The Atlantic

George Washington’s Broken Dream of a National University

The founders believed a federal institution focused on civic education could help unite a fractured country.
Source: Lucas Jackson / Reuters

It had not yet been two decades since the revolution when George Washington stood before Congress on January 8, 1790, to deliver what was, effectively, the inaugural State of the Union address in the provisional U.S. capital of New York City. “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness,” Washington told those gathered. He believed that people—at the time, white men—should be taught to know and value what it means to be an American citizen.

Perhaps this civic education, Washington suggested, could be promoted through the schools that had already been established: Harvard, the College of William and Mary, Yale

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