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Thomas S. Kidd on Thomas Jefferson and The University of Virginia

Thomas S. Kidd—

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,” Jefferson told Adams in 1816. One such dream was his university. Like his idea of the ward republics, Jefferson had been thinking about a new Virginia university for a long time. He told his spiritual advisor Joseph Priestley about the prospective college when they began corresponding in 1800. The College of William and Mary, Jefferson wrote, was “just well enough endowed to draw out the miserable existence to which a miserable constitution has doomed it. It is moreover eccentric in its position, exposed to bilious diseases as all the lower country is. . . . We wish to establish in the upper & healthier country, & more centrally for the state a University on a plan so broad & liberal & modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support.” He hoped that Priestley would help him plan the university, and perhaps become one of the professors. Priestley sent Jefferson works by Thomas Cooper, Priestley’s fellow philosopher-scientist, who also struck Jefferson as an excellent faculty candidate. Jefferson would come to regard Cooper as “one of the ablest men in America,” though Cooper’s reputation for religious skepticism would cause serious problems for Jefferson’s scheme.13

Priestley gave Jefferson extensive suggestions about how to structure a university, but he was reluctant to join the faculty. In any case, Jefferson would have to wait until well after Priestley’s death in 1804 for the university to become a reality. Virginia politicians rarely found any schools “worth patronizing with the public support,” so Jefferson would have to scramble to get the new school going. He latched on to an existing scheme for an “Albemarle Academy” that the legislature had incorporated but that had not opened as of 1814. Jefferson and his legislative allies partially funded the academy through the sale of Episcopal glebe lands, property that had come to the church via its established status prior to the Revolution. By 1799, there was a popular movement to sell these lands and use the proceeds for projects, including schools. Jefferson and the trustees of Albemarle Academy got the name of the school changed to Central College, paving the way for it to become a university. Governor Wilson Cary Nicholas (whose ill-fated loan would soon complete Jefferson’s financial ruin) recruited a powerful Board of Visitors, including the successive presidents James Madison and James Monroe.14

Finally, the board purchased land for the college just west of Charlottesville in 1817, using funds from the glebe sales. Board members and local supporters held a cornerstone-laying ceremony, with Scripture readings and rituals led by a Masonic grand master. Freemasonry was an Enlightenment religious and social movement in Europe and America. Its adherents claimed to be restoring pure biblical religion. Freemasons emphasized virtue and downplayed sectarian theology. Jefferson was not a Freemason, but he had “great respect” for them, and President James Monroe (who attended the event) and other influential state politicians were Masons. Thus Jefferson was eager to have the university “commence under the regular auspices of this antient fraternity.”15

It is routinely said that Jefferson wanted the University of Virginia to be a “secular” institution. Certainly it was to be a state-run, nonsectarian school. “Secular” may be misleading, however, as that term implies “irreligious” today. The university reflected Jefferson’s own religious commitments. Jefferson was willing to accommodate the religious sensibilities of supporters, as seen in the Masonic ceremony. The university would decenter churches, chapel, and clergy, and focus on modern science as well as Christian-themed subjects including ethics, history, and classical languages. Jefferson’s brand of secularism in education and politics did not entail the absence of ethics and religion, but it did mean freedom from denominational control (as seen in the ward republics). If anything, it was Jefferson’s political enemies who wished to portray the University of Virginia as secular. Associating a public school with irreligion was a major liability in antebellum political culture.16

Even the decentered layout of Jefferson’s “academical village” had ethical purposes. Instead of having the university centered on one main hall, he wanted to avoid any “large & common den of noise, of filth, & of fetid air. It would afford that quiet retirement so friendly to study, and lessen the dangers of fire, infection & tumult.” (Jefferson could not resist the construction of the Rotunda, modeled on the Roman Pantheon, as a central building. As predicted, it was a routine site of fire and tumult during the 1800s.) “Large and crowded buildings in which youths are pent up,” he continued, “are equally unfriendly to health, to study, to manners, morals & order.” Although Jefferson at times expressed distaste for formal instruction in ethics, his college was still designed for the moral formation of its students based on Christian principles of the type that made it into Jefferson’s extracts from the Gospels.17

13. TJ to John Adams, Aug. 1, 1816, in Cappon, Adams-Jefferson Letters, 485; TJ to Joseph Priestley, Jan. 18, 1800, in PTJ; TJ to Joseph Cabell, June 27, 1810, in PTJ.

14. TJ, Draft Bill to Create Central College and Amend the 1796 Public Schools Act [ca. Nov. 18, 1814], in PTJ; Thomas E. Buckley, Establishing Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Statute in Virginia (Charlottesville, Va., 2013), 99.

15. TJ to Alexander Garrett and Valentine W. Southall, Sept. 23, 1817, in PTJ; Alan Taylor, Thomas Jefferson’s Education (New York, 2019), 195; Garry Wills, Mr. Jefferson’s University (Washington, D.C., 2002), 21–22; Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (New Haven, Conn., 2017), 76–78; J. Jefferson Looney, “From Academy to College to University: The Prehistory of the University of Virginia,” in John A. Ragosta, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy, eds., The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University (Charlottesville, Va., 2019), 15–16. Jefferson has frequently been identified as a Freemason, but there is no definitive evidence to suggest that he was one. “Fraternal Organizations,” in Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Monticello.org, https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/fraternal-organizations.

16. Daniel Walker Howe, “Religion and Education in the Young Republic,” in Wilfred M. McClay, ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2007), 404.

17. TJ, “To the Trustees of the Lottery for East Tennessee College,” May 6, 1810, in PTJ; TJ to Nathaniel Bowditch, Oct. 26, 1818, in PTJ; M. Andrew Holowchak, Thomas Jefferson’s Philosophy of Education: A Utopian Dream (New York, 2014), 69; Julie A. Reuben, “The Changing Contours of Moral Education in American Colleges and Universities,” in Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben, eds., Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University (Durham, N.C., 2010), 30.

From Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh by Thomas S. Kidd. Published by Yale University Press in 2022. Reproduced with permission.

Thomas S. Kidd is Research Professor of Church History at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and former distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. His books include Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father and Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis.

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