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  • Horace Holley: Transylvania University and the Making of Liberal Education in the Early American Republic by James P. Cousins
  • Rebecca R. Noel (bio)
Key Words

Horace Holley, Kentucky, Transylvania University, Unitarianism, Higher education, History of education

Horace Holley: Transylvania University and the Making of Liberal Education in the Early American Republic. By James P. Cousins. ( Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Pp. 308. Cloth, $50.00.)

In his short life from 1781 to 1827, Horace Holley embodied key transitions of the early republic. His father was an unlettered farmer who became a successful merchant and sent all three sons to college. Holley transformed himself from law student to well-placed minister to college president, from Calvinist defender to vague Unitarian, and from urbane New Englander to western booster. But he never updated his elitist tendencies, maintaining a "postpolitical" (217) cultural Federalism that ultimately squeezed him out of Jacksonian Kentucky's populist political [End Page 175] culture. Despite missed opportunities, James P. Cousins's Horace Holley is a readable case study of these larger frictions and makes a valuable contribution to the histories of Protestant religion, higher education, medicine, and the trans-Appalachian West.

After studying at Williams and Yale, Holley landed a plum position at the Hollis Street Church in Boston. This prominent church was torn between older Calvinist leadership and Unitarian-leaning parishioners and colleagues. Influenced by purists Timothy Dwight and Samuel Hopkins, but increasingly skilled at airbrushing his actual beliefs, Holley managed to please both factions. During his nine years in the Boston pulpit, his religious stance trended Unitarian, both feisty and ambiguous.

When Holley accepted the presidency of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1818, the Revolution-era university was undergoing a similar religious and political tussle. Holley spent months visiting other colleges and networking in Washington before assuming the post. Poaching professors from the University of Pennsylvania's illustrious medical school, he started a thriving medical department; within a couple of years, he raised the university's stature and enrollment overall. He also tried, with weaker results, to establish a law school. Throughout his nine-year tenure, he had vociferous Presbyterian detractors, and the university's annual requests for state funding attracted legislative darts. His lavish parties and intellectual polish delighted some, while critics called him immoral or a "bag of wind" (103). Holley met all six presidents from Adams to Jackson, counted Transylvania trustee Henry Clay as a solid supporter, and welcomed the Marquis de Lafayette in a triumphant 1825 visit. Later that year, though, a populist takeover of the governor's office and legislature gave his foes the upper hand, and he was forced out of office. He was seeking a new perch in New Orleans in the summer of 1827 when he and his wife, Mary, fled the sickening heat. Not fast enough: He died of yellow fever on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico.

This book touches several important dimensions of the early republic. It tracks economic and resulting cultural change in the Northeast, and fallout over the disestablishment, splintering, and liberalization of Protestantism. Transylvania's years under Holley exemplify the growth and secularization of higher education, curricular choices between letters and sciences, the formalizing of medical education, and the construction of expertise including the academic profession. At the same time, higher education was becoming a more accessible, versatile commodity. Leaders in aspiring communities sought the prestige and economic engine of an [End Page 176] elite college, whereas populists sought a broader-based investment. Although links to the present are complicated, Holley's legislative battles over appropriations sound dismayingly familiar.

The Acknowledgements make it clear that Cousins has performed a real service, tracking down disparate, loosely catalogued resources. Widely praised as an orator, Holley preferred to speak extemporaneously and often destroyed any written notes. Cousins admirably pieces together this erratically documented story through letters, journals, newspapers, and surrounding primary sources. Early sections of the book are especially well contextualized, and in later chapters, he makes deft use of Holley's scrapbook. In passages of description and narration, his prose is sprightly and colorful. Cousins crafts a nuanced picture of Holley as a person: snobby, ambitious, and self-serving, yet...


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