Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 4. The French Influence; Quesnay

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXV. Scholars

§ 4. The French Influence; Quesnay

The time, ripe for change, soon began to feel new tendencies away from English and toward Continental culture. As early as 1778, the Chevalier Quesnay de Beaurepaire was encouraged by John Page, Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia, to establish at Richmond a French Academy of the Arts and Sciences, and by 1786 he had obtained from a number of prominent Virginians and Baltimoreans a subscription amounting to sixty thousand francs. Quesnay had in mind the highest special training of American students in the arts and sciences; he planned “solely for the completion of the education of young men after they have graduated from college.” Among the supporters of this proposal for the first graduate school in America was Thomas Jefferson, then resident in Paris; it is contemporaneous with his own plan (1779) to develop William and Mary College into a true university by modernizing its curriculum. The Academy proposed to institute “schools” in foreign languages, design, architecture, painting, sculpture, and engraving, as well as in the natural sciences; similarly, of the eight professorships proposed by Jefferson for the expanded William and Mary College, four were distinctly humanistic.

Quesnay’s plan for the Academy fell through because the French Revolution withdrew from it his country’s attention and support; Jefferson’s plan for the extension of William and Mary developed at length into his foundation of the University of Virginia; and the curriculums proposed for these earlier schools became the basis of the genuinely humanistic curriculum and the advanced university organization of that institution. Moreover, the organization by “schools” or subjects instead of by college classes is believed by historians of education to have suggested to George Ticknor the idea of the departmental and of the elective system, so far as he was able to introduce them at Harvard.