A Massachusetts Yankee in the Court of Charleston: Jasper Adams, College President in Antebellum South Carolina

By Vaughn, Gerald | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

A Massachusetts Yankee in the Court of Charleston: Jasper Adams, College President in Antebellum South Carolina


Vaughn, Gerald, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Massachusetts clergyman and educator Jasper Adams (1793-1841) was among the line of notable descendants of Henry Adams (1583-1646), who fled persecution in England circa 1630 and settled on a farm in the Braintree area, then part of Boston. The most notable of Henry Adams's descendants include U.S. presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, William Howard Taft, and Calvin Coolidge, and Vice-President Richard Cheney. John Adams erected a monument in Henry Adams's honor in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Jasper Adams grew to manhood in Massachusetts. His travels in adult life took him from Massachusetts to South Carolina, where he gained his renown. While his career was spent mostly in the south he was a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, at Boston, and a Corresponding Member of the Massachusetts' Historical Society.

In 1830 Boston and Charleston were respectively America's fourth and sixth largest cities in population. There were many differences and some similarities between the two cities. Education was one of the most glaring differences.

When Adams accepted the presidency of South Carolina's College of Charleston in 1824, he faced a fundamental problem: too many young men of leisure, sons of wealthy planters in a slave agriculture, were sent to college by their fathers but lacked an innate desire to learn and work. Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease write that:

Jasper Adams, Yankee president of the College of Charleston, knew that the imperative to display leisure burdened the life of the mind. In a culture "where our peculiar institutions [read this, slavery] free most of our young men from the necessities of personal labour," he said to the collegians of the Euphradian Society, "the love of ease, the appetite for frivolous amusements, the seductions of pleasure, and the impulses of false honour, constitute obstacles... [most] formidable to intellectual achievement.1

Further write the Pease's:

When Boston's [substitute Massachusetts's] youth or books and magazines went south, it was to teach rather than to learn, to proffer expertise rather than to seek recognition. This very self-confidence was what made Northerners simultaneously welcome and unwelcome in Charleston. At issue was a pervasive unease. Though Charléstonians valued education, pursued science, and admired the arts, they doubted their own ability to excel and their society's commitment to intellectual achievement.

Adams is well remembered for his sermon titled "The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States," which he preached in St. Michael's Church, Charleston, South Carolina, on February 13, 1833, an address before the convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of South Carolina. His controversial sermon was widely distributed and received nationwide attention. Adams's address and its impact comprise the subject of Daniel L. Dreisbach' s book Religion and Politics in the Early Republic: Jasper Adams and the Church-State Debate (1996).

However, it is this author's thesis that Adams made other, more substantial contributions to antebellum American thought, particularly in the South, which if less controversial were more timely and significant. It is the purpose of this article to discuss especially Adams's contributions to improving early southern higher education. They center around his concept of moral philosophy, or the duties and relations of each individual one to another. With regard to the governance of higher education, this meant to him resolving the uncertain division of duties and detrimental relations between academic trustees and faculty, to the benefit of students for whom they were responsible.

Adams's contributions came to greatest fruition in 1837 with publication of his textbook Elements of Moral Philosophy, which provided the analytical framework for his address before the American Institute of Instruction in Worcester, Massachusetts, on the troublesome relations existing between trustees and faculty at American universities, colleges, and academies. …

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