In His Own Words: A Founding Father’s Educational Legacy

George Washington believed a national university in Washington, D.C., could eliminate “jealousies and prejudices.”

Image
Gilbert Stuart painted the well-known "Atheneum" portrait in 1796, the final year of Washington's presidency. (Jointly owned by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
February 16, 2017

Editor's Note: “In Their Own Words” is a monthly GW Today audio feature showcasing the voices of historical figures with ties to the George Washington University. GW Today will bring those characters’ words to life through archival recordings or interpretations by members of the GW community. If you have a suggestion for a featured voice, let us know at gwtoday@gwu.edu.

By Ruth Steinhardt

Since his first address to Congress as president, George Washington urged the importance of educational institutions to the young nation. A national university in Washington, D.C., he believed, would bring together the next generation of American leaders much as the Revolutionary War had done for his own. Its proximity to government would introduce those future politicians to the practical realities of lawmaking, while students’ proximity to each other would help eliminate growing regional prejudices and destructive partisanship.

His dream would not come to fruition until two decades after his death, when Columbian College—eventually to become the George Washington University—was founded in his honor.

Washington hoped to make the university a central theme of his farewell address as president, but close aide and sometime editor Alexander Hamilton included no references to it in an early draft. Several weeks before delivering the address in September 1796, Washington wrote to Hamilton on the subject. Senior Will Low, a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, reads an abridged version of that letter.

Philadelphia
1st September 1796

My dear Sir,

About the middle of last Week I wrote to you; and that it might escape the eye of the Inquisitive (for some of my letters have lately been pried into) I took the liberty of putting it under a cover to Mr. Jay.

Since then, revolving on the Paper that was enclosed therein; on the various matters it contained; and on the just expression of the advice or recommendation which was given in it, I have regretted that another subject (which in my estimation is of interesting concern to the well-being of this country) was not touched upon also: I mean Education generally as one of the surest means of enlightening & giv[in]g just ways of think[in]g to our Citizens, but particularly the establishment of a University; where the Youth from all parts of the United States might receive the polish of Erudition in the Arts, Sciences & Belle Letters; and where those who were disposed to run a political course, might not only be instructed in the theory & principles, but (this Seminary being at the Seat of the General Government) where the Legislature w[oul]d be in Session half the year, and the interests & politics of the Nation of course would be discussed, they would lay the surest foundation for the practical part also.

But that which would render it of the highest importance, in my opinion, is, that the Juvenal period of life, when friendships are formed, & habits established that will stick by one; the Youth, or young men from different parts of the United States would be assembled together, & would by degrees discover that there was not that cause for those jealousies & prejudices which one part of the union had imbibed agains[t] another part: of course, sentiments of more liberality in the general policy of the country would result from it. What, but the mixing of people from different parts of the United States during the War rubbed off these impressions? A century in the ordinary intercourse, would not have accomplished what the Seven years association in Arms did: but that ceasing, prejudices are beginning to revive again, and never will be eradicated so effectually by any other means as the intimate intercourse of characters in early life, who, in all probability, will be at the head of the councils of this country in a more advanced stage of it.

[…]

Let me pray you, therefore, to introduce a Section in the Address expressive of these sentiments, & recommendatory of the measure—without any mention, however, of my proposed personal contribution to the plan.

Such a Section would come in very properly after the one which relates to our religious obligations, or in a preceding part, as one of the recommendatory measures to counteract the evils arising from Geographical discriminations.

With Affect[ionat]e regard  

I am always Yours

Go. Washington

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