The Revolution and the creation of the United States of America broadened Jefferson’s vision in many ways, and by his mid-40s, he had taken to insisting that the job of reforming Virginia—above all, ending slavery, a system in which he participated—would fall to “the rising generation.” He and his fellows in the revolutionary generation had done their service by founding a new country. It was now up to the young people who inherited that legacy to carry the torch and continue the advancement of what he considered Enlightenment values. But Jefferson could not totally bow out of the quest to transform the place he was born and had long thought of as his “country.” After 25 years in national public service, he was at last able to return to the project in 1809, and he did so decidedly in his own way.
Improving Virginia’s system of education, Jefferson believed, was the foundation upon which progress would be built, and the foundation had to be laid properly. If publicly supported primary and secondary schooling was not possible, he would shift his focus. He filled his time in retirement writing and answering letters, and playing host to the hordes of visitors who came up the mountain to see him. But his main mission was planning for a university that would rival the great universities in the North. No longer would the sons of Virginia be limited to attending his alma mater, William & Mary, or traveling north to Harvard or Yale—choices that disconcerted him for different reasons.
In Thomas Jefferson’s Education, Alan Taylor—the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia—probes that ambitious mission in clear prose and with great insight and erudition. He explains why Jefferson found those educational choices so intolerable, what he planned to do about the situation, and how his concerns and plans mapped onto a growing sectional conflict that would eventually lead to the breakup of the Union that Jefferson had helped create.
From January 1862: Jefferson and slavery
Taylor demonstrates that Jefferson, who had begged to enroll at “the College” at age 16, nurtured an ambivalence about William & Mary that eventually hardened into distaste. His late-in-life accounts of his time there almost invariably cast the school in a negative light. The campus was full of rowdy and haughty young men who looked down on the townspeople of Williamsburg and were given to drink, debauchery, and violence. Jefferson admitted that in his earliest days there he had participated in some of the riotous battles himself.
Taylor cites an example from Jefferson’s first year, when “students gathered in the gallery of the Williamsburg church during services and spat and urinated on the townspeople below.” The capstone of these chaotic events had the students shooting off guns and whipping “some captive apprentices.” The students’ adolescence was part of the problem. They lacked judgment. But these young men, born and raised in a slave society, were also used to having unbridled power over other human beings. They carried this sense of entitlement with them to college. Such disdainful unruliness doesn’t fit Thomas Jefferson’s image, but chronology matters: He was a young man, and this phase of his life turned out to be mercifully short. He soon became a super-diligent student and found mentors who steered him in a different direction.