Madison Cawthorn’s College Experience
Madison Cawthorn spent fall 2016 and a bit of spring 2017 at Patrick Henry College, a small Christian school about an hour’s drive west of Washington, DC. It’s my alma mater.
I attended Patrick Henry College (PHC) from Fall 2012 to Spring 2016. Madison Cawthorn arrived right as I left. I was very involved with the classes below mine, so many of my friends, roommates, mentees, and classmates interacted with him directly.
An Introduction: What’s PHC Like?
In terms of size, PHC classes usually start around 100, and diminish over time as students run into financial issues or other problems, ending up with about 55 graduating. So there’s about 300 students enrolled at any given time. Everybody knows everybody.
PHC is deeply conservative and Christian. Chapel five days a week, strict dress code, required agreement to the statement of faith, etc.
PHC also has a bit of a history with sexual abuse scandals. In 2014, Claire, Sarah, and three unnamed women came forward with their stories of having their sexual assaults swept under the rug by college administration. The key broom-holder in these stories is Dean Sandy Corbitt, who is still the current head of Student Life.
“I know him,” Sarah remembers Corbitt saying. “He’s a nice boy. Are you sure you want to report this?”…
“If you were telling the truth about this,” Sarah remembers Corbitt saying, “God would have kept you conscious to bear witness to the abuse against you.”…
Corbitt told Sarah and Rachel to forward all of Ryan’s e-mails to her and delete them from their inboxes. The dean then asked them to pull out their phones and show her Ryan’s text messages. Corbitt said to delete those, too. The dean explained that they weren’t allowed to speak of this matter outside of her office. She also forbade Sarah from seeking outside counseling. Both Sarah and Rachel feared they would be expelled if they disobeyed….
So when Corbitt strongly encouraged Sarah not to go to the police — to trust Patrick Henry College to handle this situation — she did as she was told.
When I read this piece in 2014, mid-way through my sophomore year, I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a liberal hit piece. But as time went on, and as more and more people confided in me about their experiences with Dean Corbitt, my view changed. I now absolutely believe that the described events occurred — and not only that, I believe that they occur regularly at PHC.
PHC is a pretty right-wing place. I believe it’s designed to funnel conservative youth into conservative politics. And it has its successes and failures in that mission. But really, PHC is a product of, and a force for continuation within, the culture in which it exists. When you get together 300 kids who were educated by the kind of parents who send their children to PHC, and mix in the influence of right-wing administration and donors, you end up with an interesting environment.
All PHC’s dorms are named after plantations where people were enslaved. There are no Black professors. One PHC alum who went into politics was eventually taken down because he told a Black peer that ‘at an earlier point in America’s history, he would have owned her’, and said that ‘President Barack Obama and his family should be “sent back to the fields to pick cotton.”’ A lot of the kids were raised in a Lost Cause or War of Northern Aggression environment, which PHC’s wonderful US History prof (he is wonderful and changed my life) does his best to correct, with limited success.
Women at PHC are generally expected to look for their Mrs degree, get a ring by spring (the fiancé will be kidnapped by his friends, prayed over, and thrown in the somewhat toxic lake to celebrate), and become homeschooling mothers. Patriarchy is endemic, and often overt — I had a nice conversation with a fellow student who self-described as patriarchalist over lunch, and being even moderately egalitarian made me the local feminist.
PHC students are not allowed to be queer. During my time there, a group of students founded an anonymous blog called ‘Queer PHC’. Michael Farris, the school President at the time, threatened to sue them. The effort shut down. I only heard students mention their queerness as a confession of a struggle that God had helped them overcome. Plenty of alum, though, are openly queer.
The school has no nurse (and has not had one since before the start of the pandemic) but does have armed security.
PHC is closely tied to the homeschooling movement. Most students are homeschooled. (I was!) The school shares a campus with the Home School Legal Defense Association, the organization which “led the fight against the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.” PHC and HSLDA were both founded by Michael Farris. Farris recently got press for his work trying to overthrow the 2020 election, but he’s been keeping busy running the SPLC-designated anti-LGBTQ+ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom.
To be clear, homeschooling can be done well (see the Coalition for Responsible Home Education for more info) but Farris and Cawthorn advocate for a total absence of homeschooling regulation, because it can also be used as a means to indoctrinate the next generation of culture warriors.
What did Cawthorn do at PHC?
Cawthorn arrived in fall 2016 as the ringleader of a cohort of, let’s be honest, rich kids. PHC administration had realized that most students drop out for financial reasons, and began recruiting from a wealthier pool. Parts of the school that depended on student workers -like the dining hall and custodial team- found themselves severely short-staffed.
Cawthorn’s white Dodge Challenger took a prominent position in one of the few handicapped-accessible parking spots. Freshman are not generally permitted to live off campus, but PHC does not meet ADA standards, so he lived in nearby Purcellville.
Cawthorn was the ringleader of a group of classmates known as ‘The Douche Crew’. This crew included Blake Harp, who would become his Chief of Staff, and Micah Bock, who would become his Director of Communications, along with a few other young men. That semester, there was a dramatic spike in acts of vandalism across campus. Most notoriously, The Douche Crew stole a treasured sword, a gift from a beloved former Resident Director, and put it in a bucket of concrete in the campus lake. Other events weren’t officially attributed to any group — the theft of a >$100 drone in which local police got involved, vandalism of parked cars in which campus security threatened to involve the police, etc.
Two RAs told BuzzFeed News that soon after Cawthorn arrived at PHC, they began to warn the women students in their dorms to try to avoid him and to say no if he ever asked them to go for a ride with him in his Challenger.
“I got info from other RAs to warn the female student body not to go on joy rides with him because bad things happened on those joy rides,” said Giovanna Lastra, one of the former RAs who warned her students. “Our school was filled with girls from a Christian background, and there was a high level of naivety.”
He took fellow student Caitlin on a drive, pressuring her to talk about sex for nearly 20 minutes, then recklessly drove them back to campus when she shut down his advances.
“It was really scary,” she said. “And just I remember just being very happy to make it back home safely.”
Another fellow student, Danielle, reported a similar story.
When Leah, another fellow student, refused to go on a ‘fun drive’ with him, he stalked her for weeks, eventually escalating to shouting at her in front of other students, calling her a:
“little blonde slutty American girl”
He slid his hand up a woman’s skirt in public.
He bragged about pulling a fellow student onto his lap and putting a finger between her legs as she squirmed, saying:
“Girls like that stuff.”
He was briefly engaged to a fellow student. Friends were worried about her. She has declined to talk to the press about her experience.
He exhibited a ‘rude and misogynistic’ pattern of behavior, shouting at a fellow student:
“Shut up, woman!”
He initiated unwanted conversations about the races of people’s previous partners, and said in front of multiple fellow students:
“Which race of girls gives the best blowjobs? White girls are the worst, Black girls are second, Asian girls are the best.”
A fellow student of Cawthorn’s told me that in that US History class where the professor tries to help students realize that slavery was actually bad, Cawthorn commented:
“If I had owned slaves and they had tried to escape I would have killed them.”
Cawthorn himself states that he scored a D average in his time at PHC. A student in one of his classes told me that he rarely showed up, and never completed the required class papers.
Some reports say that Cawthorn spent only one semester at PHC, but that’s not entirely accurate. On January 27, 2017, Cawthorn was still in the PHC administration’s good graces, so much so that they allowed him to give a lie-riddled speech in that Friday’s mandatory chapel session. I’m only aware of one other instance where the administration was such a fan of a freshman that they allowed such a speech.
Here’s that speech, with some timestamps and sources below.
0:07:07 Cawthorn claims that “my best friend, my brother” “leaves me in a car to die in a fiery tomb.” Yet according to local journalists and reporting, Cawthorn’s friend, with the assistance of a bystander, pulled Cawthorn from the wreckage, saving his life. In describing the friend’s actions, Cawthorn’s father said “he wasn’t scared, didn’t run from the fire, he pulled Cawthorn from the car cause he was unconscious.” To build a compelling narrative, Cawthorn is willing to skew the truth and slander the character of a friend who saved his life.
0:14:01 Cawthorn says that after his accident he told doctors that he “would be at the Naval Academy by Christmas.” Cawthorn has placed this narrative at the center of his campaign, namely that his tragic accident “derailed his plans” to attend the Naval Academy. However, in a sworn deposition from his lawsuit against his friend’s auto insurance company, Cawthorn admits that he knew before the accident that his nomination to the Naval Academy had been rejected.
What does the PHC community think of Madison Cawthorn?
Over 150 PHC students, former students, and alum signed a scathing open letter about Madison Cawthorn.
We, as alumni and former students of Patrick Henry College (PHC), oppose Madison Cawthorn’s candidacy for the United States Congress.
PHC is a small, Christian college where we were educated in intellectual conservatism and the core tenets of good governance, rooted in a deep appreciation for our country’s founding principles. Through intensive study of the classics and the writings of our Founding Fathers we learned that those seeking to represent us in public service should be men and women of good moral character. It was the “Father of Our Country,” President George Washington, who said so when he wrote to his nephew in 1790 that “a good moral character is the first essential in a man… It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous.” PHC regularly touts the placement of its graduates in positions of influence in law and conservative politics, and we take pride in that PHC cultivates citizens of upstanding moral character who will “lead the nation and shape the culture.” However, based on our knowledge of Cawthorn’s character and our experience with him as a classmate at PHC, we have determined that we must speak out and resolutely oppose his bid to represent the people of North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District.
Cawthorn’s time at PHC was marked by gross misconduct towards our female peers, public misrepresentation of his past, disorderly conduct that was against the school’s student honor code, and self-admitted academic failings.
During his brief time at the college, Cawthorn established a reputation for predatory behavior. His modus operandi was to invite unsuspecting women on “joy rides” in his white Dodge Challenger. Cawthorn would take young women to secluded areas, lock the doors, and proceed to make unwanted sexual advances. It became a regular warning in the female dorms not to be caught alone with Madison Cawthorn. Additionally, he referred to female students as “bitches” and “sluts”, both in private amongst his friends and often publicly. He also called our female peers these derogatory names when they refused to go for a ride in his car. At the beginning of the 2017 spring semester, Cawthorn shared his personal testimony at one of our campus-wide chapel services. Over the course of his testimony, Cawthorn said that he was “a top football recruit for the Naval Academy” and that after his accident he told doctors that he “would be at the Naval Academy by Christmas.” Cawthorn has placed this narrative at the center of his campaign, namely that his tragic accident “derailed his plans” to attend the Naval Academy. However, a sworn deposition from his lawsuit against his friend’s auto insurance company shows that Cawthorn knew before the accident that his nomination to the Naval Academy had been rejected.
Cawthorn recounted how “my best friend, my brother” managed to extricate himself from the wreckage of the accident and deserted Cawthorn to perish alone in “a fiery tomb.” Yet according to local journalists and reporting, Cawthorn’s friend, with the assistance of a bystander, pulled Cawthorn from the wreckage, saving his life. In describing the friend’s actions, Cawthorn’s father said “he wasn’t scared, didn’t run from the fire, he pulled Cawthorn from the car cause he was unconscious.” To build a compelling narrative, Cawthorn is willing to skew the truth and slander the character of a friend who saved his life.
Later that same semester, Cawthorn was involved in a well-documented case of vandalism. He, along with another former student, stole a commemorative sword with a deep sentimental value from one of the male dormitories. The sword was later found dumped in the college pond, covered in cement. This destructive action aptly displays Cawthorn’s pattern of disrespect for his community and blatant disregard for its values. How can someone who flagrantly disrespects the deeply held traditions of the communities they participated in, be trusted to respect our country’s most sacred institutions?
Following his departure from PHC, more information came to light about Cawthorn having groped and sexually harassed female students who believed him to be a friend. One of these cases was recently confirmed by WORLD Magazine, a conservative evangelical publication based in Asheville, NC. This student described how Cawthorn grabbed her thigh underneath her skirt and complimented parts of her body in an inappropriate way that made her feel extremely uncomfortable. The article also recounts Cawthorn taking other women to secluded areas to forcefully engage in unwanted sexual advances, which matches the experiences of women at PHC. These reprehensible actions have had lasting impacts on the women he targeted. And still many women are not ready to share their stories of what he did to them.
But we remember what Madison Cawthorn did to our community. We remember how he took advantage of our community’s trust. We remember how deeply he hurt our community. We remember that he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing who made our small, close-knit community his personal playground of debauchery. We remember that other survivors have yet to share their stories. And it is because we remember that we will not sit idly by while he is celebrated as the new face of the conservative movement, millennials, and Christians.
Therefore, we urge the voters of North Carolina to seriously reevaluate Madison Cawthorn’s candidacy in light of who he really is. Our Founding Fathers made it clear that good moral character is the first requirement for anyone seeking to represent the American people, and Cawthorn falls short of that standard. North Carolina deserves better; North Carolina demands better. So on November 3rd, reject Madison Cawthorn at the ballot box.
After the open letter was published, the Cawthorn campaign published their own endorsement letter, signed by six alum and former students, two of whom were Micah Bock and Blake Harp. The post also heavily implied an endorsement from Mike Farris, which Farris denied.
PHC administration, however, has refused to comment about Madison Cawthorn.
Cawthorn is currently up for re-election. Please consider financially supporting one of his opponents.
NC11 is a very red district, a Republican is likely to win, so the election may be decided as soon as May 17. The only Republican candidate who is willing to say that January 6th was not legitimate political discourse is Wendy Nevarez. She’s a Kinzinger-style Republican. NC11 could do a lot worse.