This account of
The George Washington University over the years is both circumstantial
and straightforward. Thus, it begins with a short section that would
probably make a public relations executive shudderit is the equivalent
of an adventure story, which opens with the stalwart hero mounting his
horse and falling off, several times.
The early days of Columbian College, the forerunner of GW, were difficult.
Columbian was not brought into the world by rich benefactors making
generous donations; eminent men in Washington, including President James
Monroe, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, and Secretary of the Treasury
William Crawford, among others, all contributed to the purchase of land
for the new college, the typical gift being about $25; at the time,
$200 was considered a substantial amount. The College was
chartered by Congress, which never gave it a cent for endowment or expenses,
but occasionally helped it with debt relief.
It was not quite orphaned at birth: former President Monroe; the Marquis
de Lafayette, the old hero of the Revolutionary War; and President John
Quincy Adams attended the first graduation in 1824. The great and famous
often visited and still do. But Columbian College, like a child of absent
or preoccupied parents, struggled to make ends meet and find its real
identity (or mission, in the current phrase) for many, many years. Things
did not immediately improve when the name became Columbian University
or The George Washington University.
It is a matter of historical pride that Columbian and GW endured hardships
and finally overcame them to become the thriving university it is today.
There is no sense in trying to hide history or revise it, especially
when early difficulties helped set the stage for the individuals, events,
and activities that have bound the institution and the city together
for more than 180 years. There is no advantage, either, in dwelling
on problems more than necessary, so the section dealing with difficulties
is brief. The intimacy and integration that have worked to the profit
of both the District of Columbia and GW are the main subjects of this
The father of his country was not the father of the university that
bears his name today.
George Washington hoped to see a national university in
the capital city. But the institution that claims him now came into
the world 22 years after George Washington had left it. The bequest
of stock in Washingtons will to endow the school turned out eventually
to be worthless. The congressional charter of 1821 created a college,
not a university. And the first name of the new college was not National
or Washington, but Columbian.
A national university was a preoccupation of the last years of Washingtons
presidency and life: he mentioned it not only in his will but in his
last address to Congress as well. He wrote about it to Thomas Jefferson,
John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. He made his most forceful statement
in a letter to the Commissioners of the District of Columbia:
It has always
been a source of serious reflection and sincere regret with me, that
the youth of the United States should be sent to foreign countries
for the purpose of education. Altho there are doubtless many
under these circumstances who escape the danger of contracting principles,
unfriendly to republican government, yet we ought to deprecate the
hazard attending ardent and susceptible minds, from being too strongly,
and too early prepossessed in favor of other political systems, before
they are capable of appreciating their own.
that the commissioners would do something handsome by way
of endowing the university. He also hoped that the young, by attending
a national university in the capital city, would be enabled to
free themselves in a proper degree from those local prejudices and habitual
which, when carried to excess, are never failing sources
of disquietude to the Public mind, and pregnant of mischievous consequences
to this Country.
Washingtons hopes had to wait many years. They were sound, even
noble. But neither the new college nor the city of Washington was ready
or able to fulfill those hopes in 1821 or for many years to come.
The congressional charter that created Columbian College gave its governance
to the Baptist ministers and missionaries who had proposed it, but with
the proviso that the school should not be sectarian. Without funds from
Congress and without a denominational value to the Baptists, the new
college was hungry from its first day and remained so for its first
century. Let one example suffice for many: In the spring of 1827, Columbian
closed its doors for a year because it had no money. A year later, it
opened for a three-month semesterimmediately after which the Law
School vanished and did not return until after the Civil War.
The school was ill funded, but also small and parochial. While the first
commencement in 1824 boasted a president, an ex-president, and more
tellingly student speakers from Virginia, the District, New Hampshire,
Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, Columbian recruited most of its students
from the South, doing little to make the schools complexion national
or to overcome local prejudices. In 1847, a student named Henry Arnold
was immediately expelled and nearly assaulted by fellow students for
trying to free a slave belonging to the College steward. Considering
that Columbians fund raising was most energetic and successful
in the South, this is not surprising.
The city itself was not ready for Columbian College, let alone the hopes
Washington had pinned on it. The commissioners who governed the city
never did anything handsome or even helpful. Washington
city at the time was a swamp striving to become a mud puddle. A
city of magnificent distances was the more diplomatic description
of the capital offered by the Abbé Correia, Portugals ambassador
to the United States. Like other members of his profession, he was entitled
to hardship pay, and one of his colleagues famously and publicly beseeched
God to tell him what offense he had committed to be posted to Washington.
Washington citys population in the early 1820s was small; Georgetown
and Alexandria were separate towns within the District of Columbia,
which at the time was considered a county. The city proper had about
13,000 residents, including 2,000 slaves, most of whom lived and worked
along an east-west line running from the White House, past the public
market at 7th Street, to Capitol Hill. The northern limit of Pierre
LEnfants original plan of the federal city was at Boundary
Road, now Florida Avenue. North of Boundary Road were woodlands, a few
farms, and orchards; south of it, spotty development. The Columbian
campus was on College Hill, on the far side of Boundary Road at 14th
Streetoutside the city limits and in the country. The school was
over two miles from the heart of downtown as the crow flies; but as
the student walked, it was a slow hike on unpaved streets (Columbian
students were not allowed to keep horses). Like its finances, the location
of the College was marginal.
The choice of site defeated the intimacy and interplay between town
and gown, which would have benefited both. The campus was, moreover,
self-contained: students studied, slept, ate, and played on College
Hill. They needed faculty permission to go into the city and were forbidden
to leave the campus on the Sabbath. Life on College Hill was completely
unlike life on the modern GW campus, which is snugged into Foggy Bottom.
Todays GW puts students into the city as soon as they walk out
the door of a classroom building or residence hall. Unless they made
it their business and got permission, Columbian students 180 years ago
had little spontaneous occasion to bump into the activities of the city
of Washingtoninto the business of republican government
or the daily business of its ordinary citizensthat was part of
George Washingtons original hope and remains a large part of GWs
Isolated, perennially down at the heels, and regional, Columbian College
in its first daysand in truth in its first 60 yearsdid not
either reflect George Washingtons hopes or foreshadow the modern
GW. But it survived and in time began to find its identity as an institution
in and of the city of Washington. In its connection and service to the
national capital, and in more recent years to the nation, GW has certainly
measured up to Washingtons ideas and allows us to look at him
as the Universitys godfather and to see GW as worthy of both his
hopes and his name.
Down From the Hill
After the Civil War, Columbian College came down from the hill. The
move progressed one step at a time and chiefly, at first, in the minds
of Columbians administrators, with their interest in the move
rising and falling with the real estate market. Seventeen years after
the war had ended, Columbian headed down the hill.
The Law and Medical Schools had always been downtown. The Medical School
in the 1820s constructed a building on the corner of E and 10th Streets,
four doors down from Fords Theatre. It was a prime location then
and now: a Hard Rock Café occupies the site today in the citys
Northwest quadrant (all Columbian and GW addresses are NW). The separate
location reflected a separate identity; the Medical School had its own
budget and was intended to be self-supportingan end it pursued
aggressively and successfully by thwarting the efforts of Georgetown
College to open a competing medical school nearby. The Medical School
moved in 1844 to the Washington Infirmary, a former insane asylum, just
east of the center of the old downtown in Judiciary Square. The building
burned down in 1861. When Columbian revived the Law School in 1865,
it joined the Medical School on H Street in the financial district just
a couple of blocks east of the White House.
On the eve of the Civil War, the population of Washington city was 61,000.
During the war, it naturally swelled, butthen as nowmany
who came to Washington for a tour of duty of a few years stayed and
stayed and stayed. And the governmentthen as nowhad grown
and showed no signs of wanting to reduce forces. In 1870, the citys
population was 109,000, an increase of nearly 75 percent in just 10
years. It was no longer a small town. Washington city began in earnest
the process of occupying the entire District of Columbia: empty lots
were filling up with shops, industrial lofts, private residences, office
buildings, hotels, and boarding houses.
The city was becoming the governments company town. The permanent
army of government employees was principally made up of young men with
a lots of time to spare. The working day ended officially at 3:00 in
the afternoon and practically much earlier. Thus, the reasons offered
for reopening the Law School nearly 40 years after it first closed were
these: its strategic location in Washington and the presence
here of many young men with college degrees or literary backgrounds,
working in the government, but with much time on their hands and looking
forward to law, in the words of a committee report to the president.
These reasons could have been offered for moving the entire Columbian
College down from the hill. Infinitely more important, the move gave
the school a new identity as well as improving its chances of survival
by appealing to a wider pool of students. The move, as it turns out,
did both. And both reasons must have been in the mind of James Clarke
Welling, the first Columbian president who was not a Baptist minister.
Unlike his predecessors who looked for funds from Baptists nationally,
Welling set about cultivating local benefactors, especially William
Corcoran, and used their generosity to find ways to house the new Scientific
School as well as the long-standing departments of Columbian in the
heart of the city. He sold off the property on College Hill.
By the 1880s, the College was established downtown in an imposing new
building at 15th and H Streets; in 1873, it had changed its name to
Columbian University, and the Baptists who had guided the school for
50 years had given up control to a secular board of trustees (the Baptists
returned at the very end of the century, then retired from the school
completely and forever).
The charter changing Columbian from a college to a university was not
cosmetic; moreover, it added significance to the move downtown. The
Medical and Law Schools had been separate both physically and financiallyisolated
from College Hill and sinking or swimming on their own. For the first
time, the College and the Preparatory School were next door to the Medical
and Law Schools, the new Scientific School, and the Dental, Comparative
Jurisprudence, and Veterinary Schools that were added soon after.
Being near one another, they could foster interdepartmental collaborations.
Being all together on one of the busiest streets in the city, they presented
a unified picturefor the first timeof a substantial institution
of higher learning in the city, not a marginal campus few had ever seen
or an institution of scattered and seemingly unrelated parts. And being
all downtown together, they could draw on the new population of would-be
students and on part-time instructors from government and business.
Secular day-to-day control of the University may have meant little to
most potential students. But as the commitment of resources to teaching
dental surgery, jurisprudence, and science illustrates, the Baptist
focus on producing preachers was displaced by a more worldlyand
more widely invitingcurriculum.
These changes were significant, but they did not provide a secure future
for the College. It continued to have severe financial problems. President
Ulysses S. Grant and his entire cabinet attended the banquet inaugurating
Columbian as a university, but this was a social event, not a revival
of George Washingtons hope for a national university with the
blessing and support of the federal or District government.
Nevertheless, the urban location, the new status, and the non-denominational
control set the stage for the beginnings of traditions and trendlines
that redefined the new Columbian University and continue to define the
modern George Washington Universitys commitment to learning and
service in the city of Washington.