Conflicted Vision: Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia

Conflicted Vision: Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia

by Alan Taylor

Review by James J. Carpenter

            In any discussion of early America and public education, Thomas Jefferson inevitably plays a central role. For many, he “remains one of democratic education’s founding fathers” (Neem, 2013, p. 3). Jefferson’s Bill for the General Diffusion of Knowledge called for a three-tiered system of public schooling that would, according to Wagoner (2004), “elevate the mass of people to the moral status necessary to insure good government and public safety and happiness” (p. 34). Jefferson’s vision for Virginia schools would fall victim to the political realities of that state, save for the eventual establishment of the University of Virginia in 1819. Indeed, the university is one of three accomplishments Jefferson had engraved on his tomb, along with being the author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

            Like most of Jefferson’s life, there is a considerable volume of literature on his educational views and his plans for improving education in his beloved Virginia (e.g. Addis, 2003; Conant, 1962; Gilreath, 1999; Heslep, 1969; and Wills, 2002). I was curious, therefore, to read Alan Taylor’s latest work entitled Thomas Jefferson’s Education. Was this a description of Jefferson’s personal educational odyssey or was this another discourse on his educational philosophy and plans for public schooling in Virginia?  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was both and more. Taylor successfully weaves Jefferson’s fight to advance public education in Virginia with stories of a wide variety of individuals who supported or resisted his goals. Furthermore, he situates these often bitter political struggles in the context of a stratified Virginia society built on a foundation of enslaved labor.    

Indeed, Taylor’s description of a complicated social milieu often seems to be the real subject of his book. At first, as a reader, I was distracted by the many anecdotes and stories Taylor offers as illustrations for the contesting forces that impacted Jefferson’s goal of free public education for white males. It is only when the reader sits back and focuses on the entire mosaic rather than on the individual tesserae that Taylor’s story becomes clear. He rather quickly addresses the failure of Virginia’s legislature to approve Jefferson’s plans for publicly funded elementary and secondary schools and focuses on Jefferson’s goal for a public university that would rival Harvard and Yale.

            Taylor places this struggle to create the University of Virginia in the context of powerful cultural forces within the state – and by extension throughout the South – and thereby creates a fascinating subtext for his book. The primary forces at work were the increasingly rigid attitudes regarding slavery and the strict adherence to the gentry’s belief in their privileged status including their preference for drinking, gambling, and dueling in defense of their honor. Taylor masterfully posits these societal flaws against Jefferson’s wishes to create a university which would train leaders who would reform Virginia. Jefferson envisioned this next generation of leaders would further republicanism by adopting “a more democratic state constitution for white men,” by embracing his goals for public education for all white children, and by emancipating but deporting slaves (p. 307). Jefferson’s hopes for the future evolved during a period where regional bitterness was hardening at an alarming rate, an extreme bitterness Joanne Freeman (2018) has described as a violent “cultural federalism” (p. 50). Southern politicians increasingly saw the Union as endangered by northern political and economic interests which would put the South at a distinct disadvantage. Southern fathers did not want their sons attending northern institutions of higher learning for fear they would be corrupted by antislavery ideas and dangerous democratic ideas of equality. Instead, southern “gentlemen attended college to hone social skills and cultivate social networks” (p. 82). Additionally, “fathers wanted sons to develop a robust sense of honor,” including choosing dueling over accepting insults (p. 83). And, as Taylor describes, their sons whole-heartedly bought into their privileged status; to the extent that they believed themselves exempt from obeying rules and policies implemented by those they believed to be of inferior status including their professors. Indeed, according to Taylor, this strategy at times worked all too well. Most of Virginia’s young gentlemen “became petty tyrants” to the state’s enslaved population (p. 83).

            It was in this social and cultural milieu that Jefferson and others in Virginia’s founding generation tried to re-establish that state’s prestige. As other states, especially in the North, gained in population and in political influence, these aging leaders identified education as the means to restore Virginia to what they believed to be her rightful status. The College of William and Mary was in decline since the state capitol had moved from Williamsburg to Richmond and Jefferson saw this as an opportunity to build a new university, one that would embody his philosophical beliefs and be free from any religious connections. Taylor describes Jefferson’s reliance on his chief lieutenant in the state legislature, Joseph C. Cabell, and his efforts to thwart other attempts to construct a university in locations other than Charlottesville. Many personalities are presented in this account; some famous like James Madison, Patrick Henry, and James Monroe and others less so, such as the Scottish teacher James Ogilvie, the mercurial John Randolph, and Jefferson’s rival for controlling the fledgling university, John Hartwell Cocke.

In detailing how he secured his beloved university, Taylor sheds light on Jefferson’s complex personality. For example, in constructing the university Jefferson dismissed the idea of sharing state education allocations with two other campuses he ridiculed as “’local interests’” while remaining oblivious to the parochial nature of his own plans (p. 198). Believing “that only architectural grandeur could attract many students” (p. 211), Jefferson’s construction costs exceeded both the state appropriations and private monies raised through subscriptions leaving the university with no money for scholarships for deserving students. As a result, only sons of the wealthiest Virginia families could afford to attend causing the university to “suffer from their homogeneity and sense of entitlement” (p. 214).

            Known for his pleasing manners and hospitable nature, Jefferson could also be sharp and intransient on issues he deemed important. His insistence that the university be free from religious influence and that there be no professor of divinity alienated many Virginia Christians, especially Evangelical Episcopalians and Presbyterians, leading to contentious struggles with the university’s Board of Visitors and state political leaders. Though he expressed a faith in the free expression of ideas, Taylor describes how Jefferson “assumed that the free pursuit of truth always led to his conclusions.” His university would be a bastion of republican orthodoxy free from “Federalist “’heresies.’” For example, Jefferson selected political readings that “favored states’ rights over national consolidation” as texts for the professor of law to use (p. 238, emphasis added to first quote). Republicanism was the litmus test in hiring for Jefferson. Therefore “no Federalist need apply to become professor of law at the University of Virginia,” regardless of his qualifications (p. 239). Far from promoting a democratic education, Jefferson often endorsed a more authoritarian approach in managing the day to day issues at his university.

            Today the University of Virginia is one of the most respected public universities in the United States. It is fondly referred to as Mr. Jefferson’s university. The picture Taylor paints of the early days of the university is at odds with what it has become. Plagued by low enrollments and financial problems, it initially housed a student population more dedicated to drinking, gambling, and carousing than to studying. Students accustomed to privilege and power frequently fought, rioted, mistreated slaves, and disrespected faculty, with one student actually fatally shooting a professor. Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, things began to change, albeit slowly. By the mid-1840s, the university could afford to grant scholarships to deserving but less affluent students. Increasing enrollments led to greater numbers of Christian students who would have been unacceptable to Jefferson. Faculty hires became less political and rule changes on campus led to less violent and more sober student behavior. By the eve of the Civil War, the University of Virginia was becoming a major academic institution though not as envisioned by its famous founder.

            The evolution Taylor describes contains many ironies. For example, while largely ignoring the need to educate women beyond what was required to be a good wife (though he did promote learning for his own daughters and granddaughters), it was Jefferson’s daughters and granddaughters who became “teachers of a new generation of women” and who managed to save their family financially after the Civil War (p. 315). And Taylor masterfully describes the problematic relationship between Jefferson’s primary objectives for students who attended the University of Virginia. One goal was to produce republican leaders who would protect the rights of states against what he perceived as an increasingly threatening union controlled by northern politicians. His second objective was that these more enlightened leaders would reform Virginia, especially by first ending slavery and then deporting the formerly enslaved out of the United States, thereby ridding the country of its original sin. Jefferson failed to see these two goals as being contradictory. As Taylor demonstrates, the next generation did defend states’ rights in ways Jefferson could not have imagined. And rather than seeing slavery as a sin to be abolished, Virginia leaders promoted slavery as a positive institution which protected an inferior race. Ultimately, the university students did not “uproot slavery as Jefferson had hoped,” but instead “defended it and served the Confederacy in the Civil War” (p. 307). In delineating this progression to the potential dissolution of the union Jefferson had helped create, Taylor not only has made a valuable contribution to the literature on Thomas Jefferson’s impact on education but also to that of the history of education in the United States and to that of sectional development in ante-bellum America.    


Addis, C. (2003). Jefferson’s Vision for Education, 1760-1845. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Conant, J. B. (1962), Thomas Jefferson and the Development of American Public Education. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Freeman, J. B. (2018). The field of blood: Violence in Congress and the road to civil war. New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gilreath, J. (Ed.). (1999). Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen. Washington, D. C.: The Library of Congress.

Heslep, R. D. (1969). Thomas Jefferson & Education. New York, NY: Random House.

Neem, J. (2013). Is Jefferson a founding father of democratic education? A response to “Jefferson and the ideology of democratic schooling.” Democracy and Education, 21 (2), Article 8. Available at

Wagoner, J. L., Jr. (2004). Jefferson and education. (Monticello monograph series). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Wills, G. (2002). Mr. Jefferson’s University. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

One thought on “Conflicted Vision: Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia”

  1. Question: Were doctors who performed surgery in the 1800s barbaric butchers who didn’t care if their patients lived or died?

    Or were they simply the product of their times, ignorant of concepts like germs and bacteria, and doing the best they could with the situations they found themselves in?

    Do you see the parallel I am drawing here?

    Of course the ‘peculiar institution ‘ of slavery as practiced in the Southern states was abhorrent. It dehumanized an entire race of people based solely on the color of their skin.

    But if you LIVED DURING THAT TIME, it was viewed as a mainstream practice in society, particularly in the South. Nothing can change that about our past.

    Here are some thoughts to consider:

    If the same logic that is used to discredit the leaders of this era, who happened to own slaves ( Jefferson, Washington, etc) were to be applied in today’s world, then no socially conscious person should ever own or even ride in a Volkswagen or Mercedes, given the Nazi-stained past of those German companies.

    Likewise, no election held before the 19th Amendment was ratified should be viewed as anything but illegitimate, since women couldn’t vote.

    You want to castigate the leaders and disparage the social hierarchy of the 18th and 19th century by applying modern sensibilities to their times, which is intellectually dishonest, and literally casts aside some of the MOST enlightened thinkers and leaders of the last 500 years.

    Slavery has existed throughout human history. It was in NO WAY unique to the Southern states, nor was the South the last place on Earth to abolish the practice.

    Why intelligent modern Americans can’t separate in their minds the amazing things some of the people of this era accomplished, from the unfortunate baggage the practices of their time included is beyond me.

    Put it this way: In 50-100 years, if climate change turns out to be MUCH WORSE than even the most strident alarmists of today are saying it might be, do you want your grandchildren to look back on YOU as some kind of Earth destroying mongrel?

    Do you drive a car that is powered by gasoline? Do you occasionally eat beef? Do you enjoy air conditioning during the summer?

    Fast forward, say, 95 years – how will those practices look in the eyes of a society that may be decimated by climate change?

    Do you see the parallel I am drawing here?


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