December 9, 2016
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v2.1 Reference

Horace Holley

Transylvania University and the Making of Liberal Education in the Early American Republic

Outspoken New England urbanite Horace Holley (1781–1827) was an unlikely choice to become the president of Transylvania University—the first college established west of the Allegheny Mountains. Many Kentuckians doubted his leadership abilities, some questioned his Unitarian beliefs, and others simply found him arrogant and elitist. Nevertheless, Holley ushered in a period of sustained educational and cultural growth at Transylvania, and the university received national attention for its scientifically progressive and liberal curriculum. The resulting influx of wealthy students and celebrated faculty—including Constantine Samuel Rafinesque—lent Lexington, Kentucky, a distinguished atmosphere and gave rise to the city's image as the "Athens of the West."

In this definitive biography, James P. Cousins offers fresh perspectives on a seminal yet controversial figure in American religious history and educational life. The son of a prosperous New England merchant family, Holley studied at Yale University before serving as a minister. He achieved national acclaim as an intellectual and self-appointed critic of higher education before accepting the position at Transylvania. His clashes with political and community leaders, however, ultimately led him to resign in 1827, and his untimely death later that year cut short a promising career.

Drawing upon a wealth of previously used and newly uncovered primary sources, Cousins analyzes the profound influence of westward expansion on social progress and education that transpired during Holley's tenure. This engaging book not only illuminates the life and work of an important yet overlooked figure, but makes a valuable contribution to the history of education in the early American Republic.

About the Author

James P. Cousins is a faculty member in the Department of History at Western Michigan University.


"Cousins has a flair for writing. He often brings the tone and texture of a particular historical moment vividly to life."—John R. Thelin, author of A History of American Higher Education

"James Cousins' work on Holley is well worth reading. His extensive research and his understanding of the dynamics of the cultural atmosphere of the first two decades of Kentucky history have served him and his readers well. His prose is to-the-point and his facts solid. Cousins' study of Holley is excellent and adds much to the history of the man and the institution with which he will forever be associated."—Kentucky Gazette

"[The book] offers fresh perspectives on a seminal yet controversial figure in American religious history and educational life."—Kentucky Alumni

"The book offers a wonderfully textured narrative of a young man born into the family of an aspiring entrepreneur whose desire for a college education and professional standing for his sons was a common goal. [R]eaders will encounter an exceptionally well-researched and intimately detailed depiction of an exceptional educator's journey from common school to international fame and of the complexities of transplanting eastern culture on the frontier."— The New England Quarterly

"This well-crafted biography reflects Cousins's expert engagement with institutional records, private manuscript collections, newspapers, and biographies.Cousins successfully brings this little-known figure to life in a well-written, enjoyable book. In doing so, he shows that that the West presents opportunities for historians of intellectual life and education."— Journal of Southern History

"Historian James P. Cousins has crafted a meticulously researched and clearly written biography of Holley that does a fine job of illustrating his impact on nineteenth-century American higher education. This is a strong book based on very thorough research. Cousins has mined archival sources at the Massachusetts and Connecticut Historical Societies, as well as Williams College, the University of Louisville, and Transylvania University. The author seems to have left no stone unturned. The result is a pleasure to read, and it illustrates an important chapter in the history of America's western migration: the transplanting of New England style education to the frontier."—Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"Cousins analyzes the profound influence of westward expansion on social progress and education during Holley's tenure.certainly the definitive work on this overlooked figure."—Northern Kentucky Heritage

"The research collected by Cousins paints rich pictures of the life of a college president in the emerging, traditional small town of Lexington, Kentuckyhighly recommend[ed]."—The Southeastern Librarian

"This well-written and engaging biography provides compelling analysis. This is an important book. For one thing, Cousins successfully illuminates both the positive and negative traits of a man who "became permanently linked to the fate of southern education". His career highlights an important transition in college leadership as well as the deep roots of an old debate about the appropriate level of support from the state for higher education. Horace Holley will appeal to anyone interested in antebellum US history, the history of higher education, and the links between religion, politics and education."—Journal of the History of Education Society

"Cousins has performed a real service, tracking down disparate, loosely catalogued resources. Widely praised as an orator, Holley preferred to speak extemporaneously and often destroyed any written notes. Cousins admirably pieces together this erratically documented story through letters, journals, newspapers, and surrounding primary sources. Early sections of the book are especially well contextualized, and in later chapters, he makes deft use of Holley's scrapbook. In passages of description and narration, his prose is sprightly and colorful. Cousins crafts a nuanced picture of Holley as a person: snobby, ambitious, and self-serving, yet also high energy, sociable, and visionary."—Journal of the Early Republic

"[E]xcellently written and well-researched. . . . Cousins presents readers with a holistic, document-supported text that places Holley in proper social, political, intellectual, and religious contexts. . . Contribute[s] to a growing body of twenty-first-century literature that aims to portray the South as academically complex."—Ohio Valley History

9780813168579 : horace-holley-cousins
322 Pages
$50.00 USD

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