Monthly Archives: September 2009

George Washington offers financial support for a national university in the federal city

While developing the plans for American University, Bishop John Fletcher Hurst discovered that George Washington was an early supporter of a national university in the nation’s capital.

In a letter to the Governor of Virginia, Robert Brooke, dated March 16, 1795, Washington proposed designating his shares in the Potomack (Canal) Company for an early initiative to create a national university in the “federal city.”  Washington’s support for this project stemmed from his concerns about the state of graduate education in the United States.  He was worried that “the youth of the United States [are] migrating to foreign countries for the higher branches of erudition” and “that a serious danger is encountered in sending abroad among other political systems those who have not well learned the value of their own.”

Hurst purchased this letter in the 1890s and carried it with him on his early fundraising trips.  Hurst felt his plan for a graduate institution which would be open to “both young men and women alike” matched George Washington’s goals for a national university.  Upon his death, Hurst’s Library was sold at auction but W.L. Davidson, Secretary of the University, purchased the letter with his own money.   Davidson was eventually reimbursed through donations.  This letter and its connection to American University’s past are treasured by the campus community.

Visitors are welcome to stop by Archives and Special Collections to read the letter.

Bishop John F. Hurst Autograph Collection (1532-1883)

AU’s founder, Bishop John Fletcher Hurst, was an avid collector. In addition to a large library, he amassed a small autograph collection. The books, correspondence, and documents in this collection highlight Hurst’s interest in astronomy, Italy, mathematics, nature, and religion. It includes letters written by Michael Faraday (1851), Lamarck (1822), and Alexander von Humboldt as well as letters relating to the unification of Italy three of which were written by Giuseppe Garibaldi. Of note are several 19th century papal bulls, 16th century astronomical text entitled Liber Ioannis de Sacro Busto De sphaera / / addita est præfatio in eundem librum Philippi Mel. ad Simonem Grineum, and a 1581 decree of King Philip II of Spain.