Jefferson’s Doomed Educational Experiment

The University of Virginia was supposed to transform a slave-owning generation, but it failed.

Celina Pereira

Thomas Jefferson had a severe case of New England envy. Though that region had formed the most consistent bloc of opposition to him and his political party, almost from the beginning of his time on the national stage, he admired many things about the place. First and foremost, he looked with longing toward New England’s system of town meetings, which gathered citizens together to discuss and make decisions about their local communities. Jefferson considered this form of participatory democracy crucial to building and maintaining a healthy republican society.

And then there was the region’s profusion of educational institutions. Jefferson admired those as well—even if he did not always agree with what was being taught there. The hard work of democracy, including well-ordered community decision making, required an educated populace. That is why he waged a campaign for a system of publicly supported education in Virginia for many years. In the late 1770s, while serving in the Virginia General Assembly, Jefferson proposed a bill that would provide at least a rudimentary level of education to all the children in the state—white children, of course. Among his goals was that talented youths would be, as he rather uncharitably put it, “raked from the rubbish” and given additional schooling at public expense. That proposal (along with his advocacy of making land available to the poor) went nowhere; legislators, understanding their constituents’ preferences, balked at raising taxes to pay for a communal effort to educate the state’s children.

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.

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.

Jefferson, elected governor of Virginia in 1779, included improving William & Mary in his plans for reform. At first, he was optimistic that the college could “train a new generation of young men better than their elders, who had grown up under British rule,” Taylor writes. Animated by the new spirit of republicanism and by Enlightenment values, the young men would see the importance of science, question orthodoxies—even religious ones—and work for greater participation by white men of all classes in the governance of Virginia. But the students had no interest in subjecting themselves to the hard course of study Jefferson had embraced during his time there, and the school’s dependence on fees meant that when the young men acted out, they too often escaped punishment, lest their parents object and remove them from the school. When his law teacher and friend, George Wythe, resigned from his post at the college in 1789, Jefferson declared the place dead to him: “It is over with the college.” Only a new university could carry out the plans he had for Virginia. Taylor suggests that Jefferson may have wanted not simply to replace William & Mary, but to destroy it.

Jefferson’s sense of urgency about creating a progressive institution of higher education in Virginia—one free from religious orthodoxy and steeped in republican principles—grew stronger as a deep political divide in the country formed along regional lines in the 1790s. The Federalists, who endorsed a strong central government, were largely from the North. Jefferson’s Republicans, defenders of states’ rights and yeoman farmers against what they saw as monarchical centralizers and predatory banking practices, were largely from the South. Northern universities, in Jefferson’s view, were hotbeds of Federalist influence. He wanted Virginia in the vanguard of the new American nation. That could happen only if his home state created a strong leadership class to match the one being produced in the North. Jefferson agreed with the sentiments of his much-loved nephew, Peter Carr, who wrote, “We see our youth flying to foreign countries,” by which he meant the northern part of the United States, “to obtain that of which they are deprived at home: a liberal education.”

Jefferson’s pursuit of his educational vision was intensified and complicated by the heightening tensions over western expansion in the first two decades of the 19th century. Northerners, in the main, thought that any new states entering the Union should be free states, while Southerners fully expected to move west with their system of plantation-based slavery fully intact. This conflict posed a dilemma for Jefferson, whose self-identity and reputation included being ardently antislavery. But when it became clear that many in the North wanted to push the issue faster and further than white people in the South did, Jefferson bristled. Northerners’ charge that Southerners were “hypocrites who preached democracy, while keeping slaves,” hit the author of the Declaration of Independence and the master of Monticello particularly hard.

Northern pressure to address slavery irritated Jefferson, certain as he was that no political solution to the problem was possible in his time. This deep believer in majority rule saw nothing close to majority support for ending slavery in Virginia. The volatile topic had to be left to some point in the future when the bulk of the white population could muster the will to do away with it. That outsiders would deign to tell Virginians what to do about this “domestic” institution was a bridge too far, even for a well-known critic of slavery. The young men trained at his university would help prepare their fellow Virginians to do what needed to be done.

Fearing that a dynamic North would eventually overtake his home state, which had been the most populous and powerful in the Union but began to slip in the 19th century, Jefferson was convinced that he was the perfect model for the new-age republican citizen needed to preserve its ascendancy. The college experiences that had been springboards for his career—reading widely, being a conscientious student, taking a reasoned view of religion—should be springboards for others. What he believed, one day every enlightened person would believe: that republicanism was inherently good, that organized religion should be viewed with skepticism, that Jesus was not divine, that slavery was wrong. Given access to education, people could learn to embrace all these views, thanks to their powers of rationality and openness to new discoveries. As he explained to a correspondent, his university would “be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

It should also be said that the university was, in Taylor’s words, a “delicious distraction” from family quarrels and his impending slide into bankruptcy. Once he and the board of visitors had raised enough money to begin construction in 1817, the septuagenarian Jefferson went nearly every day to observe the progress, riding down into Charlottesville in even the most inclement and dangerous weather. He often kept abreast using a telescope on the north terrace at Monticello. It was a Jeffersonian project all the way. He designed the buildings of what he called the “Academical Village” and determined the curriculum. The idea was audacious—that a great university could be built in a rural location, drawing professors from across the United States and Europe. “Mine, after all, may be an Utopian dream,” he wrote, but it was one that he would “indulge in till I go to the land of dreams, and sleep there with the dreamers of all past and future times.”

The University of Virginia, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, was controversial from the start. Was it really needed? Should the state pay money for what was, at base, an elitist enterprise? Many were also upset that the university embodied what they saw as Jefferson’s hostility to religion. It employed no professor of religion or divinity. Where a chapel would normally stand was a rotunda, a showcase of classical architecture, leading some to refer to the school as Jefferson’s “infidel” university.

And those who believe that today’s universities are awash in politics would be aghast at Jefferson’s nakedly political plans for the school. He was adamant from the start that the university be staffed with professors committed to sound liberal and republican principles and to secularism, eschewing what he saw as the Federalist bent of northern schools. The professor of law, especially, had to be a Republican of correct principles.

There was a problem. A revolution had taken place since he had attended college, but the students who came to Jefferson’s new university were just as violent, lazy, and contemptuous of their supposed inferiors as his college peers had been. Jefferson said that the institution would be based on the “illimitable freedom of the human mind,” but his everyone-should-be-like-me approach did not take into account the upbringings of the young men who would attend the university. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he had written of slavery as a school for “despotism” for white people, and he later blamed slavery for the social and intellectual backwardness of Virginia.

But the Revolution had left slavery in place. It remained a training ground for despots. Jefferson apparently believed that taking these young men out of their homes and placing them away from a town or city, with professors as mentors, would turn them into open-minded citizens—just what he thought had happened to him in his college days. They would have an advantage: living in a newly constituted republican society that had discarded monarchy and an established religion. He was counting on people warped by slavery to usher in a new enlightened age.

In reality, gathering a group of young despots in one place brought a predictable outcome: They became obstreperous and used their power to hurt the most vulnerable people in their midst. Taylor is superb on the mistreatment of the enslaved who worked at the university. Enslaved people had helped build the school. Once it opened, they maintained the physical structures—repairing and cleaning them—and served the professors, some of whom bought or hired their own slaves from local slave owners. Jefferson forbade the students to do so. But the young men had internalized the idea that they were “masters” and should be able to hit or punish black people at will, whether or not those people “belonged” to them. And the students got into fights with one another, too. After one large fracas, which broke out half a year after the university opened and required the board of visitors to confront the students who had misbehaved, Jefferson was so overcome with disappointment that he cried and was unable to speak.

In the end, the elite among the generation on which Jefferson pinned so much hope were as impervious to their professors’ teachings as many of Jefferson’s classmates had been. The lack of a chapel did not make them religious skeptics. In fact, subsequent generations of UVA students became even more religious, as did the country during the Second Great Awakening. Instead of viewing slavery as a necessary evil that would die out, they came to openly espouse the belief that slavery was a positive good, as the prices of slaves rose with the nascent increase in cotton production in the South. In these and other ways, the young men deviated far from the direction in which Jefferson was certain “progress” inevitably would take them.

Only after many years, and much struggle, did the institution Jefferson created take its place among the great universities of the nation and of the world. Much had to be broken to get there: the slaveholders’ Union that existed before 1865; the institution of slavery; the regime of Jim Crow, which kept black students out of the school; and the principle of sex-segregated education. Ironically, given Jefferson’s hopes for a regional resurgence, the transformation of the nation at large was what helped his state-based dream of educational excellence come true.

This article appears in the December 2019 print edition with the headline “What Jefferson Couldn’t Teach.”

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