A Friend of Bill’s: Washington College’s Founder and American Education

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One of the more curious aspects of Washington College has been its relative ambivalence about its founder, the Rev. William Smith. Compared to the reputation of the College’s namesake saint,  Smith’s biography as being a loyal Tory, legendary foe of Benjamin Franklin, and one of the better known alcoholics in Colonial America, is not the kind of thing a school is eager to immediately promote to high school seniors.

And so, not surprisingly, over the years, William Smith’s role with the founding of Washington College has increasingly become more obscure as George Washington’s relatively modest relationship as patron and board member for the school has become excessively hyped to win over prospective students and their history-reading parents.

While historians will need to determine Washington’s lasting impact on the school, professor emeritus Colin Dickson thinks WC might be missing the boat by not publicly acknowledging Smith’s growing reputation of having a decisive and long lasting impact on American education.

This new respect for Smith might be partly due to the release of his papers to researchers by the University of Pennsylvania just a few years ago. Previously stored away in private hands for more then a century, Penn recently purchased over 350 letters covering Smith’s arrival to Philadelphia in 1753 until his death in 1803.

The Spy sat down with Professor Dickson a few weeks ago to discuss William Smith and understand more why we should pay our due respect.

Letters to Editor

  1. Marge Fallaw says:

    It should be noted that Dave Knowles, former longtime director of the Washington College Dining Service, wrote a commendable senior thesis for his WC degree in history (circa 1973) on Smith and his ideas about education. It’s in the WC library.

    Smith indeed seems to have been a complex character and may not have entirely merited the Rev. Ezra Stiles’ (Pres. of Yale from the late 1770s into the 1790s) critical comment as they were competitors in numerous ways.

    Politically re the Revolution, in part Smith may have been like many others of his time (esp. in Philadelphia, controlled by first one side and then the other): opportunistic and hedging his bets when it was unclear which side would prevail. He apparently was hardly a “flaming Tory,” however, a pretty accurate characterization of James Tilghman (father of Tench, Washington’s aide and famous for his ride, and sometimes an embarrassment to his son), who was essentially stripped of his high governmental position in Pennsylvania, not punished there for his Toryism but exiled and told to be quiet about his views, which he was not. He relocated to Chestertown.

    One noteworthy aspect about Smith, which made him popular among Catholics, is that he sought their support (esp. on the Shore) during his indefatigable fundraising to establish the college, and that, unusual for the time, the college was to be nondenominational and would not discriminate against Catholics. The Rev. Thomas Peterman touches on this in his first book about the history of Catholicism on the Delmarva Peninsula. For a long period before the Maryland Constitution of 1776, Catholics suffered discrimination; they were disenfranchised, taxed at higher rates, had worship restrictions, etc.

  2. Jane Hudson says:

    Didn’t William Smith have something to do with the Book of Common Prayer for the Espiscopal Church as well?

  3. The history of Washington College is indeed a complex and fascinating one. It has had as many ups and downs as riding a cafeteria tray up and down the hill in front of the hill dorms in the snow.

    It would appear if it had not been for the tenacity and vision of William Smith, Washington Collerge miy not even exist. So the very visable recognition of Dr. Smith, via the namning of the most prominent building on campus, in his honor, is ineed well merited, if perhaps long forgotten. Many hours of learning have occurred in this venerable building over the years. Dr. Smith would be pleased.

    The “public relations” ploy by Dr. Smith to have Washington lend his name to the fledgling instituioon was a stroke of genius, and the rest is history, by George and Bill.

    Fletcher R. Hall ’63
    Chestertown, Md.

  4. Kevin O'Keefe says:

    David, thank you for bringing us such interviews. They are as entertaining as they are informative. Special thanks to Professor Dickson, whose eloquence of expression is most impressive and whose insights about William Smith are persuasive. Thoughtful content such as you have created here make The Spy a compelling read.

  5. Erica Dickson says:

    Very enjoyable to hear you share this little known information about my alma mater, Dad.
    Erica Dickson ’91

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