under Blair at Fagg’s Manor was widely rated as “one of the most accomplished scholars who had adorned the Presbyterian Church in U.S.A.” After leaving his first teaching position, Allison went on to set up a Classical College at Newcastle on Delaware Bay, and, even later, another academy at Philadelphia which was to develop into the University of Philadelphia. Among his pupils were many sons of Ulster stock who became famous as statesmen throughout the Revolutionary era. One was Charles Thomson, born in Maghera, in Ulster who later gave most distinguished service as Permanent Secretary to the Continental Congress during the most critical years, when opposition to England’s taxation measure was building up. He actually wrote down the original Declaration of independence and will surely be long remembered for it by the American nation. A class-mate of Thomson’s at Allison’s school, was another man who boldly declared himself on the Colonial side. He was Thomas McKean, whose father came from the famous “Maiden City” of Londonderry. He was one of the 56 “Signers” who virtually put their “lives on the line” when they signed the Declaration. Many of them were to suffer for their patriotism, Students from these early colleges went into all parts of the country to found other schools and learning establishments, which grew in importance with the increase in the population. John McMillan, a pupil of Robert Smith at Pequea. began an educational centre which formed the nucleus of what became Jefferson College.
Samuel Martin, also from Pequea, set up a college in York County, Pennsylvania. Others included Dodds who taught at Redstone in the same state, and John Blair at Nashville. These academies developed into Washington and Jefferson College. David Caldwell’s school in North Carolina became known as the “Eton of the South.” James W. Stephenson founded an academy in Virginia, which along with an establishment of Samuel Smith’s, formed Hampden Sidney College. Samuel Doak established the first classical school in the Mississippi Valley at Salem in 1780. It later became Washington College in 1795, He, with his son, John, were instrumental in the building upf Tusculum College at Bethel, near Greenville The list is endless. Samuel Carrick founded Blount College in 1794, which is now the University of Tennessee, Davidson’s Academy at Nashville, in the same State became Davidson College.

Our story of the founding of schools, academies. colleges, and universities in the young Republic, by these men of Ulster Scots stock would not be complete without mention of one that began as a ‘little mathematical and classical school’ in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the valley of Virginia. It was to become known in later years as the University of Washington and

General Lee & Stonewall Jackson, and its story reads like a record of the history of the early heroic days of the American Republic itself. Certainly its first years sum up a striking example of the close connection between the Presbyterian Church and the Scots-Irish schools. Hardly had the Stone Meeting House of Augusta been dedicated In 1748 for worship for those resolute pioneers, who had followed John Lewis towards the Shenandoah, than the logcabin school was opened in 1749. It was named Augusta Academy and its first headmaster was Robert Alexander who had emigrated from Ulster. The year 1749 was memorable in another way in that particular part of Virginia. Within eighty miles of that school and church at the manor of Lord Fairfax, was working, as a young surveyor, George Washington, the future commander in Chief of the Colonial Forces, and later the first President of the United States of America.

The location of the school was moved in 1776 towards the Timber Ridge, and it’s name was changed in accordance with the spirit of that year to Liberty Hall Academy. Its first rector again was of Ulster stock in the person of William Graham. Aother link with American history that academy had was that half of the 80 acres required for its building and grounds was freely given by an ancestor of the future hero of Texas – Samuel Houston. Among the scholars of the academy were Samuel Doak, Moses Hoge, James Priestley, and Samuel Carrick who became distinguished clergymen and teachers. Another pupil who became famous in a different way was Cyrus Hall McCormick, the inventor of the reaper that bore his name and which revolutionized farming all over the world. Of him more later. Again there were members of the Breckinridge family, which gave to the young nation congressmen, senators, and one Vice-President. Enthusiasm for the Revolution and Independence was a characteristic of this Virginian college throughout its early days.

On the afternoon of August 4th 1865 the trustees of Washington College – a small impoverished Presbyterian school in Lexington Virginia met to determinne how they could save their school. Founded as already mentioned, Liberty Hall Academy in 1749 it had become by 1796 Washington College in honor of the general. Most of its students and teachers had long since left to fight in the war in 1861, many of them joining the famous Stonewall Brigade. Along with the town of Lexington, the school had suffered severely from the occupation by federal troops in1864. The buildings had been badly damaged; the library and laboratory had been destroyed. The school was for all practical purposes, bankrupt. In spite of all this, the trustees -all staunch Ulster Scots Presbyterians were undaunted in the slightest. The need was greater than ever and thus God, they believed, would make a way. A primary purpose for this meeting of the trustees was to ‘choose a new president. Several individuals had been nominated and the vote was about to be taken, when one of the men mentioned a bit of news he had heard from a friend of the Lee family. It seems that a young woman, while visiting ,with the Lees, had been told by Mary Lee, daughter of the General that although the South stood ready to give General Lee anything he needed.

What he really needed was a job by which he could earn a living to provide for his family. The thought struck all present as most providential, and in a few minutes Robert E. Lee had been unanimously elected president of Washington College. The trustees’ elation over this decision lasted only momentarily, as the full realisation of what they had done struck them. They had elected the most prominent man in the South-without his knowledge -to the presidency of a college which had no prestige (It was hardly known outside the Shenendoah Valley no money, practically no student body, and hardly any ,usable buildings. The sheer temerity of it all was positively breathtaking. Ah but blood will tell. After a brief moment of solemnity and prayer, all agreed that what was done was done and, after all, nothing ventured nothing gained. They determined to press on. A letter of invitation containing the proposed terms of the call as drafted, and a member of the board was chosen to take the invitation personally to General Lee. Judge John W Brockenbrough was appointed for the task, but there was a problem: Judge Brockenbrough had nothing suitable to wear for the visit. His one suit was threadbare and utterly inappropriate for a meeting with General Lee. Furthermore he had no money with which to make the trip.

Minor problems to the Ulster Scots! One of the men loaned the judge a suit and another borrowed fifty dollars from a woman in Lexington who had recently sold some tobacco from her farm. That fifty dollars-in brand new United States green backs-was the only cash at the disposal of Washington College, and it was all designated to the cause of obtaining the consent of the new president-elect. So it was that Judge Brockenbrough arrived unannounced in mid-August, 1865, at the tenant house in which Robert E. Lee was staying. Lee had never met Judge Brockenbrough before, but he listened to his proposal respectfully. Although the terms were modest, considering the condition of the college, they were actually quite ambitious. A salary was proposed at $1500 per year (money which the college did not have but hoped to raise), plus one-fifth of the student fees (assuming the students who came could afford to pay), and a house and garden (which, thankfully, did exist and in need of only a few minor repairs).

Washington Lee University

Lee was left to consider the matter. It was evident that the college was in a low condition and that accepting this offer would place him in a situation that would involve many of those things to which he had the greatest aversion: paperwork, meetings, fund raising, public speaking, and correspondence. Yet, it was work; a work such as he had been seeking; a work that could be of great service to the people of Virginia and the South; a work that provided an opportunity. Thus was born one of the greatest seats of American learning. In January 1775 an association, closely connected with it, presented to the Continental Congress an address urging resistance to British attempts to interfere with Colonial liberties. The brave, dedicated service of some of the past and present students on different battlefields in those challenging times was certainly in keeping with that petition. One of the most renowned was General William Campbell. the heroic and determined leader of the American forces at the King’s Mountain battle, where their victory turned the course of the war in the whole Southern sector, and engendered hope of a Colonial over-all win.

Another past pupil was General Andrew Lewis whom George Washington recommended to be leader of the Continental Army. Many years later in the heart-breaking struggle when Ulster Scots fought bitterly against those of the same stock in the Civil War, the same indomitable courage was shown by both sides. The” Liberty Hall Volunteers” were in the centre of that Brigade of Scotch Irish at the first Battle of Bull Run, which stood so firmly against the most determined attacks that they gave to the man who led them General Thomas Jackson, the immortally remembered title of “Stonewall” General George Washington, spending. as he did, his early life in the neighbourhood of Augusta Academy, showed in an unmistakable way, his great respect and affection for it and the people connected with it after the war. The Assembly of the State of Virginia had presented to him a most valuable donation as a testimony of their regard for his character and of his war and public service. The 1st President of the U.S.A. would accept it only on condition that” it would be applied to the education and support of the poor in this part of the country, particularly the children of those who had fallen in the defence and for the liberties of it. The donation was given by him to Liberty Hall Academy which was subsequently to be renamed the College of Washington in Virginia. In 1865 after the Civil War, the great Southern leader General Robert E. Lee was called to be President of the College. It became known as the Washington and Lee University. Surely a great achievement for all connected with the original humble log cabin Augusta Academy.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: