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Columbian College 1821-1824: The Early Years

As early as 1790, George Washington was urging the establishment of a national university in the District of Columbia, a desire which was shared and encouraged even after his death by Presidents Jefferson and Madison who expressed the need to carry out Washington's plans. However, it was an association formed in 1819 by Luther Rice, Obadiah B. Brown, Spencer H. Cone and Enoch Reynolds that set in motion the reality of a college in the District. This Association made plans to purchase land for a college and theological institution under the direction of the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist denomination in the United States. Among the patrons contributing funds for land and buildings were James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and John C. Calhoun.

Petition to Congress

The first petition to establish such an institution was denied by Congress. Undaunted, the members of the Association returned to Congress with a bill for the incorporation of the Columbian Society for Literary Purposes, to establish through a non-denominational institution "the plans and aspirations of Washington, Jefferson and Madison for the erection of a university at the seat of the Federal government." In 1821, by Act of Congress, Columbian College in the District of Columbia was chartered.

By March 1821, the Trustees had accepted the charter and committees were appointed to prepare the by-laws and the College seal. In May, the Reverend Dr. William Staughton was elected the College's first President.

The First Campus

The new College was just outside the city limits of Washington on "College Hill," a parcel of land consisting of approximately 47 acres north of Boundary Street (now known as Florida Avenue) between 14th and 15th Streets. The College was a half-hour walk from the Capitol Building. Four buildings made up the complex. The main building, begun in 1820 and finished for the opening of the College in January 1822, was a brick edifice consisting of five floors, including a basement and an attic. With 58 rooms and 60 fireplaces, the building could accommodate 100 students. Two other buildings were occupied by the President, his family and the Steward. The steward was also the superintendent of buildings. The fourth was used as a "depository for the philosophical apparatus belonging to the College," and for the Preparatory Department, which began June 30, 1821, as an adjunct to the College. Water was provided for the complex by a deep well that was fed by a spring.

The first session began on the second Wednesday in January, 1822, and ended on the second Wednesday in July. A second session followed from September until December. There were only three professors on the original faculty, assisted by at least one tutor. Professors and tutors taught in the Classical and Theological departments on subjects according to their expertise. Tutors were required to reside in the college, conduct classes if directed, say the blessing and supervise tables at meals, and call upon students for recitation and other duties. Standards of admission to Columbian College were higher for those in the Classical department than for those in the Theological curriculum, even though the Board of Trustees declared that admission requirements should not fall below those of other distinguished American colleges. All candidates were examined by the President or his representative.


Requisites for admission included an acquaintance with English grammar and arithmetic, a thorough knowledge of geography, and the ability to read and write Latin. The prospective student had to be able to translate, with a high degree of competence, Caesar's Commentaries, and the works of Virgil, Sallust, select orations of Cicero, and the New Testament in Greek. A candidate for advanced standing from another college had to pass examinations in all subjects previously taken and had to show that he left the other institution in good standing. No one was admitted without satisfactory credentials of good moral character.

Thirty students registered for the first term: three in the Theological department, seventeen in the Classical department, and ten in the Preparatory School.

Students reported to the Steward at the beginning of each term. Although fees varied slightly during the first few years, each student was required to pay ten dollars upon admission, thirty dollars tuition for the first term, and twenty dollars for the second. Boarding students added twenty-five dollars to cover their food for two terms. There was a three dollar library fee, fourteen dollars for rental of room and furniture, and 37 1/2 cents per dozen items of wash. Total fees were estimated at less than two hundred dollars a year, with ten dollars suggested for pocket money. Some promising young men of limited means were accorded liberal treatment in the payment of their college fees, especially if they expressed an interest in becoming ministers of the Gospel.


Religious and moral deportment were held in high regard by the College. Once admitted, every student was required to obtain a copy of the Laws of the College, which governed all student life. Attendance at morning and evening prayers and all other religious services was required, but students who were members of Christian denominations other than Baptist were allowed to attend Sunday services at their own churches. Faculty members maintained a merit book in which conduct records of the students were kept. They visited the rooms of the students frequently, and all cases of insubordination, delinquency, and breach of college laws were reported.

Use of the library was subject to permission of the librarian and students were not allowed to remove more than two volumes at a time. All books, without exception, had to be returned one week before the vacation period.

Academic requirements and rules were numerous. During the freshman and sophomore years, studies included English, Latin, and Greek; geography; arithmetic and algebra; history and antiquities; exercises in reading, speaking and composition; elements of chronology; rhetoric and logic; logarithms, geometry, trigonometry and mensuration; surveying, navigation, conic sections and Euclid's Elements. In his junior and senior years, the student took natural philosophy, astronomy, chemistry, fluxions, natural history, history of civil society, natural religion, Revelation, natural and political law, metaphysics, moral philosophy and analogy of religion to nature. In order to qualify for the Bachelor of Arts degree, every student had to spend four years at the College, except those who entered with advanced standing, and pass rigid examinations in all of his subject areas. He paid six dollars to receive his diploma.

With the establishment of Columbian College in the District of Columbia, therefore, George Washington's dream of a college in the nation's capital was realized. Just three years later, in 1824, the Congressionally-chartered College would award degrees to its first three graduates.

By G. David Anderson, former university archivist

First published in Arts and Sciences, CCGSAS Alumni Newsletter