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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XXIII. - Dr. Baxter - Rector and President


Like William Graham, the first Rector, Mr. Baxter appropriated the income, from the tuition and the available funds principally, to the support of the professors and tutors associated with him, reserving for himself the remainder after their salaries were paid. The expenses of his own family were met by the salary of £100, Virginia currency, from the congregations of New Monmouth and Lexington, and the income of the property received with his wife from the estate of her father. It does not appear that any specific salary was ever offered him while connected with the institution.

To his duties as instructor in the Mathematical department, he added the recitations in Rhetoric, Moral Philosophy, Natural Law, and the Law of Nations. With the able assistance of Messrs. Joseph Graham and Daniel Blain, Mr. Baxter soon found himself at the head of an academy containing about seventy scholars. The prospects were encouraging for an increased number. The list of graduates had not hitherto been, and was not during the Rectorship and Presidency of Mr. Baxter, proportionably equal to the list of those receiving their education at the academy. A specified amount of acquirements in the Classics, Mathematics, Mental and Moral Philosophy was necessary to obtain the degree of Bachelor of Arts. But it had always been left optional to the students with their parents and guardians, whether they should pursue the whole College course, or confine themselves to some particular departments, as the exact sciences, or languages and philosophy, or the sciences with philosophy. A large number of the students left the academy without the degree of A. B. given as a certificate of their general progress, though they might have a certificate for their chosen study in which they excelled.

Virginia is now solving, on a large scale, the problem often discussed, how far the interests of literature and science, and of the body politic at large, require a prescribed course of study embracing the principles of all the departments in science and literature; and how far, and in what way, all these interests are affected by permitting students to pursue chosen branches, a degree being given for excellence, in any one branch, expressing the progress made, and naming the branch of study; and a degree being also given for excellence in the whole circle of studies, that fact being particularly stated.

About the close of the 18th century, a taste for classical study was extensively discouraged in America, and the Mathematics with the Natural Sciences engrossed the public attention. The study of language began to be confined to candidates for the ministry, and lovers of literature for its own excellence. Public opinion has undergone a change; and the classics have regained their standing in our Colleges and Universities. And the enquiry now is, whether students shall be required to pursue a complete course of scientific and literary studies in our public institutions, or be permitted to select particular branches, or parts of a general course. Public experience will in due time decide the question.

Dr. Baxter held the offices of Rectorship and President about thirty years. Under his direction about four hundred and fifty youths completed their academic studies. In after life they were found in various positions in society—gentlemen of leisure, farmers of science and taste, ministers of the gospel, lawyers, governors, professors and Presidents of Colleges, and Judges of the different Courts, and members of the medical profession.

The endowment made by Washington, began, in a little time, to yield a fair per cent.; and is now by an arrangement made some years since by the State, the most productive of the College funds. The Virginia Society of the Cincinnati, in preparation for its own dissolution, followed the example of Washington, and gave their property, amounting to $16,000, to the Washington Academy, to sustain a professor, part of whose duties should be the teaching of those branches of education particularly required for the profession of arms. The fund retains the name of the Society. Mr. John Robinson, a citizen of Rockbridge, made the institution his heir. An emigrant from Ireland, living on the waters of the James River, without descendants, he had amassed property in lands, slaves, and money; and was induced to give, by will, all his possessions, to be united with the donations of Washington and the Society of the Cincinnati, for the support of a Literary Institution.

In the year 1813, by Act of Legislature, the name of the institution was changed from Academy to College, and is now styled Washington College; the name of Liberty Hall having, in the year 1798, given place to that of Washington, in memory of his donation of one hundred shares of James River stock. The charter remained unchanged, its powers being considered sufficiently ample. The propriety of altering the appearance of College hill, and of enlarging the accommodations for students and professors, and of increasing the number of the faculty of instruction, was admitted by the trustees, and the accomplishment was resolved upon many years before the funds became sufficiently productive. They have, however, all been realized; and Washington College is, in all these respects, the fulfilment of Dr. Baxter’s earnest desires.

By the successive classes of students Dr. Baxter was held in peculiar estimation as a kind, fatherly, resolute President, who might be deceived by a designing boy, the deception sure to be discovered, bringing at last more trouble in the heart than pleasure in the mischief. They gave him the significant title “old rex.” The cry of “old rex is coming!” — and they could always know when he was coming, without much watching, for he always gave the alarm by his half suppressed cough — “old rex is coming!” the mischief was all done, the boys in their places, and at work. But somehow, “old rex,” when stirred up to investigate some little offences, always seemed to get at the matter so easily, and to dispose of the peccadilloes so justly, and kindly, and according to law, that his authority never lost its power, and offenders could not long escape some discipline. His pupils never lost their admiration of “old rex.” If he was indignant, he did not get angry; if he did punish he was not cruel; and if there seemed to be the beginning of wrath, all were sure there had been a great provocation. And then sometimes “old rex,” when he had caught the offenders, and they knew that he had caught them, beyond the possibility of excuse, would seem not to believe them guilty; it was not possible they could be guilty; and he would take any explanation and let them all go, when all knew they ought to suffer, and would send them away with some kind words about “father,” and “mother,” and “sisters,” and “home,” that went to their hearts. Sometimes he would keep them in suspense, waiting day after day to know their doom, till the torture of suspense would well nigh break their spirits, and then dismiss them with a caution. The students loved him; they loved him through life; they loved to talk about him, and his absolute dominion and his inherent greatness, and the winding up of their various little pranks, always getting off easier than they deserved. When Dr. Baxter expressed entire confidence in his own authority, and his ability to preserve it, he mistook neither the hearts of the students or the people of Lexington. On a certain occasion, a scurrilous pamphlet was put in circulation, intended for his injury. For a time it produced great excitement. One of his elders invited him to his counting-room, and expostulated with him for not answering it, and exposing its utter falsity. “Capt. Leyburn,” replied the Doctor, “I have lived in this community for thirty years to little purpose, if it is necessary for me to answer that pamphlet.” In a little time the whole matter was forgotten. His great self-reliance was without haughtiness or pride, and he cherished in others this excellence in himself.

Dr. Baxter was struggling with difficulties throughout the whole time of his connexion with the Academy and College. The want of a sufficient income for the necessary professors and tutors, rendered it necessary for him to perform a great amount of labor that his pupils might have proper instruction. The system of permitting irregular students — those who pursued but part of the course of study — operated, for a time, very unfavorably, threatening to reduce the college, in the public estimation, to a high school, to which those who desired to have a full course of instruction should not go; and from which, students should repair to other more entirely systematic colleges, to complete their education. In combating this tendency in the public opinion, the Doctor put forth all his powers. The spirit of emigration also took possession of Virginia. The West opened its wide, beautiful, and fertile fields, and allured youth to seek for a home and wealth in her forests and prairies. The paths of science mourned, the halls of college languished, as the youth and the heads of young families turned their eyes to the inviting regions on the waters of the Mississippi, and the plains beyond. The college has surmounted all these combined difficulties. The contest consumed the strength of two Presidents, Baxter and Ruffner, aided by accomplished professors. The prize was worth the contest.

The ability of Dr. Baxter to preside over an institution of the highest grade with dignity and honor, was never doubted by his pupils, or brethren in the ministry. He was always equal to any emergency that came upon him. The University of North Carolina conferred the title of D. D., and invited him to the presidency. Similar invitations came from literary institutions in Kentucky and Tennessee. He chose to spend his strength in the State in which he was born.

In October, 1829, he resigned his office as President for two reasons. He thought, that at his time of life, the pastoral duties of his charge were sufficient to employ his strength; and, that the affairs of college were now in a position to permit the execution of those plans, long contemplated, and requiring the time and effort appropriate to younger men; and the division of councils among the trustees was passing away. His heart was with the college to the last. He rejoiced in its prosperity under his successors; and witnessed with paternal pride the improvements on the hill, and the increase of the students. There will ever be men of ability who will rejoice to conduct the affairs of Washington College; these will contemplate with admiration the mental power and disinterested labors of those that cherished its infancy.

Dr. Baxter loved books, and had a faithful memory. With a keen relish for knowledge, he gathered materials for reflection, comparison, and invention, still trusting his memory and recollection, to preserve, and bring out of her storehouse the gathered treasures on demand. They were ever ready, and ever true. The products of his pen bore no proportion, in number, to the varied riches of his intellect. He wrote when compelled by some imperious circumstance. He set no value upon the pen to preserve his thoughts, and acquisitions, or to prepare for discussion and public speaking, or any of the ministrations belonging to his office. The products of his richly furnished mind were committed lavishly to the memory of others, and with the exception of a-few sermons, and parts of lectures, are sought for in vain in manuscript or in print. He delighted in the study of mental and moral philosophy, and the laws of nature and of nations. In the latter he excelled. “The mind formed for accurate distinctions and logical discussions,” he displayed to great advantage, as years passed over him, in his theological pursuits, and his lectures on natural and national law.

Like the Elder Edwards, he committed his household concerns to the management of his wife. To her prudence and discretion he trusted the expenditure of his salary, the moderate stipends from the academy and college, and the income of their private property, in the supervision and education of a numerous family of four sons and five daughters. In his entire seclusion from the management of worldly affairs, it is probable he never once thought his decreasing property might and ought to have been preserved. He knew it was getting less; and never expected it to increase; and had no uneasy moments of reflection, or anxious forebodings about the consequences to himself or family.

A member of his family makes the following interesting statements. “My mother inherited a large fortune from her father, much the greatest part of which consisted of valuable lands in Kentucky. Of these there were several thousand acres, and nearly all lying in the best parts of the State. This property, from the confusion then existing in Kentucky, in regard to land claims, required a great deal of attention, and sometimes litigation. One or two of these tracts were secured by my father; and there was no doubt entertained that his title to the rest was perfectly good. But he found that it would take much of his time to secure and manage them; and thus, though well assured of ultimate success, and of the value of the property, he, after mature thought, came to the conclusion, that he had no right to take from the work of the ministry, to which his time and talents were both consecrated, several of the best years of his life, for the purpose of securing a merely secular good. So he ceased to give any attention to the matter, and they have long since passed into other hands. I will only add, that since my father’s death, an eminent lawyer in Frankfort, being employed to look into our claims, wrote to my mother, that much valuable property had passed from us, from want of attention.”


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