The Practical Idealist

The Colonial Educational Zoo: Young Vipers and Bird-witted youths

Jay's house in Rye NY

Peter Jay’s House in Rye NY

One of the earliest American educational theorists was the American Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson (1696 – 1772) originally of Guilford, Connecticut, but who spent most of his life as Rector of Christ Church in Stratford, Connecticut, save for an eight and a half year period when he founded and was the first President of King’s college in New York City – the place that is now Columbia University. The theory was derived from long practice. He had begun teaching grammar school at age 17, was a tutor at Yale from age 20 to 23, and founded in 1723 and taught at a Stratford Common School associated with his church. He taught either children, teenagers, college students, and adults for almost 50 years.

Augustus jay silver tankard

Augusuts Jay’s Silver Tankard

He also boarded and tutored students, largely from New York City, to prepare them for college. Socially and administratively, Johnson acted more as a father than a President. He couldn’t help it: that’s how he always taught. At his informal boarding school he had taught Rutgers, Van Courtlands, DeLanceys, Cuylers, Jays, Stuyvesants, Nicolls, and Roosevelts, and other great city merchant families. His wife Charity was herself part of the upper crust of New York Society, the widow wife of Benjamin Nicholl (who owned 100 square miles of Long Island), and daughter of Judge Richard Floyd of Brookhaven.

Johnson’s ideas of how to teach were ahead of his time. Whereas Johnathan Edwards called children “young vipers” who needed to be threatened with Hellfire to make them learn, Johnson tried another approach. He believed that Children:

come into the world strangers to everything, but with an eager curiosity to know things; their curiosity is to be indulged, and their little questions should be carefully and distinctly answered.They are rational and immortal spiritsand ought to be dearly lovedyou must be content to take them as they are and endeavor to make the best of them in imitation of God.”

Johnson’s feeling for his students may be best illustrated in a tender letter he wrote to Peter Jay in 1741. Peter Jay lived in Rhy, N.Y,   He had five children, four with significant disabilities: a son Augustus who was “intellectually disabled” or extremely “attention deficit” – he was what we now would call a “learning challenged” boy, a daughter who was emotionally unstable, and son and sister who had been blinded by smallpox. Peter’s son Augustus was sent to board with Johnson in Stratford. Johnson wrote the concerned father:

“And you may still depend upon it, that no care or pains shall be wanting for his best advantage, for my Wife & I have this winter, in taking pains to teach him to read, done that for him which we never did for our own, nor could we have patience to do, but for one whom we love like our own.”[1]

He would in 1755 teach at King’s College another Jay family boy, rather on the other end of the intelligence spectrum, John Jay, the Founding Father, first Spy, diplomat, signer of the Treaty of Paris, and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Johnson taught him and dozens of other students how to become, as he wrote in the founding Advertisement for King’s College “Ornaments to their Country and useful to the public Weal in their Generations”.

The intensity of his relationship with his students was parental and filial. Love was offered by Johnson, if the student could accept it.

Alas, Johnson eventually found the slow or lazy Augustus’ “bird-witted humor” hard to work with. Augustus returned home after two years; but Peter and Mary Jay at least knew their child was given the very best education by Americans best teacher.

Note: the image is the JAY HERITAGE CENTER – 1838 Peter Augustus Jay House,


[1] Humphrey, From King’s College, p.117

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