Lexington educator knew nation’s early presidents

February 14, 2010

It’s hard to imagine our nation’s early presidents as real people. We know them only as images of stern-faced men in funny clothes, staring back at us from history books, paintings, money – and newspaper ads for President’s Day sales.

But to Horace Holley, they were friends and pen pals. Holley was himself a president, of Transylvania University, from 1818 until a few months before his death in 1827.

I didn’t know much about Holley until recently, when I got an excited call from my older daughter, Mollie, who works in Transylvania’s public relations office.

“I held letters today written by John Adams and James Monroe!” she said.

She had been in Transylvania’s Special Collections department, doing research for a university Web site feature she writes called Transy Trivia. It sounded so interesting, I went over and spent an afternoon looking through Holley’s papers.

The carefully preserved documents reveal what a well-connected man Holley was, and they offer revealing glimpses of some early American presidents and their wives – warts and all.

Holley came to Lexington from Boston, where he knew Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. His wife, Mary Austin Holley, was a cousin of Stephen F. Austin, a Transy alum for whom Austin, Texas, was later named. Holley was a Unitarian minister and admired educator who helped burnish Lexington’s image as the “Athens of the West.”

There are faded letters from the second president, hard to read except for the end: “… and real affection, your friend and humble servant, John Adams.”

Adams gave Holley a glowing letter of introduction to the third president, Thomas Jefferson. In September, 1824, Holley spent two days visiting Jefferson at his Monticello estate near Charlottesville, Va.

“Mr. Jefferson is a plain looking old gentleman, draped in a blue coat with yellow buttons, a buff jacket, a pair of snuff colored corduroy pantaloons, blue and white cotton stockings and black slippers up at the heels,” Holley wrote to his wife.

“He is grey, tall, square shouldered, takes long steps, and has not now a clear voice. His muscles are not vigorous, but his hand trembles little, and is not observed to tremble at all as he uses at table. He rides on horseback daily in fair weather, but walks out seldom. … He talked easily still, though 82, and preserves the faculties of his mind in vigorous operation. His memory fails of course in regard to names and more recent events, but his judgment is unimpaired.”

Holley wrote a Kentucky friend that Jefferson questioned him closely about Transylvania. At the time, Jefferson was lobbying Virginian officials for support of the new University of Virginia. He argued that if Virginia didn’t invest in a first-class university, the state’s brightest young men would leave for either Transylvania or Harvard. Of the two, Jefferson said, he preferred Transylvania.

That may have been because Jefferson had high expectations for Kentucky’s future. “The time is not distant … when we shall be but a secondary people to them,” Jefferson wrote to Adams in May 1818.

Holley’s papers include several letters from James Monroe. Holley wrote to his wife from Washington in April 1818, describing visits to Monroe’s White House, which only recently had been rebuilt after British troops burned it during the War of 1812.

Holley bragged that Monroe wrote him a letter of introduction to the governor of Virginia: “He voluntarily gave it, and the offer of it took me by surprise.” But he devoted most of the letter to detailed descriptions of what Mrs. Monroe and other ladies were like and were wearing.

“Mrs. Monroe … appeared so much handsomer to me in full dress than she did the evening before in common dress and a cap that was not becoming,” he wrote. “She is … 52 years old, and I never saw a woman of that age appear so young.”

Monroe and Andrew Jackson visited Lexington on July 4, 1819, and heard Holley preach. In 1823, the Holleys went to Nashville, Tenn., where they spent several days at The Hermitage as guests of future President Jackson and his controversial wife, Rachel.

In a letter to his father, Holley described Jackson as “one of the most hospitable men” in Tennessee. “The general gave me many anecdotes of his wars with the Indians. … He is a prompt, practical man with very correct moral feelings.”

Holley added: “Mrs. Jackson is not a woman of cultivation, but has seen a great many people, has fine spirits, entertains well and is benevolent. She is short in her person and quite fat.”

At the end of several such letters, Holley asks that his observations be treated with discretion. Nearly two centuries later, the letters are more enlightening than embarrassing. They show that American icons were people, too.