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American Heroines: The Spirited Women Who Shaped Our Country
by Kay Bailey Hutchison
William Morrow, 2004

Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

Pioneers and Preservationists

Mary Austin Holley

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Mary Austin didn't grow up dreaming of a life in Texas. As a child in New Haven, Connecticut, during the closing years of the eighteenth century, this daughter of a prominent mercantile family may have imagined faraway places but probably expected to spend a comfortable life close to home. Mary was born in 1784, the fourth of Elijah and Esther Phelps Austin's eight children. Her father helped develop the lucrative shipping trade between the young Republic and China, but when Mary was ten years old, Elijah Austin died of yellow fever. Although the Austins weren't plunged into poverty, Esther Austin couldn't afford to keep her family together, so Mary was sent to live with her uncle, Timothy Phelps, another prosperous New Haven merchant, and his family.

In 1805, Mary Austin married Horace Holley, a Yale graduate from Salisbury, Connecticut, who turned his back on a promising legal career in New York to return to Yale and study divinity. His first posting, at a Congregational church in the small Connecticut town of Greenfield Hill, left Mary feeling isolated from the cultural life she craved. In 1808, Rev. Holley was invited to serve as minister of Boston's Hollis Street Congregational Church, and Mary and Horace jumped at the chance to become part of Boston's vibrant social and intellectual world. Mary, whose first child, Harriette, was born that same year, found the cultural atmosphere bracing, while Horace, whose religious ideas were growing increasingly liberal, quickly found himself quite at home among Boston's philosophers and politicians.

A serious thinker and impassioned speaker, Horace rapidly gained a place for Mary and himself among New England's intellectual elite. He was invited to join the Harvard University Board of Overseers, quite an accomplishment for a "mere" Yale graduate, and when the Hollis Street church closed down during the construction of a larger building, William Emerson, father of the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and minister of First Church, arranged for Horace to alternate as preacher there until Hollis Street reopened. At one dinner party that included, among other guests, John Quincy Adams, Horace engaged the former president in an argument about religion. In his memoirs, Adams recalled, "[T]he table-talk was almost engrossed by us, and the attention of the whole table turned to us, much to my disadvantage, the topic being one upon which he was much more exercised and better prepared than I was. Mr. Webster, Mr. A. H. Everett, and one or two others occasionally relieved me by asking a question; but Holley was quite a match for us all."

The intellectual life may have been rich, but the Holleys were always short of money. So when tiny Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, asked Rev. Holley to become president of the institution in 1818, he accepted. Mary was opposed to leaving New England, but she was pregnant with their second child, and the promise of a substantially higher salary proved an irresistible lure. Besides, Horace had ideas about education that he was eager to try out on a large scale, and the trustees' plans to establish Lexington as the "Athens of the West" meshed perfectly with Rev. Holley's own aspirations. In Lexington, he would be able to put his theories to work in ways that a minister could not easily do. Despite some resistance from conservative Presbyterian clergy, support from Henry Clay and other prominent Kentuckians assured Rev. Holley's appointment.

Under its new president, Transylvania attracted more students, added a law school and medical school to its undergraduate program, and gained prominence in the South and beyond. But even as Transylvania grew in size and importance, so did opposition to Rev. Holley's liberal views. After he delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Colonel James Morrison, who had been chairman of Transylvania's board of trustees, praising his friend for "taking truth wherever he found it and giving the hand of fellowship to all good men of every country and denomination," a group of conservative clergymen waged a campaign to drive Rev. Holley from the presidency. One ploy was to reduce his salary, money always being a difficult matter for the Holleys, and when Kentucky governor Joseph Desha also withdrew his personal support in 1827, Rev. Holley resigned and moved to New Orleans.

The family connection to Lexington endured, however. The Holleys' daughter, Harriette, married William Brand, a Transylvania graduate and son of a wealthy Lexington businessman. A link to New Orleans existed as well; many Louisianians sent their sons to Transylvania to study, some of them as young as ten, and a number of the Louisianians had boarded with the Holleys while attending classes in Lexington. Drawing on this experience, Holley formed a plan: to found a "traveling academy" for the children of wealthy planters from the region, who would pursue their educations while touring Europe under his tutelage—very likely the first "study abroad" program conceived in the United States. Rev. Holley finally scrapped the idea when he discovered that parents weren't prepared to send their young sons so far from home.

Discouraged, Horace considered starting a local college in the city, but before getting down to serious planning, the Holleys took a brief vacation in New York. On board the Louisiana, husband and wife came down with yellow fever, the same disease that had claimed Mary's father's life. This time, it was Horace Holley who succumbed to the ill-ness, and he was buried at sea. Yellow fever, which had made Mary Austin Holley fatherless when she was ten, now left her, at the age of forty-three, a widow with a young son to support.

Without close ties to a place or a community, Mary was adrift. Her first concerns were to make arrangements for young Horace's education and to find a fitting way to memorialize her husband. To that end she went to Boston, where members of the Hollis Street church had already begun collecting a fund for Horace's support ...

Excerpted from American Heroines by Kay Bailey Hutchison. Copyright © 2004 by Kay Bailey Hutchison. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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