Augustus Woodward: A Brief Biographical Sketch of an Eccentric Madman


Augustus Woodward’s name is known across the city of Detroit, across the state and across the country as the namesake of Woodward Avenue, the United States’ first concrete paved road.  Many know him as the original designer of the fateful Woodward “hub-and-spoke” Plan for Detroit’s roadways, but few people know that he was one of young America’s most  thoroughly batshit political figures.

I became captivated by Woodward after learning about his bizarre ideas and strange personality in a class I took years ago at Wayne State on Michigan’s history.  When I asked my professor where I could find a biography on Woodward, he wondered why I would ever want to read something like that.  I had no good answer.  Still, no historian has written a comprehensive biography on Judge Woodward.

Woodward was born Elias Brevoort Woodward in 1774 to an affluent family in Manhattan.  He was notorious for constantly jotting down ideas in a small notebook he kept with him.  He eventually changed his name to Augustus because, as he put it, it better suited his personality.  Later he made  his way to Washington, D.C. where he invested in real estate and became intimate friends with Thomas Jefferson and Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the designer of Washington’s street plan.

Woodward had a vast array of interests, including astronomy.  He was particularly interested in studying the Sun and while in Washington at nineteen he published Considerations on the Substance of the Sun where he hypothesized that “the substance of the sun is electron.”

Woodward was infamous for his vanity and liked to keep an appearance as an affluent scholar and professional, despite his failing law practice. He was known more generally as “a man of middle age, a hardened bachelor who wore nut-brown clothing,” who “slept in his office which was never swept.”  I think my professor also told me he stunk.  Seriously.

As President, Jefferson, “taking pity on his poverty,”  sent Woodward to Michigan to serve as the Michigan Territory’s first judge in 1805.  Shortly after a fire burned down nearly the entire city of Detroit.  Woodward offered a “hub-and-spoke” plan based on L’Enfant’s layout for Washington, which was approved in 1807.

While Judge Woodward was away in Washington (not sweeping his office) in 1817, Governor Lewis Cass and fellow Judge James Witherell conspired to undo Woodward’s plan.  The new plan reduced the size of the massive streets proposed by Woodward and redirected certain streets so that they would avoid cutting across certain farms, including Cass’.  One street was renamed to Witherell Avenue, which was typical among officials seeking to immortalize themselves.  Woodward protested to Withrell declaring ominously,

You have well named the main avenue as Witherell, for you have withered my beautiful plan of Detroit and have spoiled the beauty and symmetry of the city of Detroit for all time!

Woodward denied that there was any vanity in naming Detroit’s main road Woodward, claiming that the street headed “woodward” into Detroit’s wilderness.  Cass and Witherell’s plan succeeded and today Campus Martius and Grand Circus Park remain the most visible remnants of Woodward’s original design.

Woodward was crushed by this incident and turned toward education.  Woodward had a vision of unifying all human knowledge into a system he called encathol epistemia, which he outlined in his book A System of Universal Science.

Excerpt from Woodward's book, A System of Universal Science

According to Woodward all human knowledge could be classified into thirteen distinct categories which were named with a mix of ancient Greek and Latin so that they could be “engrafted, without variation, into every modern language.”  The categories are: Anthropoglossica (literature), mathematica (mathematics), physiognostica (natural history), physiosophica (natural philosophy), astronomia (astronomy), chymia (chemistry), iatrica (medicine), œconomica (economical sciences), ethica (ethics), polemitactica (military science), diëgetica (historical sciences), ennœica (intellectual sciences), and catholepistemia (universal science).

While this makes Woodward sound crazy he wasn’t the only one looking for this kind of unifying system of knowledge. In fact, his greatest philosophical rival in this arena was Thomas Jefferson himself.  One of the greatest things about Woodward is that through his own bizarre behavior and ideas, he illuminates the grandiose and bizarre  intellectual mileu of the bourgeoisie at the time.  He was extremely eccentric, but not so off the mark from some of the very people deified in the American creation myth.

Woodward succeeded in founding an institution based on his philosophy, creating the first public institution of higher education in the state, and was signed into law in August 1817 by William Woodbridge on behalf of Governor Cass who was out of town.

The institution was known as the Catholepistemiad.  Nobody in history has ever known how to correctly pronounce the name.  During public hearings Cass would refer to it as the “Cathole-what’s its name.”  A state Supreme Court Justice said it was “neither Greek nor Latin nor English, but a piece of language run mad.”

The Catholiepistermserrd was to be divided among thirteen “didactors,” each an expert in their field of universal knowledge, referred to collectively as the “didaxiim.”  The didaxiim wouldn’t administer just the university, according to Woodward, but an entire universal system of education, with the power to,

establish colleges, academies, schools, libraries, museums, atheneums, botanical gardens, laboratories, and other useful literary and scientific institutions consonant to the laws of the United States and of Michigan, and provide for and appoint Directors, Visitors, Curators, Librarians, Instructors and Instructrixes among and throughout the various counties, cities, towns, townships, or other geographical divisions of Michigan.

Woodbridge granted a priest with six didactorships and a Reverend with seven — who I’m sure were known together to be ennœica, physiognostica and iatrica experts.  They would be the first and the last of the didaxiim.  The first cornerstone was laid in September 1817 and within a year an elementary school and college were based out of the building.  Soon, people got tired of arguing how to pronounce the name and Governor Cass and Judge Witherell struck again by changing the institution’s name to the University of Michigan in 1821.

Woodward was eventually appointed to another territorial judgeship in Florida by President Monroe.  He would hold this position until his death in 1827.

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