It was mere months after the war had come to an end, a war that defined our new nation. The battle for freedom from the British had stopped, but the work of establishing a country had just begun. It was in every sense a new world with new hopes and fledgling dreams. Along with those dreams came new responsibilities for the soon-to-be states, and the education of its people became a top priority in the colony of Georgia.
Believing “all citizens” had a right to higher education, the General Assembly of Georgia set aside 40,000 acres of land for the purpose of establishing a state college in February 1784. A newcomer to the colony, Abraham Baldwin, a Connecticut minister and lawyer that had been educated at Yale, got right to work on the charter. The charter, approved just shy of a year later on January 27, 1785, established the first state-supported university in the nation: The University of Georgia.
While a board of trustees was formed and Baldwin named as the university’s first president, little else was done in fully establishing a university that began the movement toward public higher education in the United States. Sixteen years passed without classes, students, or even a building materializing on the acreage that had been set aside. The land was used for different purposes as Georgia turned its attention toward other matters of statehood.
Over time, though, the idea of Georgia’s public education and what it could be seemed to gain attention once more. In 1801 John Milledge, lawyer, colonel, and Georgia congressman, bought 633 acres along the Oconee River and donated it for the future site of the university. In September 1801, Josiah Meigs, the university’s new president and only faculty member of the time, taught the first classes at the University of Georgia. It took another five years for the university to even get a permanent building. The three-story building was named Franklin University, in honor of Benjamin Franklin.
The university and its hope grew over the years, and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences was added. But the struggle wasn’t over for this forerunner in public education. Although a law school was added in 1859, the school struggled financially and came close to bankruptcy. In the middle of its financial plight, the university chartered shortly after the end of one war found itself closing due to yet another as the nation was torn in two. For two years, classes came to a halt at the University of Georgia.
Reconstruction was hard on the South, and it was felt deeply at the university. Reopened but still struggling, the school’s savior came in the form of a federal land grant act that did not previously apply to Southern states. The Morrill Act of 1862 granted federal land to states for the purpose of teaching agriculture and mechanical arts. The act stated that “no state while in a condition of rebellion or insurrection against the government of the United States shall be entitled to the benefit of this act.” Once again a part of the United States of America, the University of Georgia became a land grant university in 1872.
From there, the university flourished as it added schools of pharmacy, journalism, business, education, and even a graduate school. The turn of the century promised more growth and more changes ahead. Young women took their seats in 1918 as full-time students. Amidst much protest, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter walked onto campus in 1961 as the university’s first black students, shattering the status quo and writing their own names in the University of Georgia’s story.
Throughout the university’s more than 200-year story, the Arch has been there for most of it. Commissioned in 1856, it was originally part of the campus’s iron fence. Its pillars stand for wisdom, justice, and moderation—and throughout history, it seems, the Arch has seen all three walk beside or underneath. It has shared the joy of students on graduation, of those who proudly earn their degrees and a right to pass through, a tradition dating back more than a century. It has shared the hope of new students respectfully walking beside, awaiting their turn to walk beneath the Arch and make their mark on the world. But the iron piece has also been a point of strife and sorrow, of division and shared grief. It has been a place to protest change that made others uncomfortable, a place to stand in opposition to war, and as a place to mourn the loss of innocent lives as seen at Kent State and in the days following September 11.
From its humble, and almost lost, beginnings, the University of Georgia has become a place where culture is fostered and history has been made and witnessed on the frontline. But through war and peace, pride and humility, the University of Georgia stands as a sort of hallmark of the country’s higher education system—an education for all, regardless of societal status or wealth. A place where wisdom, justice, and moderation are sought, if not always achieved.