The University of Virginia – Abbeville Institute

Circumstantially Southern, Scientifically American (A Story Told in the Present Tense)

When Thomas Jefferson retires from the presidency after his second term and following the example of George Washington, he cannot merely withdraw to his residence at Monticello and oversee his plantation. Retirement and withdrawal are not in his DNA, as it were. He does what he can do, while president, to instill the liberal principles of Jeffersonian republicanism, spelled out neatly in his First Inaugural Address. With the capable assistance of Albert Gallatin, he works assiduously and successfully to reduce the 83-million-dollar national debt by trimming much governmental fat—e.g., reducing the size of the navy and removing useless governmental offices. He deals successfully with the pesky Tripolitan Pirates by declaration of war, which ends successfully in a treaty of peace in 1805. In 1803, he purchases from France the Louisiana Territory—thereby, doubling the size of the nation. In 1808, there is enacted a law prohibiting importation of slaves as well as the Non-Importation and Embargo Acts, directed chiefly at England, in preference to a declaration of war.

Nonetheless, overseeing his plantation and keeping up a vigorous and rigorous correspondence on all subjects of potential benefit to humans are not sufficient to occupy the restive mind of the Virginian polymath. By 1814, Jefferson turns his attention to implementation of the upper end of the educational system of which he had lifelong been in advocation: higher education, comprising grammar schools (“colleges”) and at the highest level, a university for Virginia. Jeffersonian republicanism entails many political reforms, four of which are of singular significance: riddance of both entail and primogeniture to work toward elimination of the “artificial aristocracy” of wealth and birth, freedom of religion (viz., no federative governmental patronage of any one religion), and systemic educational reforms (creation of a centrally located university in Virginia, of a college in each of Virginia’s sundry counties, and an elementary school in each of the “wards” of each Virginian county). He writes in his Autobiography: “I considered 4. of these bills, passed or reported, as forming a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of antient or future aristocracy; and a foundation laid for a government truly republican.” During his life, he will successfully achieve three of the four reforms, needed for Jeffersonian republicanism. He will fail at systemic educative reform, due to opposition of the Virginian gentry to his plan of ward schools (TJ to Joseph C. Cabell, 13 Jan. 1823). His focus on systemic educative reform is shown in a letter to Wilson Cary Nicholas (2 Apr. 1816), “My partiality for that division [ward schools, colleges, and a university] is not founded in views of education solely, but infinitely more as the means of a better administration of our government and the eternal preservation of it’s republican principles.”

Thwarted in systemic educational reform, Jefferson turns his attention years into his retirement toward higher education, and his focus will narrow to a university for Virginia, centrally located—the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. This university will be a self-sustaining “Academical Village,” in the healthy Virginian countryside.

As seen from the south and from above, the “village” will be π-shaped. At the center and top of the π, there will the Rotunda to function principally as a library. On each side, there will be a wing of five pavilions, connected by dormitories for students. He adds in the 1816 letter to Nicholas:

As the buildings, … I would strongly recommend to their consideration, instead of one immense building, to have a small one for every professorship, arranged at proper distances around a square, to admit extension, connected by a piazza, so that they may go dry from one school to another. This village form is preferable to a single great building for many reasons, particularly on account of fire, health, economy, peace and quiet.

Each pavilion will be unique in neo-Classical design. He continues to Nicholas, “These small buildings will afford, of exhibiting models in architecture of the purest forms of antiquity, furnishing to the student examples of the precepts he will be taught in that art.” Students while beings schooled through instruction, can be also schooled through the beauty and durability of Classical architecture, which Jefferson imported into America.

The curriculum will be to teach all the sciences of utmost use to a young Virginian. As he says to John Adams (5 July 1814), “I hope the necessity will at length be seen of establishing institutions here, as in Europe, where every branch of science useful at this day, may be taught in its highest degree.” Again, he says to Joseph C. Cabell in 1820, “The greatest good requires, that while they are instructed in general, competently to the common business of life, others should employ their genius with necessary information to the useful arts, to inventions for saving labor and increasing our comforts, to nourishing our health, to civil government, military science, &c.”

The University of Virginia, he writes Destutt de Tracy (26 Dec. 1820), will be circumstantially Southern: an “institution of my native State, the hobby of my old age,” and a gift to his beloved Virginia. “Our aim [is] the securing to our country a full and perpetual institution for all the useful sciences; one which will restore us [Virginia/the South] to our former station in the confederacy,” he tells George Breckenridge (9 Apr. 1822). The sentiment here is acknowledgement of the superior academic universities, being birthed in the North: e.g., Harvard, Yale, and what is now University of Pennsylvania.

There is an important nodus. In an earlier letter to Breckenridge (15 Feb. 1821), Jefferson tells of a horizonal speck, about to become a tornado:

The reflections that the boys of this age are to be the men of the next; that they should be prepared to receive the holy charge which we are cherishing to deliver over to them; that in establishing an institution of wisdom for them, we secure it to all our future generations; that in fulfilling this duty, we bring home to our own bosoms the sweet consolation of seeing our sons rising under a luminous tuition, to destinies of high promise; these are considerations which will occur to all; but all, I fear, do not see the speck in our horizon which is to burst on us as a tornado, sooner or later. The line of division lately marked out between different portions of our confederacy is such as will never, I fear, be obliterated, and we are now trusting to those who are against us in position and principle, to fashion to their own form the minds and affections of our youth. If, as has been estimated, we send three hundred thousand dollars a year to the northern seminaries, for the instruction of our own sons, then we must have there five hundred of our sons, imbibing opinions and principles in discord with those of their own country. This canker is eating on the vitals of our existence, and if not arrested at once, will be beyond remedy. We are now certainly furnishing recruits to their school.

Jefferson’s worry is that the Northern schools, despite their academic excellence, are not inculcators of republican ideals.

And so, University of Virginia may serve as a tonic, a catholicon for the thick-government-loving Northern schools. He writes to William Giles (26 Dec. 1825): “I fear not to say that within 12. or 15. years from this time, a majority of the rulers of our State will have been educated here. They shall carry hence the correct principles of our day, and you May count assuredly that they will exhibit their country in a degree of sound respectability it has never known, either in our days, or those of our forefathers.”

The perceived greatness of University of Virginia is its liberalism. He writes to William Roscoe (27 Dec. 1820): “This institution [University of Virginia] will 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.” He echoes that notion in a letter to A.B. Woodward (3 Apr. 1825): “I am closing the last scenes of life by fashioning and fostering an establishment for the instruction of those who are to come after us. I hope its influence on their virtue, freedom, fame, and happiness will be salutary and permanent.”

The philosophical schema of Jefferson’s political philosophy is copied as much as it can be copied for University of Virginia. There is to be no president of the university (cf., Jefferson’s execration of autocratic government). Students will be housed between the pavilions of the professors, thereby encouraging the interaction between students and professors outside classroom lectures (cf., Jefferson’s requirement for maximal participation by citizens in governmental affairs). Moreover, miscreants will be policed by fellow a panel students (cf., Jefferson’s insistence on trial by juries for de facto cases).

The most significant liberal enjoyment is the novelty of elective education (cf., Jefferson’s purchase of governmental non-involvement in the lives of citizens). Each institution of the United States has a set curriculum: “the holding the students all to one prescribed course of reading & disallow[ing] exclusive application to those branches only which are to qualify them for the particular vocations to which they are destined” (TJ to George Ticknor, 16 July 1823). University of Virginia will differ. He continues: “We shall, on the contrary, allow them uncontrolled choice in the lectures they shall choose to attend, and require elementary qualification only, and sufficient age. Our institution will proceed on the principle of doing all the good it can without consulting its own pride or ambition; of letting every one come and listen to whatever he thinks may improve the condition of his mind.”

Yet, Jefferson’s aims are not so modest. Jefferson sees his university as perhaps the leading institution in America. He continues to George Ticknor in 1823, “our views are Catholic for the improvement of our country by science.” To a more intimate correspondent, Thomas Cooper (14 Aug. 1820), he says, “I contemplate the University of Virginia as the future bulwark of the human mind in this hemisphere.” The notion here is that the liberalism of University of Virginia will set a benefic precedent for Northern institutions.

At Jefferson’s university, there will be 10 professorships, with each professor having his own pavilion—five on each “arm” of the π. “No secondary character will be received among them,” Jefferson writes to William Short (31 Oct. 1819). “Either the ablest which America or Europe can furnish, or none at all. They will give us the selected society of a great city separated from the dissipations and levities of its ephemeral insects.”

Unlike today’s professors at American universities, the professors will be well-rounded academicians. He tells Joseph Cabell (23 Feb. 1824): “A man is not qualified for a professor, knowing nothing but merely his own profession. He should be otherwise well educated as to the sciences generally; able to converse understandingly with the scientific men with whom he is associated, and to assist in the councils of the faculty on any subject of science on which they may have occasion to deliberate. Without this, he will incur their contempt, and bring disreputation on the institution.”

The professors too will enjoy liberties. All professors, except the professor of law, will be at fullest liberty to select texts for instruction. He states to John Cartwright (5 June 1824) that the texts culled for the study of law at University of Virginia “will imbibe with the language their free principles of government.”

In sum, Jefferson envisages University of Virginia, uniquely Southern, to be the institutional keystone of upper-tier American education. Though it might be circumstantially Southern, it is scientifically American.