The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2003

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James Wadsworth



Wayne Mahood

Approaching seventy-five and increasingly aware of his mortality, in 1843, James Wadsworth reminded his older son, James Samuel, that "uneducated man always has been and always will be a puppet in the hands of designing demagogues." The words represented a creed which had directed his life and, he hoped, which would govern his descendants' lives. He would be leaving them with riches generally unknown in his day and place. But, he wanted to leave them with something far greater—character. That character had to be based on principles of "truth, integrity and candor." The greater their education, not just book learning, the greater the likelihood that they would live their lives according to those principles. They were the principles that had guided him here in Geneseo, New York, in what was largely a wilderness when he first arrived.

James Wadworth

James Wadsworth was a tough old bird—prickly when his honor was questioned—and not much given to sentiment. Well into his sixties, he still rode horseback thirty miles in a day to check his land. In fact, he traveled regularly to Buffalo, seventy miles distant, "indeed all over the county," according to his wife, Naomi. He claimed a distinguished heritage and he meant to leave an equally distinguished one.

He was born the third son of John Noyes and Esther Parsons Wadsworth in 1768. His ancestor William had arrived in Boston in 1632, having followed the Reverend Thomas Hooker from his Chelmsford, England, church to Cambridge, Massachusetts Colony, then to Hartford, Connecticut Colony, some time around 1641. Of the ten children sired by William (four by his first wife, Sarah, and six by his second, Elizabeth Stone of Hartford), the best known is Joseph. Called "Captain Joseph" for his militia experience, known as "an ardent lover of freedom," he was best remembered for secreting the Connecticut Colony charter in the "Charter Oak" when Sir Edmund Andros, governor of New York and the New England colonies, attempted to seize the charter. The generally accepted story is that in the evening of October 31, 1687, there was a meeting of colonial representatives to determine how to counter Andros. During the meeting someone extinguished the lights, and "Captain Joseph of Hartford, in the most silent and secret manner, carried off the charter and secreted it in a large hollow oak tree." This resulted in formal reprimands by the Connecticut Assembly and local constables before he died at age eighty. These Wadsworth traits, a strong sense of civic duty—and strong-headedness, seem to show up in every generation.

It was Captain Joseph's brother, the "Hon. John" of Farmington, an assemblyman and witness to Joseph's heroism, from whom James Wadsworth, the subject of this article, descended. The "Hon. John" had nine children, one of whom was "Colonel" James, who sired "Squire" James. In turn, Squire James claimed three children, the best known of whom was General James Wadsworth. A Yale graduate, General James (our James's namesake and uncle) raised a company to invade Canada in 1758 during the French and Indian War and later served as major general from Connecticut during the Revolutionary War.

However, the Wadsworth ancestor who had the most profound effect on Geneseo's James was colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth of Farmington, Connecticut. Jeremiah was the same generation and a cousin of General James Wadsworth and John Noyes Wadsworth, the father of Geneseo's James. They shared the same great grandfather, "Hon. John," the brother of "Captain Joseph." At age 32, Jeremiah, who had gone to sea when just approaching adulthood after his father died, found his life changed forever when Connecticut joined the Revolutionary cause. He became commissary for the Connecticut regiments and by the end of the war was Commissary General of the United States.

After the war, Jeremiah, an intimate and occasional post-war host of General George Washington and delegate to the Connecticut Constitutional Convention, became interested in lands in western New York, where he would make his fortune. The result was his dealings with Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, a Nutmegger and Baystater respectively. The partners had contracted for the purchase of some six million acres of land situated in western New York, familiarly known as the Phelps-Gorham Purchase. But Jeremiah needed trustworthy agents to carry on his land speculation, men who were not only hardy but good businessmen and land managers. The death of cousin John Noyes Wadsworth apparently provided the connection that brought James Wadsworth to what became Geneseo. James and his two brothers, William, three years older, and John, six years older, had just come into a modest inheritance upon the death of their father, John Noyes Wadsworth. The accepted story is that young James visited Jeremiah's house in 1789, and the host accurately adjudged him as having "ambition," "clear mind," and "tenacious will."

So, in 1790, at age 22 and a Yale graduate, James and his brother William arrived in what became Geneseo, on the Genesee River in what was then Ontario County, as Jeremiah's agents. The brothers had invested their inheritances in that land as well, possibly as part of the bargain struck with Jeremiah. Also the brothers struck a bargain between themselves. William would be the farmer, James the businessman. In that role, James not only crisscrossed the state (frequently visiting Jeremiah in Connecticut), he also traveled to England and to The Netherlands, where he met with officers of the newly formed Holland Land Company, to enlist investors in the western New York land.

By 1807, when his elder son, James Samuel, was born, James was already wealthy, though he had incurred some rather large debts. His wealth principally was based on the sale of Jeremiah's and the brothers' extensive land holdings. But it was also the result of good land management, which James came to call "scientific farming." Toward this end, he read widely, sought advice, and experimented. The experiments included raising a variety of crops and animals, including Merino sheep. Importantly, too, the brothers developed well publicized lease agreements with tenants. The leases offered the brothers income while demanding conservative land management by the tenants, many of whom would, in time come to buy land themselves.

Above all, James Wadsworth viewed himself as a life-long learner. Education was vital to his family's well being and to Geneseo, his adopted home. Education helped build character, one thing Wadsworth money could not buy.

Given his heritage and his constitution, not surprisingly, nothing could set off the old man faster than the dissolute ways of his older son, James Samuel, a casual student at Harvard in 1826 and 1827. The father progressed from urging to pleading to admonishing his son to change his ways and to devote himself to his studies and "to tell us so at least once a week." It was important to be "most cautious as to your company. Bad scholars & dissipated young men generally ride the most." This was a reference to the practice of more than a few young Harvard students to ride to Boston for enjoyment. "Let me instruct you to avoid southern blades, high fellows[,] though they may be pleasant & friendly in their manners." The son was also reminded of his parents' "consent to your absence for your improvement." The old man was more than a little aware that classes were held only in the morning, leaving the students, like his son, too much leisure time. That was not why he had sent him to Harvard. Exactly why James had sent him to Harvard, not Yale, his alma mater, remains a question. Another mystery is why his son apparently had left Hamilton College under a cloud earlier.

The son's conduct at Hamilton had been distressful enough to remove him from the fledgling institution. "At Hamilton college you wrote me that you wanted to be a complete gentleman. [Yet] you gave up the study of Latin…You spent money…you neglected your studies." Studying diligently, James admonished, would have enabled James Samuel to meet difficulties "patiently and manfully" there. Given another chance, he must shape up before it was too late.

But it was not to be. Imagine how devastated James was when he read Harvard President John T. Kirkland's letter of October 2, 1827, notifying him that his son had been dismissed. His son's "repeated absences at exercises and public worship" had led to the dismissal. The father's only resort, other than threatening to disown his son, was to enclose in a letter "a sketch of the life of a just and good man."

The irony was inescapable. The older man and his brother William had tackled the frontier when roughly his dissolute son's age. By hard work, perseverance and love of learning he had built a fortune—and a well-deserved reputation. James Samuel, the one to whom James looked to become the conservator of the Wadsworth estate and name, was not only a failure, but an acute embarrassment. James's life work and the Wadsworth inheritance were in serious jeopardy. In his heart he knew that his son had the ability and the physical constitution to carry on, but the errant son was shamefully wasting his time.

Ironically, just a year earlier, in 1827, James had sought his son's advice about tutors for the "Livingston County High School" he envisioned. Up to then the father had been involved only in the elementary school in the village. Now he wanted a county secondary school. He and his brother William had already donated the land, had purchased ten shares each at $25 per share and had leaned on others to help raise the necessary $25,000. Better known as Temple Hill Academy after the beautiful sheltered oak grove on which the attractive brick buildings would be built, it was to be an experimental residential school, open to all young (male) county residents. It would rely on the Lancasterian plan, whereby tutors taught the older students who, in turn, taught the younger. And James wanted only the best tutors for this experiment, selecting Cornelius Felton, later Harvard president, as one of the first three, based on James Samuel's recommendation. James found the "prospect of the school…flattering" and thrilled at the "excitement" generated in Geneseo, where "inquiries are continually being made" about the anticipated 150 entering "scholars." Harvard Professor of Belles-Lettres, George Ticknor even visited Geneseo to lend support to the enterprise, and, no doubt, to endorse his students as tutors.

But James's interest in education long antedated his involvement in Temple Hill Academy. It was evident as early as 1796, when he was still a bachelor. In a January 30 letter to John Lerickloin he proposed that a "twenty-five acre lot" be granted to the inhabitants of each township for a school. But, characteristically, he added a proviso: the inhabitants must then develop that lot and sell additional acreage to support the school. They should not count on others' benevolence; rather they must better themselves. Education and self reliance were the means to that betterment.

This is illustrative of James's credo: "the stability of the government…and the security of property…depend, in great measure, upon the information of the common people…." However, he demanded that the "common people" commit themselves, just as he would. For example, he had already committed himself to subscribe to and to serve as one of nineteen trustees of an academy in the county seat, Canandaigua, which, in 1795, had been incorporated by the Regents of the University, the governing body of schools in New York. Not long afterward he furnished nails, glass and paint for a school house on land which had been donated by land speculator David A. Ogden. And, true to form, he instructed the contractor about how to construct the building, including providing a flat roof and "good Stone underpinning."

Before long James's focus was on schooling for his children. In August 1816, a concern was for his eldest child, eleven-year-old Harriet. Characteristically, he wanted the best education for her, consistent with what he believed a woman should have, and had sent her to Mrs. Whalley's Young Ladies Boarding and Select School in Canandaigua. James wrote the school principal, a Mr. Bigelow, asking him to rid Harriet of her "careless" writing, which could not be accomplished "without very strict and persevering attention." James also wanted Harriet "directed to get a French lesson" in the morning or evening, as well as to "attend to the higher branches taught in your School." He had sent Harriet to the school over the objections of his wife, Naomi, and wanted his money's worth, another Wadsworth trait.

"Knowledge is power," James wrote Myron Holley, the abolitionist who would help found the Liberty Party in 1840. He was excited over governor DeWitt Clinton's annual address, but, as great as it was, the governor had failed to call for a "State Library." Not just any library. Rather, James cautioned that it should not be modeled after New York booksellers who confine themselves to Lord Byron's poems and popular novels. (He would rail against Byron's poems more than a few times in letters to his children). Instead, the library ought to foster science and agriculture. He was only warming up to what he saw as the real need—financing school libraries. The need for school libraries and teacher training institutions would become almost obsessions with him over the next two decades. Unfortunately, he would not live to see the second come to fruition.

Just over two months after writing Holley, James Wadsworth was heavily involved in starting a school "for small children" in Geneseo and sought the name of a young man to serve as school master, the greater part of whose wages would be paid by Wadsworth himself. He wanted a young man tested in New York City schools, who might be tempted to come to Geneseo to teach a year or two. Then, if interested, the young man might apprentice himself to one of the growing number of professionals in the village. Having just read the journal Academician on the subject of instructors in Scotland, where school teaching was "respectable," he was quite clear as to the type of person he wanted. The school master must necessarily be "of good manners, fixed principles in religion, and of good literary attainments."

He would often return to the subject of teacher training. For example, in January of 1829, he wrote former clerk, Philo Fuller, then a State Assemblyman, to urge passage of legislation to establish county high schools with well-educated teachers. "To improve the common schools in this state, the employment of more able instructors is indispensable." The 8,000 current teachers simply did not measure up. "Before we have the commodity we want, we must manufacture it." It was the same appeal he had made to State Senator Samuel Young three years earlier, when he railed against the "utter waste of half the expense of, and half the time passed [by the students] in our common schools." One remedy was the preparation of a hundred school masters in each of the State's fifty-seven counties. He would make the same appeal to countless others, including the State's superintendents of public instruction.

At the same time the wealthy landowner and parent of five children was involved in a number of other educational projects in addition to founding the county high school. For example, in 1825, he presided over the Board of Directors of the Livingston County Bible Society. Three years later he gave $50 to Rochester's Franklin Institute for the improvement of Society, hoping that it "animates" other villages to follow suit. On the other hand, he had given up on helping the Seneca Indians who were being pressured to sell lands on their reservations in western New York. The Quakers were too controlling for his tastes, having "left the Indians in a worse State [sic] than they found them," The answer, as always, was education. If he had any say, the Senecas "must be civilized in the same manner as our English ancestors were." Sadly, he threw up his hands and tried to forget the unsavory treatment of the Senecas, though, with his son, James Samuel, as his representative he would negotiate for the purchasers. On a higher plane, in 1830, James was selected to represent Livingston County at a New York State Corresponding Committee at Utica. Two issues were particularly close to his heart: "Are Common Schools Worth the Money Paid?" And "Whether to Establish an Institute to Train Teachers." At that meeting in January 1831, he was elected vice president of the Eighth Senatorial District to investigate the need for teacher training institutions.

However, his campaign for libraries in every school district never abated. In fact, what must be considered his crowning accomplishment was legislation to create school libraries eventually. According to Thurlow Weed, the nineteenth century journalist-politician, no project offered James Wadsworth greater satisfaction. But it took ever-increasing energy just to get anyone to listen, let alone to act. And the need took on greater urgency after the deaths of James's wife, two older daughters and brother in the space of three years. The project became a virtual crusade.

Frustrated with legislative inaction, on March 11, 1833, James put $6,000 of his own money toward what he hoped would be a start on school libraries. He created a trust to compile, print and distribute to the trustees of each common school in New York State courses of popular lectures "adapted to the capacities of children" which could be "conveniently read in half an hour." The lectures were to be on six subjects: "On the Application of Science for the Arts," "On Agriculture and Horticulture," "On the Principles of Legislation," "On Political Economy," "On Astronomy and Chemistry—," And "On the Intellectual, Moral and Religious Instruction of the Youth of this State by Means of Common Schools." The "lectures" were to be read by the teachers.

At the same time he asked Charles King, who later would serve as president of Columbia College, and his academic associates, to use their "leisure" to write a series of essays on common schools and the failure of the State legislature to enact a law establishing school libraries. Though concerned about the ability of "the Masses" to pay, James regarded the amount necessary to fund libraries a trifle compared to other state expenditures. He recommended what he considered a "modest" levy of $15 or $20 a year per family. (Recall, that families paid directly for their children's schooling until roughly mid century.) He later modified this to ask for $20 to start each library, then $5 per year thereafter.

At the same time, he was unwilling to give $213 to Geneva College, forerunner of Hobart College, to purchase what the college considered a classic book. "Our Colleges contribute so little to National education," he wrote on August 5, 1833, "so little to the sound instruction of public opinion. They participate so little in the genius and spirit of the age in which we live and do so little to advance the civilization of the human family, that, in my opinion, they have ceased to deserve public patronage." He wanted to know when colleges would make themselves useful. He was not aware of any "new idea," even a modification of a new idea, to come out of colleges in the past twenty years. Yet, he did not hesitate to underwrite the cost of publishing and distributing John Nicholson's The Farmer's Assistant and John O. Taylor's The District School in 1834.

Impatiently, on February 4, 1837, he vented his spleen to Assemblyman, later Congressman and Lieutenant Governor, George W. Patterson, whom he had known for nearly thirty years. James was "much mortified that neither the Governor, nor General [John] Dix [secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction] have said one word respecting school district libraries." He wanted Patterson to give him a satisfactory explanation for why no one seemed interested in "the only cheap expedient that will improve our schools." He would hound Patterson unmercifully, for he "was determined to make a vigorous" appeal for libraries. The legislative effort in 1835, making the school district "the institutional means of promoting free public library service in the State," was too meager. This simply showed an intent; no money was appropriated.

Finally, by Chapter 237, Section. 4, Laws of 1838, the New York State Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill creating district school libraries. By the law, for three years the legislature would appropriate $55,000 out of the public treasury for the purchase of school library books. James Wadsworth's dream, his obsession with improving education for the masses, had finally become a reality. Lest there be any doubt, Patterson, in answer to the question about the origin of school libraries in New York State posed by Henry Barnard, later the first U. S. Commissioner of Education, wrote: "…In regard to the origin of the School District Library System of this state, I will say to you, that the whole credit belongs to the Honorable James Wadsworth, of Geneseo…" Patterson insisted that he had just performed his "duty" to obtain a bill permanently earmarking funds for school libraries, over what he considered violent objections. Rather, "the credit of all that has been done belongs to the praise-worthy efforts of Mr. Wadsworth."

Not only was his plan adopted, but the very words themselves, are pure James Wadsworth. The books "should not be children's books or of a juvenile nature…. Rather, they should be "works conveying solid information which will excite a thirst for knowledge…and also gratify it, as far as such library can." The intent was to make these libraries available to the public at large, so as to have a general upward leveling effect. As Wadsworth had written governor William H. Seward in 1838, "The sons of the rich man, and of the poor man ought to be educated" alike. Both will be "better from early associations." (Hypocritically, perhaps, James's children largely were educated in private academies or boarding schools, as were his sons' children, his sons' grandchildren and their children.)

While finally successful in getting the legislature to establish public schools and libraries, old James, in his mid seventies, was not finished. He had another project to complete, a public library in his adopted Geneseo. Though there were public libraries created after the New York State Legislature authorized their incorporation in 1796, typically they were subscription libraries, modeled after Franklin's The Library Company of Philadelphia, open to dues-paying members. Moreover, Geneseo's library had fallen into disarray and disuse early in the century. Importantly, James Wadsworth wanted a library "open and free for the gratuitous use as well of the inhabitants of the County of Livingston." Consistent with his beliefs, he privately funded this library to promote "the moral and intellectual instruction of the young and the diffusion of science and literature." The result was that in 1842, the Geneseo Atheneum opened with books, scientific equipment and mineral specimens which were to be available to all. Though initially a combination library and museum designed primarily for use by the young men attending his earlier project, the Livingston County High School, shortly it became a more typical library. James's own books and specimens became the basis for it.

The books in his library not only reflected his interests, but the man. For example, his library included the two-volume Memoirs of Aaron Burr, though James knew and detested the subject. Most of the books were references, such as Bigley's Useful Knowledge, British Husbandry. Turner's Chemistry, Engineer's Pocket Book, and Webster's Dictionary. But he also donated [Thomas] Jefferson's Writings (four volumes), [Daniel] Webster's Speeches, Hallam's History of England, as well as Story's Commentaries and Blackstone's Commentaries (four volumes), the latter two reflecting his sometime practice of law. It was an eclectic lot, mirroring its owner.

As with all his projects, he intended to assure its success. However, with his health failing, he counted on his once dissolute son, James Samuel, now, at 36, a father and prominent land owner himself. On November 21, 1843, he wrote the son, then in Philadelphia, as was his fashion: "It is absolutely necessary as Trustee of the Atheneum Library that you become intimately conversant with the character of modern books and with libraries generally." Toward that end, he asked James Samuel to acquaint himself with the books and policies of the Franklin Library. And, true to form, after recalling his son's dislike of studying chemistry, he reminded him about the need to be a "scientific farmer." He should attend lectures on the decomposition of atmosphere and water and "perform some of the manipulations" himself. But he knew better, none of his children would ever measure up to his high expectations of them and of himself.

Evidence is the fact that eight days later in another letter to James Samuel, he confessed he was "anxious" for his son's return to learn whether he was "capable of giving instruction in the purchasing of books and managing public libraries." And he wanted to know how different it would have been had the Franklin Library been free to all, as he proposed for his Atheneum. Further, reflective of his beliefs, he uttered the words that appeared at the beginning of this piece: "Uneducated man always has been and always will be a puppet in the hands of designing demagogues." To this he added that "if the diffusion of popular instruction" cannot do the job, the future was bleak.

This was the last recorded correspondence of any import from James Wadsworth, who with his brother had helped develop Geneseo into a thriving county seat and had personally achieved a wealth and renown that remains today. His descendants include Brevet Major General James Samuel Wadsworth, who was mortally wounded in the American Civil War, following his father's preachings to devote all his energies to good causes, whatever the consequences. In turn, one of James Samuel's sons was congressman, the congressman's son was a U. S. Senator, and one of the senator's sons served as a delegate to the United Nations. They too unswervingly answered the calls of their day and too paid the price, which in the senator's case was failure of reelection. Old James left quite a legacy as well as an obligation—to his family and to his adopted state, none greater than to support education in its various forms. For him the future of humankind lay in its availing itself of educational opportunities, which ought to be open to all. James Wadsworth did all a man of his wealth and energies could do for his fellows to foster those educational opportunities.

2003, Wayne Mahood
Photograph furnished by author.
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