The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University


August 17, 2020
by Kelly Mielke Also by this Author


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The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University, edited by John A. Ragosta, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy, (University of Virginia Press, 2019).

Revered by many for years, the University of Virginia boasts both of its academic reputation as well as its distinctive founder, Thomas Jefferson. As the collection of essays that comprise The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University demonstrates, the school is intimately tied with the founding of the country not only via its distinguished founder, but also through Jefferson’s vision for the institution as a key tool in maintaining the ideals set forth by the founding generation. Passionate about both education and maintaining political as well as mental liberty in the newly founded nation, Jefferson envisioned a system of public education that would produce a nation equipped with the mental faculties to continue and build upon the new national foundation. The University of Virginia is the fruition of Thomas Jefferson’s educational dreams.

This collection of essays, originally delivered as part of the University’s bicentenary celebration,provides a close examination of various aspects of the school’s founding and offers insightful analysis of Jefferson’s theories on education as well as his methodologies for implementing those theories. Central to Jefferson’s concerns and his theories on education lay the maintenance of the new republic and the cultivation of the younger generation in order to equip them to carry on the work of the Founders. Divided into four thematic sections, the essays tackle a wide array of issues relating to both the institution, its founder, and its intended role in the new nation. Altogether, these thoughtful essays present readers with a nuanced understanding of education in the early republic, Jefferson’s own theories about education, and the ways in which divisive political issues revealed themselves at the University.

The first section, “Young Leaders of the Republic,” offers a glimpse into the young men who attended the University in its earliest days, including the disappointing flaws of behavior that Jefferson sought to overcome with the design of his University. The second section, “Building and Idealized Academical Village” dives into the details of how the University came to be located in Charlottesville and the careful attention Jefferson paid to its construction in order to support and achieve his vision. These first sections highlight how Jefferson, although dedicated to extending his vision for an educated public in the new nation, specifically curated his university to meet the needs of the South after European education became less suitable and less viable for citizens of the new American republic. Furthermore, southerners found themselves wary of exposing their youth to the influence of schools in the North. While Jefferson’s University catered to the needs of educating southern men, herein lay obstacles to Jefferson’s own hopes for his University—including many of the behavioral issues Jefferson found dismal— while simultaneously perpetuating the institution of slavery that lay fundamentally at odds with the ideals of freedom and liberty.

To this end, Maurie D. McInnis’s essay, “The Liberty and Tyranny of Jefferson’s Academical Village” examines the ways in which the University perpetuated the culture of the aristocratic white male. Young southern white men away from home for the first time often used their position over slaves as a way to assert dominance and develop independence in keeping with the ideals of the society in which they had been raised. As McInnis observes, students were not allowed to bring slaves of their own to campus, and yet slavery was ever present and the school in fact depended upon slave labor to keep operating smoothly. By extension, the presence of slaves on campus gave young white men ample opportunities to practice dominance. Just as the perpetuation of slavery was at odds with the nation’s ideals at its founding, so this perpetuation of the system of slavery at the University of Virginia stands in stark contrast to Jefferson’s ideals of education as a means to maintain liberty.

The last two sections of the book “Jefferson’s Mind for the University” and “An Educated Nation,” dive into particulars of education and curriculum that provide interesting insights into contributions pioneered by the University of Virginia in fields like medicine and law as well as providing insight into Jefferson’s own mind and his passion for his own continuing education. Readers may be familiar with a Thomas Jefferson quote in which he simply stated, “I cannot live without books.” An essay by Jurretta Jordan Heckscher demonstrates exactly how important books were to Jefferson and the careful attention and care he gave books in his own collection as well as those he curated for the University’s library. As readers will see, Jefferson truly found a friend in the printed page. Interesting as well given Jefferson’s strong advocacy for freedom of religion is a particularly nuanced essay by Cameron Addis that examines the place of religion at the University. Unique among other colleges and universities at the time, Jefferson’s university was not affiliated with a religious denomination, nor were students required to attend or receive religious education while in attendance. This does not mean, however, that religion was completely absent, especially in light of events such as the Second Great Awakening.

Overall, this collection of essays has a lot to offer and touches on a variety of subjects in relation to the founding of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s theories on education and its role in the new country, and the continuing impact of the University on education. Most of the essays are concise and the volume includes numerous illustrations throughout. Given the wide scope of topics these essays explore, some readers are bound to be more interested in some topics than others. However, the expansive selections of this volume also invite readers beyond those who are interested in Jefferson to include those who are intrigued by the history of education in the early Republic. To those who are not only interested in but perhaps also work in educational fields or university settings, Jefferson’s theories on education, the way he implemented them in his university, and the way these legacies extend to the modern day will be especially interesting.

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