Reprinted from Crabb, Alfred Leland. The Historical Background of Peabody College. Nashville: George Peabody College for Teachers, 1941.
The Great-Grandmother of Peabody College
On September 11, 1806, by legislative process, Davidson Academy became Cumberland College. Three years before, the charter had been changed to read "Davidson College," but the trustees decided not to accept this change considering it inadvisable to expand the institution at the time. But their modesty was short-lived. Early in 1806 Congress passed an act making among other grants, that of 100,000 acres of land for the maintenance of two colleges, one to be located in East Tennessee, and one in the western half of the state. There was no college in Western Tennessee, and the trustees of Davidson Academy petitioned its conversion into a college. The request was granted as stated above. "A board of nineteen trustees was incorporated in whom was vested the control of all the property of Davidson Academy together with one moiety of the congressional grant." The membership of the board was as follows: Thomas B. Craighead, James Winchester, Samuel Black, Moses Fisk, Robert Foster, David McGavock, Robert Whyte, Joseph Coleman, Robert Searcy, William Dickson, John Dickinson, David Hume, Joel Lewis, Abram Maury, W. P. Anderson, Duncan Stuart, Thomas Johnson, John Wynne, and Nicholas Perkins.
At the first meeting of the board held September 11, 1806, Thomas R. Craighead was elected president and $1,000 appropriated for books and equipment. President Craighead served until late in 1809, resigning by reason of some doubt as to his orthodoxy having been raised. One finds pleasure in noting that his record was later cleared by formal action of the Presbyterian Church. He had pioneered brilliantly in behalf of higher education in a new country.
James Priestley who had served with great distinction as principal of Salem Academy at Bardstown, Kentucky, was elected October 24, 1809, to succeed Craighead. He assumed office at the beginning of the ensuing year. He and the Reverend William Hume, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, shared the instructional obligation of the college. The congressional grant of land ran into some complications, and, except in small part, never was realized. The college was financially uncomfortable from the first and in 1860 suspended activities. There is very little record covering the ensuing three years. It is known that the buildings were used for teaching private classes at intervals by William Hume, a Mr. Stevens, and a Mr. Bodwell.
Of Dr. Priestley's activities from 1816 to 1820 very little is known. The old files of the Cumberland Agricultural Society at a meeting held at Priestley's home, Monte Nashville papers indicate that he did very little to invite publicity. There is one reference in April, 1819, to the organization of Bello, located six miles up the Cumberland River from the settlement. It is recorded that another meeting was held at the same place June 26, 1819, and that Priestley was elected corresponding secretary.
On November 13, 1820, under the caption, "A Revival of Learning," it was announced that the trustees of Cumberland College were determined to renew the operations of the college and that it would reopen on the first Monday in the following December. Dr. Priestley would resume as president. The Reverend Mr. McGuiggin was chosen professor of languages, and the Reverend Mr. Campbell was elected to teach three days a week in the department of Belles Lettres. Tuition was fixed at $15 a session and there would be two sessions a year ending respectively the first of December and the first of May. The board stated that it was duly conscious of its obligations and it promised every effort to meet them. The signatures to the proclamation were: James Priestley, Felix Grundy, Robert Foster, James Bunne, and Alfred Balch. It may be remarked that a particular tie seems to have connected Felix Grundy and James Priestley. Grundy had been a pupil of Priestley's at Salem Academy. He preceded Priestley to Tennessee and there is some circumstantial evidence to indicate that he prevailed upon Priestley to settle at Nashville. Grundy must have been of great influence in the early days of Nashville. His name appears in almost every issue of Nashville papers from 1818 to 1825, or later. He had part in all phases of the young city's life.
The college reopened on schedule and under favorable auspices. But God disposes! On February 6, 1821, President Priestley died, and after some feeble efforts to continue, the college suspended temporarily. The press carried word of the president's funeral, held at the college, but the place of burial was not named. A few weeks later the Nashville Whig asked editorially of its readers for a biographical sketch of "our late celebrated fellow citizen, Doct. Priestley." The sketch was written and printed but it manifested an unsatisfying lack of objectivity. In the literary style of the day it was more concerned with qualities of nobility than matters of nativity. It missed many opportunities to clear up points which remain obscure. And so passed a great schoolmaster, and, in some part, a man of mystery.
Within a year there was begun a carefully organized movement to add to the college's resources. There is record of the collection of $3,500. Apparently this drive was under the direction of the versatile Felix Grundy. On April 26, 1824, Philip Lindsley was selected to administer the affairs of the college in its third effort at permanency. A year before Horace Holley, the distinguished president of Transylvania, had been offered the post and had declined it, preferring to remain at Transylvania. Lindsley was born in 1786. In 1801 he graduated from Princeton, and from 1807 to 1824 he taught and administered in his alma mater. He was of notable power both as preacher and teacher. He was destined to affect profoundly the educational condition of the South.
He arrived during Christmas week, 1824, and the college reopened with the new year. Twenty-eight students were present at the opening, and seven more enrolled during the session. But President Lindsley was not content with the limited activities of a college. He conceived the time and place as ripe for expansion into a university whose impulses should vitalize all of the section's intellectual quarters. Upon his recommendation, the charter of Cumberland College was changed November 27, 1826, to designate a larger institution, the University of Nashville.