Thomas Jefferson Papers

George Blackburn to Thomas Jefferson, 8 March 1819

From George Blackburn

Baltimore March 8th 1819


I took the liberty to call at Monticello in August last when making an excursion of health with my family. I hoped to find you or Col. Randolp at home, and to have some conversation relative to the central college. Since then I have heard nothing of it distinctly. I have seen the plans proposed by several gentlemen, to the governor of the state, but cannot help thinking some of them badly calculated for Virga—that of Dr Mitchell in particular. I have been to see the New college; The situation is certainly fine, but I do not like every arrangement respecting the buildings. it is not now of any use to point what might have been anticipated. In every thing respecting this college, the col. of So. Car. furnishes the complete warning. That col. is now prostrate dead or dying. It fell into the hands of intrigueing sects, who pushed ignorant clergymen, and others of their creatures and favourites into the offices, and science and learning perished in their grasp.

It has been to me, a strange thing that there should exist, amongst all the sects of this country, such a scramble for the loaves and fishes of college. I can name about ten systems that they have thus destroyed. It would seem, that in the general opinion, nothing can be well done, that is not done by a priest, and that no college can prosper without one of these men at the [he]ad of it. Learning and science give place to the most ignorant fellow that wears a gown.—In all my rambles thro’ these united states not a single sectarian clergyman of science have I ever met with. I trust that, if the central college be established, it will guard against this very great abuse. They will plague it with forms and do no good.

With respect to forms,—with the young Virgns, they go for nothing. They soon see thro’ the motives, and they despise them. I have known enough of this at W & M. and in So. Car. Let the man be moral, but in a college, a man without talents, however specious his morals may be will be always despised by the youth.

In forming the system of instructions a middle course should be adopted between the old heavy method of the ancients and idle flimsy plans of modern visionaries; They are all at war with real improvement. In some of our colleges they teach in a merely mechanical way, committing rules to memory soon to be forgotten. In others, boys are kept for months at the sickening task of reciting from Simson’s Euclid, which, after all is only the alphabet.—It is the same with languages;—too much time is wasted over a dull Grammar, while the teacher by a different method, have led on his classes without disgust or ennui, this however applies rather to schools than colleges.

That the art of teaching may be greatly improved admits no doubt, It would be strange indeed, if while the arts of agriculture mechanicks, navigation &c receive daily accessions; the art of teaching only, should remain stationary The advocates for the old school, if I may so call it sedulously guard against all innovation, their habits are fixed; and they deem it too late to begin anew, or they are too indolent or too Vain, to do so, while on the contrary, the enthusiasts, or Visionaries, or such as want a morsel of bread, profess to do wonders, a foreign language in a quarter or in half a year! These men might as well pretend to the art of teaching to swim or to ride by lectures delivered in a parlour.

There are three qualities which I find a really usef[ul] teacher must possess;—he must have a superior knowledg[e] of his profession;—and he must have a happy facility in imparting what he knows. To this he must add those qualities necessary to govern, the most important of which is a prudent but decided and determined manner, Without these qualities no man can succeed in a Southern college.—There is considerable difficulty and risque in appointing teachers to a new institution; Recommendations are often the result of friendly or of interested feelings, and these are very often given by respectable men, who really know nothing of the talents of their friend. A clergyman, who is now prof. of a Southern college, actually know not the relation of the sides and angles of a plain triangle. and was so completely ignorant of sphericks,—that he actually Napier’s rule the five points,1 as if were some game. Yet thus wholly ignorant, he had all the Episcopalian faction of So Car to support him, and why? Because the stipend for his preaching was thus levied on the state. Wherever there is a state college these harpies will harbour in it, if they can.—He soon pulled down the department; but as he could not be expelled for ignorance, and as the trustees were still more ignorant than himself. He still maintains his ground, and fattens upon the carcase he has slain. Were the fate of the So Car college known to the Virga assembly, it might have some effect to check their liberality;—and indeed I should my self be very doubtful whether any system paid by the state can escape gross abuses in this country, until the colleges furnish their own professors from amongst the students, and this they never can do, unless the heads of departments be able men. Until then, all our colleges must exist in a feeble, inefficient, and fluctuating way.—

I am not quite indifferent to this new establishment. In Virga it has been long, and greatly wanted, but no doubt, like every real good, it will be opposed. I have some reasons for partial feelings toward Virg. I resided twelve years in that state, and since then, seven years in some others, but [i]n all these the human mind is lower, more sordid and less enlightened. I know, more of the real feelings, and habits of the virgns than many other teachers, and I have two daughters, accomplished women who were, I may say, raised there, and who seem disposed to come nearer to the attachments of their early life.

We thought when in Charlottesville that it would be a good station for a private academy male and female, of the superior grade. such as should attract the attention of Virga. My daughters have all the accomplishments necessary for their sex, and would take charge of the females, whilst I with some help should attend to the boys. If upon revolving this matter, you think it might succeed; and should find it convenient to intimate your views of it to my friend Mr Girardin, now of Staunton, he will impart them to me,

I am sir, with great respect yr obt humbl st

Geoe Blackburn.

I am at present, and have been for two years, prof. of the Asbury College here, which has hitherto had a very popular run; My daughters have a popular female academy, but we feel disposed to change;—tho’ our friends remind us of the rolling stone. This city is crowded with teachers, poor wretches. who have hardly the means of subsistence, and many of the influential people really know not how to estimate knowledge. They are all submerged in trade, and to make money is their primum mobile.2 Therefore no true value can be put upon science by them. I would prefer an institution of my own elsewhere.

Should I find a good establishment i[n Vi]rga one of the best linguists, as well as teachers that I ever knew; would become my coadjutor. Indeed our whole force would be such as has not been yet assembled in one place, in America and to unite this force is my object.

I take the freedom to send you a newspaper and pamphlet

RC (DLC); damaged at seal; second postscript written perpendicularly in right margin; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esquire Montecello Virginia”; stamped; postmarked; endorsed by TJ as received 20 Mar. 1819 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures not found.

Blackburn had written Thomas Mann Randolph from Charlottesville on 16 august 1818 expressing his desire to discuss the contemplated University of Virginia with TJ and his disappointment at the ex-president’s absence from Monticello; listing his qualifications as an educator; praising the youth of Virginia, based on his own experience as a teacher; stating a preference for teaching in the state if he and his daughters can be “eligibly situated”; enclosing an introduction from Louis H. Girardin (not found), which he hopes Randolph will share with TJ; sending “a magazine, and a news paper, containing a short expose of my own System and that of my daughters”; condemning the domination of religion in American higher education; and commending the proposed institution for steering clear of both parties and sects (RC in MHi; addressed: “Colonel T. Randolph Esqre Montecello”).

On 30 May 1816 Virginia governor Wilson Cary Nicholas, writing in his capacity as president of the Literary Fund, circulated a request for information about the creation of an “university, and such additional colleges, academies and schools, as shall diffuse the benefits of education throughout the commonwealth, and such rules for the government of such university, colleges, academies and schools, as shall produce economy in the expenditures for the establishment and maintenance, and good order and discipline in the management thereof.” Samuel L. Mitchill (dr mitchell) sent his thoughts on the subject to Nicholas from New York City on 14 July. After laying out a comprehensive plan for public education, Mitchill stated that, although the “variety and magnitude” of his proposals might be off-putting, they should not “produce the smallest discouragement. Though their completion may require considerable time and much exertion, their foundations ought now to be laid. What the present race shall leave unfinished, their successors may bring to perfection” (Port Folio, 4th ser., 2 [1816]: 411–9, quotes on pp. 411 and 418).

loaves and fishes: “pecuniary advantages as a motive for religious profession” (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ; phrase derived biblically from John 6.9–13, 26). w & m.: the College of William and Mary. The clergyman, who is now prof. of a southern college of whose ignorance of geometry and trigonometry Blackburn complained was most likely Christopher Hanckel, an Episcopal minister who succeeded him in the mathematics chair at South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina), serving until 1820 (Daniel Walker Hollis, University of South Carolina [1951–56], 1:44).

1Thus in manuscript.

2Omitted period at right margin editorially supplied.

Index Entries

  • Asbury College (Baltimore) search
  • Blackburn, George; and University of Virginia search
  • Blackburn, George; family of search
  • Blackburn, George; letter from search
  • Blackburn, George; on education search
  • Blackburn, George; professor at Asbury College search
  • Blackburn, George; professor at College of William and Mary search
  • Blackburn, George; professor at South Carolina College search
  • Blackburn, George; proposed Charlottesville school of search
  • Blackburn, George; teaching system of search
  • Blackburn, George; visits Monticello search
  • books; on mathematics search
  • Charlottesville, Va.; school proposed for search
  • clergy; influence of in colleges search
  • education; female search
  • education; G. Blackburn on search
  • education; in Va. search
  • Episcopalians; and education search
  • Euclid; The Elements of Euclid (R. Simson) search
  • Girardin, Louis Hue; and G. Blackburn search
  • grammar; study of search
  • Hanckel, Christopher; as professor at South Carolina College search
  • mathematics; books on search
  • mathematics; Napier’s theorem search
  • mathematics; study of search
  • Mitchill, Samuel Latham; on public education search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); Visitors to; Blackburn, George search
  • Napier, John (of Merchiston); mathematical theorem of search
  • Nicholas, Wilson Cary (1761–1820); and education in Va. search
  • Randolph, Thomas Mann (1768–1828) (TJ’s son-in-law; Martha Jefferson Randolph’s husband); and G. Blackburn’s professorial candidacy search
  • religion; Episcopalians search
  • schools and colleges; Asbury College (Baltimore) search
  • schools and colleges; for women search
  • schools and colleges; influence of clergy on search
  • schools and colleges; South Carolina College (later University of South Carolina) search
  • Simson, Robert; The Elements of Euclid search
  • South Carolina College (later University of South Carolina); faculty at search
  • South Carolina College (later University of South Carolina); influence of clergy at search
  • South Carolina College (later University of South Carolina); trustees of search
  • The Elements of Euclid (R. Simson) search
  • Virginia; and education search
  • Virginia; General Assembly search
  • Virginia; Literary Fund search
  • William and Mary, College of; faculty of search
  • women; education of search