Author and history professor Dorothy Boyd-Rush
Molding a founding father
According to James Madison, success began with his first teacher, Donald Robertson
By Dorothy A. Boyd-Rush, Ph.D.
INDIVIDUALS SURROUNDED BY MYSTERY are often described as "intriguing" and "fascinating." Unfortunately, they can also be referred to in less-flattering terms. Terms like "maddening," "frustrating" and "disappointing" immediately come to mind. One such maddening and intriguing individual was Donald Robertson, an 18th-century teacher and schoolmaster in Colonial Virginia. One of his pupils, late in life, reportedly stated that "all that I have been in life I owe largely to that man." That pupil was none other than James Madison, fourth president of the United States and a man not given to making casual compliments.
For a man who undoubtedly influenced the lives of many in the school he established in King and Queen County, Va., we know remarkably little about Donald Robertson - beyond the obvious: That he must have been an extraordinary teacher and likely the first to expose the minds of his pupils to the ideas of the Enlightenment, the political questions of the age, the classics and the boundless capabilities of the human spirit.
At the personal level, Robertson was a Scotsman, born in Aberdeen on Sept. 27, 1717, to Charles Robertson and his wife, Isabella McDonald. The father was an ardent supporter of the Stuarts, even participat-
ing at the age of 65 years at the disastrous battle of Culloden in 1745. The son did not. He was then married and living in Edinburgh.
Donald Robertson's first wife was Henrietta Maxwell, from an influential family who supported the Hanoverian government rather than the Stuarts during the Jacobite revolts of the 18th century. Probably due to the depressed conditions in Scotland during the 1740s, Donald Robertson set sail for the New World in 1752, shortly before the death of his mother and the death of his wife. Robertson's Latin Bible records not only his date of birth but also the date of his arrival in Virginia, the latter occurring on March 29, 1752. The entries recorded in his Bible are cited in a family history published in 1897 by one of his descendants, William Kyle Anderson, but, unfortunately, the whereabouts of the Bible today is unknown.
After arriving in Virginia, Robertson had no difficulty finding employment. Given that he attended the University of Edinburgh and was very likely a licensed preacher of the gospel, he was immediately hired by Col. John Baylor of New Market, a prominent member of the community in King and Queen County, which was created from New Kent County in 1691. After several years of being a successful tutor, Robertson, in a characteristically entrepreneurial move, decided to establish a private boarding school in the area in which he had been living. Donald Robertson's school was located on a farm overlooking the Mattapony River, about four miles above the present Dunkirk Bridge, where King and Queen County and King William County converge. Nothing remains of the original brick structure. As King and Queen County is one of Virginia's "burnt counties," next to nothing remains of the records associated with any of Robertson's holdings. Both his real and his personal property are largely left to the imagination. Two exceptions include a tax record for 1782 that surfaced in 1961 after being missing since 1864, a record that indicates that Robertson's land holdings in 1782 consisted of 150 acres, and one volume devoted to King and Queen County in the Virginia Colonial Abstracts series that records the sale of 31 slaves after the death of Robertson's wife in 1799.
After being a widower for more than 11 years, at the age of 47 years, Donald Robertson married for the second time. His second wife was Rachel Rogers, a daughter of John and Rachel Rogers. The family was well connected in the 18th century and likely to be in the news again next year. Rachel's older sister, Ann, married a neighbor, John Clark. One of their older sons was George Rogers Clark, a hero of the American Revolution, and one of their younger sons was William Clark, whose journey of exploration in the company of Meriwether Lewis will be celebrated in 2004.
Robertson and his wife were the parents of three children. Their eldest son was named Charles, and he died at an early age. Their second child was a daughter, Lucy, who subsequently married into one of the oldest families in the area. The last child was another son, Isaac. He was only 7 days old when his father died and just 16 when his mother died. It was Isaac's grandson who wrote the family history in 1897.
One of the very few sources of information about Donald Rob-ertson is an account book that he kept from 1758 to 1775. In it he records the names of those who attended his school, what he charged for books imported from abroad, laundry done under the supervision of his wife, and the instruction given in various subjects and languages, including Greek and Latin. He additionally records the expenditures he made for household repairs, hiring teachers and seeing to the everyday needs of his pupils.
When the young James Madison lost a hat in 1764, Robertson's account book records that it was replaced for the small sum of 16
shillings and six pence. The account book has been meticulously conserved and is in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society. Unfortunately, very little of Robertson the man comes through in the pages of the account book. We learn what he stocked for his pupils, that he was a meticulous bookkeeper, and that he had little inherent faith in the honesty of those with whom he did business, but nothing about what he believed, how he dealt with people and what he held to be important.
The only extant letter that Donald Robertson is known to have written is in the collection of the Library of Virginia. It was written in 1775, during the era of the American Revolution, to a merchant in Scotland and alludes to individuals known to both parties. Since it was bound for an enemy port, the letter was intercepted and confiscated. Nothing in this letter indicates that Robertson was personally involved in the political struggles of the day. No other letters remain. Similarly, although Robertson is known to have prepared texts in his own hand for some of his pupils, none of these texts can be located today.
The only items known to have been brought by Robertson from Scotland to the New World, in addition to his Latin Bible, were several massive silver spoons inscribed with the initials "D.R." The family history written in 1897 notes, in passing, that the spoons were melted down by a granddaughter and fashioned into a communion service to honor the memory of her grandfather and her mother, Robertson's only daughter, Lucy. The communion service has disappeared.
Robertson died in 1783 at the age of 66. While the places where he might have been buried constitute a short list, it is nevertheless true that his burial place cannot be established with certainty today.
Who was Donald Robertson? What was there about Robertson that made such a lasting impression on a future president of the United States? It's hoped that future research will uncover additional information, just as it is hoped that future research will ultimately reveal the ancestral origins of the Madison family in Europe. That being said, even without additional information, the conclusion is clear. Robertson shaped the thinking of a future president and helped prepare him for advanced study at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), an institution heavily influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment. He, in turn, was remembered by the former president at the end of his long and illustrious career as someone to whom he was still indebted. Like so many teachers, Robertson made a difference.
About the Author
Past president of the Virginia Genealogical Society, former book review editor for the Association of Professional Genealogists' Quarterly and partner in Lot's Wife Publishing Co., Staunton, Dorothy A. Boyd-Rush is a JMU history professor and affiliated with the James Madison Center. She has given numerous national and regional presentations on local history and genealogical research.