Horace Holley

T. Cook Smith, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics
University of Louisville School of Medicine 1928

            Robert Peter, in the Filson publication of the History of Transylvania medical School, makes the following remarks:

“In 1818, a new and brilliant career for the University and for the Medical Department of Transylvania was inaugurated by the appointment of Rev. Horace Holley, L.L.D. to the Presidency of the University.”

In 1818, when Abraham Lincoln was only nine years old, and when McDowell’s operation, which has brought so much fame to Kentucky’s Medical History, was also nine years old, we find Transylvania University undergoi8ng a renaissance. We find the school, which had its beginnings in the pioneer days of Kentucky, and which, up to this period in its history, had amounted to little more than a grammar school, suddenly aroused from lethargy by the advent of a broad-minded man with a true university outlook. This man, Horace Holley, was destined to govern the school during its period of greatest glory. His introduction to Kentucky, however, proved to be one of those paradoxical situations in which much good and much harm are done at the same time. In theory, the University had actually existed since 1799, when the Kentucky Academy, strictly Presbyterian, had joined forces with Transylvania Seminary to form a University. At that time, Lexington had less than eighteen hund4red people, Samuel Brown, famed for his early vaccination, and Ridgeley, an eminent physician of that locality, had taught medical Classes in rather informal way. Likewise, later on in that decade and the next, Dudley gave several courses of lectures to such students as might gather to hear him. All of these things were good and honest efforts toward true education but depended too little on organization and university structure, the latter in fact being entirely lacking. Between its early beginnings and 1818, Transylvania University had only graduated sixty students.

Human nature seems to have been very much the same throughout the ages. The zealots of various religions, while fostering and planning the growth of education, have frequently brought periods of intellectual blight and famine through vain controversies.  When one points to the hampering effects of medieval religious tenets upon the great advances in science, one may just as truthfully admit at the same time that protectors of religion have always likewise been the constant protectors and teachers in our education evolution. And so it was in Kentucky when our sturdy ancestors invaded the forests America, colonizing, fighting Indians, clearing land under showers of arrows from the savages; there was always an intimate mixing of missionaries of several faiths. The Ancient Church of God, the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Church of England, the Baptist and Methodist Churches all had a noble part and played it bravely in the pioneer days when Kentucky was the frontier of Virginia, but religious zeal was accompanied as ever by powerful political reactions within the denominations, wrecking havoc with nonconformity. In the very blockhouses and crude wooden forts of pioneer ties, the leaders of these sects were diligent and insistent cradlers of infant education beginnings. Grammar and Latin masters were procured as well as dancing masters, even in those hardy and dangerous days.

The Commonwealth of Virginia planned for education in Kentucky in a very large way almost from the beginning. Trustees were appointed, and a charter given for Transylvania Seminary, the forerunners of the University back in 1780. When the trustees of this Seminary called their first meeting in 1782, ten years before Kentucky statehood, life was very complicated and hazardous. It was in that year that six hundred Indians besieged Bryant’s Station near Lexington, and on their retreat from that place inflicted a disastrous defeat upon Kentuckians at Blue Lick. In this same year, an advertisement in the paper appears, which warned citizens not to use wheat, corn, potatoes, etc, from a certain place, because it was poisoned with arsenic so that the Indians might be led into a death trap in that way. Of course, Lexington at this time was only a blockhouse with the usual unprotected outlying homesteads. The famous McKinney, of wild-catefame, had a school in this blockhouse in 1780. In 1782, John Wilson taught in the same place. Isaac Wilson of Philadelphia established his Lexington grammar school here in 1787. The average cost for educating a child at this time per year was about five pounds, which could be paid partly in money, partly in cattle, and partly in produce. In 1789, a Lexington Dancing Academy was announced in one of the newspapers advertisements. Thus, we see that I her very beginnings, Lexington tried to maintain a certain amount of culture and of the social prerequisites.

In December 1815, the condition of the school was such that the legislature appointed a Committee of Investigation.

Robert Peter, one of our historians of that time, and one of the early members of the Medical Staff of Transylvania says, “It is evident that the people were not satisfied with the management of the presiding trustees and thought it had been fully demonstrated in long experience of fifteen years that denomination control of educational institutions wears not as favorable to success as a more liberal management which would give equal rights in them to all sects.” At this time, the Legislature completely reorganized a board of trustees and attempted to bring into it most of the leading men of Lexington. Henry Clay, a national leader at this time, had been professor of law in the university and was later made a trustee. He, at all times, took a great interest in the University and did everything in his power to further its success. The Presbyterian Church, without numbering a very large group in Kentucky, throughout her educational history, was yet of such quality and imbued with such interesting teaching, that they, from the first, maintained a certain amount of authority and scholastic standing and seemed to feel constantly that they should have complete control. They were the cause of the first split among the protectors of Transylvania Seminary, leading to the founding of the Kentucky Academy, which a year later maintained a majority on the board of trustees until the time when the Legislature reorganized the board as has just been mentioned above. It was at this time that Horace Holley, a Unitarian, was invited to come down and ct as president of Transylvania. A controversy ensued, and it is very interesting to hear both sides. Davidson, in his “History of the Presbyterian church in Kentucky,” makes statements, which are characteristic of the religious attitude of the time. He says, “Many of the Lexington social leaders were tinctured with French Infidelity.” He says, “Lexington has organized an ungodly board. They have invited into our midst a Unitarian President. They have selected trustees more form their social prestige or public fame than from the standpoint of Christianity.” He says the appointment of Holley came to the Presbyterian Church “like a clap of thunder.” Davidson is very bitter and feels that the Legislature broke all pledges and broke faith with the Presbyterian Church in not maintaining a Presbyterian board of trustees. It is not necessary for us to refer to the original agreement with the Legislature, which was as follows:

The charter, which was first given Transylvania Seminary, contained in section twelve the following:

“Provided always, and be it further enacted, that said trustees shall at all times be accountable for their transactions touching any matter as the Legislature shall direct.”

So much for the religious situation, and so much for the forecast of storm and strife, which must necessarily take place. Let us allow Dr. Holley in his own words describe the physical environment of Lexington and the surrounding country into which he came. Excerpts from letters to Mr. Holley in Boston:

“The town and the vicinity are very handsome. The streets are broad, straight, paved, and clean and have rows of trees on each side. The houses are of brick almost universally, many of them in the midst of fields, and have very rural and charming appearance. The taste is for low houses, generally two, sometimes ever but one story high, like English cottages. This taste gives an effect that eyes accustomed to the high building of an Atlantic City, where there is but little room, are not first pleased with. But it is a taste adapted to the circumstances, and to me in not unpleasant. The town is handsomer than I had expected, and has a more comfortable and genteel aspect. It has not the pretension without the reality, that so many of the small towns have through which I have passed.

Yesterday, I breakfasted at Mr. Clay’s, who lives a mile and a half from town. He arrived here only three days before me. Ashland is a very pleasant place, handsomer that I anticipated. The grounds are beautiful, the lawns and walks extensive, the shrubbery luxuriant, the garden well supplied. The native forest of ash in the rear adds a charming effect to the whole. After breakfast, Mr. Clay rode in with me, and we went with the trustees, by appointment, to the college, to visit the professors and students.

Dinners are made nearly every day for me, and there is a party almost every evening. But attentions of this sort, however agreeable, and however flattering to my self-love, do not bias my mind.

You will not only be contented in Lexington, but you will be pleased and delighted. I love society as much as you do – and affirmation you will well understand, and I am as little likely to be fond of solitude and obscurity. If I were not well convinced that we should be happy in Kentucky, I would not have come, but we shall be. We shall be more independent that we have ever been and modes of influence will be opened to us, which we could not enjoy at the head of a Parish merely in any country.

It is much better to be a rallying point for all the sects, than to be a partisan of either, however powerful that sect might be. But no sect in this country can swallow up the other. They must continue to check and balance each other, and leave to wise men an opportunity for full and safe inquiry.

You may make your power and efforts very valuable, and most extensively useful in various ways. Our house will be a place of resort for persons of the best mind in the region, for the students of most promising talents, for the professors, for the resident graduates whom we may wish to encourage, for strangers of distinction, and for all who shall have any claims to literature, refinement, manners, music and accomplishment. The materials here, as Mr. King observed, are in very plastic state, and can be molded into the most beautiful forms. The basis of character by nature is excellent. The metal is good and will take any shape that a skilful artist will give it. All the ambition and ardor are here that are necessary to carry mind to any degree of elevation and excellence.”

Charles Caldwell, in his Memorial to Horace Holley says, “In testimony of the extreme admiration of the people and characteristic of the brilliant anticipation which was awakened, the college edifice was illuminated for the night of his arrival in the city.” His induction into the Presidency proved, as had been anticipated, a life spring to the institution. It was like the sun to vegetation after the lapse of dull winter. Pupils came in form every direction. The school was divided into classes, which had never been done before, and a curriculum equal to Eastern schools was instituted. Holley drew around him prominent men of the times as his professional associates. He re-established the medical School. This School had been put on a fairly strong basis in 1817, the year before Holley came, when the faculty was made up of Dr. Dudley, Dr. Drake, Dr. Richardson and Dr. Blythe; but there was total disruption on account of feuds among members before the end of the year, and Drake went back to members before the end of the year, and Drake went back to Cincinnati. Holley immediately reorganized the school.

Brown, Caldwell, Dudley, Richardson, Blythe, and Rafinesque were members of the medical faculty. Drake returned in 1823 and held the chair of Materia of Medica until 1827, when he moved to Jefferson College in Philadelphia.

From the outset, Holley began the organization of the law department and perfected his own department, corresponding to our liberal arts department, the academic side. It seems that this can electrified the social and intellectual life of Lexington. Quoting form Dr. Caldwell’s book, we find the following:

“In society, his influence was universal, greeted everywhere as a man of taste. He was the life of literary conversation. He united the dignity of the divine with the urbanity of the gentlemen. No person could be long in his company without feeling all the faculties of his mind set in motion. There was no dullness in his presence.”

The weekly declamation of the classes in the chapel of the University was regularly attended by the most enlightened portion of the citizens of Lexington, as a source on instruction and refined amusement. The occasions of public commencement were the delight of crowded audiences, composed of the most cultivated and fashionable inhabitants of the West, so flourishing under the auspices of the arrangement had the University become.

The population of the state of Kentucky at this time was about 500,000. The Presbyterian population of the state was 3,474. And yet this sect, undoubtedly with the best motives in the world, set to work at the moment of his entrance to the University to destroy the man’s influence, even though it might lead to a destruction of the school as well. Robert Peter says that Dr. Holley very quickly overcame the mortal opposition with which he had been openly attacked when he first came, but the war was by no means terminated. His free and outspoken Catholicism and his honest and open opposition to religious tolerance gave constant offense and a roused the most violent and unscrupulous enmity. It is undoubtedly true that the Presbyterians regarded Transylvania University as their peculiar property, and it is undoubtedly true that they had given the major support to the school throughout most of its early history; but it is equally true that they had neither legal right nor expectancy in regard to upholding this control. They could not endure the rankling thought that the school had at its head a Unitarian, no matter who fine his moral character might be nor how excellent his measure of intelligence. Holley’s very success, which was phenomenal, only served to stir them up for his destruction. Davison says that this man was very dangerous, because he was so well liked and had such tremendous influence; that “liberality among the students and the progress of infidelity were most alarming.” Let us look at this man’s record in Transylvania and see what he actually accomplished. Robert Peter says at Professor Holley’s entrance into the school: “It had been little more than classical grammar school showing in its records only twenty-two alumni in the preceding twenty years. It was soon erected into a proud University with an average of three hundred and fifty pupils annually. He says the influence of this distinguished gentleman, which so rapidly built up the University and which during the nine years of his official life here made an impression upon the youth of our young republic and of the Mississippi Valley at large, is to be observed even at the present day. It was due to this man that most of the ability was brought from the East to build up her departments and that the halls of the university were soon thronged with students. It was due to him, too, that Lexington became known in foreign countries and distinguished in geographies as the seat of Transylvania University. “Athens of the West.” In short the University, under Dr. Holley’s, exerted a marked and elevating influence upon our whole population and gave distinguished character to our state.

Dr. Peter says that Dr. Holley was criticized because, although he was exemplary in morals with high character for honor and integrity, and although fond of innocent pleasure and amusement, he was an occasional visitor of the theatre, the ballroom and even the racetrack.

Combined religious persecutions and failure of the state to furnish sufficient endowment for continued university development let to the resignation of Holley in 1827. This was called a deathblow to Transylvania as a school of liberal arts, and ranked the onset of its decline.

In this paper, we have tried to show the glory to Transylvania and her decline. If we have not been able to prove that Horace Holley, a man of great culture, of great organizing ability, and of genial social endowments, brought into a school which amounted to very little, a new atmosphere and broader range of education with a tremendous increase in activity and efficiency, we have failed to bring truth into this essay. In 1825, we find this man so avid in the affair of the University, so successful in winning the friendship of young manhood of the West, yet unable in spite of his diplomacy to soothe the animosity of religious anomies. One man ardent and sincere in his belief and in his worship of tolerance, with a host of friends, pitted against a smaller group of religious enthusiasts who were just as sincere and just as ardent in their feelings that this man was ruining the youth of the land. Many vicious articles were written in papers in Ohio, and the surrounding country against the “Unitarian Infidel.” About this time, the state, apparently from political reasons, was giving the University little money for its growth and development. Holley resigned at this time because he could not reconcile the religious differences among his constituents and also because of the lack of funds to run the school. He was asked to withdraw this first resignation, which he did rather reluctantly. In 1827, however, he again resigned and handed in a very interesting report concerning the discharge of his duties while president of the Transylvania University. This document was very quietly written and was most tremendous accomplishment. He also sets down in this report suggestions for the future development of the schools, which were very worthwhile and might be considered very modern at this time. When he left the state in the old fashioned way by stagecoach, a large group of people accompanied his coach, as a method of doing him honor, several miles outside the city limits. Holley went from Lexington to New Orleans, where he was asked to establish a school for young men on a very broad and liberal basis. He set out for young men on a very broad and liberal basis. He set out for a visit by sea to Boston to build up his health, but contracted yellow fever while on board the ship with a large group of passengers and was buried in the Gulf of Mexico.

Transylvania, during Holley’s career, built up a very large student body, and it is interesting to know on the first announcement of the first resignation, there was a very noticeable effect upon the student body from far and wide. While the medical department, which had been built up to an efficient system, continued to be strong, the Arts Department of the school went to rather rapid decay. It never entirely recovered from this. Transylvania passed through the hands of various sects, at one time being in the hands of the Methodists. The Medical school removed to Louisville, in 1837, because of the rapid decline of population in Lexington, when the steamboat began to rapidly build up Louisville and Cincinnati. Lexington had between 6000 and 8000 in 1810, while in 1820; there were only about 4000 people there. Louisville was smaller than L3exington at this first date, but rather rapidly outgrew her, and when the Medical School came to Louisville, there were about 19000 inhabitants there. Transylvania University existed until the Civil War, after which time it was never really revived as a University.

A Visit to Lexington today will find a school on the old grounds but not the former University. This school is now in the hands of the Presbyterian Church. A monument of enduring interest to all visitors is the Transylvania Libibliophile. Most of these were gathered during Holley’s career on that memorable trip of Dr. Caldwell’s to Paris.

The career of Horace Holley probably points to many morals. Among them is the suggestion that the community was not ripe for the more advanced ideas of this man however good they might be. It suggests that trustees should not bring a new leader however excellent if he were one who brings with him rapid and radical changes.

The school, as planned by Holley for the future, seems tome very excellent, but we must ever bear in mind that such changes must come slowly and by a very gradual evolution.