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The University of Georgia at Louisville, 1786

As Described in a Letter from Abraham Baldwin to Joel Barlow

small portrait of abraham baldwin

In spite of the many difficulties it faced at the end of the American Revolution, the war-torn state of Georgia devoted some of its attention a new idea: the establishment of a state university system. Reasoning that the new nation required an educated people, the state mandated that lands be surveyed to support such an institution in 1784. Less than a year later, January 27, 1785, the state made history by chartering the University of Georgia.

Then, seemingly, the state did little or nothing for nearly 15 years, with classes finally commencing in 1801. Or so it might seem without this letter.

In this informal letter of 1786, the first president of the University of Georgia, Abraham (Praum) Baldwin tells his sister, Ruth (Ruthy or Wify), and her husband, Joel Barlow (Reb?), of his aborted attempt to open the University in Georgia’s new capitol of Louisville in the summer of that year.

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Although this letter is discussed in E. Merton Coulter’s biography of Baldwin, it seems to be little known. It was brought to our attention by Athens historian Steven Scurry, who encountered it on microfilm in his research on conflicts between Native Americans and early Georgia. The original is held by Manuscripts and Archives at Yale University Library, where it is housed in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection MS 352, box 5. We are grateful to Yale for this scan and for permission to share it on this site. To read scans of the original, click on the smaller images shown above or click here for a transcription.

The letter is rich with information about border conflicts in post-Revolutionary Georgia, but is of particular interest to the University because of the following passage:

Immediately after court was over I went out to the intended seat of Government Louisville by name at your service, contracted for a tract of 300 acres adjoining the town chose the spot for the University, and such a delightful situation for a garden of 50 to 100 acres I never saw, there I have been and there I expected to have passed the summer, but I have been obliged to retreat. I had been there planning and pleasing myself with the prospect of what a few months and a few years would accomplish there till I had begun to consider it my home, where I should soon be located, when our first news was, that the Creek nation were preparing for war and that we might soon expect them down.

Barlow concludes with some despair, “…I am not without my fears that our Louisville like Utopia will exist only in name.” In spite of his fears, Baldwin told Ezra Stiles of Yale in December, 1787, that he thought classes would soon be formed at Louisville. Although Georgians did return to the site of Louisville, which served as state capital from 1796 until 1806, the University project seems to have been delayed until the Athens site was chosen in 1801.

Note: Steven Scurry's three-part article on conflicts in the Oconee lands of early Georgia can be read at the web site of the Flagpole Magazine of Athens as of December, 2008 at http://flagpole.com/Weekly/Features/OconeeWar.7Apr04.

Also of interest is his related article on Georgia's relations with Native Americans during the American Revolution that appeared in the March 5, 2008 issue of Flagpole Magazine, http://flagpole.com/Weekly/Features/MermaidsAndAlligators.5Mar08

Other sources:

  • Coulter, E. Merton. Abraham Baldwin: Patriot, Educator, and Founding Father.Arlington, VA, Vandamere Press, 1987
  • Stiles, Ezra. Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, D.D., L.L.D. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902. Volume III, January 1, 1782 - May 6, 1795.


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