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The Fathers of the University Idea in Michigan, a Catholic Priest,

a Presbyterian Dominie,  and a Yankee Lawyer

The recent decision of the Board of Regents to follow the statement made by the State Supreme Court in 1856 that the University was actually established in 1837 rather than on the earlier date, 1817, does not in any way impair our interest in that first educational experiment in Detroit. Save for a picturesque name, there was little to mark the fact that it was a university. It was certainly not a university if its actual accomplishments are to be considered.

Despite its ridiculous terminology, however, it did express a real idea and an educational ideal which only came into fruition in Ann Arbor twenty years later.  It kept the idea of university education before the people of the territory of Michigan, a fact that might be considered better justification for considering the incorporation of the little seminary with its high-sounding name as the true foundation of the University, than the legal thread which transferred its small property holdings to the later Board of Regents. Three men were,  in different ways, responsible for this conception of the University. Father Gabriel Richard, the old Catholic priest of Detroit, his young friend, John Monteith, who was the Presbyterian clergyman in Detroit, and William Woodbridge, who was the first Secretary of the territory of Michigan.


Although Detroit, founded in 1701, is one of the oldest cities in America, it lies in a territory in dispute for over a century, first between the French and the English, and later, the Americans. After it was taken over by the Continental Congress, as a result of the victory of George Rogers Clarke and his Virginia men at Vincennes, it came within the vast and uncertain boundaries of the Northwest Territory, in which Congress established a government by that famous Ordinance of 1787.

Within the Ordinance lay the germ from which the University was to develop. In fact, President Angell,  in his oration celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the University in 1887, said:

We might in a very just sense celebrate this year the centennial of the life of the University. For the germ of that life and of the life of all the state universities in the West is found in that great instrument, the Ordinance of 1787, which was adopted just a hundred years ago the thirteenth of next month.   You remember that memorable article, whose first sentence we have placed here upon our walls, a sentence which should be engraved in letters of gold on fitting monuments in every State that was carved out of the Northwest Territory: "Religion,  morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

(This inscription is above the stage in Old University Hall, where so many generations of students have familiarized themselves with it, almost unconsciously. The same words now appear carved above the great-pillared entrance to Angell Hall.)

It was eleven years after the passage of this Ordinance and its educational clause, however, before Gabriel Richard came to the little fur-trading settlement of Detroit as assistant to the rector of the Roman Catholic church of St. Anne. In a recent article on the beginnings of the University, by William A. Spill, '96l, in the Michigan History Magazine, Autumn number, we find a very sympathetic picture of this Frenchman who did so much for Michigan.    Born at Saintes, France, October 15, 1764, he was graduated from the college of Saintoines with first prizes in rhetoric, French oratory, and Latin verse, and a second prize in Latin oratory. Later he received degrees in philosophy and theology from the university at Angers, later destroyed in the French Revolution. It is interesting to note that one of his fellow students was a young man named Arthur Wesley, or Wellesley,  later to become the famous Duke of Wellington.

He entered the Sulpician Order and was ordained as a priest in 1791. After teaching mathematics for a few years in a seminary at Issy, the fury of the French Revolution drove him to America, where he landed in Baltimore in 1792. No openings being available in that part of the country, he was sent to Illinois as a missionary to the Kaskaskia Indians. On the way he met some priests from Detroit and became interested in what they had to say about the place, an interest which later resulted in his being transferred to Detroit. Here he was destined to live and work for thirty-four years—a commanding and influential figure.  It was fortunate that Father Richard's great interest was not so much ecclesiastical as educational, for his life in Detroit throughout those early years was, in truth, a history of early education in Michigan. Beginning with schools for Indians, by 1804 he had a crude high school, which, poor as his church was, he had equipped with a spinning machine, an air pump, electrical apparatus, and other crude laboratory material.   All this was destroyed when Detroit was burned in 1805.

Father Richard was indefatigable in his efforts to create a seminary of learning in Michigan,  and urged that the territory claim the Congressional township grant for educational purposes. Judge Spill says:

He addressed numerous memorials on the subject of education, generally to the Governor and Judges. One, dated October 18, 1808, shows the continuous urge of Richard, envisions of the future university, and contains the first public expression of that familiar phrase, "the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts" in this language: "for the Encouragement of literature, scientific knowledge, and useful arts." It suggests the four lotteries later authorized to be cast by the charter of the University. The record discloses that on this occasion Elias Angustus Brevoort Woodward, who, as presiding judge of the Supreme Court of the Territory of Michigan, was a very dominant figure in legislation, offered a resolution that "It is now expedient to establish a Seminary of Learning in this territory.  "The resolution was not seconded and nothing was done.

Detroit, at this time, was largely composed of a population of French. There was a growing number of Americans in the Territory. The French dominance was passing. The total population of the Territory was less than 4,700; most of which was in Detroit, and adjacent communities. Conditions were very primitive, the preponderant French being largely hunters and trappers. There was only one road—the one which followed down along the river to the Rapids of the Miami (Toledo), and thence struggled on eastward to civilization. Immigration had been greatly impeded by the official report of a surveyor that the territory was a wilderness of morass, across which it was impossible to convey a horse and not one acre in a hundred of which could ever be cultivated. The representatives of the United States governing the Territory were Protestants. Their ancestry, ideals, and religion were hostile to those of the French. Richard was the leader of that portion of the population, which was of French descent, and Roman Catholic in its fealty.

However much we regret and seek to end ignorance, misunderstanding, and intolerance, these are very present and malignant influences in the affairs of men. Gabriel Richard's position in the community was difficult. He was a priest of the Roman church. On the other hand, the tolerance of Father Richard toward, and his friendship, sympathy, and cooperation with, Protestants, aggravated by his apparent conviction that education must be free alike from both church and dogma, made his own people suspicious of him. It is incredible that so great a man was unaware of the suspicion and misunderstanding which operated to hinder his efforts and thwart his purposes.

But Detroit was largely a French city,  even though many American settlers were coming in. The ruling classes were Protestant. This made the situation difficult. Moreover, Father Richard was a Liberal. His belief that education must be free alike from both church and dogma, made his own people suspicious of him. He tried to further the good feeling when he brought clear from Baltimore, a printing press and started a paper in French and English, called The Essay, or Impartial Observer. The experiment proved too expensive, however, and it is probable that only the first issue ever appeared. But the press and type remained and most of the first school books used in Michigan came from Father Richard's press.

His ideas, however, were not without supporters. It was undoubtedly because of his interest in educational matters and his liberal outlook that he became friends with John Monteith and William Woodbridge,  who felt equally with him the need of an institution of higher learning in the community. It was the impetus given to the idea by this trio, so curiously assorted, that led to the plan later drawn up for the Catholepistemiad by Judge Woodward.

But Father Richard's services did not end with this effort, nor with the professorship, or didaxia, to which he was eventually appointed in the Catholepistemiad of1817. In 1823 he was elected as the delegate to Congress from the Territory of Michigan.

In an article "Michigan's Priest Delegate to Congress," by Raymond George Egan in America for June 16, 1928, we learn something about the difficulties Father Richard encountered in election to the office and in gaining recognition as a result of that election. "To some it seemed preposterous that a Catholic priest in charge of a parish, a man whose English was but limited, and who was not a citizen of the United States, should become a candidate for so important an office. In the opposition ranged against him were not a few Catholics—some making capital of their religion because their personal interests were concerned. Then, as in our day, unscrupulous corruption and sinister intrigue were equally rampant."

Throughout the political campaign, the Detroit Gazette—subsidized by the opposing candidates—ignored Father Richard. For three days election returns were with held because the officials did not want to announce that Father Richard had won the election evoked comment from the press the country over. The Niles Register for October 11, 1823, said: "Mr. Gabriel Richard, a Roman Catholic priest, has been elected a delegate to Congress from Michigan Territory. This is probably the first instance of the kind in the United States." "With rare foresight," Mr. Egan asserts, "he had devised this means whereby he could liquidate the debt on the new church which had risen over the debris and ashes left by the disastrous fire of 1805."

Defeat, however, rankled with Father Richard's political rivals, and they conspired to prevent his seating by raising the question of his competence to hold the office. The case of Francis Labadie, a bigamist who was excommunicated from the church by Father Richard, and took recourse to law, was used as a weapon by his political opponents. The Supreme Court rendered a verdict of $1,116 in favor of Francis Lababie, but its payment was not pressed. Sheriff Austin E.  Wing, however, who was one of his bitterest rivals, and found here opportunity to humiliate the priest, and Father Richard was arrested and imprisoned. His plight was not known to the community at large until three of his parishioners passing the small prison heard a familiar voice chanting sacred hymns and gained his release from custody.

Even after he had arrived at the Capitol to take his seat, the irreconcilable gentry, still hopeful of disqualifying him, tried to have his election set aside on the grounds that he was not a citizen of the United States.  But the petition was referred to the Committee on Elections, which reported:

From a careful examination of the case in all its bearings and relations, the committee are impelled to the conclusion that the sitting delegate, Father Richard, was at the time of his election, a citizen of the United States, possessed of all the constitutional and legal qualifications to render him eligible to a seat in the present Congress, and do therefore submit the following resolution:

Resolved that Gabriel Richard is entitled to a seat in this house as the delegate from the territory of Michigan.

As Michigan, at the time of Father Richard's tenure of office, was only a territory, her delegate could have a voice in Congress, but no vote. There are no records of any notable legislation connected with his name, although he did father a bill for the construction of a territorial road from Detroit to Chicago.

Failing to secure re-election after his term, Father Richard turned patiently and without complaint to his more legitimate occupation where, with such indefatigable zeal and unremitting care did he devote himself to his people that, when the great Asiatic cholera, introduced by General Scott's troops, swept Detroit, the grim reaper caught him in the ministrations to the sick and dying, and he succumbed to the dreadful malady September 12, 1832, expiring with the words of holy Simeon upon his lips: "Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace."

The Michigan Alumnus

Nov 17 1928, Page  143