Garry Wills takes his turn at writing
By Matt Kelly
Jefferson the artist has long captivated historian and author
Garry Wills, whose latest book, Mr. Jeffersons University,
is an examination of U.Va.
National Geographic asked selected authors to write about their
favorite places for a new book series, U.Va. was near the top
of Wills list. Ive been visiting it for 30 years,
and it has always intrigued me because I see something new every
time, he said. It is an amazingly rich cluster of
has been writing and teaching aspects of Jefferson for years.
He once researched Jeffersons architecture for American
Heritage magazine and has taught courses at Northwestern University
on Jefferson the artist.
considerations were always really powerful for him, he said.
was aware that Jefferson struggled to create the University, but
he was not aware of all the details.
was nine years of really slugging with the legislature of Virginia,
with his own board, with his own illness, with money problems,
with worker problems, with material problems, he said. Its
just an astonishing epic achievement.
the effort also revealed the darker side of Jeffersons nature,
Will said. He envisioned a place where young Southern men would
be educated to defend the Southern way of life. Jefferson described
the Missouri Compromise, which gave the federal government the
authority to exclude slavery from the territories, as a threat
to the South, and dismissed it as restrictionism.
Jefferson did not want the youth of the South to go north for
an education and be exposed to these ideas.
knew [Jefferson] was very perturbed about losing the slave margin,
the three-fifths margin the South had because of the representation
of slaves, Wills said. He felt if they ever lost that
edge, which they would if restriction ever took place in the territories,
the Southern way of life would be done for.
was disappointed Jefferson had made this connection between his
University and preserving the Southern way of life.
in Michigan and Chicago, Wills, 68, has a doctorate in theater,
which has influenced his choice of subjects.
have always been interested in
the theatrics of power symbolizing
national meanings, he said. The presidents whom I
have written about I chose because they were lightning rods of
the popular reaction, so that what they symbolized was as important
as specific policies.
has written extensively about the Catholic Church, and his writing
career grew from his faith. He started as a reporter and political
columnist for the fledgling National Catholic Reporter in the
mid-1960s. He expanded to magazines, such as Harold Hayes
Esquire, for which he wrote three or four pieces a year, and Chicago-based
then moved into the classroom, teaching humanities at Johns Hopkins
for 18 years, followed by 22 years at Northwesterns American
Studies program. He has since given up tenure at Northwestern
to take more time to travel and write.
Jeffersons University is not Wills last word on the
third president. He is currently at work on a book on Jefferson
and slave power.
thought [restrictionism] was a tremendous threat to
the South, and only by training up people who could defend the
Southern way of life, including its terrible corollary slavery,
could he fight off the restrictionists, Wills