MARCH 1, 2015 – THE PRESIDENT OF THE United States paid tribute to the university’s 200th anniversary of its charter today with a message lauding the impact Georgetown graduates have made in this country and around the world.
Senior congressional leaders also congratulated the university today.
The charter, signed into law by President James Madison on March 1, 1815, is considered a seminal event in university history.
Obama: Happy Birthday
“A lot’s happened in Washington over two centuries and Hoyas have always been at the center of the action,” Obama said in his tribute.
“Simply put, this country and this world benefit from your commitment to Jesuit principles, to being men and women for others. Here’s to the next 200 years. Happy Birthday and Hoya Saxa.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio); Sen. Patrick Leahy (L’64) (D-Vermont), Senate president pro tempore emeritus; and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) sent their congratulations as well.
Boehner noted in his congratulatory message that after the Capitol burned in the War of 1812 Georgetown offered to serve as a temporary site for the federal government.
“We didn’t take that offer, but as we celebrate the anniversary of Georgetown’s federal charter, it’s a reminder of the special ties between the university and this government,” said Boehner.
“Georgetown’s intellectual openness, pursuit of progress and unwavering dedication to social justice has educated and shaped American leaders for more than 225 years,” said Pelosi in her message to the university.
Pelosi is the mother of Georgetown alumni and wife of Paul, an alumnus of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (SFS) and chair of the school’s board of visitors.
“Georgetown University has been a national treasure that stands as an international beacon of a simple truth, and deep American faith: that out of many backgrounds and beliefs, through times of discord and peace, our common humanity binds us together; and our common hopes and dreams unite us as one,” she said.
Leahy, a graduate of Georgetown’s law school, noted in his message that the charter provided the school with the legal means to confer academic degrees.
“The charter solidified an already rich history of Georgetown’s connection to our national government,” he said. “And it’s a connection that is still vibrant and it’s growing 200 years later. Georgetown’s location in Washington allows the university to offer students opportunities that are really not available elsewhere.”
Since 1813, he said 160 Georgetown alumni and faculty have served in Congress.
SAFEGUARD OF INTEGRITY
According to A History of Georgetown University, From Academy to University, 1789-1889 (Georgetown University Press, 2010) by professor of history emeritus Robert Emmett Curran, Georgetown’s founder, Bishop John Carroll had 25 years earlier decided against seeking a charter.
“…Carroll had declined to have the Georgetown chartered, evidently because he was wary of the intrusive tendencies of state governments in the early national period,” the book explains. “But by 1814 there had been a significant shift in the relationship between college and state. A college was no longer regarded as an arm of the state for the training of a provincial elite and the safeguarding of public character but as a form of private enterprise…”
Georgetown’s ninth president, Giovanni Antonio Grassi, S.J. (1775-1849), who served in the position between 1812 and 1817, “… realized that a charter had become, not a threat to a university’s independence but a safeguard for its integrity.”
The charter also came about shortly after the Society of Jesus was restored throughout the world in 1814.
Introduced by William Gaston, Georgetown’s first student and a representative from North Carolina, the act creating the charter was presented to Congress. It passed the House of Representatives, and the Senate approved it on Feb. 27, 1815.
“As the first Catholic institution of higher education in the country to be chartered, and the only educational institution whose first student was responsible for that charter, its bicentennial celebration is doubly special – a twin symbol of the very exceptional institution that Georgetown has become,” Curran says.
INTELLECTUAL STRENGTHS, DIVERSITY
The charter allowed Charles and George Dinnies to receive the first bachelor’s degrees in 1817. Gaston left Georgetown because of illness, graduating from Princeton in 1796.
Carroll, who by then had been appointed archbishop, lived to see the charter passed, but died on Dec. 3, 1815.
“Had Carroll lived another two years he would no doubt have been heartened by the intellectual strengths and diversity of the faculty that Grassi was at last able to assemble … and the kind of Catholic intellectuals Carroll had in vain attempted to draw to his school at its founding,” Curran’s book notes.