Rhode Island

George Berkeley, World-Famous Philosopher, Moves to the Wilds of RI in 1729

Bishop George Berkeley was a world famous Anglo-Irish philosopher by the time he stepped onto dry land in Newport, R.I., on Jan. 23, 1729.

Berkeley famously asked the question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” His answer: Yes, because God heard it.

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George Berkeley by John Smibert

Not every 18th-century philosopher agreed with Berkeley’s argument that reality isn’t separate from perception. But today philosophy professors rank him up there with his contemporaries, David Hume and John Locke.

So what was he doing in colonial Rhode Island?

He came to America because he intended to open a college in Bermuda. He believed the Protestant religion had lost ground, and America was the likeliest place to make up for what was lost in Europe.

George Berkeley

George Berkeley was born in his family castle in County Kilkenny. By the time he arrived in Rhode Island, he had already established a lasting reputation as a philosopher, taken holy orders in the Church of Ireland and been named Dean of Derry.

George Berkeley and his new wife bought a farmhouse in Middletown, R.I. When he enlarged the home he called Whitehall, he remodeled the door case in Palladian style. By doing so he introduced Palladianism to America.

Trinity Church, on Queen Anne Square in Newport, R.I., founded in 1698. The current building was built in 1726.

While Berkeley awaited funds for his college to arrive, his wife gave birth to a son, who survived, and a daughter, who didn’t. They buried Lucia Berkeley  in the Trinity Church yard in Newport.

While in America, Berkeley wrote a book, preached at nearby churches and founded the Philosophical Society, which became the Redwood Library. Fittingly, he also wrote the poem, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.

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The Redwood Library, courtesy Library of Congress.

The money for his college never arrived, so he departed for England in September 1731. He gave his library and Whitehall to Yale College, stipulating the income from the property support three Yale scholars. Yale named one of its colleges after him.

Yale rented the building as an inn for many years. The portrait painter Gilbert Stuart’s grandfather ran it and Dr. Alexander Hamilton stayed there. 

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Whitehall today

Whitehall fell into a state of neglect until 1899, when the Colonial Dames of America got a 999-year lease on it. They commissioned Norman Isham to restore two rooms. Today it is the Whitehall Museum House, at 311 Berkeley Ave.

For information about visiting hours in the summer, call 401 846-3116 or email [email protected].

And yes, Berkeley, Calif., was named after Rhode Island’s prominent visitor.

Images: Whitehall By JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23611134. Trinity Church By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21777526. This story was updated in 2021.

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