St. John’s College traces its origins to King William's School, the Maryland colony's "free" school founded in 1696. The term "free" referred to the school's purpose: to make students free through liberal education, an aim that still holds today (the college motto is "Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque," meaning "I make free adults out of children by means of books and a balance."). Like schools in the other colonies, King William's School was what we would call a grammar or prep school--it gave its young charges a solid foundation in learning which would serve them well as citizens of the colony. A few students continued on to divinity school at William and Mary in Virginia, which was established to serve both the Maryland and Virginia colonies. The King William's School building, a brick structure that also hosted the upper house of the Maryland Assembly, Annapolis social clubs, and the colony's free library, was located near the State House.
In 1784 the state of Maryland finally (after seven failed attempts) chartered a college, which was named St. John's, probably in honor of St. John the Evangelist, a favorite of the Masons and of George Washington--both influential forces in the budding nation. The first act of the St. John's College Board was to consolidate with King William's School by merging the governing board, assets, and student body of the preparatory school with those of the new college. The guiding lights of King William's School had long planned to expand the school into a college. The state gave the college the unfinished governor's mansion known as Bladen's Folly, along with four acres in Annapolis. This grand building was finished by 1789. It housed the classrooms, living quarters for students and their masters, and the library of St. John's. Known today as McDowell Hall, it is the third oldest academic building in continuous use in the country.
Four of the college founders had signed the Declaration of Independence: William Paca, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Thomas Stone, and Samuel Chase. Chase and Stone were members of the first Board of Visitors and Governors. The richest man in the country at the time, Carroll contributed the largest sum to the founding of the college—200 pounds. As governor, William Paca fixed his signature to the charter making it law.
The St. John's charter of 1784 reflects the ideals of the new nation. The charter was most likely written by the Rev. William Smith, one of the founders of the Protestant Episcopal Church, America's version of the Church of England. Collaborating with Smith were the Rev. John Carroll, a Jesuit, and the Rev. Patrick Allison, who spoke for the Presbyterians and other dissenting sects like the Anabaptists, Methodists, and Quakers. Thus the charter represents a melding of the ideas of all the state's religions. The charter provides that qualified students were to be admitted "without requiring or enforcing any religious or civil test"--a remarkable proviso considering the ideological battles fought because of religion during the colonial era.
John McDowell served as the first "principal" or president of the college. Born in frontier Pennsylvania, he graduated from and taught at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) and then in Cambridge on Maryland's eastern shore, where he prepared for the bar. He had practiced law for five years before joining the faculty of St. John's. The board recognized that he "suited the American genius" and chose him over any "Gentlemen of Great Character from Europe" to head the college. McDowell proved an able leader and quickly established the college on a stable academic foundation. Early students at the prep school and college included Francis Scott Key, who went on to a distinguished career as an attorney (and amateur poet—"The Star-Spangled Banner"), and George Washington's step-grandson and two nephews. An important center of learning soon after it opened, the college by 1806 had graduated 105 students including four future state governors, six judges, and 21 members of the state legislature.
During the next 130 years, the college experienced periods of tremendous growth and progress, alternating with periods of stagnation and near bankruptcy. The ups and downs of St. John's fortunes began in 1805, when the Maryland legislature withdrew the state financial support promised at the school's founding. Not until the appointment of Hector Humphreys as president in 1831 did the college begin to recover. Humphreys, a dynamo of educational ideas, revamped the curriculum and added modern science to the traditional teaching of classics, mathematics, and moral philosophy. He built Humphreys Hall, Pinkney Hall, and two houses for faculty, Chase-Stone and Paca-Carroll. Enrollment grew to more than 100 students, and the library increased to more than 4,000 volumes.
During the Civil War the college became a victim of the times. Annapolis, the capital city of a border state, the seat of the Naval Academy, and only 20 miles from Washington, proved to be important strategically. Students had been leaving the college to join both the Union and Confederate armies, and since tuition money was used to run the school, there were no funds to pay faculty or to maintain the campus. When the Union Army took over the grounds for a receiving station and barracks, St. John's was not in a position to protest. The campus served as a way station for Union troops that had been prisoners of the Confederacy. In 1863, when Camp Parole was built outside the city, the medical corps took over St. John's buildings, which became known as College Green Hospital.
Northern troops left the college in poor physical condition, ravaging the library, laboratory equipment, and buildings. The college was paid $4,666 by the government for damages, but the board had to borrow $11,500 more to make repairs. The college, which had been closed, reopened in 1866.
St. John's adopted a program of compulsory military training for students in 1884. Along with military training, students of this period began to take part in what are today known as extra-curricular activities: a campus newspaper and several literary societies were started, athletics became popular, and students began to mix and mingle with the young women of Annapolis. The curriculum was divided between classics and a new technical course, which stressed practical skills like engineering and mining. Many colleges introduced the elective system during this time, but St. John's stuck to its old ways and required students to follow a rigid course. The college was floundering financially as well as ideologically. In 20 years, five presidents tried and failed to run the school effectively, and by 1886 enrollment and income were not much more than they had been in 1866.
Thomas Fell, an Englishman, was appointed president in 1886. A man of great energy, Fell began such modern schemes as recruiting students and opening a prep school for the Naval Academy. An elaborate curriculum included four courses--Classical, Latin Scientific, Scientific, and Mechanical Engineering. Fell became the first president charged with actual fundraising. He traveled, visiting alumni and friends in Maryland and in other states. With what Fell raised and an increase in the state's contribution to the college, there was enough money to build Woodward Hall in 1899, Randall Hall in 1903, and a gymnasium in 1910. The cadet corps was still active; in 1905 it was selected by the War Department as one of the six leading military colleges in the country.
After World War I the climate in American higher education was changing. By 1923, St. John's was offering a revised curriculum; military training was abolished and a conventional system of electives established.
The Depression brought deep financial trouble. The board had invested heavily in Annapolis real estate during the 1920s, even mortgaging college buildings. When the stock market crashed and their investment opportunities evaporated, there was not enough money to meet operating expenses.
Rather than close the school, the board decided on one last desperate measure. In 1937, they brought in Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan, two academics who had revolutionary educational ideas, to completely revamp the curriculum. Buchanan, who was appointed dean, thought that the traditional liberal arts could be used as a formal structure for learning; he devised a course of study with the great books as the basis for discussion classes. Another important feature of his plan was the inter-relatedness of the disciplines; he proposed a college with a unified, all-required curriculum and no departments or majors.
Under the leadership of Barr as president and Buchanan as dean, the St. John's program of study attracted nationwide attention. While the college had previously been mainly a local school, students from across the country applied to study the New Program. Although World War II meant low enrollments in the 1940s, by war's end the popularity of St. John's was established. Veterans and other students filled the classes; in 1951 women were admitted. Richard Weigle was appointed president in 1949, and he served for 30 years as the college grew into an important presence on the scene of American higher education. New dormitories were built, Mellon Hall and Francis Scott Key Auditorium were opened in 1959, and enrollment was higher than it had ever been. In the early 1960s, rather than expand the campus, Weigle headed up an effort to build a second campus. A gift of land at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by John and Faith Meem determined the site. Funding was secured, a group of tutors agreed to transfer west, and the second campus opened in 1964. The Santa Fe campus enabled the college enrollment to grow to 950—475 on each campus—without sacrificing the small classes and close community atmosphere necessary for the great books program. The curriculum is identical, enabling students to transfer between Annapolis and Santa Fe. The Santa Fe campus, already on firm academic ground, continued to expand physically, with additional dormitories and the Meem Library opening in the 1990s.
The college is now governed by one Board of Visitors and Governors and united by a single curriculum overseen by a Joint Committee on Instruction. There are two presidents—one for each campus—as well as two deans and other administrative offices.
One bold step followed by years of intensive study and development have brought St. John's to where it is today. If the college had prospered in the 1800s and survived the economic devastation of the 1920s, its desperate board would never have chosen to institute the New Program and a truly revolutionary step in American education would not have occurred. Today, through its unique all-required curriculum based on the reading and discussion of the great books, St. John's College continues to educate free citizens, just as its founders hoped it would.