The instruction of young boys, eight or nine years of age, from the American revolutionary generation rigorously concentrated on the study of Greek and Latin. Those same boys, in turn, demonstrated a polished proficiency in those studies for entrance into college.
A man much in the mold of the revolutionary generation was Manasseh Cutler (1742-1823), best remembered today as the father of Ohio University. As a young man, Manasseh was “placed under the instruction of Rev. Aaron Brown, in order to obtain a sufficient knowledge of Latin to enable him to study medicine” (Cutler). Manasseh entered his freshman year at Yale in 1761.
The revolutionary generation was enamored of the classics—Cicero, Horace, Virgil and Plutarch to name a few. It is from here that they obtained their knowledge of history. The history of ancient societies contained valuable lessons for the emerging nation of America.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, many prominent Americans were not only readers but also collectors of books. It was a time when a single shelf of books represented an enormous collection, and libraries, as we know them today, did not exist.
Private libraries, nevertheless, did come to the new land of America with the first European Colonies. These private libraries contained very few books, which were mostly of a religious nature. However, as the Colonies grew and a new country took shape, so too did private libraries. As early as the 1670s, there were booksellers in Boston “to aid the buyers of books” (Harris). Private libraries became commonplace among professionals, government officials and large landowners.
Much in this tradition was the mid-17th century founding of Yale College, when clergymen, intent on establishing a tradition of European-style liberal education on American shores, endeavored to establish a college in New Haven, Connecticut. The college was named to honor Welsh merchant Elihu Yale, who donated more than 400 books along with other goods, helping to found both the infant institution and its first library.
It was as an undergraduate browsing Yale’s library shelves that Manasseh Cutler happened upon a book written by Linnaeus, an early publication in the new field of scientific research called botany. “Few, if any, scholars at Yale or Harvard had, at that time, given the subject any attention” (Cutler). This discovery led to Manasseh Cutler’s lifelong interest in the study of botany and eventually to his role as one of the early members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Manasseh graduated from Yale College with high standing in 1765.
The importance of books to the revolutionary generation was amply demonstrated by President John Adams’ establishment of the first Library of Congress in 1800. In 1815 after a fire destroyed the original collection, Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library, containing more than 6,000 volumes, to the Library of Congress.
Clearly, Americans valued books and reading, and this mutually shared sentiment soon expanded beyond the physical boundaries of the New England states into the lands of the American West. The written word not only helped mold the thoughts and actions that characterized the American Revolution, but was also instrumental in guiding the revolutionary generation that would later form universities and libraries in what was then called the Northwest Territory.
The Ohio University and surrounding community is invited to celebrate University Libraries’ 200th anniversary at the Founders Day Symposium from 1:30 to 4 p.m. March 25 on the fourth floor of Alden Library.
Titled “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation,” this event will serve as the official kickoff for University’s Libraries’ bicentennial. Speakers at the symposium include:
The Founders Day Symposium is one of several events in the coming year that will celebrate University Libraries’ long history of service to the University and Athens communities.