Horace Holley Subject of New Biography, Talk at Transylvania University

holleyHistorian James P. Cousins, author of a new biography on controversial Transylvania University president Horace Holley, will discuss Holley’s legacy and impact in a talk sponsored by the Humanities Division of Transylvania University starting at 3 pm in Room 102 of Cowgill Hall on Wednesday, December 7, and sign copies of the book afterward. Cousins will also be at The Morris Book Shop in Lexington on Friday, December 9, from 4 to 6 pm signing copies of the book.

Outspoken New England urbanite Horace Holley (1781–1827) was an unlikely choice to become the president of Transylvania University—the first college established west of the Allegheny Mountains—in 1819. Many Kentuckians doubted his leadership abilities, some questioned his Unitarian beliefs, and others simply found him arrogant and elitist. Nevertheless, Holley ushered in a period of sustained educational and cultural growth at Transylvania, and the university received national attention for its scientifically progressive and liberal curriculum. The resulting influx of wealthy students and celebrated faculty—including Constantine Samuel Rafinesque—lent Lexington, Kentucky, a distinguished atmosphere and gave rise to the city’s image as the “Athens of the West.”

In Horace Holley: Transylvania University and the Making of Liberal Education in the Early American Republic, Cousins offers fresh perspectives on a seminal yet contentious figure in American religious history and educational life. The son of a prosperous New England merchant family, Holley studied at Yale University before serving as a minister. He achieved national acclaim as an intellectual and self-appointed critic of higher education before accepting the position at Transylvania. His clashes with political and community leaders, however, ultimately led him to resign in 1827, and his untimely death later that year cut short a promising career.

Drawing upon a wealth of previously used and newly uncovered primary sources, Cousins analyzes the profound influence of westward expansion on social progress and education that transpired during Holley’s tenure. This engaging book not only illuminates the life and work of an important yet overlooked figure, but makes a valuable contribution to the history of education in the early American Republic.

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A Chronology of Horace Holley

1781—Born in February to Sarah and Luther Holley in Salisbury, Connecticut.

1793—Enters Williams College with older brothers Milton and Myron, but doesn’t care for it and returns home.

1797—Enters Williams College again at age sixteen, this time as a serious student

1799—Enters Yale, where he begins to develop his love of education and his Calvinist views.

1803—Graduating from Yale, he goes to New York in December intending to do a law apprenticeship, but drops that by January.

1804—Returns to Yale to study theology, where he gets engaged to Mary Austin in June, and receives his ministerial license in December.

1805—Marries Mary Austin on January 1st and takes his first minister position in September in Greenfield, Connecticut.

1809—Takes the minister position at Hollis Street Church in Boston where he develops more liberal religious views, leaning towards Unitarianism. His daughter Harriette is born.

1811—Joins the Wednesday Evening Club with other Boston elites, like John Quincy Adams, as he begins to gather prestige.

1812—In June he is appointed Chaplain of the Massachusetts House of Representatives—In November he is appointed to the Boston School Committee.

1814—Receives and rejects first offer of Transylvania University presidency.

1815—Again rejects an offer from Transylvania.

1817—Once more offered the presidency of Transylvania, and agrees to at least visit and consider the offer.

1818—Sets out in February on a “tour of enquiry” on his way to Lexington, touring eastern colleges in order to determine the character and expectations for higher learning.

1818—Arrives in Lexington on May 25th, and accepts the offer of president by June 15th.

1819–1827—President of Transylvania.

1821—Procures massive state funding for the university in the form of the “Literary Fund.”

1824–1827—Pamphlets attacking Horace’s character and the school were widely circulated by his enemies.

1825—Officially signs a letter of recommendation on December 23rd, though he ends up staying until 1827.

1827—Offered the position of president at the College of New Orleans, and plans to reopen the university in November of 1828.

1827—Contracts yellow fever and dies four months after leaving Lexington on July 31st.




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