Georgetown in 1816: An online exhibit from the University Archives

Online Exhibitions

In 2016, the Georgetown University Archives marks the 200th anniversary of its founding. As part of the celebration of this anniversary, a series of four exhibits will be presented online. These exhibits will look at Georgetown at 50 year intervals, starting in 1816, the year the Archives was established. Drawing upon records which the Archives preserves and makes available for use, the four exhibits as a whole will trace the growth of Georgetown as a school and as a campus between 1816 and 1966.

This is the first in the series of four online exhibits.  It examines Georgetown College as it was in 1816, including how campus appeared, how the school marketed itself to potential students, and what the student body studied.  It also profiles the ninth President of Georgetown, Giovanni Grassi, S.J., and his contributions to the development of Georgetown. 

 In 1816, Georgetown was looking to the future without the leadership of its founder, John Carroll, who died on December 3, 1815.  However, at the time of his death, Archbishop Carroll could have been satisfied that the school he had established and nurtured was financially stable and apparently viable, really for the first time in its existence.  Enrollment was at 107 students by the end of 1816 and growing under the sound administration of President Grassi. The Jesuit Order, suppressed by Pope in 1773, had been fully restored in 1814, meaning that that the school now was supported by a powerful religious order which could supply a pool of qualified potential faculty.  And Georgetown had secured a charter from Congress in 1815 which finally enabled it to award degrees. 



Georgetown Campus as it would have looked in 1816

Campus as it would have looked in 1816

This is perhaps the earliest image of the Georgetown campus and dates from 1829. However, campus in 1829 was not very different from campus as it was in 1816.  The two main buildings depicted were known, not very creatively, as the South Building (on the left) and the North Building (on the right) which we know today as Old North.

Work began on the first building, the South Building, in April 1788. Its construction was something of a leap of faith as John Carroll was not able to raise the money to pay for the land on which it was being built until nine months after work started.  He had hoped that the building would be finished in one year; however, lack of funds meant that it was not completed until 1791.  As the only building on campus, the South Building contained classrooms, faculty and student rooms, a dining hall, and a chapel. It was razed in 1904 to make way for the building of Ryan Hall on the same site.

The much larger North Building was begun in 1794. Under John Carroll’s original plans, most students were to board in private lodgings off campus.  Professors would then visit them to provide some employment out of school hours, to prevent idleness and dissipation. However, this arrangement was quickly reconsidered.  As a result, more dormitory and study space were needed on campus than the South Building alone could provide.

Photograph of a portrait of Giovanni or John Grassi, S.J., President of Georgetown from 1812 to 1817

Giovanni or John Grassi, S.J., President of Georgetown from 1812 to 1817. Photograph of a portrait from the University Art Collection

Giovanni Grassi, who was born in Italy in 1775, became President in October 1812. He is something of a forgotten figure on campus. There are no buildings named for him, no memorials, in fact no tangible reminders of the considerable impact he had on Georgetown, an impact which has led some historians to describe him as our second founder - a phrase more usually associated with a later Georgetown President, Patrick Healy, S.J.

A gifted administrator, Grassi assumed leadership of Georgetown at a time when the school was struggling to attract students and maintain enrollment levels. After 1805, Georgetown had local competition for students: from St. Mary’s, a Catholic seminary in Baltimore, which chartered as a civil college in 1805 and immediately began attracting students from Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, and the West Indies, areas from which Georgetown had been accustomed to drawing pupils, and later from the New York Literary Institution, another Jesuit school, which opened in 1808 and whose enrollment quickly surpassed Georgetown's. By 1811, there were only 31 students at Georgetown. Lower enrollment meant less revenue from tuition and the financial situation became so grave that some, including John Carroll, questioned whether Georgetown should or indeed could continue in operation, with the New York Literary Institution appearing the more viable option for a Jesuit school.

Fr. Grassi took immediate action upon appointment as President. He proposed a significant change in tuition and board rates and got it approved by the Board of Directors. The change was not an increase, however, but a decrease from $220 per year to $125. Grassi argued that enrollment would rise if fees were set at a level that allowed students from families of more modest means to attend. And he was immediately proved correct. But Grassi understood that, while lowering tuition was a good first step to keeping Georgetown open, it was not enough to ensure long term viability. For that, he had to enhance the reputation of the college. To this end, he quickly involved himself in local intellectual and social circles. He paid frequent visits to Congress and persuaded several congressmen to enroll their sons. And he revived a former practice of including exhibitions in end of year academic exercises so students could publicly demonstrate what they had learnt. Grassi made sure to promote the school to a wider audience as well and in May 1814 published a prospectus to inform the parents of potential students about the benefits of a Georgetown education. He also worked with Archbishop John Carroll and Georgetown's first student, William Gaston, to obtain a charter for Georgetown so that it could award degrees.


List of the Students of Georgetown College who Excelled in their Respective Classes, in the year 1816

List of the Students of Georgetown College who Excelled in their Respective Classes, in the year 1816

This list was printed for the end of year academic exercises held in July 1816.  While no degrees were awarded prior to 1817, there were still public exercises held to mark the end of the academic year at which awards would be given and students would deliver speeches and sometimes perform musical pieces or plays.  Included among the student names are those of brothers Charles and George Dinnies from New York who would become the first students to receive degrees from Georgetown in 1817.

Georgetown College Prospectus, May 1814. Page 1

Georgetown College Prospectus, May 1814. Page 1

Before Georgetown College published its first printed catalog in 1852, prospectuses were produced periodically as a convenient way of communicating the aims, curriculum, costs, and rules of the institution to parents of potential students. There is no mention of the curriculum on the first page of this, the only prospectus produced during Fr. Grassi's presidency - that was relegated to the second page. Instead, Grassi leads with something he thought gave his school an advantage over its rivals - its location: The College is an extensive and most convenient edifice. It commands one of the most delightful prospects in the United States; and its situation for health is exceeded by none. The garden and court where the students recreate are airy and spacious. Among the many other advantages which it enjoys, its contiguity to the city of Washington, the seat of the federal government, is not the least considerable; as the students have occasionally the opportunity of hearing debates in Congress, it being only a pleasant walk from the College to the capitol.


Georgetown College Prospectus, May 1, 1814. Page 2

Georgetown College Prospectus, May 1, 1814. Page 2

Section VII. The students are taught English, French, Latin, Greek, and all the other branches of Classical education, Sacred and Profane History, Geography, Use of Globes, Arithmetic, Book Keeping, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Mensuration, Navigation, Surveying, Astronomy, Fluxions, and the other parts of Mathematics in general, comprising a complete and regular course.  Regular lectures will also be given in Natural and Experimental Philosophy; but to defray the expenses necessarily attending such lectures, an additional charge will be made, as also for Italian and Spanish, if required

The education given at Georgetown was classical in nature, emphasizing Greek, Latin, and mathematics.   


Section VIII. The age of admission is from eight to fourteen. When children are not sufficiently advanced to begin a regular course of classical education, they are placed in an elementary class, attended by a particular teacher, from whom they learn to spell, read and write.  Special care is taken that they learn to read well, and, write a good hand, and that they speak and write French with accuracy.

Georgetown’s first student, William Gaston, was just thirteen years old when he arrived on campus and John Carroll’s original admission requirements had stipulated that children had only to know how to read before they could be enrolled. 


Section XIII. No allowance is made for absence during the vacation, which commences on the first of August and ends of the first of September.  To these terms parents are desired to be particularly attentive, in case they choose to call their children home, as the absence of a few weeks at the opening of schools, is seldom repaired without very great difficulty.

At this time, it was expected that students would live at Georgetown year round.  Travel was difficult and with the summer vacation lasting only one month, there was simply not enough time for students who were not from the immediate area to travel home.


Act Concerning the College of George Town in the District of Columbia, March 1, 1815

Act Concerning the College of George Town in the District of Columbia, March 1, 1815. Reproduction courtesy of the National Archives

Georgetown College operated until 1815 without a charter and so was unable to award degrees.  As the school was located within the District of Columbia, any charter would have to be granted by Congress.  Founder John Carroll had not sought one when Georgetown opened, apparently believing that his fledgling institution was not strong enough to push for one. A number of factors made Archbishop Carroll and President Grassi decide to seek a charter towards the end of 1814, however: the restoration of Jesuit Order; the fact that Georgetown had a number of friends in Congress (several Congressmen had enrolled their sons in the school and William Gaston, Georgetown's first student, had been elected to Congress from North Carolina in 1813); and the perception that James Madison, the U.S. President who would sign the charter into law, was supportive of the rights of religious minorities, particularly Catholics.   

In January 1815, Congressman Gaston presented a petition from Georgetown to Congress asking for the authority to confer degrees and on March 1, 1815, U.S. President James Madison signed a bill into law which allowed Georgetown to admit any of the Students belonging to said College or other persons meriting academical honors, to any degree in the faculties, arts, sciences, and liberal professions, to which persons are usually admitted in other Colleges or Universities of the United States . . .  In 1817, two years after passage of the charter, Charles and George Dinnies were awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts and became Georgetown’s first graduates.  

William Gaston

William Gaston

Georgetown’s first student, William Gaston, was born in New Bern, North Carolina.  His father, a doctor was killed during the Revolution, so arrangements for his education fell to his mother, Margaret Sharp, a Catholic English woman. Gaston arrived on campus in 1791, aged 13.  He suffered from health problems and his mother came to believe that the climate was bad for him, withdrawing him in April 1793.  He graduated from Princeton but kept close ties to Georgetown, later enrolling a son and grandson. In 1800 he was elected to the North Carolina State Senate and served in the U.S. Congress  from 1813 to 1817 (the first Hoya to do so), shepherding the bill that gave Georgetown its Charter.  Gaston was a frequent visitor to Georgetown during his time in Congress. On September 3, 1816, he married Eliza Worthington, the daughter of the College doctor who lived at the northwest corner of what are now 35th and Prospect Streets, in a ceremony performed by President Grassi. 

Letter from William Gaston to President Grassi, S.J.

William Gaston to President Grassi, S.J., with reference to Gaston’s wedding, September 16, 1816 (Maryland Province Archives)

I have flattered myself with the hope of seeing you personally before my departure for Carolina; but I have been forced to deny myself that gratification by the long-continued bad weather which has confined my closely to the house.  Suffer me to present to you the grateful acknowledgments of Mrs. Gaston and myself for the happiness we experience in our union formed under your holy ministry.  Suffer me further in our joint names to request that you will be our agent in properly disposing of the little sum which is inclosed herein.

Georgetown College Accounts, Ledger D

Georgetown College Accounts, Ledger D. Entries showing debits against student accounts, September 16-20, 1816

The first entry seen is for John B. Blake who was the son of James H. Blake, the third mayor of Washington.  The entry below Master Blake’s, for Thomas Spalding, includes a record of the payment of pocket money.  Regulations forbade students from having any money in their possession and the 1814 Prospectus specified that pocket money must be deposited in the hands of the procurator of the house.


Listing of Faculty,Tutors, and Prefects for 1816-1817. From the Academic Journal, 1816-1871

Listing of Faculty, Tutors, and Prefects for 1816-1817. From the Academic Journal, 1816-1871

The Academic Journal, also known as the Classical Journal, records details about faculty assignments, the curriculum, class placements, and examination results.

Title page of New Treatise on the Use of Globes and Practical Astronomy

Title page of New Treatise on the Use of Globes and Practical Astronomy; or A Comprehensive View of the System of the World, 1812, by J. Wallace (Rare Books collection)

The Georgetown faculty in 1816 included James Wallace, S.J., who taught mathematics, natural philosophy, and chemistry.  An Irish immigrant, he joined the Georgetown faculty in 1805 and taught at the New York Literary Institution between 1809 and 1814, returning to Georgetown in 1814 and bringing this textbook back with him.  

Reference to two notable events that occurred during the fall of 1816 in Memorial of the First Century of Georgetown College, 1891, by John Gilmary Shea

Reference to two notable events that occurred during the fall of 1816 in Memorial of the First Century of Georgetown College, 1891, by John Gilmary Shea, page 47

. . . On the Feast of St. Ignatius, 1816, Professor Wallace, with his class of natural philosophy, sent off a balloon, the course of which was watched with such interest that it led to no little correspondence.

President Grassi and Father Wallace frequently collaborated on scientific experiments.  Grassi refers to this experiment with a gas-filled balloon which was released to demonstrate the principles of aerodynamics in his diary, which he kept in Italian.  


Soon after the vacation the students enjoyed what was then a treat, simple affair as it seems to us now at the close of the century.  But when the collegians of Georgetown went down the Potomac on a steamboat, on the 19th of September, 1816, it was an event of no little importance, and letters addressed to the home circle described what was to many a very novel and interesting mode of travel, for it was less than ten years after the Clermont [Robert Fulton's steamship], by her trips on the Hudson, showed that travel by steamboat was practicable, rapid and safe . . .

One hundred years later, river trips by students were still apparently newsworthy and The Washington Post reported on 6/13/1916 that "the graduates and alumni of Georgetown were the guests of the National Alumni Society on a steamer excursion down the Potomac yesterday."

Resolution setting up an archives at Georgetown, February 15, 1816

Resolution setting up an archives at Georgetown, February 15, 1816. In the Proceedings of the Corporation of Roman Catholic Clergymen, Vol. 2, 1814-1909 (Maryland Province Archives)

Resolved that an Archives be erected in the College of George Town to be fire proof for the purpose of containing the Title papers of the Corporation, and that the Reverend John Grassi and Reverend Francis Neale are appointed to have the work executed.

This resolution was passed by the Corporation of Roman Catholic Clergymen.  The Jesuit Order did not exist when Georgetown College was founded as it had been suppressed by Pope Clement XIV in 1773.  The Corporation of Roman Catholic Clergy was a body consisting of former Jesuits set up under the direction of Georgetown's founder Bishop, later Archbishop Carroll.  It was established to manage property formerly owned by the Jesuit Order in Maryland.  Its members were actively involved in founding Georgetown College and financing it in its early years and they appointed the Georgetown Board of Directors.

While the archives was created ostensibly to safeguard records of the Corporation, it also was a logical place to store the records of Georgetown as well.  And with a founding date of 1816, the archives at Georgetown are among the oldest academic archives in the U.S. 

The resolution is dated less then eighteen months after the British burned Washington, an event that came close enough to Georgetown to prompt a faculty member to note in his diary that it was possible to read on campus at night by the light of the flames.  Perhaps it was the memory of this relatively recent and traumatic event which promoted the inclusion of the phrase “fire proof.” 



Curated by Lynn Conway, University Archivist