Monday, September 3, 2012

Address of Thomas M. T. McKennan to the Union Society in Washington College, January 21st 1811

Thomas McKean Thompson McKennan, my great- great- great- great- great- grandfather, delivered this speech to the Union Society of Washington College in 1811. He graduated from the College in 1810 at age 16, and in this speech he describes the liberal education curriculum and its merits. I transcribed this speech from the hand-written original.

Washington College was founded on what was then the American frontier in Washington, Pennsylvania. In 1865, the college merged with Jefferson College in nearby Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, to form Washington & Jefferson College. Today, W&J enrolls 1,500 students and in many ways adheres to the educational philosophy described in McKennan's address.

McKennan served as a trustee at Washington College for many years. He served in the United States House of Representatives from 1831 to 1839 and from 1842 to 1843. As a member of the House, he was the chairman of the Committee on Roads and Canals. Under President Millard Fillmore, he served as the Secretary of the Interior. He held this office for only 11 days. His home still stands on Route 40, less than a block away from campus.

Some of the speech is, of course, dated, but I think much of his speech is relevant today. Many colleges maintain a philosophy of liberal education, and thousands of students follow a course of study similar to that described by McKennan.

--David Foreman

All content Copyright 2012 David Foreman


Address of Thomas M. T. McKennan to the Union Society
In Washington College January 21st 1811


The advantages of such societies as ours and the dangers to which they are exposed having been clearly and ably shown you by the gentleman who last preceded me, and the constitution being entirely exhausted by my several predecessors, I have thought that it would not be uninteresting and perhaps not unprofitable to show some of the advantages of the branches of learning studied in this seminary. The more am I induced to choose this as the subject of my present address, as there are many who are so ignorantly prejudiced against some of the branches as to neglect them as entirely useless. I shall begin with the first and proceed in the order in which they are studied at this college.

[Latin and Greek]

With the Latin and Greek authors, (most of which want neither epithets of praise nor epistles of honour to recommend them) the collegiate course is commenced. T’would be vain, gentlemen, to attempt to show the necessity of studying those excellent authors who have so long been admired as models of taste, propriety of eloquence, and wisdom; that these great authors contain unrivalled excellencies, are well calculated to form the youthful mind to habits of dignified and proper conduct, that they are absolutely necessary to a proper acquaintance with our own language and the best models of poetry, rhetoric, and elegant composition, will be doubted by none who hear me. The exercise of our faculties is of so great moment that it is in this the great difference between the literate and illiterate chiefly consists. The mind must be formed by degrees to habits of accurate thinking and attention before it can be prepared for entering on the contemplation of any science with success. Now, I want to ask, what is better calculated for this purpose than the study of these languages? Where the student must examine the relations, connections, and dependencies of words; which tend to fix the attention, enlarge the faculties, cultivate the memory, strengthen the judgments, and prepare the mind for entering on the more abstruse sciences with care and accuracy, and consequently with pleasure to itself. These few of the advantages of the languages are mentioned, not because those authors do not sufficiently recommend themselves to all are true judges of wisdom, beauty, perspicuity, and eloquence; but because there are many who (though not only ignorant of these authors, but of all others) pretend to assert that they ought not to be made a part of a liberal education; and have so prejudiced some young men against them, as to neglect them as altogether useless. But gentlemen, it is impossible for men who are ignorant of these languages to form any rational conception concerning, and I am fully assured, that if they had never been censured except by those who understand them, they never would have had an enemy.


The mind being thus opened and prepared by the instructive ancients some time is devoted to the mathematics, one great use of which science is, that it accustoms the mind to close and accurate thinking, conclusive reasoning, and requires diligence and application, which are found to be so necessary in enabling us to understand other sciences. Besides, as the knowledge of numbers and quantity is found to be so necessary in life, the mathematical sciences which teach us the nature, relations, and proportions of these, are justly esteemed a necessary and useful part of a liberal education. But the great and chief use of the mathematics is that by contemplating mathematical truths, the mind becomes so conversant with the nature and evidence of truth in general, and the necessary and natural connection which all truths have with each other, that it contracts an affection for truth and justice, of conception in every thing so far as it can be attained and the matter of things will admit. From these advantages, gentlemen, you must be convinced that the mathematics is a very proper, useful, and necessary part of a liberal education.


The belles lettres, and rhetoric also constitute part of education. This science, as most of you know, gentlemen, treats of taste or that faculty by which we perceive beauty, order, harmony, and proportion in natural objects or works of art, the excellence of which consists in the direct imitation of nature. As we daily view objects of beauty and deformity it is of great importance that we cultivate that faculty by which we may be enabled to distinguish the beautiful from the deformed, the sublime from the trivial, the regular from the irregular, according to the standard or original of all those which are discernable in nature. This science is the more noble, as by cultivating our taste we are also improving our reason and judgment. To apply the principles of good sense to composition and discourse; to examine what is beautiful and why it is so; to employ ourselves in distinguishing accurately between the specious and the solid, between affected and natural ornament, must certainly improve our reason and judgment. The cultivation of this faculty of taste has also a moral tendency. A just relish of what is beautiful, proper, elegant, and ornamental in writing or painting is a fine preparation for the same just relish of these qualities in character and behavior. I think, gentlemen, there can be no hesitation in pronouncing this to be an elegant, proper, and very useful part of a liberal education.


Another branch studied in this seminary is logic; or the art of using reason well in our inquiries after truth, and our communication of it to others. As reason is the glory of our nature, and one of the chief excellencies by which we are distinguished from the inferior animals; and as by the cultivation of our reason we are enabled more fully to distinguish truth from falsehood, good from evil, it is certainly our duty to assist it by every proper means. Logic assists reason and points out the various prejudices to which we are subject in the present imperfect state and certainly no one will doubt the utility of this science when he recollects that there are many things wrapped in such obscurity, and many truths so deep that his unassisted reason cannot comprehend them.

Geography and History.

Geography and history are also studied in this college. The advantages and utility of these studies are so obvious and so well known by all of you, gentlemen, as to render it presumptuous in me to attempt to point out the several advantages; as by these we acquire a competent knowledge of the different countries in the world, learn the origin and progress of society, obtain a knowledge of the increase of population of the division of countries of the discoveries and settlements of new countries and of the wars and destructive diseases which have depopulated mankind.

Natural Philosophy

Another branch of learning is natural philosophy, which, as it teaches us the nature of matter and its properties, and enables us to account for the various phenomena of nature, is certainly a useful and very necessary part of a liberal education. To comprehend and endeavor to understand the works and stated laws of nature (from which there is no departure but for the wisest purposes) and to be able to account for the various phenomena of the natural world, in every part which the goodness and wisdom of the great first cause are discernable, is not only a pleasing but useful knowledge. Natural philosophy is not, therefore, a dry study, but a pursuit of the highest utility and entertainment. It naturally produces a sincere and disinterested love of truth, destroys the affect of prejudice, inspires the best ideas of the great original cause, prompts a detestation of every thing that is known base, serves to enliven and direct that spirit of inquiry which is proper to the youthful mind, and to awaken those, who from a want of reflection, are not inclined to look into the cause of things.

Moral Philosophy

Moral philosophy, or that science which explains the nature and laws of duty or morals and has for its object human actions for the government and direction of why it lays down laws and rules, is the pleasing and useful science with which the collegiate course is completed. No one will doubt the ability of this science who is a lover of morality and virtuous conduct. By this we are enabled to distinguish between man and the inferior animals clearly and distinctly, and to investigate his nature, duties, interest, and dignity. It shows us the end for which we were made, and investigates the relations in which we stand to each other, and our social affections which contribute so much to our happiness, and also the awful relation in which we stand to our creator.

These gentlemen are a few of the advantages of some of the branches of learning studies in this seminar, and I hope you are convinced that all of them are necessary parts of a liberal education.

T. M. T. McKennan

1 comment:

Heather Wright said...

He is my 4th g-grandfather, thanks!