Institutionalizing the Information Revolution: Debates over the National University in the Early American Republic

George Oberle

Advisor: Rosemarie Zagarri, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Jane Turner Censer, Paula Petrik

Johnson Center, E
March 23, 2016, 11:00 AM to 09:00 AM


This dissertation uses the failed attempt to found a national university beginning around 1788 and lasting until approximately 1846 as a vehicle to explore the ongoing intellectual divisions about the access to and the collection of knowledge in the early United States. These debates included disputes over the centralization of learning and more fundamental questions about the function of information and sharing knowledge in a republican polity. The idea of a national university also offers opportunities to study the debates over a national university and the extent to which political and intellectual leaders diverged in their thinking about the ways in which ideas and information should be organized, institutionalized, and disseminated in the early American republic. 

The founders and other leaders in the early republic worried incessantly over the idea of decline in government and society, and they recognized that the expansion of democracy occurring needed an expansion of the virtue of its citizenry. Thus they relied on the enhancement of the newly developing information networks in order to fashion a well-informed citizenry. The first half-century was a period when people, and the politicians that represented them, debated the importance of different revolutionary changes in the way people lived, interacted, and framed their understanding of the world. Historians have traditionally focused on these changes by focusing on the revolutionary changes in politics and in the marketplace. Growing evidence suggests that studying the way people understood the impact of these new information systems developing in the midst of an information revolution, occurring long before the computer age, offers significant insights into the ideological distinctions between different political actors.

The debates revealed important differences of opinion about the nature of knowledge in the young republic. Some believed that the new nation should create a national university that concentrated all knowledge creation and dissemination in a centralized institution, such as the one Washington proposed. Others believed that the university should be an institution that prepared teachers to impart morality to the citizenry. Still others believed that the university should be an institution that focused on the benefits of the conveyance of much needed scientific knowledge evidenced by the advancements in natural history. Alternatively, some argued that the institution should focus on instilling knowledge of the classics of ancient Greece and Rome. Over time, however, a growing number of leaders challenged the very notion of a national university.

By the late 1840s, several groups proposed a host of new types of institutions that emphasized the growing specialization of knowledge, while also offering a more democratic means of access. Some suggested a new national museum be created, or a scientific institute, or a national observatory where scientists could engage in primary research.  Some even suggested that a national library would be the best way to spread knowledge to a wide array of citizens. In the end, the solutions enacted in the early republic reveal diverse methods in which Americans chose to organize and disseminate knowledge in their young country. Accordingly, this dissertation will use the debates over the establishment of a national university to explore the complex relationship between people, government, and the organization of knowledge in the early republic. This dissertation uses a chronological approach beginning in 1787 with Benjamin Rush’s first public mention of the institution and ending in 1846 with the creation of the Smithsonian Institute.