Eighteenth-century Rhode Island’s most famous scholar was Irish clergyman George Berkeley (pronounced Barkley), an Anglican essayist and philosopher, who renovated and resided at the beautifully preserved Whitehall Farm in present-day Middletown during his eventful stay in America from 1729 to 1731.
Berkeley was born in Dysart Castle in County Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1685. He was educated first at Kilkenny College and then at Trinity College, Dublin, where he received a master’s degree in 1707 and became a lecturer in Divinity, Greek, and Hebrew. In 1724, he was appointed the Anglican dean of Derry.
After periods of extensive travel in Europe, Berkeley crossed the Atlantic in 1729 to inquire into the condition and character of the North American Indians, a journey undertaken in expectation of a royal grant for founding a college for Native American youth on the island of Bermuda. By accident or design, he landed in Newport in the company of Scottish-born artist John Smibert, who had earlier visited Boston and was returning to America after a period of study at Rome and London,
So warm was the welcome accorded Dean Berkeley by the local Anglican community in Newport’s Trinity Church and at St. Paul’s in Narragansett that Berkeley stretched his anticipated brief visit into a two-and-a-half-year stay. He bought a hundred-acre farm for his residence and remodeled its modest house into a stately mansion he called Whitehall.
Berkeley was already famous as a great philosopher because of his early treatises expounding a neo-Platonic theory of reality called subjective idealism, a belief that the world, as represented by our senses, depends on its existence by being perceived by the mind.
Great crowds from all denominations attended his regular lectures at Trinity Church.
A mile south from Whitehall, on a rocky promontory commanding a view of the ocean, Berkeley had a favorite retreat where he kept a wooden chair and writing apparatus in a natural roofed alcove. It was probably here that he wrote two of his most celebrated works–Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher, attacking those who based morality on “public benefit” rather than on a belief in God, whose existence, said Berkeley, “is the guaranty not only of the reality of the perceptible world but also of the moral”; and the poem “On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” best remembered for the oracular line “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”
Still hoping that the grant of government funds for building his college would materialize, Berkeley continued his interest in the welfare of the Indians and made repeated visits to the Narragansett Country with Smibert, Cocumscussoc proprietor Lodowick Updike, and the Reverend James MacSparran, the Anglican rector of St. Paul’s Church. Berkeley came to believe that Rhode Island was a much better place than Bermuda for his college; he especially liked a site on Hammond Hill in North Kingstown.
However, the college grant was never made, and a disappointed Berkeley returned to Ireland in 1732 to continue his illustrious career as a philosopher of idealism and a critic of prevailing mathematical theory. In 1734, he was consecrated bishop of Cloyne, presiding until his 1752 retirement to Oxford. He died in that university town in the following year.
The memory of Berkeley in America was most conspicuously honored when his name was selected in 1866 for the University of California, Berkeley, and the city that grew up around this school. The trustees of the institution, originally called the College of California, were inspired by Berkeley’s Verses about “Planting Arts and Learning in America.” The only flaw in their gesture was the mispronunciation of his surname.
Berkeley never forgot his sojourn in Rhode Island. He sent a handsome organ from England to Trinity Church and donated valuable Latin and Greek classics to Harvard. He also provided that Whitehall and its library of some five hundred volumes should go to Yale College upon his death. At that time, both Harvard and Yale were under Congregational auspices. Berkeley’s ecumenism and love of learning transcended sectarian boundaries.
Bishop George Berkeley was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1998.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.