The Education of Robert Lewis Dabney

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Bradley Bond

Advisor Department



The dissertation is divided into two parts. The first section focuses on Dabney's formal education as well as the influences that shaped both his intellect and mindset. Born into the antebellum Virginia gentry, young Dabney received training in arithmetic, Latin, and classical literature to prepare him for his expected collegiate instruction. However, his upbringing on the family plantation, combined with his parents' devotion to orthodox Calvinism, also exposed him to hierarchical, segregated society that imprinted upon Dabney racist and elitist attitudes that he retained throughout his life. At Hampden-Sydney College, the shy matriculant not only whetted his appetite for learning, but a religious revival on campus stirred within the young pupil a genuine commitment to the Lord. Financial difficulties back home forced Dabney to withdraw from Hampden-Sydney during his junior year. Nevertheless, he eventually enrolled at the University of Virginia, where he earned his masters of Arts degree. Although the persnickety Dabney complained about the school during his study in Charlottesville, he later regarded Jefferson's university as the finest anywhere. Dabney received his doctorate of divinity from Union Theological Seminary, which enabled him to enjoy a thirty-year career as a professor at Union. The second part highlights many of the contemporary issues that plagued both Union Theological and American education. The dissertation relates the Civil War's impact upon the seminary, as well as Dabney's service in the Confederate army. Lee's surrender at Appomattox ushered in a number of changes that the reverend abhorred. Dabney's antipathy toward the Yankee impositions of Reconstruction, and, worse, the offensive suggestions proffered by his fellow Virginians during the period (repudiating state debt and public education) are discussed. Hoping to revive the struggling seminary during Reconstruction, Union's board of directors endeavored to boost the institution's endowment and student population by promoting sectional reconciliation and abandoning its commitment to Old School Calvinism. The new agenda did not suit the conservative professor. Consequently, Dabney left the school at which he had spent the bulk of his adult years for a professorship at the University of Texas.