The Columbian College: Where It All Began

The Breadth and Depth of the Arts and Sciences

In 1799, George Washington expressed in his will his “ardent wish” for a University to be established in the District of Columbia. He dreamed of a place “to which the youth of fortune and talent from all parts [of the country] might be sent for the completion of their education in all the branches of polite literature, in arts and sciences, in acquiring knowledge in the principles of politics and good government.”  Washington believed the nation’s capital was the logical site for such an institution and left a bequest toward that objective.

Founded by an Act of Congress

Washington died before his vision was carried out. The Rev. Luther Rice and three friends took up the effort; President James Monroe and 32 members of the U.S. Congress also became involved. On Feb. 9, 1821, Monroe signed the Act of Congress that created the Columbian College in the District of Columbia, a private, nonsectarian institution.

Columbian College opened its doors with three faculty members, one tutor and 30 students in a single building. At that time, the College was located between 14th and 15th Streets, about a 30-minute walk from the Capitol. Its curriculum included English, Latin and Greek, as well as mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, reading, writing, navigation and political law. The first graduates received degrees in December 1824. Shortly after, Columbian College added a medical school and a law school.

Becoming a University

The Civil War transformed Washington, D.C., into a growing urban center. During war, most students left to join the Confederacy, and the college’s buildings were used as a hospital and barracks. Walt Whitman was among the war volunteers on the campus. 

In 1873, Columbian College changed its name to Columbian University and moved to a location at 15th and L Streets. It began offering doctoral degrees and admitted its first women. Columbian University became The George Washington University in 1904 under an agreement with the George Washington Memorial Association. In 1912, the University began the move to its present location in Foggy Bottom.

The Vision Continues

Today, the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences remains at the core of the University experience,  providing students across the University with the breadth and depth of a strong liberal arts education that our founding fathers considered essential for an educated citizenship. At Columbian, we give students in International Affairs the linguistic tools that allow them to function in a global community and the cultural cosmopolitanism that makes them welcome anywhere; we ensure that Business students master the Mathematics required by their discipline and the aesthetic principles that will enrich their lives; we teach Engineers the basic laws of Physics and introduce them to the music of spheres.  We are indeed the heart and soul of the academic enterprise, preparing all students for a world awaiting their talents and their passion for excellence.