"Glimpses of Old College Life" (January 1900)

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"Glimpses of Old College Life," from the William and Mary College Quarterly, January, 1900, featuring letters from Judge John Coalter during his time as a law student under George Wythe.

Lyon G. Taylor and Charles Washington Coleman, "Glimpses of Old College Life," William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine 8, no. 3 (January 1900), 153-160.[1]

Article text, January 1900

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At William and Mary, Washington Academy, Yale, College of South Carolina and Nassau Hall at Princeton.

In the correspondence of John Coalter, formerly judge of the Supreme Court of Virginia, are many letters interesting for their notice of William and Mary College and Williamsburg. Judge Coalter, at the time these letters were written, was a tutor in the family of Judge St. George Tucker, who succeeded Chancellor Wythe as the professor of what was the first law school at any American College. Judge Coalter married first Maria Rind, widow of Joseph Hornsby, of Williamsburg, who had two brothers, James and William Rind, the former of whom was a clever letter writer and lawyer living in Richmond in 1804. Maria (Rind) Coalter died in 1792, when she had not been married quite a year.

John Coalter married, second, 15 February, 1795, Miss Margaret Davenport of Williamsburg. Her father died when she was a small child. Her mother was named Frances and her brother, the only other child, was named James, who seems to have been in the employ of his cousin Robert Greenhow. Mrs. Davenport went with her daughter to Staunton on the latter's marriage with Judge Coalter, and died there in 1816. Margaret (Davenport) Coalter died about 1797, and Judge Coalter married, third, in 1802, Frances Bland Tucker, daughter of Judge St. George Tucker. She died in 1813, and was the only one of the three wives to leave issue—two daughters and a son.

The extracts below were kindly made for the editor by Mr. Charles Washington Coleman.


Williamsburg, 13 June, 1790.—Student at College of William and Mary. "Mrs. Hornesby, the mother of your Inamorata, after a long fit of illness, died day before yesterday." (The "Inamorata" and afterwards the first wife of John Coalter, was Maria Rind.) ... A new student at college named Adams. "I wish we had more Randolphs and Coalters." . . . "Your quondam charges Harry, Tudor and Beverley [Tucker] attend Mr. Harwood at college." . . . "My great resource is Mr. Wythe. If I was to live with him, I should at the same time think a great point gained, and be highly pleased. Indeed, from some conversations we have had together, I think it likely he will agree. If so, your

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friends' fortune is made. Nothing could advance me faster in the world than the reputation of having been educated by Mr. Wythe, for such a man as he casts a light upon all around him."

Williamsburg, 23 April, 1791.—Has returned to Wmsburg after absence of eight months, and is settled as a student of law in the house of Chancellor Wythe." ... "I scarcely know a place more pleasing than Wmsburg, which may justly receive the title (which Homer gives Greece) of the 'land of lovely dames,' for here may be found beauty in perfection, and not only beauty, but sociability in the ladies." ... "I am glad that heaven has destined for you such an amiable partner as Miss Maria Rind." . . . "There are a great many new collegians here, and I anm hitherto acquainted with none of them."

Williamsburg, 10 May, 1791.—"Tom Randolph [a student] is at home, and whether he will return is uncertain." . . . "Among the new students is a Mr. [James] Ash, who seems a sensible young man, with a very good taste in poetry, and no contemptible talent of composing himself." . . . "Miss Betsy Maupin begs you will not neglect her. I have never heard from Jack Randolph."

Riveredge (Charles City county), 26 May, 1791. (To Maria Rind in Williamsburg.)—Mentions "Sister Kennon," of Mecklenburg, and her two boys and a girl, and "Sister Byrd" and her four girls and a boy. "Sister Byrd" expects to "add a seventh child to her family" in July. (These ladies were Elizabeth Beverley Munford, wife of General Richard Kennon, of Mecklenburg, and Anne Munford, wife of Otway Byrd, of Charles City county). . . . "My love to Miss Betsy Maupin." . . . "If mama comes down, we may expect to see her in Wmsburg after Mrs. Carter has become Mrs. Tucker." (Lelia, daughter of Sir Peyton Skipwith, Bart., and widow of George Carter, of Corotoman, became the second wife of Judge St. George Tucker, 8 October, 1791. Their children died infants.) . . . "My compliments to all the collegians who inquire of me, and especially to Edwin Burwell and Mr. Jas. Ash." .... Munford addresses Maria Rind as "Mammy Dee."

Williamsburg, 12 June, 1791. (To John Coalter, Staunton.)—Mentions the "death of my brother-in-law Kennon's sister Cocke, the wife of the gentleman who lived at Swan's Point." . . . Interesting mention of Mr. Wythe, in whose house he lives. . . . "The friend of my youth, Mr. Tucker, is in town, and his company serves to enliven my time." . . . Discourse upon his own poetry. . . . (P. S. of later date) "The fourth of July was celebrated at college with four excellent orations delivered by Mr. James Ash, Mr. John Thomson, Mr. Littleton W. Tazewell, and Mr. Robert Taylor, nephew to Dr. Barraud. Old Mother Millar is in town."

Williamsburg, 22 July, 1791.—"We had a merry ball, night before last night, at Mr. Travis's, intended to celebrate the return of his son Ned from sea. At the same time they had a christening, and the cake fiew about in vast abundance. I was invited, but very few of the students were invited with me. However, there were present a great number of

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beautiful girls, Miss E. Maupin, Miss E. Lewis and Miss P. Lewis, Miss Betsy Tazewell and Miss Nancy, the sister of Littleton Waller Tazewell, and Miss Nancy Hubbard. So that we had a very merry party, and (I would have enjoyed it much more if you had been there) we danced till twelve o'clock except the time we were engaged in partaking of an excellent supper. The company then retired, and I walked home with Miss E. Maupin, who is if possible more beautiful than when you saw her last. Oh! my friend, your dear Maria was not there, but I know not whether with or without an invitation." ... "I slept with Robin Carter, and breakfasted at Mr. Madison's." . . . "The Blair family is in some measure separated. Mr. Blair and Jemmy, who has suffered a long fit of sickness, are gone to Richmond, and thence Mr. Blair is [to] proceed on his circuit. Jemmy is to be joined by Mrs. Blair, who has also left town, and then to go on to the mountains. The only persons at home at present are the two Miss Blairs and Miss Balfour, and to them I shall give your love. Mrs. Tazewell and Miss Elizabeth also set out for Berkeley county to-morrow, so that the town will be comparatively empty, especially as Miss E. Carey is gone. However Miss E. Maupin still remains with all her beauty. Miss Polly [Maupin] is not in town. . . . Mr. Tucker has been unwell for some time, but is now on the recovery. T. Randolph is better, and is gone to N. York."

Richmond, 30 Sept., 1791.—Has gone to Richmond with Mr. Wythe on the latter's removal to that place. Mr. W. left "Wednesday before the last;" Munford, on account of ague, could not follow until 28 Sept. They live in the house of Mr. Wm. Nelson, who "intends to move up to his estate in Albemarle, in consequence of his appointment to the judge's place." . . . Wythe and Munford go to see the work being done on the canal.

Richmond, 14 Dec, 1791.—"You and your sweet Maria, I suppose, by this time have arrived at your habitation, and are enjoying that pure and precious happiness which the chaste union of two hearts can bestow. Long may your happiness flourish unchanged, and may you both live to see it increased and multiplied in a progeny of children as worthy as their parents." . . . "Mr. Wickham, the famous lawyer, is to be married soon to Miss Fanning, and Mr. Tazewell intends to reside at his house in Williamsburg in future, or at least during the summer months. Old Wilson, the steward of William and Mary, has gone to that land whence there is no return. . . . Mr. Wythe, my excellent preceptor, is well, and very busy in preparing for the press Reports, which he intends to be very large, of cases adjudged in the high court of chancery."

Richmond, 16 March, 1792.—"Three deaths I dare say will greatly affect you. The first was of Mrs. Pasture [Elizabeth, daughter of Rev. Wm. Stith, D. D., the historian], who after having a large company to tea, who all observed how well she looked, was suddenly stricken with an apoplexy and died in two hours. Another melancholy proof of how frail is the thread of life was displayed in the untimely fall of Miss

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Maria Skipwith, who, with the same appearances, and even greater, of health than Mrs. Pasture, was as suddenly summoned away (to use the sublime expression of the Arabians) by the angel of death. Theodorick Randolph [second son of John and Frances (Bland) Randolph] also has at length visited that bourn whence no traveller returns." . . . Has "published a poem on the late defeat of Geni. St. Clair."

Richmond, 10 Nov., 1792.—"Oh! my friend, my heart is indeed grieved that your dear and excellent partner is dead. In her I, as well as you, lament a treasure never to be recovered." . . . He is to become clerk in the custom-house office at Shirley Hundred. . . . "The players are in town, and I intend to get them to bring a farce of my father's writing upon the stage this winter."

Williamsburg, 20 April, 1794.—Is now at William and Mary, a student of law under Judge Tucker. Has been with a party of students to Hampton Roads and Norfolk to see the French fleet and a British frigate. 150 ships in the French fleet. Went on board the admiral's ship of 84 guns. . . . "As to Robert Banister [second son of Col. John and Elizabeth (Bland) Banister, of Battersea, near Petersburg], I have to tell you what I am sure will affect you with lively sorrow. The poor young fellow has been dead some time by an unfortunate accident. As he was getting out of a vessel into a boat he fell with his breast against the side of the boat with such violence that he died in a few moments. A melancholy instance this of the frailty of human life. He had been out to sea for the benefit of his health, and had returned perfectly reinstated and was about to set out for Cambridge College."

Williamsburg, 30 Feb. (?), 1789.—"One of my brothers will doubtless be in before this comes to hand, till which time I shall wait with impatience a full account of their various successes and proceedings, their resolutions and intentions, etc. Is my sister as happy and merry as ever? And do you all with the same cheerfulness and mirth sit about the blazing hearth these long evenings, part handeling their distaff, others measuring their day's labour on the checkreel, whilst one reads from Tristram some laughable or affecting scene by Uncle Toby as the corporal, beguiling the labour, until at length the board smokes with an enormous dish of mush? How willingly would I join you in all these amusements! but particularly the last! Is Cajy (?) as droll and Polly as wild as ever? Doth my grandfather and grandmothers still live? Uncle McPheeters' family and all other friends are well, I hope.


Williamsburg, Va., Jan. 27, 1789.—"I hope to be able eventually to attend Mr. Madison's lectures on natural philosophy, and Mr. Wythe's on law when I have read sufficient on that branch to enable me to do it with advantage."

Williamsburg, Va., Jan. 30, 1789.—"I expect my situation here will be very advantageous. I spend about three hours a day in my capacity

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of tutor [in Judge St. George Tucker's family], which is all that is required; shall attend Mr. Madison's lectures on philosophy, having received a very polite invitation from the gentleman himself to that purpose and Dr. Wythe, as I mentioned above. Boarding is about 45£ pr. an."

Williamsburg, 30 (?) Feb., 1789.—"I find myself as happily situated as the character of a tutor which I entertain will admit of, and if I am industrious enough as advantageously as I could expect. I have no income more than will enable me to attend the Professor, as in short Mr. Tucker settles that matter for me, and gives me my board and the use of his library, etc., for my attention to his children. Board is 45£ pr. an., at least here. I have not yet begun to attend Dr. Wythe on Law, but shall as soon as Mr. Tucker shall think it advantageous. In the meantime I attend Mr. Madison, the professor of natural philosophy. As Mr. Tucker's house is small and his family large, I sleep in the house of a Mr. Wickham next door, who is a practitioner of the law, and keeps Bachelor's Hall."


Williamsburg, 5 Aug., 1791.—Wm. Cabell, a student, has gone off on vacation.

Richmond, 17 May, 1792.—"I have seen lately several of our old collegians. . . . The institution flourishes, and there are 40 students." . . . "Thomson has left William and Mary, and his mother proposes to send him to the University of Cambridge in New England. . . . Dick Goode has begun his career in Henrico court.

Riveredge, 25 Aug., 1793.—"My place of abode is now in Williamsburg, where I attend the instructive lectures of our old friend Mr. Tucker. This change in my situation was occasioned by the advice of Mr. Wythe. . . . On the anniversary of American Independence I displayed my abilities, whatever they were, in an oration, which was approved by the professors. . . . Robert Carter and Robert Taylor were my companions, and delivered very elegant orations."

Williamsburg, 13 Dec, 1793.—" ... a worthy young man by the name of Williams, one of our students."


Williamsburg, 24 Nov., 1789.—"I have just begun to attend Mr. Wythe on Law. . . . The exalted character and tried abilities of that Gentleman promise the apt and dilligent student a certain and noble source of instruction."

The following letter was printed in Vol. IV., p. 105, but it is believed will be interesting enough in this connection to bear reprinting.

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Amherst, July 20th, 1799.

Dear Friend, I have just time to inform you that I exist. It is now near twelve & I shall leave this early in the morning. I spent the last week like a perfect Hermit shut up in my Room without one single soul to converse with. Your letter came very apropos. I should have been perfectly melancholy. Cabell left me on Monday evening last for the Springs; his Father is in a very low state & he has gone to take care of him. It will probably (be) some weeks before he returns. He desires me to offer this as his excuse for not writing.

I am happy to address you by your new title A. B., as I am convinced it will be serviceable to you. It will serve to give you a start to usher you into public life & you will know well enough how to maintain every such ground that you gain. I know that there are some who conceive that degrees are prejudicial or at best mere baubles. But this in my opinion can never be the case unless where they are conferred indiscriminately & where there are not talents to support them. This can seldom happen in regular degrees & it is of regular degrees that I am speaking.

The public prints are filled with encomiums on your noble exhibition; it really affords me heartfelt pleasure to hear of the honours my Old Fellow students have acquired, & of the gaining or rather reviving reputation of our Alma Mater. I think seriously that the present exhibition will operate very much to its advantage. Each fond Father as he peruses the Eulogy that has been bestowed on you will imagine him a student, & of course an orator. He hears his fame in like manner transported abroad. He listens to it with rapture. This is too fascinating a picture to be resisted.

But I am afraid, Tucker, this change will be more gradual than we should at first suppose. The tide of prejudice runs strong against it. A parcell of Dam'd fools are afraid their children will learn to Dance or game or drink &c &c. I have been half vexed all of my life with such Boobys. They will neither listen to reason or be persuaded.

It may be prejudice, but I have ever thought, & still think that William & Mary is the best place on the continent for the education of young men. I will not say Boys.

If they do not acquire more knowledge they at least acquire more liberality & more ambition than at any other place in the world. They appear at once to discover their own ignorance & the immense tract that they have to traverse before they arrive at eminence. They appear to learn merely how to be wise & retire to pursue the bare & laborious plans

* Isaac A. Coles, A. B., was afterwards Mr. Jefferson's private secretary. He was son of Walter Coles and Mary Tucker.

† Son of Judge St. George Tucker (second Professor of Law in William and Mary), member of Congress, and Professor of Law at the University of Virginia, father of the late John Randolph Tucker.

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of study which they have chalked out for themselves, and after being buryed for five or six years we see them emerge from their hiding places, & shine forth with a splendor that dazzles the continent.

We have only to look around us to see instances. I would quote "Thompson,* but he is too melancholy an instance. But to come down four or five years lower, let us hunt up our old companions. Are they not like a parcell of pismires?—even more industrious, for they labor both summer & winter, & during the night as well as the day. Most of our illustrious Heroes & patriots have been educated in the bosom of our much loved Mother. The names of Jefferson & Washington* will alone suffice.

I do not know whether to attribute this turn in the great mass of the students of W & M College to our peculiar national situation or to some peculiarities in the Institution itself, or whether indeed it may not be owing to mere accident from an impulse which they may have received from the example of some striking & popular Genius. This last I think is more probably the correct idea especially when we consider how much man in general is indebted for his passions & character to those by whom he is surrounded.

The spirit of skepticism which so much prevailed & which every student acquired as soon as he touched the threshhold of the college is certainly the first step towards knowledge; it puts the mind in a proper state not only to receive, but also to receive correctly. That it leads to Deism, atheism &c I will acknowledge, but on the same grounds we may object to reason. Skepticism indeed only gives it the reins.†

But Tucker I shall write all night if I go on at this rate. I must at least vary my subject. What the D—l has become of Cooper?‡ I have

* John Thompson, born in 1777, and educated at William and Mary, was deemed in his day a prodigy of eloquence and genius. He died at the early age of twenty-two, but his speeches at the bar and on the stump, and his letters over the signature of Casca, Gracchus and Curtius, attacking the policy of the Federal party, had drawn upon him every eye. George Hay, the celebrated lawyer, who wrote a sketch of him, is unbounded in his praise.

* Washington never attended the course at the college, but he stood an examination before the Faculty for a surveyor's commission, and this commission was equivalent to a degree in engineering.

† The study of the natural sciences and experimental philosophy was introduced at William and Mary by Dr. William Small, of Birmingham, England, about 1756. Governor Fauquier was an ardent devotee, and in his will left his body for scientific purposes. Jefferson was brought up under this influence, and even James Madison, the Bishop, imbibed the spirit. Natural philosophy was his favorite study. William and Mary was the hot-bed of the Republican party, with its doctrines of freedom in thought and government, which ran into the extreme of skepticism with many.

‡ Wills Cooper, A. B. (1799), of North Carolina.

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not heard a syllable of him since I left college. Some of his friends were apprehensive that he was blotted from the book of existence, and was not the doctrine of metempsychosis abandoned I should have supposed that he had become a bullfrog or a catfish.

I apprehend that notwithstanding the many disadvantages this young man labors under he will one day arrive at eminence. Such immense application with such unbounded ambition must raise their possessor much above the common mass of mankind.

What has become of Burwell,* Deans,† Nimmo,‡ and our old friend Arthur Lec.§ It would afford me much pleasure to hear how they were travelling on, thro' this rugged world. I heard not long since that Arthur had carried his Democratic principles so far as to make the common meehanicks & apprentices of Norfolk his intimate Friends, & that he would sometimes attempt to declaim in this * * * ety. How very dangerous it is for Young men * * * on the wide theatre of the world without having acquired any fixed principles. He resembles a ship in a tempestuous ocean without a rudder.

Tucker, I am almost asleep. I did not intend, when I began, to write more than half a page & I now find myself almost at the bottom of the 3d. I never know when to stop, when I am writing to you. I shall expect to hear from you shortly, direct to Warren, Albemarle. I expect to leave this State for Kentucky in about a month, but I will write you again before I decamp.

Farewell. I. A. Coles.

[To be continued.]

* Nathaniel Burwell, A. B. He died at "Saratoga," his residence in Clarke county, Nov. 1. 1849, in his seventy-first year.

† Josiah Deans, A. B., of Gloucester county.

‡ William Thorowgood Nimmo, brother of the late Mrs. Margaret K. Ellis, of Richmond.

§ Col. Arthur Lee, commandant of the Ninety-fifth Regiment, and for several years a member of the Legislature; died in Norfolk, Jan. 12, 1828, in his forty-ninth year.

See also


  1. Lyon G. Taylor, "Glimpses of Old College Life," William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine 8, no. 3 (January 1900), 153-160.

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