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The Rise of Public Colleges and Universities

The University of Michigan, painting by Jasper Cropsey, 1855.

Public universities began in the late 18th century, funded by the sale of lands in the Northwest Territory. Some of the earliest universities chartered were the University of Georgia in 1785 and the University of North Carolina in 1789. By 1820, a dozen state universities existed, but they were small and under-funded.

One of the more notable was the University of Virginia, chartered in 1819, inspired by the vision of its founder Thomas Jefferson. UVA was noteworthy for its lack of religious affiliation and its commitment to more practical secular studies, unlike other early state universities, such as the Universities of Georgia and South Carolina.

After the War of Independence, George Washington and other American leaders saw the need for a military academy to train engineers and artillerists and end reliance on foreign countries’ officers. In response, in 1802 the U.S. government founded the United States Military Academy at West Point, north of New York City on the Hudson River , one of the most important forts during the American Revolution, to train the new nation’s officer corps. Thomas Jefferson signed the legislation only after ensuring that the Academy would be representative of a democratic society. West Point graduated not only the leading generals of the United States (and the Confederacy), including Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, but also most of the engineers for railway lines, bridges and harbors.

View of the University of Virginia, taken from the south side, c. 1855.
United States Military Academy at West Point, 1840s