Jonathan Peter Cushing (12 March 1793–25 April 1835), president of Hampden-Sydney College, was born in Rochester, New Hampshire, and was the son of Peter Cushing, a merchant, and Hannah Hanson Cushing. In 1806, two years after being orphaned, he bound himself to his uncle, a saddler. Determined to further his meager education, Cushing redeemed his apprenticeship in 1811 and matriculated at Phillips Exeter Academy, from which he graduated four years later. Despite academic deficiencies he entered Dartmouth College and received a B.A. in August 1817. Chronic lung trouble prompted Cushing, who had intended to qualify for the bar, to leave immediately for Charleston, South Carolina. On the way, he visited John Holt Rice, founding pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Richmond and also a trustee and former teacher at Hampden-Sydney College, in Prince Edward County. Through Rice he met a fellow Dartmouth alumnus who had been engaged to teach at Hampden-Sydney but who had fallen ill. With Rice's encouragement, Cushing signed on as a substitute for the autumn 1817 term.

From the outset Cushing favorably impressed the leaders of the college, especially its president Moses Hoge (1752–1820). Hoge persuaded him to continue teaching at the school, where he became the star of the four-person faculty. The board of trustees readily acquiesced to Cushing's request for new chemistry equipment, and he quickly instituted modern instruction in science. In 1819 he became the school's first professor of chemistry and natural philosophy.

After Hoge died in 1820, Cushing was named acting president, and in September 1821 he was elected president of Hampden-Sydney College while retaining his teaching position. He was the first president who was not also a Presbyterian minister. Cushing's wide-ranging operational innovations began at once and included issuing in 1821 one of the first college catalogs in America, expanding the faculty, securing more authority for professors, improving salaries, increasing enrollment (with provisions for graduate work), and improving student morale and discipline. He also broadened and strengthened the curriculum, a program of study that was not extensively modified until the 1880s.

In 1820 Cushing proposed erecting a single edifice to replace the inadequate campus buildings constructed between 1775 and 1803. He contributed $500 to the building campaign, an amount matched by fewer than ten other donors. The massive structure, which ultimately cost $45,000, went up in sections over thirteen years. Named Cushing Hall early in the twentieth century, the new structure was the college's primary building until the 1890s and continued to be used as a dormitory in the twenty-first century. The resulting criticism over the construction costs and schedule was probably a chief factor in Cushing's resignation in 1831 to accept an offer to become professor of chemistry and natural philosophy at the College of William and Mary. After reconsideration he agreed to remain at Hampden-Sydney, and the board reelected him president on 25 April 1832.

In 1823 Cushing assisted John Holt Rice in relocating the theological school that had been operating at the college since 1812 to its own permanent buildings on the south end of the campus. Revitalized, it became Union Theological Seminary in 1827 and in 1898 moved to Richmond, where it later became Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education.

The effect of Cushing's imposing stature was softened by his kindliness, modesty, patience, courtesy, and fair-mindedness. Students respected him highly as both teacher and disciplinarian. He gave liberally to purchase laboratory equipment and, mindful of his own difficulty in getting an education, quietly supported needy students, including his nephew George Washington Dame, who later became a prominent Episcopal minister and educator. Cushing had come to the school entirely by accident, but his almost eighteen-year tenure as a teacher and president was the longest before the Civil War. His remarkable combination of vision and practical sense in reviving Hampden-Sydney placed him at the forefront of its presidents.

Cushing's lively interest in all levels of public and private education, cultural advancement, and preservation of history was manifested in his founding of the Literary and Philosophical Society at Hampden-Sydney College in 1824 and also in 1831 of the Institute of Education of Hampden-Sydney College (forerunner of the Educational Association of Virginia, established in 1863). He helped organize the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society in 1831. At its founding Cushing was elected second vice president. In February 1833 he gave the society's first annual address, in which he called for its acquisition and preservation of manuscripts, papers, and books related to Virginia history.

On 30 July 1827 Cushing executed a marriage bond in Cumberland County and on that day or soon afterward married Lucy Jane Page, daughter of a Hampden-Sydney trustee. They had three daughters, one of whom died in infancy. Cushing began the school year in November 1834 in unusually good health and spirits but soon fell ill. His condition deteriorated dramatically and forced him to resign from Hampden-Sydney College late in March 1835. Hoping to find relief in the West Indies, he and his wife traveled as far as Raleigh, North Carolina, in a torturous three-week carriage trip. Jonathan Peter Cushing died there in a local hotel on 25 April 1835. He was buried in Raleigh's City Cemetery, where the trustees of the college later erected a monument. His remains were reinterred in College Presbyterian Church Cemetery at Hampden-Sydney on 25 April 1954.

Sources Consulted:
Biographies in Southern Literary Messenger 2 (1836): 163–166, George W. Dame (nephew), "Sketch of the Life and Character of Jonathan P. Cushing, M.A.," American Quarterly Register 11 (1838): 113–128, National Cyclop√¶dia of American Biography (1891–1984), 2:23–24, and Joseph D. Eggleston, "Jonathan Peter Cushing," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 39 (1931), 289–291 (silhouette portrait facing 289); Cumberland Co. Marriage Bonds; Cushing, Collections of the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society, To Which is Prefixed An Address, Spoken Before the Society at an Adjourned Anniversary Meeting…on Monday, Feb. 4th, 1833 (1833); Alfred J. Morrison, The College of Hampden-Sidney: Calendar of Board Minutes, 1776–1876 (1912), 71–108; Morrison, ed., Six Addresses on the State of Letters and Science in Virginia… (1917), 31–34, 51–53 (frontispiece portrait); Herbert Clarence Bradshaw, History of Hampden-Sydney College, vol. 1: From the Beginnings to the Year 1856 (1976); John Luster Brinkley, On This Hill: A Narrative History of Hampden-Sydney College, 1774–1994 (1994); obituaries in Richmond Enquirer, 8 May 1835, and Richmond Whig and Public Advertiser, 19 May 1835.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by John Luster Brinkley.

How to cite this page:
John Luster Brinkley,"Jonathan Peter Cushing (1793–1835)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (, accessed [today's date]).

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