John Bracken (c. 1745 - 1818)

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John Bracken, ninth president of the College of William and Mary, played an active, if controversial role, in the College, in Williamsburg, and the Virginia Episcopal Church. Amid the departure of Lord Dunmore and the ensuing political crisis in 1775, as the new rector of Burton Parish Church, John Bracken first became involved in the College of William and Mary. When the head of the Grammar school left for England, John Bracken became the master. By 1777, the Board of Visitors removed loyalist president John Camm and several other faculty members, leaving only Bishop James Madison who became president for “one year” and John Bracken who continued as master of the Grammar school. In the chaos of rebuilding the school following the Revolutionary War, the college sought the advice of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s reforms included abolishing the connection with the Grammar School, so that January 17, 1780, the Board of Visitors eliminated John Bracken’s position. With an extensive personal following from his tenure as rector of Burton Parish Church, mayor of Williamsburg, head commissioner of the insane asylum, and member of a predominate family (through his marriage to Sally Burwell, daughter of Carter Burwell of Carter’s Grove), Bracken challenged the Board’s actions. Bracken quickly became the rallying figure for the conservative opponents of the 1779 reforms. Bracken took legal measures to force the Board to restore his position, but the case was postponed until 1790, when the highest court in the state ruled against his reinstatement. Meanwhile, at the college, the contest lasted until an opportunity arose for the Bracken faction in 1779. Called back to London for business, in Bracken’s absence the town of Williamsburg successfully created a new Grammar school, separate from the college. Mismanaged and near bankruptcy, the master left for a position in Norfolk. All that remained for the conservative faction was to appoint Bracken the head and reattach the school to the College, effectively restoring Bracken to the faculty. Documents detailing the reinstatement have been lost, however, Bracken’s faction clearly succeeded by 1779. Bracken was reinstated as master of the Grammar school, appointed professor of humanity, and even allowed a second professor of humanity as an assistant. The Board of Visitors also created the degree of doctor of divinity, which it bestowed upon Bracken that same year. Bracken’s opponents, including Thomas Jefferson, believed the reappointment would be the “demolition” and “ruin” of William and Mary. When law professor George Wythe left the college, Jefferson blamed the “conduct of the professors, & particularly of the ex-professor Bracken” recommending quick action by the Board for “otherwise it is over with the college.”

Little record remains of Professor Bracken following his reinstatement, but as president Madison’s health deteriorated during the winter of 1812, Bracken resigned his professorship and mastership of the Grammar School confident in succeeding his failing president. Shortly after president Madison’s death, the Board of Visitors elected Bracken as the ninth president of the College of William and Mary. Much as his reappointment, Bracken’s election prompted controversy, including bitter words from Thomas Jefferson deploring the “simpleton Bracken,” and Dr. Philip Baurraud who predicted “the Death blow to William and Mary.” President Madison’s death also prompted a convention to elect a new Episcopal Bishop of Virginia in May of 1812, with Bracken the natural choice. Opposition from a small minority, poor health, and unspecified family problems ultimately led Bracken to decline the position.

The brief tenure of Rev. Bracken, complicated by the declaration of War on Britain, oversaw a period of continued decline in college enrollment and prestige. The Board of Visitors made changes in faculty and curriculum: including discontinuing the professorship of humanity and connections with the Grammar School, and announcing professorships in law, mathematics, natural philosophy, and chemistry. As president, Bracken did not teach any courses. When the Board of Visitors sought out new professors, including Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr, the need to replace president Bracken increased. Beginning with amending the statute of 1728 requiring the president to be in holy orders, the Board began the steps to force Bracken’s resignation. In 1814, a committee was appointed to examine the causes of the unhappy state of the college, when the Board received word from the president’s friends of his willingness to resign. The Board agreed to continue his appointment until October 1, 1814, when he was replaced by Dr. John Augustine Smith.

Following the presidency, Rev. Bracken continued his tenure as rector of Burton Parish Church until his death in 1818.

Material in SCRC

  • Rev. John Bracken, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library: A petition from the president and professors of the College to Virginia Chief Justice Paul Carrington requesting that their case be heard this term. It is signed by James Madison and seconded by John Bracken. The document includes the Greek temple seal.
  • Rev. John Bracken, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library: The letter dated May 18, 1800, from Chapman Johnson to College of William and Mary alumnus David Watson provides a detailed account of an "unfortunate disturbance," a student revolt at the College the previous winter. Chapman reported on a student's rude treatment of the postmaster, its witnessing by Professor Bracken, the expulsion of the student, the resulting student meetings and protests, faculty-student negotiations, consultation with Bishop Madison and St. George Tucker, student threats against the latter, etc.

External Links

Abstract: "A brief narrative description of the journal article, document, or resource. Reforms in 1779 at the College of William and Mary caused a professor to be dismissed, after which he took legal action against the institution. It is concluded that English corporate law was abused in defending against the professor's action."

Preceded by College of William and Mary President Succeeded by
James Madison

1777 - 1812

Rev. John Bracken

1812 - 1814

John Augustine Smith

1814 - 1826

A note about the information in this wiki
Unfortunately, many of the early original records of the College of William and Mary were destroyed by fire, military occupation, and the normal effects of time. The information available here is the best available from known documents and sources at the time it was written. Information in this wiki is not complete as new information continues to be uncovered in the SCRC's collections and elsewhere. Researchers are strongly encouraged to use the SCRC's access tools for their research as the information contained in this wiki is by no means comprehensive.