America’s First State Chartered University
In 1784, the former thirteen British colonies, now American states, were still reveling in the wonder of having defeated the most powerful military and naval force in the world less than a year before. Citizens of the newly minted Republic set about planning for the future and none were more far-sighted than those gentlemen of the Georgia General Assembly. In February of that year, they earmarked 40,000 cares of land for the endowment of a “college or seminary of learning.” 706 of those acres would ultimately become home to the state’s flagship institution of higher learning in Athens-Clark County, the University of Georgia. Abraham Baldwin, a minster and lawyer educated at Yale, drafted the university’s charter the following year. The university’s seal proudly bears the year of its founding, 1785.
Athens, at the time of the university’s charter, was not yet an incorporated city. It was a tiny village at Cedar Shoals where a historic Cherokee trail crossed the Oconee River. When the General Assembly, comprised of a House of Representatives and a Senate, set the course for an educated citizenry, it created the Senatus Academicus to govern the process, with the state Senate overseeing all. The first meeting of the Senatus Academicus was held in Augusta, Georgia on February 13, 1786 and Abraham Baldwin was elected its president. Baldwin had arrived in Georgia in 1783 and quickly rose to prominence. In addition to his work for education, he was also chosen as one of Georgia’s two representatives to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and was a signer of the document it produced. William Few, Jr. was the other delegate and signer on behalf of the state, as well as being an original Trustee of the University.
On July 2, 1799, the Senatus Academicus determined that the time had come to open the university. Of the 40,000 acres set aside by the General Assembly, 633 near the village of Athens were selected and building commenced on what was at that time called Franklin College, named for Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. The first students arrived for classes in 1801 under the leadership of college president Josiah Meigs, another Yale graduate. The first graduation was held on May 31, 1804. The name Franklin is still used by the university with the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
During the Civil War, the college remained open until 1863 when it closed its doors. The college reopened in January 1866 with an enrollment of 78 students, some of them war veterans attending on $300 grants awarded to injured men under the age of 30. That same year, the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts was established using grant money from the state legislature and as a result of the Morrill Act which allowed the establishment of land grant colleges and universities across the nation.
The university was originally intended only for white men, but in 1903, it admitted the first white females, 67 year after Wesleyan College was founded as the world’s first college for women. Wesleyan, also in Georgia, is located at Macon. In 1903, women were allowed to transfer to the university from two year colleges, but were limited to a single degree program in Home Economics. It was not until 1918 that white women were permitted studies in the full range of degree offerings. It was not until 1961 that persons of color were allowed to attend. The first black students, Hamilton E. Holmes and Charlene Hunter, were allowed to register only after a protracted struggle with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Hamilton Holmes graduated Phi Beta Kappa and went on to become the first person of color to graduate from Emory University School of Medicine. He rose to become professor of orthopedics and associate dean of that school. Hunter graduated with a degree in journalism and earned distinction during her career with two Emmys and a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcast journalism.
In founding the college and in writing its charter, 18th century Georgia leaders created an institution that was a radical departure from the traditional concept of higher education. Prior to 1785, higher education was generally a luxury open only to the privileged sons of the wealthy; however, the Georgia Assemblymen had a better idea and one far more suited to the ideals of the new republic. They believed in the importance of an educated citizenry in maintaining a free government, that government had a responsibility to educate its citizens, and that all citizens had a right to an education, not just the wealthy. Abraham Baldwin wrote these concepts into the college charter, which was approved by the Assembly on January 27, 1785. Of course, it would take another 200 years before these ideals were fully realized, but in adopting this document with concepts that departed so radically from the traditional notion of higher education, Georgia established the framework for what would become the American system of public supported colleges and universities.
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.