The life of Horace Holley (1781–1827) recalls a time of intellectual promise in the American republic. The New England–born, Yale-educated, Unitarian minister was an unlikely choice for the presidency of Transylvania University in Kentucky, the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains. Kentucky’s religious leaders questioned his orthodoxy; elected officials doubted his abilities; others simply found him arrogant and elitist. As president, however, Holley ushered in a period of sustained educational and cultural growth. Transylvania blossomed under his oversight and received national attention for its scientifically progressive, liberal curriculum. Lexington, Kentucky, the seat of Transylvania, benefited directly from his efforts. An influx of students and celebrated faculty lent the city a distinguished atmosphere and gave credibility to the appellation “Athens of the West.” But Holley’s story is greater than the sum of these experiences. As a young student at a rising American university, a Calvinist minister in a rural New England town, a Unitarian urbanite of national acclaim, a relocated northern Yankee in Kentucky, and president of the first and most prosperous university of the early American West, Holley symbolizes a period of rapid transformation. His experiences reflect a time when westward expansion and social progress ran against developing religious expectations and regional identities. Holley also figures prominently in the history of education in America. His innovations and missteps, successes and defeats, personal connections and bitter advisories make him an important figure not only in the evolution of an emerging state university but also in the emerging state of higher education in early America.