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Richmond’s First Academy


Last winter, while attending a reception at the Authors Club in New York, given the artists of that city, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Moncure D. Conway, who, after some general conversation, mentioned a letter that he had just received from Paris, asking him to try and find any traces or records of the Chevalier Quesnay de Beaurepaire, in Virginia.

After returning to Richmond, Mr. Conway applied to me to assist him in collecting any information obtainable concerning the subject of which he had spoken. This worthy Frenchman, as some of you perhaps may know, proposed to establish at Richmond during the latter part of the eighteenth century an Academy of Arts and Sciences. The descendants of this interesting man form a distinguished family in France just now. The present Procureur General, M. de Beaurepaire, is grandson of the Chevalier Quesnay, and wishes to write a memoire of his ancestor.

Desirous to render Mr. Conway any assistance in my power, who in turn was anxious to communicate with his friend in Paris, I found after some weeks of search and inquiry several rare volumes from which a brief account of our subject could be gleaned.

In the State Library of Virginia, I discovered a curious and interesting volume in French, published in Paris in 1788, entitled “Memoir and Prospectus concerning the Academy of Sciences and Fine Arts of the United States of America, established at Richmond, the capital of Virginia, by the Chevalier Quesnay de Beaurepaire” (Founder and President).

From this memoir and other data collected from a variety of sources, including a contribution to Virginia Educational History by Prof. Adams, I have been enabled to prepare the following sketch:

The Chevalier Quesnay de Beaurepaire was grandson of Dr. Quesnay the famous French philosopher, economist and court physician of Louis the XVI; a man eminent for his talents, his universal information and public spirit.

The grandson belonged to the cavalry of the guard of Louis the XVI, when this troop was disbanded. At this time the convulsions of the war of Revolution were agitating a portion of the New World. The chevalier was one of the enthusiastic Frenchmen who like de La Fayette came over to aid America. Attracted, he says in his memoirs, by the brilliant hope of distinguishing himself in arms, he served in Virginia, with honor, in the rank of captain, during the years of 1777 and 1778. The loss of his accoutrements, also of his letters of introduction, which were mislaid in the office of Patrick Henry, the then Governor of Virginia, and finally a severe illness and a want of pecuniary resources, at so great a distance from home, compelled him to abandon the profession of arms. In Gloucester county, Virginia, after he was obliged to leave the army, Sir John Peyton, touched with his destitute condition, kindly invited him to to his house, and insisted on his remaining there while he was awaiting assistance from his own country, and restoration of health. For nearly two years he bestowed on him every mark of kindness and treated him as his own son. After being restored to health, the chevalier having occasion to travel through the country, conceived the idea of improving it by the introduction of French culture and the fine arts. He says that the first idea of founding an academy in America was suggested to him in 1778, by Mr. John Page, of Rosewell, subsequently Governor of Virginia, who urged him to procure professors from Europe, promising to secure their appointment and make Quesnay the president of the academy. He saw a good opportunity of multiplying the relations between France and America, or as he says in a letter to the French Academy of Sciences, “of uniting it with his country by new ties of gratitude, of conformity of taste and of a more intimate connection between the individuals of the nations.” Thus originated a remarkable attempt to establish an institution for the higher education, on a grand scale in this country. It was an effort growing out of the French alliance with the United States, to plant in Richmond, the new capital of Virginia, a kind of French Academy of the Arts and Sciences, with branch academies in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. The institution was to be at once national and international. It was to be affiliated with the royal societies of London, Paris, Brussels, and with other learned bodies in Europe. The general plan .of the academy was one of the greatest magnitude. It was to be composed of a president, a vice-president, six counsellors, a treasurer-general, a secretary, a recorder, an agent for taking European subscriptions, French professors, masters, artists-in-chief attached to the academy, twenty-five resident and one hundred and seventy-five non-resident associates, selected from the best talent of the Old World and the New.

The academy proposed to publish yearly from its own press in Paris, an almanac, announcing to the academic world not only the officers and students of the Richmond institution, with their distinguished associates, but also the work projected by the academy from year to year-such work when completed was to be published in the memoirs of the academy, and distributed to the learned societies of Europe and to the associates and patrons of the institution. The academy was to show its active zeal for science by communicating to France and other European countries, a knowledge of the natural products of North America. The museums and cabinets of the Old World were to be enriched by specimens of the flora and fauna of a country as yet undiscovered by men of science; experts of every class were to be sent out to the new academy, where they were to teach the American youth and at the same time serve on scientific commissions for governments, corporations and stock companies. Special stress was laid upon the importance of introducing into America, French Mineralogists and Mining Engineers, who were to fully develop the natural resources of the United States.

The projector of this brilliant scheme appears to have made diligent propaganda not only throughout Virginia, but the whole country in the interest of his novel academic idea. He even succeeded in raising by subscription the sum of 60,000 francs–a fact which indicates that the scheme was seriously entertained. He gives in his memoir a list of the original subscribers, embracing nearly one hundred names-nine-tenths of the subscribers were Virginians, with the rest from Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. It may be of interest to mention a few of the following names of the patrons of liberal culture in Richmond during the last century : John Harvie, Mayor of the city, and Register of the Land Office, Colonel Thomas Mann Randolph of Tuckahoe, Edmund Randolph, Governor of the State, Colonel Archibald Cary, Speaker of the Senate; and among private citizens, Francis Dandridge, William Foushee, Robert Greenhow, Dr. James McClurg and a long list of others. In Petersburg he enumerates Mrs. Bolling, Dr. Shore Mayor of the town, Colonel Banister, Dr. Robert Walker and Major Gibbon. In Norfolk, Colonel Parker, in Williamsburg, the Rev. Mr. Madison, president of the William and Mary College, Thomas Carter, General Gibson; and at Alexandria, Colonel Semmes and others. In order to convince the French public that he had the strongest social support in America, the chevalier referred to a great number of distinguished people in various American cities who had shown him encouragement.

His local lists of first families affords an interesting criterion of the cultivated society of the period immediately following the American Revolution. This clever, diplomatic Frenchman evidently had the social entree wherever he went on his academic mission. He mentions among his friends in Philadelphia the Reeds, the Willings, the Rittenhouses, General Wayne and others of high respectability; in New Jersey, the Coxes, the De Harts and the Ogdens; in New York, Governor Clinton, General Courtland, the Livingstons, the Hoffmans and the Halletts. General Baron Von Steuben, an educated German, was the first citizen of New York who gave his support to the project. The Chevalier Quesnay’s idea was clearly for something above the average college. He had in mind the highest special training of American students in the arts and sciences. The following extract from a letter written to Franklin (then in Paris) by his daughter shows how the proposed Academy was viewed by educated people at the time. The letter is here given in English, translated from the French version published in the memoir:

PHILA., February 27. 1783

With this letter you will receive a project for a French Academy which is to be established here. It is a very extensive plan and will do honor to the gentleman who has designed it as well as to America. If it can be executed, it will in no way interfere with the plans of the colleges; it will be solely for the completion of the education of young men after they have graduated from college. Monsieur Quesnay regards you as the father of science in this country, and appreciates the advice and instruction which you have never failed to give those whose talents are worthy of recognition. Money is the one thing needful, but you will be informed how you can be most serviceable. I can conceive how occupied you must be in this important crisis; but as a mother who desires to give her children a useful and polite education and who will be especially proud to have them trained in her own country and under her own eyes, I pray you to give M. Quesnay all the assistance that may lie in your power. I will only add the love and respect of the family.

Your affectionate daughter,

The name of Franklin was greatly revered in France at this time, and it was known that his influence with the French people in the interest of the scheme would have been very powerful.

Quesnay says in his memoir that be decided to establish his Academy at Richmond because his earliest associations and best friends were in this capital. The exact site of the Academy was lung ago recorded by Samuel Mordecai, the Richmond antiquary, who probably saw the building with his own eyes. He says in his charming medley of Richmond history, the site chosen by M. Quesnay is the square on which the Monumental Church and Medical College now stand, the grounds extending from those lower points up Broad and Marshall to Twelfth street.

The proceedings connected with laying the corner-stone are described in the memoir and by the Virginia Gazelle for July 1, 1786. On the 24th of June 1786, Quesnay had the satisfaction of witnessing the laying of the foundation with imposing ceremonies in the presence of a great concourse of citizens. The mayor of the city, the French consul and deputies of the French nation, were there to honor the occasion. Mordecai records that two silver plates were deposited in the corner-stone. On one was an inscription in Latin, on the other in French-the Latin translated reads thus: In the year of our Lord 1786, the 10th of the Republic, VIII calends of July, Patrick Henry being Governor of Virginia, the plan of an academy projected by Alexander Maria Quesnay and assisted by the liberality of many meritorious citizens, is at length consummated, the corner-stone was laid. John Harvie being mayor of the city.

The inscription on the other plate in French, contains the following: Corner-stone of an academy in the city of Richmond, Alexandria Maria Quesnay, president, laid by the officers and brethren of Lodge No.13,[1] on the festival of St. John the Baptist, in the year of Light, 5786, and of the Vulgar Era, 1786. John Groves, Master; James Mercer, Grand Master; Edmund Randolph, Past Grand Master.

Having founded and organized the Academy under the most distinguished auspices, the Chevalier de Beaurepaire returned to Paris, and began an active social and scientific propaganda in the interest of his grand project for uniting intellectually America and France. He called upon the savants of Paris. He visited the studios of artists. He consulted every one whose opinion, good will or active co-operation was worth having. He was certainly successful in awakening the interest of the most influential people in the idea of establishing a French Academy in Richmond. As grandson of a distinguished scholar, and as a returned soldier of France, he was able to obtain access to the highest circles. His project was presented to the king and queen and to the royal family in a memoir published with the sanction of the royal censor. The most cultivated men of the time appear to have favored the undertaking. A commission of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris, signed by de La Lande, Lavoisier and others, and certified to by its secretary, the Marquis de Condorcet, reported favorably upon the memoir, as did also a similar commission of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, signed by Vernet and other eminent artists.

The published list of foreign associates of the Richmond Academy embraces the most distinguished French names of the time in art, science, literature, politics, together with representative men from England and the United States. French influence, however, predominated. Among the celebrities whose names are given in the memoir as associates of the Richmond Academy were the Marquis de Beaumarchais, the secretary of the king; Condorcet and Dacier, secretaries respectively of the Royal Academies of Science and Art; the Abbe’ de Bevi, historiographer of France; Marquis de Ia Fayette, then a marshal of the armies of the king; Houdon, the sculptor; Malesherbes, the minister of State; Lavoisier, the great chemist (the father of modern chemistry); Comte de La Luzerne, Secretary of State, Minister to United States; Marquis de La Luzerne, the royal ambassador to Great Britain; the Marquis de Montalembert, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, and many others. Conspicuous as representatives of England and America were many names distinguished in science, art and letters. Jefferson who was living in Paris at this time as American Minister to France, is very prominently mentioned in the memoir as a supporter of the proposed academy. There is nb doubt that Jefferson was thoroughly in favor of introducing the higher forms of French culture into Virginia. This was proved in 1795 by his correpondence with Washington as to the feasibility of removing bodily to Virginia the Swiss faculty of the College of Geneva.

It was in the polished circle of learned men of Paris that the Chevalier de Beaurepaire and Jefferson moved that the latter’s ideas of university education assumed cosmopolitan form.

In 1788, provisional arrangements were made by Quesnay for instituting the following schools in the Virginia Academy Foreign languages, mathematics, design, architecture civil and military, painting, sculpture, engraving, experimental physics, astronomy, chemistry, mineralogy, botany, anatomy and natural history. The selection of suitable professors, masters and artists was entrusted to a committee of correspondence, established at Paris, and consisting of Quesnay, founder and president of the academy, of a permanent secretary, a treasurer-general and nine commissioners, elected from prominent members of the academy. The committee of correspondence was organized, but when it met appointed only one professor. His name was Dr. Jean Rouelle, and he is described as a profound scholar and an experienced traveler, having a wide acquaintance with the natural sciences. He was assigned to the chair of chemistry and natural history, and instructed to form cabinets and collections for distribution in America and Europe. Dr. Rouelle was elected September 28, 1788, and was to have sailed for America the next month in October. At this time the prospect of appointing a numerous faculty became suddenly darker with the approach of the French Revolution. In the latter months of 1788, France was in no condition financially or socially for pushing this grand scheme in Virginia, the brilliant enterprise failed, but how or under what circumstances is not now to be discovered, unless among the court records of Louis XVI. The project attracted brief admiration and then sank into oblivion in the political maelstrom in which everything in France went down.

Had circumstances favored the establishment of the academy at Richmond, on the scale conceived by Quesnay, this city would have become not only the intellectual centre of the South and a great part of the North, but perhaps of the whole country. Supported by French capital, to which in a large measure we owe the success of the Revolutionary war, strengthened by French prestige, by literary, scientific and artistic associations with Paris, then the intellectual capital of the world, the academy at Richmond, as Adams truly says, might have become an educational stronghold comparable in some degree to the Jesuit influence in Canada, which has proved more lasting than French dominion, more impregnable than the fortress of Quebec.

But the worthy chevalier was far ahead of his times-more than a hundred years, as the absence of such an institution at this day proves.

The academy building in Richmond, according to that quaint antiquary Samuel Mordecai, became the property of some English actors, who converted it into a theatre. Here the tragic and the comic muse first excited the tears and smiles of a Richmond audience. But greater actors performed and a more glorious work was rehearsed in that theatre than in any other, either in this country or in Europe. It served a purpose which entitles it to a monumental place in the history of Virginia architecture.

Therein assembled that rare constellation of talent, of wisdom and of pure patriotism, the convention of sages and statesmen, who met to discuss the question of Federal Union, and who ratified the constitution of the United States.



  1. The corner-stone of the State Capitol (August 18, 1785), that of the Masons’ Hall at Richmond (October 12, 1785, the oldest standing building erected for Masonic purposes in North America), and of other public buildings were laid by this, the pioneer lodge of Richmond. It was first chartered December 28, 1780, as Richmond Lodge No.13, and re-chartered in 1786 as No. 10, which designation it has since most honorably borne.

    The capital of the State having been removed from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1779, hither was transferred the headquarters of the Grand Lodge of Masons, and Richmond Lodge, No.13, became the most influential in the State in the sustenence and extension of the beneficent order. Its early membership of more than one hundred embraced many of the most distinguished men of Virginia, including many gallant officers of the Revolution. At the conclusion of the war for independence many of these last removed to the bounty lands awarded them for their patriotic services, and became the founders of Masonry in the South and West. Among the membership of Richmond Lodge, No. 10, may be enumerated Grand Masters-Alexander Montgomery, Edmund Randolph, John Marshall, Thomas Mathews, Samuel Jones, and Sidney S. Baxter; Grand Secretaries-Leighton Wood, W. Waddill, John Burke, Basil Wood, Nathaniel W. Price, John G. Williams and John Dove. It has also been numerously represented in the remaining offices of the Grand Lodge of Virginia. In the host of heroes of the Revolution it has held on its rolls is the revered name of La Fayette, and besides four Governors of Virginia-John Tyler, Sr., Edmund Randolph, Thomas Mann Randolph, and the unfortunate George William Smith (who perished in the burning of the Richmond Theatre, December 26, 1811), many others distinguished in the annals of Virginia and in the councils of the nation.

    A history of the lodge is in preparation by a member, the present writer, for the publication of which it is hoped means will soon be provided-ED.