James Clarke Welling: A Champion of Education in the Nation’s Capital

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s recent 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

James Clarke Welling, a founder of the National Geographic Society, was a highly respected Washington journalist and educator who took a leading role in the effort to make the national capital a national center for learning and scholarship as well.

Welling was born on July 14, 1825, in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of William and Jane (Hill) Welling. He was educated at Trenton Academy and Princeton University where he studied under the eminent scientist Joseph Henry. Later he studied law but decided against practicing. He opted for education, and after a stint of tutoring in Virginia, was made an associate principal at the New York Collegiate School in 1848. Two years later he changed his mind again and turned toward journalism. He was appointed literary editor of the Daily National Intelligencer in Washington, D.C.

This seemed a promising career. For six years Welling worked his way into ever more responsible positions at the paper. By 1856, at the age of 31, he had become its associate editor and was basically in charge of its management. He was admirably equipped for the job, being not only a legal scholar but also a graceful writer with a wide circle of acquaintances. During the Civil War, the Intelligencer was a leading journal of opinion, hewing a conservative though generally pro-Union line. Welling wrote notable pieces on the constitutional questions and crises precipitated by the conflict. But he swung the paper behind General George McClellan’s 1864 bid for the presidency, which proved, after Lincoln’s reelection, to have been a mistake. In 1865, Welling resigned from the paper, and took ship for Europe to recover his health and consider what to do next.

When he returned it was to the world of education. Although he dallied a year or two as Clerk of the U.S. Court of Claims, in 1867 he was chosen as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. Three years later he was back at his alma mater, Princeton University, where he was professor of rhetoric and English literature. In 1868, he was awarded an honorary LL.D. from Columbian College, a small academy located on the northern outskirts of Washington, D.C. In 1871, he was offered its presidency. Despite being ensconced at Princeton, Welling accepted the new challenge.

In the years just after the Civil War, Washington stood poised on the verge of becoming the intellectual as well as political capital of the nation. The government’s scientific bureaus were there, attracting a great number of well-educated, talented scientists such as John Wesley Powell who spent their winter months residing in the city. They were increasingly joined by educators and literary men, and the eventual result was a conscious effort to institutionalize in the city the cultural and intellectual life of the country.

A view of Columbian College (later named George Washington University) during the Civil War, just a few years before Welling became its president. The hospital tents in the foreground are part of Camp Carver.

Among the first things he did was push through an Act of Congress to rename the school Columbian University. When this was secured in 1873, it was celebrated by a gala banquet attended by President Ulysses S. Grant. He then broadened the academic scope, improving the medical school and establishing a National College of Pharmacy as well as dental and veterinary schools. Since Harvard had its Lawrence Scientific School and Yale its Sheffield one, Welling instituted at Columbian the Corcoran Scientific School. He opened the university’s doors to women, and began awarding the Ph.D. degree. One aim of this movement was to establish in Washington a truly national university. Proponents could wait for Congress to do this, in which case they might wait a long time, or they could work at transforming an already existing school. So when Welling arrived at Columbian College, he immediately set out to make it a university of national scope. Finally, in addition to his administrative responsibilities, Welling taught classes in anthropology, international law and the philosophy of history.

Another expression of the concerted effort to make Washington the nation’s intellectual capital was the establishment of learned societies and professional institutions. Welling took a leading role in these circles as well. He served as the Cosmos Club’s third president, sat on the board of trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Washington Philosophical Society, and of the Anthropological Society. He was also a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. Thus his presence at the Cosmos Club on the night of January 13, 1888, came as no surprise to the geologists, explorers, and military men such as John Wesley Powell and Henry Gannett who were assembled there to discuss the formation of a Society of Geography. At 62, he was one of the oldest present; nevertheless, when the organization was officially born as the National Geographic Society, he was elected to its first Board of Managers. He also permitted the newly constituted Society to hold its first regular meeting–on February 17, 1888–in the Law Lecture Room at Columbian University.

In the spring of 1894, due to declining health Welling resigned the presidency of that school. Ten years later, its name was changed to George Washington University, and in 1912 it moved to its present location in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Welling himself did not live to see any of that, for he died on September 4, 1894, in Hartford, Connecticut, at the age of 69. His friends and colleagues gave him a grand send-off; at his memorial, aviation pioneer Samuel Langley spoke on behalf of the Smithsonian, and Powell, his friend of more than a quarter century, represented the Philosophical Society. And Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the first president of that Society of Geography he had helped establish, spoke on behalf of the National Geographic Society.

Human Journey

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