History Column

Benjamin Hallowell

By Sarah BeckerHistory-Benjamin Hallowell 1799-1877

When Quakers Benjamin Hallowell and William Stabler established the Alexandria Philosophical Society in 1832 few knew that Hallowell, an educator, would emerge a nationally recognized man of science. Hallowell, originally from Pennsylvania, came to Alexandria in 1824 to open a school. His boarding school was initially located on Oronoco Street, an “unhealthy edge of town.”

Robinson Stabler, William Stabler’s younger half-brother, was among the first Alexandrians to welcome the Hallowells. Benjamin Hallowell taught Robinson when he was a student at Maryland’s Fair Hill Boarding School. Stabler brother, Edward H. enrolled in Hallowell’s Alexandria school and became a mathematical scholar.

“The subscribers intend opening in Alexandria, D.C. a BOARDING SCHOOL in which will be taught Spelling, Reading, Writing, Grammar, Geography with the use of the globes, Arithmetic, and the various branches of Mathematical Science, together with their application to the principles of Natural Philosophy,” Hallowell advertised in October 1824. “Natural philosophy and Chemistry will be taught as regular exercises in the school.”

“The practical teaching of young persons consists of two parts:—instructing then how to do something; and giving the reason for it in that way,” Hallowell wrote in Geometrical Analysis, or the Construction and Solution in 1872. “Youth should first learn, well, the practical part,—how to do then the why.”

“Children learn to use words before they learn the definitions of them,” Hallowell continued. “They form phrases, before they are able to construe or parse them. And the more nearly a teacher keeps to this natural process, the more successful will he be in developing the minds of his students and in pleasurably educating them.” Alexandria’s Robert E. Lee was a Hallowell student prior to leaving for West Point.

The location, 607 Oronoco Street, proved unlucky. Hallowell’s wife—Margaret Farquhar—became ill, and their first-born son James contracted bilious fever. “I could not bear the thought of my wife and family continuing in a place that was thought to be unhealthy,” Hallowell penned. “Dr. Washington; [pharmacist] Edward Stabler, William Stabler’s father and others considered it so.”

“After some time I was offered by the widow Hooe the commodious brick house at the corner of Washington and Queen Streets, a healthy situation, and admirably adapted to our purpose,” Hallowell continued. “We moved [to 220 N. Washington Street] in the spring vacation, 1826.” Washington Street, then, was only 100’ wide.

Hallowell’s son, Henry Clay Hallowell, admired his father’s mathematical mind. “Did thee ever see a dead eagle alive?” young Henry asked. “My childish idea was, as to whether Father had ever seen an eagle as near to him as he could get to a dead one.” Schoolmaster Hallowell replied by taking his son to the Alexandria Museum to stand near the eagles’ cage.

Hallowell’s admirers describe him as a schoolmaster, noted scientist, and practical farmer. His Alexandria resume included—in addition to the School and Alexandria Philosophical Society—The Benevolent Society (anti-slavery), The Lyceum Company (adult education), and the Alexandria Water Company (system design). Hallowell published in the American Journal of Science, taught chemistry for Columbia College’s medical department (George Washington University), and was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1854. Benjamin Franklin established the American Philosophical Society in 1743.

Character was important to Quaker Hallowell. “In him a scientific mind, unusual teaching ability, business sagacity, fervent religious spirit, and philanthropic impulses were joined.” He worked to instill character in others.

“My father was a very rapid skater, and I have seen him on the ice on the Potomac River, followed by a large company of students and others, none of whom could overtake him,” Henry Clay Hallowell remembered. “I asked him to buy me a pair of skates, [then] I declined putting [them] on. Realizing that to give up then would tend to weaken my strength of character permanently, Father said, ‘Thee must learn to use them.’”

Hallowell tutored many of the gentry’s most appealing progeny. “Mary Stabler [William’s mother] had a concern for my Margaret to open a school for girls,” Hallowell wrote. “Margaret consented to do so, in the front room, over my school-room, and she soon had the school full of nice girls.”

Eleanor Custis Lewis’ daughter, Angela, was a private Hallowell pupil. “Eleanor Lewis, Angela’s mother, always attended,” Hallowell remembered. “Her influence, which she always exerted in my favor, was of greater value to me than the amount I received in hand for teaching her daughter.” By 1835 the school “had students from fourteen different States and Territories, from South America, Cuba and England.”

In 1830 Hallowell requested building modifications. “I proposed to widow Hooe, my landlady, that if she would have the roof raised four feet, and the windows put longest way up, and furnished with weights so as to rise and fall, I would double the rent,” Hallowell explained. “She cheerfully consented [thus] increasing the comfort in both rooms.” Hallowell was a carpenter and joiner before becoming a teacher.

The widow Hooe died in 1831. A year later, Benjamin Hallowell sought to purchase the widow’s property at auction. “I resolved to lay up all that I could…to buy it,” Hallowell said. “I did not know who was bidding against me…it was struck off by John Lloyd.” Hallowell purchased the nearby sugarhouse and warehouse properties and continued his school.

Schoolmaster Hallowell sold his Alexandria boarding school in 1859. Tired, he earlier left the School in his nephews’ care. Now he wanted to farm, to change careers. Hallowell became President of the Maryland Agricultural College. Illness cut his term short—he lasted one month—but he served long enough to convince the College to farm without slave labor.

Hallowell continued his collegiate career from his Maryland farm. He steadfastly advocated for the creation of Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, a Quaker college. The Maryland-based Hallowell served on Swarthmore College’s Board of Managers from 1862 to 1868.

Approved minister Hallowell “never doubted the correctness of the Quaker peace testimony, either for himself or the Society of Friends.” Philosophically tested at age 13, he remained a pacifist during the War of 1812.

“Although [Confederate] Robert E. Lee had been one of my students, in great favor,…when I heard that [Union] General George G. Meade had arrested his progress and driven him across the Potomac to his own State [of Virginia], my heart rejoiced! It was impossible to avoid it. It was an instinctive outburst in favor of right, justice, and freedom,” Hallowell noted in reaction to Gettysburg.

Whether Benjamin Hallowell was recording “barometrical observations;” explaining the “nature & properties of Hydrogen,” or delivering “a discourse on Electricity,” he remained intellectually curious. Schoolmaster Hallowell advocated STEM—Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics—175 years before President Barack Obama’s 2009 program launch.

“There is a great amount of very valuable knowledge to be gained by reading, making us acquainted with the thoughts of other men, and with facts and events of past times,” Hallowell said, “but truth and new discoveries must be labored for—”

“It is one of the principal pleasures of my life to have the kind regard of men of the character of [Benjamin Hallowell],” Smithsonian Secretary and scientist Joseph Henry wrote. “The seeds he has sown in the minds of the youth of this region will germinate and bring forth fruit long after his departure from earth.”

“Benjamin Hallowell was never wholly satisfied unless something of a practical benefit was kept in view,” his 1877 Quaker Memorial concluded. “His exhortations were mainly directed to impress this great object of existence, and his own life was a continued illustration of the doctrine he taught.”

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