Reprinted from Crabb, Alfred Leland. The Historical Background of Peabody College. Nashville: George Peabody College for Teachers, 1941.
The Great-Great-Grandmother of Peabody College
The story is that John Sevier discouraged James Robertson from his historic westward journey. He represented to Robertson the dangers, hardships, and privations that such a movement necessarily involved. Then James Robertson became superbly eloquent and prophetic. "We shall be," he said, "the advance guard of civilization."
A nobler phrase has not fallen from the lips of an American. The nobility of the phrase is verified by the quality of Robertson's subsequent vision and action. It is perhaps remembered that he was an unlettered man. One tradition holds that his wife taught him to read and write. But for all that, he was an indubitable advance guard of the processes of American civilization.
He saw, for instance, that the new settlements demanded an institution of learning. And so, within five years of his epic journey, he was back in North Carolina representing the need of the establishment of an institution wherein the youth of the Cumberland settlements might be brought under the influence of the human culture of all time. His plea was convincing, because in December, 1785, the legislature of North Carolina provided legally for the establishment of Davidson Academy. The Act, we think, is a noble statement and worthy of full presentation here.
Whereas the good education of youth has the most direct tendency to promote the virtue, increase the wealth and extend the fame of any people; and as it is the indispensable duty of every legislature, to consult the happiness of a rising generation and endeavor to fit them for an honorable discharge of the social duties of life. And whereas it is represented to this General Assembly, that the citizens of Davidson county are desirous of making an early and liberal provision for the instruction of youth, by laying the foundation of a public seminary in that county:
I. Be it therefore enacted, by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, that the Reverend Thomas Craighead, Hugh Williamson, Daniel Smith, William Polk, Anthony Bledsoe, James Robertson, Lardner Clark, Ephraim M'Claine and Robert Hayes, Esquires, shall be and they are hereby declared to be a body politic and corporate, to be known and distinguished by the title of the trustees of Davidson Academy; and by the name of the trustees of Davidson Academy, shall have perpetual succession and a common seal; and that the said trustees and their successors by the name aforesaid, or a majority of them, shall be able and capable in law to take, demand, receive and possess all monies, goods and chattels that shall be given them for the use of the said academy; and the same apply according to the will of the donors, and by gift, purchase or device, to take, have, receive, possess, enjoy and retain to them, and their successors forever, any lands, rents, tenements or hereditaments of what kind, nature or finality forever the same may be, in special trust and confidence, that the same or the profits thereof shall be applied to and for the uses and purposes of establishing and endowing the said academy, in the county of Davidson, building or purchasing suitable and convenient houses, purchasing a library and philosophical apparatus, and supporting and paying the salaries of the provost and such number of professors and tutors as to them shall seem necessary.
II. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that the said trustees and their successors, or a majority of them, by the name aforesaid, shall be able and capable in law, to bargain, sell, grant, demise, alien or dispose of and convey any such lands, rents, tenements, or hereditaments as aforesaid, when the will of the grantee doth not forbid the same: and further, that the said trustees and their successors forever, or a majority of them, shall be able and capable in law, by the name aforesaid, to sue and implead, be sued and impleaded, answer and be answered in all courts of record whatsoever, by the style of "the president and trustees of the academy of Davidson."
III. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that the said trustees or a majority of them, shall and they are hereby authorized to choose a president, treasurer and secretary of their own body; they may also choose a rector, professors and tutors for the academy, and the same may remove at pleasure; and they shall have authority to make bye-laws for the government and regulation of the academy, and the same to alter and amend. Provided nevertheless, that such laws shall not be repugnant to the laws of the state, their morals, studies, and academical exercises, as to them shall seem meet, and to give certificates to such students as shall leave the said academy, certifying their literary merit and progress of useful knowledge: and further, that on death, resignation, refusal to act, or misconduct of either professor or tutors, the secretary, treasurer or steward, others shall be elected in their room and stead a majority of the trustees agreeing thereto.
IV. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that the treasurer of the said board of trustees, shall enter into bond with sufficient security to the trustees aforesaid, in the sum of fifteen hundred pounds conditioned for the faithful discharge of the trust in him reposed; and that monies and chattels belonging to the said corporation that shall be in his hand at the expiration of his office, shall then be immediately paid and delivered into the hands of the succeeding treasurer; and every treasurer shall receive all monies and donations of whatsoever kind, that may belong or accrue to the said academy during his office; and at the expiration thereof shall account with the trustees for the same; and the same pay and deliver over to the succeeding treasurer: and on his neglect or refusal to pay and deliver as aforesaid, the same method of recovering may be had against him as is or may be provided for the recovery of monies from sheriffs or other persons chargeable with public monies.
V. And be it further enacted, that if any trustee shall neglect attending at the stated meetings of the board for the space of two years, or if any of them shall die or otherwise resign his office, the remaining trustees, or a majority of them, shall at their next meeting choose another trustee in the room of the person thus neglecting his duty, dying or resigning his office.
VI. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that no lands, tenements or hereditaments, which may be vested in the trustees of the academy of Davidson for the sole use and behoof of the academy, shall be subject to any tax for the space of ninety-nine years.
VII. And be it further enacted, that two hundred and forty acres of the land reserved for the use of the state, being that part of said land which is most remote from the salt springs near Nashville, shall be and is hereby vested in the trustees of Davidson academy for the use of that Seminary.
Thomas Craighead was chosen principal. Tuition was fixed at four pounds per annum, "hard money." The Spring Hill meetinghouse was chosen as the home of the academy. This was on the Gallatin Road six miles east of Nashville. The meetinghouse was demolished many years ago, and today the highway runs through the site indicated by a crude and temporary marker. Progress moves with irreverent feet.
A ferry was established at Broad Street in 1786 whose revenue should accrue to the academy. But the ferry produced more annoyance than income and it was subsequently disposed of. The academy was in constant need of money, and its appropriation of land was sold off piecemeal until by 1803 only seven acres remained. This served later as the campus. Andrew Jackson became a trustee in 1791.
On April 5, 1796, the territorial legislature passed an Act, a section of which read:
Be it enacted, That the buildings of the said academy shall be erected on the most convenient situation on the hill immediately above Nashville and near to the road leading to Buchanan's Mill; and that the trustees aforesaid shall proceed to erect buildings and employ tutors to proceed to the business of instruction as soon as the funds will permit.
The site chosen was approximately the present area bounded by Third Avenue and Peabody Street. James Robertson and Andrew Jackson were appointed to superintend the construction of the plant. Work did not begin until 1805. The building was completed in 1808; but already, two years before, Davidson Academy had become Cumberland College.
Very little is known of the intimate details of the institution, but its record is historically impressive. Its beginning was contemporary with Transylvania, with Washington, with Hampden-Sidney. Then, with some shifts of scene and of name it moved by direct steps to the Peabody of today. The books of its library are on the Peabody shelves. The heroic spirit of those who founded and guided it finds expression in the militant ideals of its descendant.