James Marsh was only thirty-two years old when he was elected president of The University of Vermont on October 17, 1826. He was the first native Vermonter to hold this position, having been born in Hartford on July 19, 1794, in a farmhouse built by his grandfather, Joseph Marsh, Vermonts first lieutenant governor.
Originally James Marsh had planned to be a farmer, but when an older brother took over the family farm, he enrolled in nearby Dartmouth College, graduating with highest honors in 1817. Among Marsh's student companions at Dartmouth were two other future presidents of The University of Vermont — John Wheeler and Joseph Torrey, both in the class of 1816 — plus the young UVM physician, Arthur L. Porter 18; the famous lawyer, Rufus Choate 19; and a cousin, George P. Marsh 20, the noted diplomat and environmental conservationist.
Following his graduation from Dartmouth, Marsh studied at the Andover (Massachusetts) Theological Seminary, graduating in 1822. He was ordained in the Congregational ministry in 1824 and married Lucia Wheelock, a niece of Dartmouths former president, John Wheelock. They immediately set out for Virginia where Marsh served as the professor of languages and biblical literature at Hampton-Sidney College for the next two years.
Marsh was a prolific linguist, who mastered Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, French, and German. He was deeply influenced by the works of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, as well as the English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both of whom had broken away from the doctrine of intellectual empiricism advocated by the English philosopher John Locke. According to the Lockean doctrine, knowledge was valid only if it could be demonstrated through the senses. Kant and Coleridge rejected this sensory approach by arguing that reason is an absolute ideal quality, intuitively known, which transcends experience. Marsh became the leading American proponent of this idealistic philosophy, which later became known as transcendentalism. The transcendentalists rejected orthodox religious dogma. Marsh, like UVMs first president, Daniel Sanders, was a not-so-orthodox, rational Congregationalist who believed in an integrated organic universe based on spiritual freedom. Not content to reduce religion to mere doctrinal dogma, he held that spiritual truth is the product of reasoned activity which must be lived in order to be known.
As soon as he became president, Marsh began to translate his ideas into action. Assisted by two newly appointed faculty members — George W. Benedict, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, and Joseph Torrey, professor of Latin and Greek — Marsh revised the UVM curriculum through a series of remarkable innovations. He rejected the fragmented lockstep of unrelated studies that prevailed at most colleges and sought to give coherence and organic form to the UVM curriculum by organizing it into four departments — English Literature; Mathematics; Languages; and Political, Moral and Intellectual Philosophy. UVM was the first university in the country to have a Department of English Literature.
The cornerstone of the reforms was the senior-year course in philosophy, designed to promote intellectual rigor and original thinking and to integrate the entire curriculum into a coherent whole. Marsh and his colleagues did not lose sight of practical concerns when they created their new curriculum. The ability to write and speak was placed on a par with other capabilities. The entire curriculum was formulated, according to Marsh, to call forth into conscious and active exercise the powers of the mind, both intellectual and moral.
In 1829 the UVM faculty published a thirty-two-page pamphlet titled Exposition of the System of Instruction and Discipline Pursued in The University of Vermont. This document, which was widely distributed to other colleges and universities, had a major impact on the development of American higher education. During this same year, President Marsh wrote a seminal introductory essay to the first American edition of Coleridges Aids to Reflection, which had a profound influence on Emerson, Thoreau, and others in the Concord school of transcendentalism. Within a few years, Marsh managed to transform the struggling university into one of the most advanced and progressive centers of humanistic educational thought in New England, if not the entire country. Both Amherst and Columbia College awarded him honorary doctor of divinity degrees.
Although Marsh provided innovative intellectual leadership, he was less interested in recruiting students and raising money. The North, South, and Middle College buildings of the Old Mill were completed in 1829, and Pomeroy Hall was built to house the medical college that same year. However, the undergraduate college was struggling in its competition for students with Dartmouth, Williams, Middlebury, and the new Academy at Norwich. Having completed his curricular reforms, Marsh resigned from the presidency in 1833 to return to full-time teaching as professor of intellectual and moral philosophy.
President Marsh's wife, Lucia, who suffered from the nineteenth centurys white plague, tuberculosis, died in 1828, after bearing two sons in four years of marriage. Marsh later married her sister, Laura Wheelock, who died of tuberculosis in 1838, leaving another son. Marsh, who also had a serious tubercular condition, died in Colchester on July 3, 1842, at the age of forty-seven. He was a profound visionary thinker of bold originality who left a rich educational legacy at The University of Vermont.