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Morris Academy - Co-Ed School
Barb Harnett

James Morris Jr. was born on January 19th, 1752, son of James Morris Sr. and his wife Phebe Barnes .  Their farm was located at the foot of Mt. Tom, in the area designated as South Farms, Litchfield. Travel to Litchfield Center was often difficult due to heavy snowfall and muddy roads.  In 1767, The  Ecclesiastical Society of South Farms was created by some 70 families who petitioned independence from Litchfield. James Jr. grew up as this township was formed.

The Morris family attended Dr. Joseph Bellamy’s famed services in Bethlehem.  James Jr. learned to read at four years old. He’d read the entire Bible by age 6. James Sr. a member of the Bethlehem library provided access. Dr. Bellamy ran a school, training ministers in his home.  At 18, his father conceded, allowing him to study for the ministry under Dr. Bellamy in Bethlehem.

James Morris Jr.’s thirst for knowledge led him to further continue his education at Yale, graduating on the cusp of the American Revolution.  James returned home to help his father with the farm and study once again under Dr. Bellamy. In 1776 he accepted a teaching position at a Litchfield grammar school, hoping to reimburse his father for tuition costs.  Shortly thereafter, he received an Ensign commission under Capt. Abraham Bradley, fighting in battles on Manhattan and Long Islands and White Plains, NY. ending that December.  In 1777 he accepted  a 1st Lieutenant commission under General George Washington as a Litchfield Recruiting Officer, but by October he fought in the Battle of Germantown where he was captured.  He was imprisoned for several years in Philadelphia where he was able to borrow books from Benjamin Franklin’s circulating library. He read, made notes and journaled. He concluded his military service as a Light Infantry Captain for General Washington at Yorktown, returned home on furlough to marry Elizabeth Hubbard, was reassigned to Kings Ferry and discharged, in November of 1782, at age 30.

On his return, James Morris Jr. was appointed Justice of the Peace, elected Town Selectman and then Representative for Litchfield in the Connecticut Legislature, where he served from 1798-1805.

In 1790 James Morris joined the South Farms Church and began tutoring his first pupils who were female, leading to what would later became the co-ed Morris Academy. He also created the first lending library in Litchfield, believing learning and higher education should be available to the average person.  The Morris Academy was built in 1803 by shareholder contributions from merchants, sawmill operators, farmers, innkeepers and laborers on property James purchased with his veteran’s bonus.  Moral philosophy and gardening were included in the usual academic fare.  The costs of travel, boarding and firewood could be more expensive than tuition for a 13-week term. 


Clarissa Baldwin, age 16 of Goshen, journaled her 13 week term at the Morris Academy beginning with her December 1810 arrival. Her classes, 6 days a week, began with a 9:00 AM prayer service.  Next, lessons were recited to tutors, evaluated and discussed.  After a lunch break, tutors instructed small groups of 3-6 students, continuing  ‘til after sunset when studies concluded with a prayer and students returned to the families who boarded  them.  They supped, did chores, and studied until 10PM. Wednesday afternoons were reserved for exhibitions presented by the boys. Thursday evenings James Morris lectured, and Saturday afternoons were left for laundry and mending. Sunday services were required. Industry and conscientiousness were most valued.

The Morris Academy had no set of required readings, nor any written exams and awarded no diplomas. 1240 students had attended between 1790-1888: 30% were local, 50% came from surrounding  towns, 14% from out of state and 6% from foreign countries.

Ref: Strong,Barbara Nolen, The Morris Academy Pioneer in Coeducation. Morris BiCentennial  Committee: 1976.