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We live in a country in which liberty is both exercised and preserved by free action. Such action is by its very nature pre­ceded by thought, from which it follows that human be­ings, the young especially, ought to have a period of re­flective learning as a prelude to both private and public action…

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally delivered as a lecture at St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland.

Friends of the college, Fellow Students and Fellow Tutors:

St. John's CollegeThe theme tonight is “Liberty and Liberal Education;” but the occasion is the two-hun­dredth anniversary of the founding of our col­lege. Late in 1784 a bill, no. 37, was introduced into the Maryland Senate, entitled “An act for founding a col­lege on the Western Shore of this State and constituting the same, together with Washington College on the Eastern Shore, into a university by the name of the University of Maryland: The “college on the Western Shore” was to become St. John’s. (The fascinating tale of its naming has been convincingly reconstructed by our former librarian, Charlotte Fletcher.) So St. John’s was first conceived as one of the two colleges of a state univer­sity. We have the honor of having Professor Fallaw here tonight to represent our intended sister school.

I will spare you the protracted, fitful and even tumultuous history of St. John’s metamorphosis into a private college. The legacy of its public origin is the Charter of 1784 which remains in essence our charter: It proclaims that “institutions for the liberal education of youth in the principles of virtue, knowledge and useful literature are of the highest benefit to society, in order to train up and perpetuate a succession of able and honest men for discharging the various offices and duties of life both civil and religious with usefulness and reputa­tion….” The charter expresses the prevailing view in the early republic, propagated in numerous essays, that liberal education is the necessary support of a republic, that tyranny and ignorance, liberty and knowledge are to be equated. In this spirit, a frenzy of college founding followed the Revolution; nineteen colleges were established between 1780 and 1799, among whom St. John’s was one of the earliest, being chartered in the very first year “of the present favorable occasion of peace and prosperity,” in the words of the charter.

The legislature’s expectation for public usefulness were amply fulfilled. Between the first graduation in 1793 and 1806 (when its troubles with the state became acute), there came out of St. John’s four future governors, seven United States senators, five representatives, judges galore and one governor of Liberia. That time was later termed the “Golden Age.” So also is an early Golden Age at­tributed to the “New Program,” our present program, on the principle that the time is always goldener on the other side of this generation. Actually, it seems to me, the whole near half-century of the New Program, constituting almost a quarter of the college’s history, is a second Golden Age, though it has a distinction different from that of the first founding. Let me therefore propose a question to you which has a certain charm for me: Is this present college of ours an old school or a new school? To begin with I want to entertain you—I hope you may be entertained—with several circumstances which induce this question, some more wonderful than signifi­cant, but some significant as well as wonderful. For ex­ample, the first grammar master was called Peter McGrath; who knows but that our Hugh McGrath is his reincarnation? Similarly there was a friendly but unof­ficial relation between St. John’s and St. Anne’s Church in the person of the Reverend Ralph Higginbotham, the last master of the King William School and rector of St. Anne’s, who was one of the stalwarts of the first found­ing. Now we have our Winfree Smith. What is remarkable about this relation is that it is scrupulously unofficial (though there have been lapses between the first and second founding). The college charter stood early in a developing tradition of religious liberty which prohibited religious tests for students and forbade that they be urged to attend any particular religious service. St. John’s went even further: It was the first school, I believe, to have a principal who was not a clergyman, John McDowell, St. John’s first president (though three clergymen, a Roman Catholic, an Episcopalian, and a Presbyterian had taken a major part in its organization). Could this same spirit of religious liberty, a spirit whose merit it is that it manages not to be anti-clerical, not too be attributed to the present college?

St. John's College

To descend from the spirit to sticks and stones, there is McDowell Hall, a half-finished ruin in 1784, which became the college’s first building, containing class rooms, the library in the octagonal room under the cupola, and the dormitory. Each student was furnished with a chamber pot under his bed, a service which has been discontinued. McDowell burned down in 1909 but was faithfully restored. Do we inhabit an old or a new building?

But, of course, the question becomes really fascinating with respect to studies. In those early days the college proper (there was a preparatory department attached) was called “the philosophy school.” The curriculum was prescribed and unified. The students read original texts and studied mathematics as well as ”natural philosophy,” that is, science. The languages were Greek and optional French. For example, the novitiates, or freshmen, read Plato and studied Euclid and the juniors read Aristotle and studied fluxions, that is, calculus. While we marvel at these detailed similarities to the present program, we must, however, remember that at that time these studies were but a version of the normal classical American col­lege curriculum, with account taken of the science of a hundred post-Newtonian years. In histories of education our New Program is sometimes described as reviving the classical college curriculum. But granting—even revel­ling in—the apparent parallelism, is it really such a revival?

Let me try an answer: The present St. John’s is, to coin a phrase, new wine in old bottles, and that has some bearing on the theme of liberty and liberal education. First, the antiquity of the bottle matters. It matters that the physical place remains recognizably the same, that an alumnus of the first graduating class of 1796 could nostalgically poetize the liberty tree: “And many a frolic feat beneath thy shade / Far distant days and other suns have seen” (Dr. Shaw). It matters that this tiny, tough college has sprung back from two closings and several nadirs of mediocrity and that it has throughout the centuries attracted the oddly intense sentiment—accompanied, to be sure, until re­cently by rather more subdued financial solicitude—of its alumni. It matters that it is a microcosm in which have been played out all the perennially absorbing institutional issues of American liberty: the rivalries of local with centralized foundations, of well-off with poor man’s schools, of public with private establishments, of religious with secular education. It matters even if we, tutors and students, have more urgent things to do than to absorb the history of this little local phenomenon. I would have to be an Edmund Burke to say well and clearly why the antiquity of the college matters to the cause of liberty, but I will try to say it briefly: First, in its phoenix-like propensity for reprise and revival the college is an off­ shoot and an index of American liberty, which seems to me quintessentially characterized by that second chance, that new departure, which does not kick its springboard under but rather preserves and absorbs its ground. And second, through its continuity, through the simple fact that it was there with its liberal tradition, the college could offer a home to a program which made a conscious and deep connection between liberty and liberal education. It is the making of that connection in the New Pro­gram which is the new wine, tart and heady, in the old bottle of the classical college. Let me conclude by saying, quite superficially, what I conceive that connection to be.

St. John's books posterThe idea that political liberty and education go hand in hand was an article of faith with the educational writers of the early republic, a matter of preachment rather than inquiry. There was, however, much debate about the kind of education the republic required: Should it be primarily utilitarian training or liberal education, at least for youths destined for leadership? (Since Aristotle’s book on educa­tion, “liberal” in this context has properly meant “non­ vocational.”) But even in this discussion it was repeated to weariness that, to quote our character, “institutions of liberal education are of the highest benefit to society.” My point is: In the large enthusiasm of the founding such fine-grain question as just how the liberality of educa­tion was to underwrite the liberty of the republic fell through the cracks of the argument. To be sure, it was understood that liberal education somehow made for in­dividual enlightenment. For example, the Marylander Samuel Knox wrote in an essay (which won a prize of­fered by the American Philosophical Society in 1799) that “the one great object of education should be to inculcate independence of mind and consequently an aversion to the embracing of any species of knowledge, moral, physical, or religious, without examination and consequent con­viction.” (This same Samuel Knox, incidentally, nearly did us in. Belonging to what might be called the Jeffer­sonian faction in education, he prefaced his essay with an address to the Maryland legislature urging them to support local academies, that is, secondary education in the counties, rather than a college for the wealthy in the state capital. This advice was what it had long been look­ing for: It withdrew financial support and the college fell into its first decline.) But how one might implant liberty in a mind was as dark then as “teaching students to think for themselves” is now. It was a time not for theory but for turning out competent citizen-rulers, and that is just what the college did in its first Golden Age.

In its second Golden Age it was right and timely for the college to ask the perennial question “what is the rela­tion of liberty to learning?” and to make the ground of the inquiry the hypothesis that the connection may be found in the soul of the learner. Its doing so was timely because thus the college acknowledged that the easy and immediate relation of those early days between liberal learning and republican statesmanship had long been ruptured. And it was wise because thus the college brought forward the oldest and the newest, the most per­sistent and the most urgent, of all political questions: What is the relation of thought to action?

So the hypothesis which discerning critics who charge the college under the New Program with being an “ivory tower” would have to refute are these: That we do live in a country in which there is liberty and that liberty is both exercised and preserved by true action, namely, free action. That such action is by its very nature pre­ceded by thought, from which it follows that human be­ings, the young especially, ought to have a period of re­flective learning as a prelude to both private and public action. That this pedagogical prelude should take the form of liberal, that is to say, non-vocational, education, not only because such learning is a deep need and a pe­rennial possibility of the human soul, but even more because the theory that is meant to precede action can­ not be pursued otherwise than freely, that is to say, spontaneously.

The St. John’s Program, then, is nothing but a coherent set of occasions for encouraging liberal learn­ing. The question of real interest, just how it is specifically designed to induce liberty of soul, I leave, as is fitting, to one of the most characteristic of these occasions, the question period.

Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The St. John’s Review (Volume 34, No. 3, 1984).


Charlotte Fletcher, “1784: the Year St. John’s College Was Named,” Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 74, No. 2, June 1979.

Richard Hofstadter, Academic Freedom in the Age of the College, (New York 1955).

David Ridgely, Annals of Annapolis, 1649-1812 (Baltimore 1841), pp.237-244.

Essays on Education in the Early Republic, ed. Frederick Rudolph (Cam­bridge 1965).

Bernard C. Steiner, History of Education in Maryland (Washington 1894).

J. Winfree Smith, A Search for the Liberal Arts College, (St. John’s Col­lege Press 1983).

Tench Francis Tilghman, The Early History of St. John’s College in Annapolis, (St. John’s College Press 1984).

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