The Founders and the Idea of a National University

George Thomas, author of the excellent The Madisonian Constitution (Johns Hopkins UP 2008), has recently published The Founders and the Idea of a National University: Constituting the American Mind (Cambridge UP 2014).  He provided JMC the following write-up on his latest book.

thomas book


George Thomas

Education is the “keeper of the republic,” or so insists the Heart of the Matter, a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences commissioned by Congress echoing Montesquieu’s famous line on the crucial link between education and republican government. In America, since at least the days of Noah Webster, we’ve insisted on this link while bemoaning the fact that we don’t give it its due: we love to point out, as Webster himself did, that we don’t know our own history, which is bound up with the nation’s civic identity. Insofar was we don’t know our history, we lack knowledge of ourselves.

Among the history we tend to forget, is that many of the leading political and educational thinkers of the founding generation wanted to establish a national university. The idea of a national university was widespread during the founding generation, and persisted, in one form or another, until the early years of the twentieth century. Compiling a list of advocates of a national university is to name the seminal political and educational figures of the day: Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and both John Adams and John Quincy Adams.

The Founders and the Idea of a National University illuminates how the national university was envisioned as a supplement to America’s political institutions, but it was also a means of patching over and overcoming potential defects by relying on more than self-interest and checks and balances. In James Madison words, a national university would promote “national feelings” and  “liberal sentiments” that were necessary to carry the constitutional experiment forward. Adopting certain habits of mind and beliefs—what Madison called a “political creed”—was an important part of bringing the Constitution to life. For Madison, this meant breaking the link between theology and education.

Yet this is really a story about the American present. What role do America’s colleges and universities play in cultivating a civic mindset? For all the talk of leadership at elite colleges and universities these days, do they promote the sort of publically spirited leadership beneficial to maintaining America’s political order ( Do they foster citizens with the habits of mind necessary to liberal democracy? These questions preoccupied the advocates of a national university and we, too, must take up such questions against the presumption that the American experiment, set in motion by an earlier generation, will simply be self-sustaining.