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Penn People

Robert Davidson 1750 - 1812

Penn Connection

  • A.B. 1771, A.M. (ad eundem) 1780, D.D. (hon.) 1784
  • Professor of Greek and Latin languages 1780-1782
  • Professor of History 1782-1784

Robert Davidson was born in Elkton, Maryland in 1750. He entered the College of Philadelphia in 1768, graduating as valedictorian of his class in 1771. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Davidson studied for the Presbyterian ministry and was ordained by the Second Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1753. He served as an assistant to Dr. John Ewing of the First Presbyterian Church until he left Philadelphia in 1784.

In 1780, Davidson was appointed professor of the Greek and Latin languages at the University. His title was changed to professor of history in 1782, the first and for a long time the last instance of that title being used. While at the University, Davidson received an honorary master’s degree in 1780 and an honorary doctor of divinity in 1784.

At the outbreak of the Revolution, Davidson spoke so frequently and vigorously on behalf of the revolting patriots that when the British occupied Philadelphia, he was forced to retire unobtrusively to Delaware.

After resigning from the University in 1784, he was elected vice president and professor of history, geology, chronology, rhetoric, and belles-lettres at Dickinson College, which had just been established in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He soon became pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Carlisle, and was chosen moderator of the General Assembly there in 1796. He returned to Dickinson College in 1804 as professor of moral philosophy, and was soon elected president of that institution. He resigned from both posts in 1809 in order to devote his time to his ministerial duties.

Davidson was acquainted with eight languages, well read in theology and in the sciences, and particularly fond of astronomy. He was also a member of the American Philosophical Society, into which he was inducted in 1783. Davidson produced several published works. His pamphlet, Geography Epitomized; or, a Tour round the World: Being a short but comprehensive Description of the Terraqueous Globe attempted in Verse for the Sake of the Memory: And principally designed for the Use of School, first appeared in 1784. Other editions of the pamphlet were printed in London in 1787 and at Burlington, New Jersey, in 1791. In 1811, Davidson published The Christian’s A. B. C., or the 119th psalm in metre, each octave commencing with the appropriate letter of the alphabet, with the exception of Q, X, and Z; a New Metrical Version of the Psalms followed in 1812. He also left behind him twenty manuscript volumes of sermons and scientific lectures, as he always entered the church or classroom with his discourse completely written out.

Davidson was married three times, though the identity of his first wife is not known. His second wife was Margaret, daughter of Hon. John Montgomery of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, whom he vowed to marry after her care and nursing had kept him alive when he beame dangerously ill while a student of divinity. On April 17, 1810, a year after Margaret’s death, Davidson married Jane Harris, daughter of Hon. William Harris. Davidson died in Carlisle two years later, on December 13, 1812.