A new classic about Thomas Jefferson and public education in Virginia
by James C. Sherlock
On April 29, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed a group of Nobel laureates at a dinner in their honor at the White House.
Kennedy, a raised, classically educated patrician and versed in war and politics, graciously toasted another of these men.
I think it’s the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been brought together in the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
The polymath Jefferson saved the indulgence of a great passion, public education, and the creation of a new style of American university, until his last years.
Influenced early by the educational writings of Sir Francis Bacon and John Locke, he completely reinvented higher education in America from what by 1800 consisted largely of a few colleges teaching religion and the classics under and church funding.
Jefferson’s idea of the university was an institution funded by the state and teaching republican ideals for the preservation of the form of government that he and the other founders had worked so hard and risked so much to create.
His idea emphasized teaching history, languages, Enlightenment principles and science, with graduate schools of law and medicine. Of these disciplines, he believed that history was the most critical of all for the preservation of freedom.
He banned the teaching of religion in his university. The powerful evangelical Christian churches in Virginia were not amused. They and the Federalists fought it endlessly and almost won.
Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy has written a vivid and vivid account of these contests and of Jefferson’s indomitable skill and endurance to confront and overcome opposition to his vision.
Mr. O’Shaughnessy has endowed historians, educators and the public with Unlimited freedom of the human spirit: Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a university from the University of Virginia Press. It is available on Amazon and other outlets.
Vice President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, O’Shaughnessy broke new ground in this book. His post allowed him to do new research on Jefferson’s retirement correspondence and on the original manuscripts relating to the beginnings of the university.
In doing so, he created a history of the development of a basic higher education system that Americans take for granted, but which in fact has been a hotly contested thing.
Jefferson’s political philosophy was based on limited government. Nonetheless, he wanted the state and local governments of Virginia and the entire new nation to sponsor a system of public education. He understood that education was a fundamental requirement for maintaining a robust republic.
Mr. O’Shaughnessy writes:
Jefferson viewed intellectual freedom as the most important of all freedoms, but realized that its full expression depended on political and religious freedom.
Jefferson wrote to William Roscoe on December 27, 1820 that the university was to serve as a citadel for
… the unlimited freedom of the human spirit. for here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it leads, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is free to combat it.
The quest to turn this vision into reality began early and then dominated Jefferson’s life from the end of his presidency in 1808 until his death on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
From Monticello, Jefferson waged an 18-year battle with the politically powerful Presbyterians, in particular, and with the Federalists to create such a university with General Assembly funding and to build it in Charlottesville.
He had to deploy all his relational, organizational, intellectual, editorial and political qualities to carry out his last major project. His Rockfish Gap Report provided the full master plan for his university. It is still considered one of the most important treatises on education ever written.
The financing of his university, like his personal finances, pursued him to the end.
Recognizing both his scholarship and his financial difficulties, Congress purchased Jefferson’s personal library to replace the one lost when the Capitol was burned down by the British in 1814. By the time of his death, he had created a new one which served as the envy of all.
Mr. O’Shaughnessy renders this whole story as the epic it was.
He wrote his eloquent book with a sure touch, provides plenty of new information, and fills its 262 pages with some of the greatest men who have ever served Virginia and the nation.
Jefferson’s vision of a university was personally and professionally supported at every step by James Madison and James Monroe, among many others. Their sometimes clandestine use of the press to support their vision is one of the great revelations of the book.
Longtime allies against state-backed religion, Madison and Jefferson served on the university’s first Board of Visitors. Monroe replaced Jefferson on this board upon the latter’s death. The three together laid the foundation stone of Charlottesville in 1819.
Jefferson wanted three of his accomplishments recognized on his tombstone: his authorship of the Declaration of Independence; its Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty; and his founding of the University of Virginia.
Mr. O’Shaughnessy has written a book worthy of Jefferson and his university.
This is less the story of the University of Virginia and more of the final act of one of the greatest men in history.