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Two Fathers of the University Idea in Michigan

John Monteith and William Woodbridge

How the first beginnings of the University in the Territory of Michigan came to be over-shadowed by a name, which all but weighted down the little academy is an interesting story. It involves the relationship of Father Gabriel Richard,  John Monteith, William Woodbridge, and Judge A. B.  Woodward. In fact, it was Judge Woodward's enthusiasm for classical learning, which imposed the extravagant nomenclature on the proposed institution, a terminology so overwhelming that it was apparently never taken seriously and was soon discarded. The seven syllabled "Catholepistemiad" was too much for ordinary men.

In an article on "University of Michigan: Beginnings" in the autumn number of the Michigan History magazine, already quoted in a previous article, Judge William A. Spill, '96l, insists that these terms were used practically only by Judge Woodward, and that they were officially given currency only in the act passed by the Territorial legislature on August 26, 1817, granting a charter to the "Catholepistemiad, or University of Michigania." There is certainly good evidence that Judge Woodward's pedantry had small popularity, for in the Gazette published on January 15, 1819, under the heading, "Michigan University," "the Law establishing the 'University of Michigan' is given to the public without the technical names applicable to the professorships to the different departments of science, &c., in an institution founded upon the epistemic system." It is to be noted, however, that in quoting this act the University is spoken of as the University of "Michigania."

But under whatever name the new institution went, the idea goes straight back to the elderly Catholic clergyman, the young Presbyterian dominie, John Monteith,  and the New England lawyer and secretary of the territory, William Woodbridge. Father Richard's career has been reviewed in an earlier issue of the ALUMNUS. (See THE ALUMNUS for November 17.) The present article will deal more particularly with the share of the other members of the educational triumvirate in the development of the idea of a University in Michigan.


In the days immediately following the War of 1812 the Territory of Michigan found itself in a period of stagnation. The total population of the territory was only 4,672, while Detroit boasted only 1,200 inhabitants. But when the militiamen returned to their homes in the East they spread the news that Michigan was not a vast and uninhabitable swamp, as had once been supposed, but a fine and rolling land ready for the settler's axe. Among those who heard of the beauties of the new territory was a theological student at Princeton, John Monteith by name. His parents were Scotch, natives of Dundee, settled in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he was born August 5, 1788. After receiving his degree from what later became Washington and Jefferson College in 1813, John Monteith entered the theological seminary at Princeton. Just prior to his graduation he received an invitation from the Protestant Society of Detroit, signed, among others by Lewis Cass, asking him to organize a church there.   As soon as he could he started by horseback, and boat from Buffalo. He took no gun or weapon with him.   That was the kind of man he was. 

He was hardly settled in his new home before he gathered all the Protestants together and preached the first sermon in English in Michigan, on June 30, 1816.   Judge Spill tells of the cordial relationship established almost immediately between Monteith and his older Catholic confrere: 

Monteith was a man of positive convictions, and high, firm purposes, but of broad tolerance. Father Richard and he immediately recognized in each other members of "that blessed company who understand." There was no Protestant house of worship, and so Father Richard placed at Monteith's disposal one of the buildings of St. Anne's. There, on the same plot of ground, Father Richard sang the masses of the Roman church and John Monteith conducted Protestant services until able to organize and house his congregation.

The relationship between Richard and Monteith partook somewhat of father and son, —somewhat of older and younger brothers. Richard was then (June 25, 1816) fifty-one years of age, tall, gaunt, with an ascetic face, disfigured by a sabre cut received in escaping from France. He had the air of one much alone with books. His expressive eyes, not often masked by the spectacles, which he pushed back upon his forehead, , seemed to see and hold "things unseen." Richard was a most eloquent speaker and possessed of a magnetic presence.

Within a year Monteith went back to Princeton and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in June, 1817. Meanwhile many discussions must have gone on between Father Richard, Monteith, and Woodbridge. Richard evidently felt that he, himself,  was not the man to head the University. He was probably conscious of his imperfect English and the limitations which his church would place on his activities. But in Monteith, as Judge Spill says, he found "not only a man, but the very man to assume the presidency and direction of the new university. Even now, when we pride ourselves upon our breadth and tolerance, we marvel that a Roman Catholic priest and a Scotch Presbyterian minister of more than eleven decades past could work in harmony together. There could not have been a more practical working combination. Each was the representative and leader of an element, composing the two factors of the territory."

When Monteith took up his work in Detroit in July he found Detroit in ferment over the visit of President Monroe, who was feted and entertained to the limit of the little settlement's hospitality. But the festivities did not prevent the three educational enthusiasts in their labors, drafting an act establishing a university, to be adopted and published as the law of the Territory.

One of the recent acquisitions to the University is John Monteith's journal, which has, of course, many references in this period to the beginnings of the University. Excerpts from this diary will appear in a later issue of THE ALUMNUS. In early passages occur some references to Father Richard:

July 4, 1816. On a walk down the river I call at the residence of Priest Richard (pronounced Rechar). He is absent.

July 16. Priest Gabriel Richard calls on me at my lodgings at Col. Hunts. We have a free and pleasant conversation.   He says there is much work for me to do and wishes me success. He stays to tea. I request him to ask a blessing. He answers that he is not accustomed to our mode, but he performs such services in Latin and if acceptable he would do it in that way. I replied that it would not be understood by the family. He therefore declines.

July 23, 1816. I visit the Pere Richard. The conversation agreeable. He presents me with a copy of Thomas A'Kempis.

July 26, 1816. Attended the Fete at St. Anne's. Mons.  Richard never preaches or writes a sermon as he informs me. He reads lessons and makes extemporaneous remarks.

Nov. 28, 1816. Visit Priest Richard, who is out of health. I think he loves to have me visit him.

Nov. 10, 1818. Prepare a report of the transactions of the University. Visit Bishop Flagot at the residence of Rector Richard.

After his earlier days in the Territory of Michigan,  Mr. Monteith returned East, accepting the Chair of Ancient Languages in Hamilton College. Later,  when he was living at Elyria, Ohio, where he settled in 1832, he became a pioneer in anti-slavery agitation in the Western Reserve and more than once was threatened with tar and feathers. He returned to Michigan in 1845 as a representative of the Home Missionary Service and lived at Blissfield for ten years.   He died in his eighty-first year on April 5, 1868, at Elyria, Ohio.


William Woodbridge was appointed secretary of the Territory of Michigan by President Madison in 1814. He came to Michigan while the Territory was still in the throes of the struggle for mastery between the British and the Americans. Detroit had been surrendered to the British by General Hull in 1812, but a little over a year later the guns of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry at Put-in-Bay enabled him to raise the American flag once more over Detroit on September 23, 1818. But it was not until Lewis Cass became civil governor on October 29, 1815, that the Territory of Michigan ceased to be a battleground, and the community was free to turn its thoughts to education and other peaceful pursuits.

William Woodbridge was born at Norwich, Connecticut, August 20, 1780. His father, after service as a Revolutionary Minute Man, finally settled in Marietta, Ohio. William, however, returned for a time to his native Connecticut, where he was admitted to the bar in 1805. Later he returned to Marietta and was elected to the Ohio Assembly, serving for four years.  In 1809 he was elected to the State Senate of Ohio, where he remained until he came to Michigan as secretary of the Territory.   Judge Woodbridge was appointed by John Quincy Adams in 1828 as presiding Judge of the Territorial Supreme Court and in 1839 he was elected the Second Governor of the state. A year later he was elected to the United States Senate,  but served only one term.   He died October 20, 1861.   Judge Spill says of him:

Woodbridge was greatly interested in education and as an official gave real support to all movements and efforts to provide educational facilities. Almost immediately upon his arrival at Detroit he became a friend of Father Richard's, and a sympathetic collaborator with him in his efforts to establish a university. The question as to who could direct the proposed university remained unanswered. While Woodbridge came of sturdy New England,  Protestant ancestry, he was not a college or university man, and could not be utilized.

Moreover, the vision of Father Richard staggered,  not to say appalled, Woodbridge, as, in fact, it did Monteith. "With a population of less than 7,000 people, with all of the difficulties in communication, in resources, and in the problem of subduing the wilderness, so real and pressing, it was hard for them to follow with him in the extensive, and what they believed,  impractical planning of this means of education."

Judge Spill quotes a letter, now preserved in the University Library, which shows something of their attitude. He suggests that the meeting referred to in this letter was the one "at which the University of Michigan was founded by the American people through their delegated representatives, then governing the Territory of Michigan." The letter addressed to Judge Woodbridge follows:

Dear Sir:

It was late before I could obtain the blank commissions. I was in pursuit of them last evening, but could not procure them. I called this evening upon Mr. Monteith. He expressed some reluctance to embark so extensively upon the plan as it was contemplated. I have, however, had a conference with him and with Mr. Richard also. Mr. Monteith will accept the presidency of the institution and several of the professorships. Mr. Richard will be willing to take the direction of one or two. The commissions are preparing. (Have had many visitors.) The arrival of Judge Witherell will render it most decorous that we should postpone our contemplated meeting until after tomorrow as he cannot yet have rested from this fatigue. In the meantime, I shall find every wish to progress in the business as fast as may be.

Very respectfully yours,

Wm. Woodbridge.

Reading between the lines, it can possibly be inferred that to Judge Woodward as the presiding judge of the Territory, was passed the duty of formulating the law under which the University was organized and seeing that it was adopted by the Territorial Legislature. He was, in fact, a dominant factor in legislation, a bachelor, possibly testy and self-willed.   In any case, as Judge Spill says, "legislation in the Territory during his time consisted largely in his submitting drafts of acts to the others and having them 'sign on the dotted line'. "Like his friend, President Jefferson, he was a student, apparently of the abstract and whimsical, with the division or classification of all branches of human knowledge as one of his hobbies.

So when the scheme for the charter of the proposed university came up to him, he approved, but characteristically insisted upon drafting the law himself. In a letter to the ALUMNUS, Judge Spill suggests, referring to the term "Catholepistemiad": "that odd, coined name, and perhaps seventeen others, were inserted as alternative names for plain American ones as the price which those three had to pay to get Judge Woodward to draft and vote and pass the act of incorporation or charter of the University of Michigan. The public never used those names."

Nevertheless, the official title of the University was the "Catholepistemiad, or University of Michigania," until the reorganization of 1821. Whether the longer term was used or not, however, there is good reason to believe that Richard and Monteith attached little importance to it as long as they got their university. Yet it would appear that the alternative name, "University of Michigania," had some general use up to 1821 as the quotation from the Gazette shows.

Whether the institution these three men saw in their visions and for which, with Judge Woodward's assistance, they received legislative support is to be regarded as integral with the present university, or rather is to be regarded as a voice in the wilderness which died out after a few precarious years, is a question for historians and the Board of Regents to decide. What is important, in relation to this early educational experiment in Michigan, is the fact that it was the visible embodiment of a state system of education, to be capped by a university—the idea which eventually came to fruition twenty years later.

The Michigan Alumnus

December 15, 1928 Page 219