Dr. John Augustine Smith served as the tenth president of William & Mary from 1814 through 1826. The first lay president of the College, Smith graduated from William & Mary in 1800, pursued a career in medicine in London and New York City before returning to the college to teach. His tenure as president of William & Mary is most remembered for the failed scheme to move the college to Richmond in a desperate attempt to stymie closure. Faced with mounting financial crises and competition from the new University of Virginia, as president Smith and the Board of Visitors often clashed leading to Smith's resignation in 1826.
Assuming the Presidency
Floundering under president John Bracken, William & Mary continued to be plagued by continual changes in faculty, renewed student misconduct, falling enrollments, financial mismanagement, and strain of the War of 1812. After Bracken's resignation, the Board of Visitors turned to the self-assured, authoritarian Dr. John Augustine Smith. Almost immediately upon assuming the presidency, Smith outlined his opinion on the root of William & Mary's myriad problems. The war with Britain, Smith believed, cost the College in enrollment and financial solvency. As he questioned the expediency of the war, Smith offended those who supported the war effort. Additionally, Smith blamed critics for spreading rumors regarding deism and moral decay at the College. The student body's "total want of discipline" and the Williamsburg location also lowered enrollment, according to Smith, for parents believed the peninsula too unhealthy for their sons. To combat these concerns, Smith consolidated his power as president and launched his own reform effort.
Changes in Curriculum
Due to unfilled faculty positions, Smith and the Board of Visitors, eliminated the knowledge of ancient or modern languages from the degree requirements and nearly doubled faculty salaries. While prolonging the course of study to degree from two to three years (abandoned due to cost in 1820s), president Smith began a campaign to improve student morals through suspensions and expulsions. In one session under president Smith, no fewer than eighteen students were suspended and two expelled, of those ten were caught breaking into the belfry and ringing the college bell. In the academic years 1816-17 and 1817-18 the total number of suspensions and expulsions totaled fifty. He also personally reviewed faculty members. Student and faculty discontent at Smith's draconian measures only heightened acrimony on campus.
To assuage criticism of religious apostasy and deism at William & Mary, president Smith attempted to establish an Episcopal seminary at the College. Borrowing from the royal charter's decree to propagate the gospel, using the library's extensive theological collection, and aiding in solving the church's need for ministers all gave Smith and the Board ample reason for the new endeavor. In 1815, the Board solicited funds for the seminary, and hired Reverent Reuel Keith to teach. Unfortunately, Keith did not attract a following and with dismal numbers, the seminary experiment was abandoned by 1823.
Continuing Problems at the College, Proposal to Relocate
Low enrollment continued to plague the school, which experienced three years of unprecedented deficits between 1815 and 1817. An investigation of the bursar turned up massive fiscal mismanagement of debts and other irregularities totaling more than $10,000. The depression of the 1820s, forced President Smith and the Board to consider a land sale to pay the deficit. Pressure on the College worsened as a rival institution readied to open its doors - the University of Virginia. Widespread opinion held that in the competition for students, William & Mary would be forced to close or becoming a training school for the university. To combat the threat, Smith proposed to transfer the College to Richmond. Once again located in the state's capital city, Smith believed the College would gain all the influential social and political contacts to provide financial security. Faculty favored the move, and the proponents believed they had the majority of the Board on their side. To entice the college, the Richmond Common Hall, resolved to grant land and buildings at a cost of up to $30,000 to the college. With only eight students remaining at William & Mary during examination, and fewer predicted in the fall, the relocation solution appeared ideal. Despite attempts to strong-arm the Board, the vote was postponed until the next fall when the Board of Visitors voted to ask the permission of the General Assembly. With Smith actively pressing his case in Richmond, his personality increasingly came under attack by his opponents. Smith blamed Williamsburg for William & Mary's problems, while his detractors pointed to the internal mismanagement of Smith. After Thomas Jefferson proposed a competing plan for a system of colleges, the General Assembly defeated the measure to move William & Mary. President Smith had not expected to lose, and continued to press for the relocation and publicly attack his enemies.
The defeated relocation plan and the college's continued decline marked the beginning of the end for president Smith. Despite his efforts at reform, most failed or only heightened acrimony on campus. Smith's personality did little to lessen criticism, and after the Richmond fiasco few believed the College could survive. The Board of Visitors debated over how to proceed in Williamsburg, electing to revive the Grammar School, limit the power of the president (particularly over faculty reviews), and provide room and board for students on campus. In adopting these measures in 1825, the Board of Visitors effectively reversed the majority of John Augustine Smith's internal governance changes. With the Visitors hinting at cutting his salary, and possessing little power beyond presiding at faculty meetings, in July 1826 Smith resigned the presidency.
After the Presidency
Dr. John Augustine Smith then became president of the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons from 1831 to 1843. During his lifetime, Smith published a number of addresses, lectures, and essays. He passed away in New York, on February 9, 1865.
Material in the SCRC
- John Augustine Smith, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library