struggle to create the University
By Garry Wills
is an excerpt from Mr. Jeffersons University.
August 31, 1817, about a mile from the tiny village of Charlottesville,
Virginia, there was an odd thronging of people through an open
field. It would not take an acute observer long to see what the
were there, in full regalia, in a procession of the sort reserved
for laying important cornerstones. On they came, in graded ranks
tile-layers with swords drawn, apprentices, fellows, masters,
past masters, stewards, deacons, secretaries, treasurers, wardens,
visiting masters, substitutes, and the grand master and chaplain.
Following them were bearers of the corn and oil and wine used
in the Masonic ceremonies, and a designated orato,r and a marching
band. This might seem a disproportionately grand way to begin
constructing one building for a regional academy (Central College),
one no different from other local schools in Virginia
reason such a large crowd had assembled became clear when the
Masonic grand master handed the implements used by our ancient
fraternity the square, the plumb, and the level
to the man who would formally lay the cornerstone. This man was
the President of the United States, James Monroe, who had come
from Washington just for this event. He was a member of the six-man
board of Central College, as were two former presidents who attended
the ceremony Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The three
had marched abreast in the procession
Jefferson, who was the elected rector of the colleges board,
had filled that body with names important at both the local and
show of respectability seemed out of proportion to the modesty
of the institution they were to steer. But Jefferson did not mean
for it to remain modest.
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had already inflated it once, and was poised to do so again, immediately
after this ceremony. His first step had been to take direction,
in 1814, of a phantom school, Albemarle Academy, which had been
given a state charter in 1804 but had raised no buildings. Within
two years he had persuaded the General Assembly of Virginia to
upgrade the phantom academy into a projected Central College.
The name was carefully chosen, making the point that its Albemarle
site was less peripheral to the state than the College of William
and Mary to the east or than fledgling or projected academies
to the west (Washington College, Hampden-Sidney, and a planned
college at Staunton). As soon as the cornerstone was laid, Jefferson
meant to plead for a second upgrading, this time to university
status. If he could get funding from the state, this first building
would soon be joined by sixteen others.
took all of Jeffersons optimism to think he could succeed
in changing his little college into an ambitious university.
were serious obstacles in the way, which had baffled earlier efforts
to compete with the College of William and Mary (Jeffersons
own alma mater); and the obstacles would continue to impede him
all through the nine years of struggle toward his goal.
Jefferson needed shrewd allies to deal with this difficult relationship
(with the Virginia state legislature, whose members had conflicting
views), and he had two who were critical to his success. One was
inside the legislature, one outside it, each influential with
different segments of the population. The inside man was Joseph
Cabell, the outside man John Cocke.
Cabell was a master strategist who often had to compel Jefferson
to take practical steps to protect his idealistic dream.
Without him, Jeffersons university could never have got
off the ground.
was a reformer undeterred by Virginians opposition
to his favorite causes abolitionism, temperance, anti-dueling
laws, and agrarian reform. Though many thought Cockes views
utopian, he had a strong practical streak
had other coadjutors in his great project, but none with the energy,
intelligence, and resources of these two. He needed all that they
and their friends could offer him, since
had three great obstacles to cope withreligion, money, and
Religion. Almost all American colleges had been founded by and
for religious denominationsHarvard and Yale and Princeton
in the colonial period
Even the early state schools, like
William and Mary itself, had chapels and chaplains.
knew, therefore, that his own scheme of a state school without
an establishment of religion would be denounced.
buildings did not include a chapel, though he let it be known
that religious bodies could hold student services on their own
was concerned that when the time came to hire a faculty, qualified
men would be firmly established where they were, so he decided
to snatch at any good man whenever he became available. On the
very day after the cornerstone was laid for the first building
of Central College, he persuaded a hesitating board to lure the
polymath Thomas Cooper from Pennsylvania as the first professor
planned to have the appointment reconfirmed as soon as Central
College became the University of Virginia. But Cooper was a friend
and disciple of Joseph Priestley, the free-thinking Unitarian
driven from England by his sympathy with the French Revolution.
in Virginia, frightened of Priestleys reputation, mounted
a public campaign against Coopers appointment.
said that going against Jeffersons strong desire in this
matter made him spend sleepless nights and worry himself to the
point of a breakdown, but he had to make it clear to Jefferson
that this one appointment would sink their whole enterprise.
had to swallow his pride, spell out the facts to Cooper, and let
Copper resign (with a handsome remuneration the university could
The soundness of Cabells determination to jettison Cooper
was proved when Dr. Rice, Coopers fiercest critic
supplied Cabell with a key weapon in the fight for funding the
published an estimate of the money Virginians were sending out
of the state for the education of their sons in northern colleges,
and urged that the money be kept at home.
Money. Since Jefferson felt that at least ten professors were
needed to justify the name of a university, dealing with the entire
circle of the sciences (Jan. 5, 1815), and since he
could not call on organized religion to mobilize the kind of support
given to a Harvard or a Yale,
whole plan depended on convincing the legislature to fund a school
more ambitious in scale than the one it was already supporting
(William and Mary).
At each session of the Assembly, the two men had to lobby members
and keep arguments for the school before the public by way of
reports and planted news stories.
though he knew his own time was running out, insisted that the
university must hold off its opening until, with all buildings
up, it would be opening largely and in full system.
(Dec. 28, 1822) Jeffersons board borrowed heavily for the
effort, in the trust that the state would either suspend interest
on the loans or remit them entirely.
had counselled Jefferson against asking too much from any one
session of the Assembly. One year they got nothing at all. Each
year it was touch and go, and each years grant was resented
by different combinations of regional rivals.
Local jealousies. Friends and alumni of the College of William
and Mary understandably fought the movement to create a new university.
They did not want to see their institution demoted from its dominant
had long argued that the low malarial site of Williamsburg was
unhealthy, and that the place was becoming ever more remote from
the mass of the citizenry, which was shifting westward.
Jeffersons criticism of Williamsburg could recoil upon Charlottesville,
since sites even higher up
contended that the future belonged
to them, in Lexington or Staunton.
in 1818, when the state voted money for a university (an inadequate
annual $15,000), it did not say to which locale the funds should
determine where its initial grant must go, the Assembly ordered
that a special commission should study the merits of the contending
sites and meet at Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge to formulate
a report. The choice of that western venue boded ill for Charlottesville,
and so did the decision to let the directors of the Literary Fund
choose the commissioners.
knew the commissions report would do no good unless he could
muster popular and legislative support for it.
an elaborate set of calculations to prove that Charlottesville
was the true center of the state.
case was accepted by the commission, sixteen of whom voted for
Charlottesville and only two each for Lexington and Staunton.
the only contentious issue was settled, that of the site, the
commission took up other matters assigned it by the Assemblythe
curriculum for the university, the size of its faculty, and the
style of its buildings. On all these points Jefferson supplied
well-thought-out position papers that were adopted as the official
the report was submitted to the legislature in August, Cabell
had many months of struggle to get it accepted in both houses.
Finally, on January 25, 1819, Central College was changed
by state law into the University of Virginia
One battle over,
others lay ahead.
the book Mr. Jeffersons University by Garry Wills. Copyright
2002 Garry Wills. Reprinted by arrangement with National Geographic