View of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville and Monticello, Taken From Lewis Mountain (1856) by Casimir Bohn/E Sachse & Co. Courtesy Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA


Jefferson’s university

Thomas Jefferson founded a university believing it would safeguard republican freedom. Slavery was another matter altogether

by Alan Taylor + BIO

View of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville and Monticello, Taken From Lewis Mountain (1856) by Casimir Bohn/E Sachse & Co. Courtesy Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA

I teach at the University of Virginia, where the 19th-century founder has become controversial and divisive. For many students, alums and state legislators, Thomas Jefferson remains a pioneer of higher education and a champion of democratic values. But critics charge that Jefferson imbued the university with a malign legacy by holding scores of people in slavery and expressing a racist rhetoric that contradicted his sporadic statements of antislavery principle. The university’s home city, Charlottesville, has ceased to celebrate Jefferson’s birthday. The campus’s most conspicuous statue to Jefferson now attracts both Leftist vandals and rallies by neo-Confederates, to the equal discomfort of those who find enduring value in his ideas.

Used to separating people sharply into villains or heroes, Americans struggle to accept that a person of the past might both inspire as a democrat and alarm as an exploiter, and could promote both higher education and racist speculation. It could balance our assessment if we restored Jefferson to his own revolutionary times, when leaders promoted a new culture appropriate to their radical new form of government: a republic. Jefferson tried to navigate a narrow course by advancing democracy without directly confronting the slave system of his beloved Virginia. His solution lay in founding a university.

Isaac Granger Jefferson (1775 -1846) formerly enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. Daguerreotype. Courtesy the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

Rejecting rule by kings and aristocrats, the leaders of the American Revolution designed a new, more participatory form of government, known as a republic. They regarded that republic as precious yet vulnerable to both internal subversion and foreign intervention by hostile monarchs and nobles. American leaders noted with alarm that previous republics in Europe had been short-lived and usually small: cantons or city-states. How then could a vast union of diverse American states sustain a form of government that had always failed in the past?

America’s revolutionary leaders insisted that republics required an educated citizenry – in contrast to monarchies that dominated by dazzling subjects who remained ignorant and credulous. In a republic, common men were sovereign, so they had to protect their rights and perform their duties as citizens. Otherwise, they could be duped by reckless demagogues who appealed to resentments, provoking violent anarchy. In such a nightmare scenario, a military despot – an American Caesar – would seize power to restore order at the expense of free government. Or a foreign power might invade to impose rule by aristocrats and a king.

In 1805, Jefferson noted: ‘I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession, unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.’ Another early governor of Virginia asserted in 1806 that education ‘constitutes one of the great pillars on which the civil liberties of a nation depend.’

Rejecting the colonial legacies of monarchy, the American founders wanted the next generation to learn a new culture appropriate to a republic. In Pennsylvania, a leading reformer, Benjamin Rush, insisted: ‘We have changed our forms of government, but it remains yet to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners so as to accommodate them to the forms of government that we have adopted.’ Schools needed to produce well-informed protectors of republican government. ‘If the common people are ignorant and vicious,’ Rush concluded, ‘a republican nation can never be long free.’ He sought ‘to convert men into republican machines’ in order to ‘fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.’

During the colonial era, only New England’s towns had sustained public grammar schools, and those towns mandated just a few weeks of schooling in the winter when family farms needed less labour. Elsewhere in the new nation, grammar schools were fewer and reliant on private tuition – which excluded the poorest people. Throughout the new union, the children of wealthy families could learn Latin, advanced mathematics and some science by going on to private academies. Fewer young men went on to colleges, which were even more expensive and exclusive. Neither women nor African Americans could attend, and most young white men could not afford the tuition. In 1800 the United States had only 18 colleges. The largest, Yale, had 217 students that year. Collectively just 1,200 students attended college: a mere 1 per cent of adolescent males in the country.

Education seemed especially poor in Virginia, the union’s most powerful and important state, which lacked any public schools and had one college, William and Mary, in financial decline. Most adults could neither read nor write. Wealthy planters educated their own children with tutors or at private schools. Loath to pay higher taxes to educate common whites, the gentry preferred to hire tutors to prepare their sons for private academies and colleges, often in another state.

Jefferson distrusted Virginia’s county elites as self-perpetuating cabals of selfish men. He sought to erode their power by introducing a more meritocratic political system through improved public education. He distinguished between the old ‘artificial aristocracy’ of inherited privilege and a new ‘natural aristocracy’ of virtue and talents. Despite inheriting wealth and slaves, Jefferson considered himself a natural aristocrat because he defended the interests of common men. Above all, Jefferson sought to educate their children, who would learn the principles of republicanism. Informed citizens would elect as their leaders the natural aristocrats committed to defending free government. Some of those common students might learn enough to rise into the higher ranks of society. In 1813, Jefferson preached that ‘Worth and genius [should be] sought out from every condition of life, and compleately prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth & birth for public trusts.’ He’d told George Washington in 1786: ‘It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan.’ Government had to act through education to reshape society for the benefit of everyone.

Jefferson dared not challenge the powerful slaveholders, who meant to keep enslaved people illiterate

In 1778, Jefferson proposed a radical educational system meant to transform Virginia along republican lines. To weaken the counties, he would subdivide them into several ‘hundreds’, each the size of a township, where through direct democracy the voters would build schools and hire teachers to educate every white girl and boy. The best boys (but no girls) would advance to county academies where the rich would pay tuition but the best poor boy from each hundred school would earn a charity scholarship. In turn, the finest charity graduate from each academy would merit a college scholarship. Jefferson explained that, under his three-tiered system, ‘the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.’ His programme had two goals, both political: to train for republican leadership ‘a few subjects in every state, to whom nature has given minds of the first order’ – and to enable every common man ‘to read, to judge & to vote understandingly on what is passing’.

Jefferson’s proposal provided scant education for girls and none for African Americans, who were two-fifths of the population. He dared not challenge the powerful slaveholders, who meant to keep enslaved people illiterate and dependent. Nor could he conceive of emancipation unless linked to mass deportation of freed people far away to Africa. In 1796, he rebuffed a Quaker abolitionist who proposed to raise charitable funds to educate slaves. Jefferson warned that schooling could only deepen the unhappiness of slaves with their lot: ‘Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other.’ While seeking to uplift poor whites through education, he meant to keep Blacks in slavery and ignorance until some uncertain future when they could be freed and exiled from the state.

Despite Jefferson’s concessions to racial and gender inequality, the state legislature baulked at adopting his educational plan, deeming it too expensive. Most legislators preferred to keep taxes low as the best way to win re-election. One leading Virginian, William Branch Giles, declared in 1818 that, if poor people wanted to educate their children, let them drink less whiskey and spend the savings on tuition. Giles sought to ‘teach the citizen that it is his indispensable duty to educate his own child; that it is a right sacred and unalienable.’ Therefore, any government that taxed all citizens to educate the poor man’s son would ‘make itself a despotism and himself a slave’. Nothing alarmed a white slaveholder more than the prospect of a powerful government treating him like a slave by raising his taxes.

In 1796 – 18 years after Jefferson’s initial proposal – the state legislature passed a watered-down version of his proposal. That bill invited every county government to implement Jefferson’s system with county, rather than state, taxes to finance it. No county did so. Jefferson protested that ‘the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to [the] kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.’

The failure of Jefferson’s proposal distressed the small pool of well-educated Virginians. In 1809, the state’s governor, John Tyler (the father of a future president of the same name), complained: ‘Scarcely a common country school is to be found capable of teaching the mother tongue grammatically.’ He blamed the parsimony of state legislators appealing to the cheapest instincts of the voters: ‘He who can go back from the assembly and tell his constituents he has saved a penny secures his popularity against the next Election.’ Visionary leaders insisted that preserving a republic required improving the common people through education. But a republic empowered common voters who lacked schooling, and they often baulked at paying for others to go to school. They also thought that the future voters needed no more education than they had received.

After retiring as president of the United States in 1809, Jefferson sought to revive his vision of democratic education for Virginia. During the late 1810s, the state expected a windfall in federal money to reimburse Virginia for damages and expenditures incurred during the war of 1812. The state also reaped new funds by chartering bank and canal corporations. The enhanced revenue, however, would suffice only to fund either a new state university or a broad system of local, public schools for common people – but not both. One leading legislator, Charles Fenton Mercer, proposed to prioritise state funds for primary schools as the way to help most people and to best bolster republican government. Jefferson disagreed.

He and his legislative allies favoured building a university located in his hometown of Charlottesville. Erecting Jefferson’s expensive architecture sucked up most of the state’s funds for education. Jefferson knew that a university would depend on paying customers drawn from the elite families of Virginia. Never quite the egalitarian that Americans sometimes wish him to be, he believed in elite rule; he just wanted to improve the planter class into a meritocracy through education. He reasoned that the new university would train leaders, who would, during the next generation, democratise the state and in the future create a public system of schools to benefit common white people.

Few of Virginia’s legislators, however, shared Jefferson’s longer-term vision for a more democratic state. So he pitched his university on more conservative grounds: as the best way to defend Virginia’s way of life against meddling northerners. During the 1810s, Virginia’s leaders became sensitive to northern criticism of their slave system. The criticism made them dread the increasing power of northern states in the union thanks to a more rapid population growth in that region.

Declaring that ‘knowledge is power’, Jefferson claimed that Virginia was losing clout in a union that he imagined as a zero-sum game. If northern states were winning, his state was losing. Rather than improving after the republican revolution, education had decayed in Virginia. Jefferson lamented:

The mass of education in Virginia, before the revolution, placed her with the foremost of her sister colonies. What is her education now? Where is it? The little we have we import, like beggars, from other states; or import their beggars to bestow on us their miserable crumbs.

Appealing to the force of racism, in 1820 Jefferson warned the state’s leaders that Virginia risked ‘the degradation of becoming the Barbary of the union; and of falling into the ranks of our own negroes.’

These genteel young men learned to resent any effort to control them as treating them like slaves

Jefferson promised that a university would rescue Virginia from its economic and political decline in the union. He touched a nerve, for state legislators shared his dread of domination by Yankees. His protégé, Francis Walker Gilmer, warned that an educational gap exposed Virginia to invasion by tricky northerners venturing south for economic gain: ‘These rascals are overrunning the country; squatting everywhere, turning teachers, politicians, &c. and our legislature will soon be filled with them.’ Virginians worried that northern instructors would take over their common schools and academies, corrupting their nation’s youth with northern values. Many young gentlemen left the state to study at northern universities.

Virginia’s leading newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer, endorsed a new state university as the best means to avoid losing the new generation. With considerable exaggeration, the editor, Thomas Ritchie, calculated that 500 young Virginians annually went to northern states for higher education. Many, Ritchie warned in 1805, ‘return[ed] fraught with the most pernicious prejudices’ – by which he meant antislavery ideas. In fact, young Virginians clung to their prejudices in a strange land. For example, the Virginian Hugh Blair Grigsby denounced his professors at Yale as ‘a diminutive and low-minded set’ of ‘canting hypocritical wretches, who come from New England’. But fear trumped reality to persuade leading Virginians that they needed to repatriate their young men by building a new university.

Jefferson baulked at confronting the prejudices of his fellow Virginians, especially the majority who defended slavery. In 1785, when only 42 years old, he announced that it was too late for him to transform society. Let younger men take the lead in emancipating the enslaved and democratising the state constitution: ‘It is to them I look, to the rising generation, and not to the one now in power, for these great reformations.’ Students were supposed to accomplish what Jefferson and his generation could not, or would not, do. By building a university, Jefferson claimed to keep faith with his radical goals, even as he backed away from pushing them. In 1810, Jefferson explained: ‘The boys of the rising generation are to be the men of the next, and the sole guardians of the principles we deliver over to them.’

Gambling that the sons of wealthy planters would liberalise Virginia in the future was a desperate bet. At a new university, Jefferson would have to remake young Virginians, but it was quixotic to expect other Virginians to emulate the self-discipline that led him to devote his life to mastering a daunting array of languages, literatures and sciences. Other genteel Virginians enjoyed life more than books. They ate, drank, laughed, gambled, hunted and danced but rarely studied. During the 1780s, a visitor concluded:

Self-content, the Virginian avoids all efforts of mind and body involving anything beyond his pleasure. He reads, but he does not study so as to make a display of learning … Thus the young people of Virginia follow after their fathers.

Jefferson confronted this aversion to intellectual life within his own family. His son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes, warned his son (and Jefferson’s grandson) that too much learning ‘crouds the brain with so many ideas as to prevent the exertion of Jud[g]ment which alone renders them valuable.’ His boy should study only during ‘the time not occupied by useful and necessary recreation.’

Southern gentlemen attended college to test and refine their masculine honour – and to watch one another for weaknesses. External appearances and performances seemed more valuable than acquiring abstract knowledge. They cherished flashy and fashionable attire, elegant posture, polished manners, lavish generosity at buying drinks for friends, witty conversation, and prowess at playing cards. Growing up in slave-owning families, these genteel young men learned to bully and dominate – and to resent any effort to control them as insulting, as treating them like slaves. When insulted, they challenged one another to duels. Hot, impetuous and impatient for honour and superiority, young gentlemen presented a daunting challenge to any reformer who aspired to create a brave new generation of improved Virginians.

The University of Virginia opened in 1825, and building the university had expended the state’s bounty, leaving no money for scholarships. Giving priority to his expensive architectural design for the institution, Jefferson had forsaken his original educational plan to provide charity scholarships to promote social mobility. Reliant on tuition for operating costs, the University of Virginia (UVA) charged more than any other college in the union. Almost all the students came from wealthy southern families that held many people in slavery. Drunken and riotous, the students defied the authority of their professors, harassing them at night and beating two of them. Jefferson despaired when he discovered that his own pampered grand-nephew, Wilson Miles Cary, was a ringleader of the disturbances.

The university didn’t reform the southern students, who dominated the university. True to the interests of their privileged families, UVA graduates resisted democracy and clung to slavery. As lawyers, planters, state legislators and constitutional delegates, they opposed expanding the electorate, rejected proposals for public schools, and blasted antislavery ideas as treasonous. Instead of inspiring liberal reformers, the new university prepared leaders for a southern Confederacy that rebelled against the union in 1861.

Today, the University of Virginia has become far larger, more complex and cosmopolitan. During the past 60 years, it made new commitments to diversity and equal opportunity, including the long-overdue admission of women and African-Americans. We can celebrate the university for what it has overcome, rather than for how it began. By changing, it honours the principles that Jefferson expressed, but had failed to secure in his own time: the pursuit of democracy, the expansion of public education, and the pursuit of truth wherever it leads. We need statues of past leaders less to inspire us with reverence than to remind us of our complicated past and the difficulties of achieving reforms. At UVA, Jefferson’s statue will always mean different things to various people. For me, it brings to mind a cautionary tale of great value: that even the most talented men could take the wrong turn.

Jefferson’s notion of reforming society through generational change persists in how Americans think about education today. We continue to treat educational reform as the easiest, cheapest and best way to improve US society. Adults seem too set in their ways and ideas to sway. By contrast, young people appear malleable. If shaped by suitable teachers, the young can grow into the sort of people that Americans want, and produce a better society in the next generation. But we cannot agree on the right means, such as more testing for students or more money for schools, or on the ultimate goals: to remake students into consistent egalitarians or rugged individualists.

We expect schools to remake students into the sort of people that we cannot persuade our contemporaries to be. This places unrealistic expectations on teachers, schools and students. Adolescents have their own passions and interests. If you want to change society, you had better do so more directly rather than through school curriculums that you imagine will incline young people to do your future bidding. However, by improving conditions in schools, we enhance teachers’ ability to inspire and inform students, who need the resources to decide for themselves how to become creative and responsible citizens. Good schools are sufficient ends in their own right.