The University of Georgia Charter
January 27, 1785
The University of Georgia Charter on Display
Just in time for its 220th anniversary, the original charter of the first state university returned home, following restoration thanks to the generous funding efforts of Ms. Swann Seiler and the Savannah Bulldog Club. Once more Abraham Baldwin's brilliant Enlightenment prose can be seen on this cherished contribution to our country's tradition of supporting education to advance democracy.
Returning to long standing tradition, the Charter was displayed on Founders' Day, January 27, the anniversary of the document's signing. To protect the ink of the parchment manuscript from further fading it is displayed to the public only once a year in the Hargrett Library, so mark next Founders' Day on your calendar now.
Reading the document is quite a challenge after 220 years, so we have provided links below that will take you to a print transcription of the document, as well as a history, both reprinted courtesy of The Georgia Review.
In 2004 the University of Georgia Charter returned from conservation work at the noted Northeast Document Conservation Center where some of the ravages of history were undone thanks to the generous funding support of Ms. Swann Seiler and the Savannah Bulldog Club. The document's earlier history is recounted below in an editorial by John Olin Eidson that was published in The Georgia Review in 1951 and is reprinted here with their kind permission.
Since the time of the Eidson editorial it has been noted that the actual adoption of the document may not have occured until January 28th, despite the date on the document. The Gazette of the State of Georgia, published at Savannah on February 17, 1785 reports that on the previous January 28th, "The House met pursuant to adjournment. A bill for the more full and compleat establishment of a seat of learning in this state was read the third time. Ordered, That the said bill do pass into an act, under the title of An act for the more full and compleat establishment of a seat of learning in this state."
Be it the 27th or 28th, the University of Georgia will follow tradition and celebrate Founders' Day and the 220th birthday of the chartering of the first state university system on January 27, 2005.
THE GEORGIA REVIEW:VOLUME V, SPRING 1951, NUMBER 1 - EDITORIAL
The Charter of the University of Georgia is one of the most significant documents in the history of America . Dated January 27, 1785, nine years after the Declaration of Independence and two and a half before the Constitution of the United States, it marks the earliest American example of the putting into practice of the principle that education is the responsibility of the state and should be state controlled.
The principle had been stoutly stated by the Georgia Legislature on February 25, 1784, in an act granting forty thousand acres of land "for the endowment of a college or seminary of learning" and appointing seven Trustees "to do all such things as to them shall appear requisite and necessary" for the establishment of the institution. One of the Trustees, Abraham Baldwin, Yale graduate and former teacher there, set about preparing a charter. He wrote to Ezra Stiles, President of Yale, asking for a copy of Yale's charter, and there is unmistakable evidence that Baldwin had Yale's charter at hand. The Yale and Georgia charters, however, are as widely dissimilar as were the purposes for the founding of the two institutions. Whatever his model, Baldwin held uppermost the advanced principle that the state should care for the education of its citizens, even to the extent of having all public schools organized into one body and "considered as parts or members of the University."
The Charter of the University of Georgia is remarkable not only for its historic importance. Some of the administrative machinery which it provided soon proved too cumbersome and had to be modified, but its prime essentials still stand as the foundation and code of government for the University, and the Charter has served as a model for the founding of numbers of younger institutions. Particularly in the preamble, it has a dignity and clarity that characterize eighteenth century prose at its best. Chancellor David C. Barrow is quoted as having said that he could never read the Charter without a feeling of being uplifted. Dr. Willis H. Bocock, for fifty years Professor of Classics at the University, ranked the first sentence of the preamble among the five or six great sentences in the English language. And Richard Malcolm Johnston thought that the Charter showed Baldwin “the full equal of Thomas Jefferson in lawgiving wisdom, and possibly his superior in cultivation."
Written in ink on two faded and yellowed sheets of vellum, 19 ½ by 32 ½ inches, the Charter is kept in the Rare Books Room of the University of Georgia Library . About 1920 it was sent to the University from the State Capitol by Mr. S. G. McLendon, Secretary of State. Prior to that time its importance had not been recognized. From its preparation and signing in Savannah , it had gone with the State files to Augusta , Louisville , Milledgeville, and Atlanta , and it bears evidences of having been crumpled, soiled, and wetted. There is a legend that a little while prior to the Charter's being sent to the University, a janitor at the State Capitol had found it in a pile of papers to be burned, noticed its heavy texture, and brought it in to Mr. McLendon.
The Charter has been printed approximately a dozen times, but all printings are at variance with the original. Apparently, the first printers, Robert and George Watkins in A Digest of the Laws of the State of Georgia Through 1799, are the only ones who ever worked from the Charter itself. All later printers seem to have used the Watkins version or one of its followers. Most of the Watkins' misreadings or emendations remained, and as later printers added others of their own, the gap between the printings and the original gradually widened. Although some of the deviations from the original are slight and insignificant, others vitally affect the meaning: entrust for commit, communities for countries, may for shall. The most radical deviation is the insertion of the word her in Section 11. Numbers of writers have pointed to the word as evidence that the University's founders in 1785 envisioned co-education, and orators have praised the far-seeing lawmakers. A recent writer states, “Upon this ‘her' was based in later years a successful argument for the legal admission of women to the University.” But the simple fact is that “this her” is not there - either in the Charter or in the first printing of it. Horatio Marbury and William H. Crawford in their Digest of the Laws of Georgia in 1802 changed the Watkins' accurate reading of the phrase “on account of his or their speculative sentiments” to “on account of his, her, or their speculative sentiments,” and all future printing that have been found retain the prophetic her.
Because of the lack of a correct copy of the Charter, Dr. E. Merton Coulter and the present writer, reading glass in hand, have carefully read the original and produced the copy which follows. Every effort has been made to reproduce the exact wording, the often inconsistent punctuating and capitalizing, and even the archaic or incorrect spelling With this first perfect printed version of the University Charter, the Review opens its Sesquicentennial Number - in recognition of a document both historically and intrinsically worthy to be carefully preserved and proudly honored. J.O.E
The Charter pages have been produced by Carol Bishop and Steven Brown of University Archives, with the editorial assistance of Brenda Keen of The Georgia Review. Special thanks goes to Katie Gentilello of the Digital Library of Georgia for producing the images of the Charter and Bob Kobres for photographing the exhibit.