Abraham Baldwin: Early Years, 1754-1779
Abraham Baldwin was a quiet, studious, thoughtful man. He is not one of the more colorful and memorable of the Founding Fathers, but he was a dedicated servant and leader who played a major role in crafting the form of government that we enjoy today. Abraham devoted most of his life to serving Georgia and the newly created American republic. He served Georgia in the Continental Congress, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate. His commitment to the idea of an educated citizenry forming the cornerstone of a successful republic, led him to found the University of Georgia. The story of this Founding of Georgia, begins not in the Peach State, but rather in a small town in New England.
Abraham Baldwin’s great-grandfather came to America in 1639 from Devonshire, England and settled in Connecticut. Baldwin was born in 1754 in North Guilford, Connecticut. He was the third of five children born to Lucy Dudley and Michael Baldwin. Abraham’s mother died when he was only 4 years old. Ten years later, Baldwin’s father married Theodora Wolcott. They had seven children. Baldwin loved all of his brothers and sisters very much and had close relationships with them for his entire life. In fact, when Baldwin’s father died, he took custody of 6 of his younger half-siblings and reared, housed, and educated them at his own expense. One of his brothers, Henry Baldwin, became a Justice on the United States Supreme Court.
Baldwin’s father was a blacksmith. A blacksmith was considered an important person in the community. He not only made shoes for horses, but he also designed patterns for grillwork and other decorative iron work. His father also placed great value in education. In fact, he believed so strongly that a good education was critical to his children’s success that he went heavily into debt to educate them. Abraham’s father even moved the entire family and his business to New Haven, the location of Yale University, so that he could obtain more work and more easily send his children to Yale.
Abraham Baldwin attended school in his small town, and then when he was 14, he entered Yale University (at that time, Yale College). At Yale, Abraham studied Latin, Greek, arithmetic, algebra, geography, logic, public speaking, and catechism. At that time, the curriculum at Yale heavily emphasized theology. The school was run by clergymen to train ministers. Baldwin graduated in 1772, but continued to study theology at Yale and in 1775, was licensed to preach. Instead of immediately entering the ministry, he chose again to stay at Yale, this time as a tutor. Tutors taught freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Professors taught the seniors. Tutors gave daily lectures in all of the required courses. Baldwin earned a reputation as a good teacher who was able to motivate his students. He influenced Noah Webster and Oliver Wolcott, both of whom graduated from Yale in 1778.
While Baldwin was a tutor, the Revolutionary War began. In 1777, British raiders invaded New Haven and the Yale campus closed. Abraham and his students evacuated to Glastonbury, Connecticut. During this time, Abraham also began to believe very strongly in the American cause. Author Merton Coulter, Abraham Baldwin’s principal biographer, has suggested that Abraham must have thought that neither continuing as a tutor, nor becoming a minister, would allow him to adequately express his patriotism.
Accordingly, in February of 1778, he became a chaplain in the Continental Army. Chaplains had to “be of good character, pious, virtuous, lead an exemplary life, and be a person of some learning.” (Merton Coulter, Abraham Baldwin: Patriot, Educator and Founding Father, 1987, p. 26). They preached on Sundays, conducted prayer meetings, visited sick and wounded soldiers, and wrote letters for soldiers who were unable, either due to injury or illiteracy, to write for themselves. They also helped keep up the soldiers’ morale by encouraging them in the Revolutionary cause. Baldwin wrote a letter explaining how he spent his time. “I read French, write, and make visits from morning till night, and then sleep from night till morning.” (Coulter, p 26). His experiences in the Army prepared him well for the role he was soon to take in shaping American history.