From Ron D. Bryant
Transylvania University has long fascinated those interested not only in the history of higher education in Kentucky, but also higher education in American history.
Founded in 1780, more than a decade before Kentucky became the 15th state of the Union, the founders of the university had high hopes for success. Although plagued by uncertainties in financing and public support, Kentucky’s first institution of higher learning soon established a reputation as the educational center of the western frontier.
Notwithstanding the early potential of Transylvania, the school’s awakening as one of the finest institutions of learning in the U.S. did not occur until more than 30 years after its founding. The academic fame that came to the university would be brought about by one of the greatest of America’s college presidents – Horace Holley.
James P. Cousins, a faculty member of the Department of History of Western Michigan University, chose Holley as the subject of an in-depth study of a man and his influence on an institution. The historied institution of Transylvania University as directed by Holley and the effect the university and its president had on higher education are inextricably mixed.
Professor Cousins carefully explores Holley’s early life and education in New England and gives his readers an excellent overview of the domestic and educational forces that shaped the character of the future Transylvania president.
Holley was born in 1781 in Salisbury, Conn., the fourth son of Luther and Sarah Dakin Holley. He began his education at the age of 4, and at 16 he entered Williams College. In 1799 he attended Yale. There he came under the influence of one of America’s great theologians and educators, Timothy Dwight. After graduating in 1803, Holley decided to study law in New York, but soon returned to Yale to study under Dwight.
In 1805, Holley became minister of the Congregational Church in Greenfield, Conn. That year, he married Mary Austin. Due in part to his wife’s more liberal religious views, Holley became a Unitarian. In 1809, he became the minister at Hollis Street Church in Boston. His reputation as an intellect and engaging speaker quickly spread throughout New England and beyond the east coast. He became a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers and served as chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives during the War of 1812.
Due in part to low enrollment and the possibility of the school’s failure, the Kentucky General Assembly decided to reorganize the board of trustees of Transylvania University. The Presbyterians, who had controlled the school, were forced to admit trustees who held far more liberal academic views than they.
In 1815, the trustees of Transylvania offered Holley the presidency of the university, but he refused. In 1817, the trustees again offered Holley the post. Intrigued by the prospects of moving west and forming an institution worthy of being called a university, Holley visited Lexington in 1818 and decided to accept the position.
Holley proved not only equal to the task of being a university president, he excelled at the post. During his near decade at the university, he transformed Transylvania into a first-rate academic institution. He established both law and medical schools that soon attracted some of the best and brightest students in the nation. He hired stellar faculty who became the envy of other colleges and universities. The reputation of Transylvania grew so great as to cause Thomas Jefferson to bemoan the fact that if Virginia did not create a university on the same level as Transylvania, the state’s young men would go to Kentucky for their education and probably not return to Virginia.
Regretfully for Transylvania and higher education in general in Kentucky, disagreements over Holley’s liberal lifestyle (card playing, social drinking and his Unitarian faith) aroused old animosities with the Presbyterians and other more conservative Kentuckians. Accusations of mismanagement of the school deeply hurt Holley.
At last, Holley ran afoul of Gov. Joseph Desha, who had no desire to support an “elitist” school. In 1827, with budget cuts and declining community support, Holley resigned his office and left Kentucky. He had hoped to create a “travelling” academy, taking young men to Europe for a liberal education. This idea failed, and he accepted the request of some of the citizens of New Orleans to establish a school there.
Holley never had the chance to create his academy in the South. He died of yellow fever on an ocean voyage to New England on July 31, 1827, and was buried at sea.
James Cousins’ work on Holley is well worth reading. His extensive research and his understanding of the dynamics of the cultural atmosphere of the first two decades of Kentucky history have served him and his readers well. His prose is to-the-point and his facts solid. Nevertheless, the author did confuse the name of Kentucky historian Humphrey Marshall by referring to him as Henry Marshall, and another minor irritant came from the author’s insistence of referring to Holley by his first name, giving the work a lack of formality that it did not deserve.
Nevertheless, Cousins’ study of Holley is excellent and adds much to the history of the man and the institution with which he will forever be associated
If you’re interested in purchasing the book, click here.