In 1795, George Washington famously pledged to donate $20,000 worth of stock in the Potomac River Company to fund a national university. As its title suggests, George Thomas's The Founders and the Idea of a National University is about the broader vision that lay behind Washington's donation and the widespread support for a national university among the founding generation.
Benjamin Rush first proposed a national university in 1787. Later that year the Constitutional Convention considered the idea, but opted not to include it in the final document. The national university reappeared in most early republican plans for education reform and drew support from the first six presidents. Congress even considered the idea on a few occasions. The proposal lay dormant for a time, only to reemerge in the [End Page 370] Reconstruction era. Yet it failed at every juncture. Though Thomas narrates this story well, it is not the focus of the book.
Rather, as a political theorist, Thomas is interested in what the rationale for a national university tells us about the nature and limits of American constitutionalism. The national university is good fodder for this because supporters defended the institution as constitutionally necessary, even as it died on a series of constitutional objections. A preexisting people, the preamble's "we the people," created the Constitution. Paradoxically, though, the document also attempted to create that same sovereign, republican people, to transform an aspiration into something real. This is where the university came in. "As conceived by Washington"—who, for Thomas, is the quintessential supporter of the plan—"the national university might be understood as a supplement to the institutional structure brought forth in the Constitution" (3). By bringing elites from across the nation together and creating personal bonds that transcended geographical divides, the university would create "a political culture with shared beliefs and understandings—things the institutional structure of the Constitution did not provide" (3).
Thomas's book thus rounds out our understanding of how nationalists hoped to use federal power to draw together the young nation. Historians will situate Thomas's analysis alongside work by Richard R. John on the post office and John Lauritz Larson on internal improvements. Indeed, it is telling that Washington invested shares in the Potomac River Company—an important internal improvement—to fund the proposed university. These projects were part of the same vision.
Arguments for the national university, though, betrayed the weakness of the constitutional system it would bolster. Here, Thomas follows David Hendrickson and Peter Onuf in emphasizing that the Constitution primarily created a union, not a nation. "With some irony," as Thomas astutely shows, "the very decentralized nature of the Constitution in this realm [national sentiments], which moved proponents of the national university to urge it as a necessary 'institution of support' in the constitutional scheme, also rendered it difficult to establish" (15). The university's boosters failed to generate enough nationalistic enthusiasm from across the nation to overcome localism and constitutional objections to the plan. Historians will find particularly valuable chapter 2, in which Thomas analyzes the constitutional debates over the university in relation to other national institutions—including the Bank of the United States, West Point, and the Smithsonian Institute. [End Page 371]
Thomas's arguments about the university's unique significance rest largely on comparisons he draws between plans for the national university and other colleges and academies. First of all, plans for the university accorded little importance to religion and less to theological education. "Measured against the backdrop of sectarian colleges where religious belief often defined the mission of education," Thomas writes in chapter 3, the national university represented a radical departure (91). Thomas goes so far as to dismiss the first three colonial colleges—Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale—as "theocracies" (128). Columbia College and the University of the State of Pennsylvania provided models for a less theologically driven curriculum than the other colonial colleges or the denominational institutions founded in the early years of the republic. Nevertheless, Thomas...