Oct. 25-Nov. 7, 2002
Back Issues
Garry Wills takes his turn at writing U.Va. history
Headlines @ U.Va.
Lampkin named new VP

Wanted: Minority grad students

Faculty Actions -- from the October BOV meeting
New director has familiar face
The struggle to create the University -- excerpt from Mr. Jefferson’s University
Grounds Keeper
Nursing enrollment, ranking on the rise
Opportunity key to library’s outlook
‘With Good Reason’ turns 10
Talk maps out path of early explorations
Dove’s play debuts in C’ville
America’s global stature Levinson Lecture focus
Tears for the Earth
Bond package to spur research

The struggle to create the University

By Garry Wills

This is an excerpt from Mr. Jefferson’s University.

On 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 occasion was.

Freemasons 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 …

The 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 college’s board, had filled that body with names important at both the local and national level.

This 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.

About the series

The National Geographic Directions includes the work of prominent novelists, nonfiction writers, poets, and playwrights, many of whom have never written about travel. The authors bring strong personal voices and a fresh perspective to the genre.

Titles include: A Writer's House in Wales by Jan Morris; Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks; Southwestern Homelands by William Kittredge; The Mays of Ventadorn by W.S. Merwin; South of the Northeast Kingdom by David Mamet; Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill by A.M. Homes; The Island by John Wideman; Sicilian Odyssey by Francine Prose.

He 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. …

It took all of Jefferson’s optimism to think he could succeed in changing his little college into an ambitious university.

There were serious obstacles in the way, which had baffled earlier efforts to compete with the College of William and Mary (Jefferson’s 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.

Joseph Cabell was a master strategist who often had to compel Jefferson to take practical steps to protect his idealistic dream. … Without him, Jefferson’s university could never have got off the ground.

John Cocke … was a reformer undeterred by Virginians’ opposition to his favorite causes – abolitionism, temperance, anti-dueling laws, and agrarian reform. Though many thought Cocke’s views utopian, he had a strong practical streak …

Jefferson 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

he had three great obstacles to cope with—religion, money, and local jealousies.

l. Religion. Almost all American colleges had been founded by and for religious denominations—Harvard and Yale and Princeton in the colonial period … Even the early state schools, like William and Mary itself, had chapels and chaplains. … He knew, therefore, that his own scheme of a state school without an establishment of religion would be denounced. … His seventeen buildings did not include a chapel, though he let it be known that religious bodies could hold student services on their own…

Jefferson 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 of chemistry.

He 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. …

Presbyterians in Virginia, frightened of Priestley’s reputation, mounted a public campaign against Cooper’s appointment. …

Cabell said that going against Jefferson’s 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. …

Jefferson had to swallow his pride, spell out the facts to Cooper, and let Copper resign (with a handsome remuneration the university could ill afford).

… The soundness of Cabell’s determination to jettison Cooper was proved when Dr. Rice, Cooper’s fiercest critic … supplied Cabell with a key weapon in the fight for funding the university.

Rice 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. …

2. 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,

his 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. …

Jefferson, 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) Jefferson’s board borrowed heavily for the effort, in the trust that the state would either suspend interest on the loans or remit them entirely. …

Cabell 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 year’s grant was resented by different combinations of regional rivals.

3. 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 position. …

Jefferson 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.

…But Jefferson’s criticism of Williamsburg could recoil upon Charlottesville, since sites even higher up … contended that the future belonged to them, in Lexington or Staunton.

Thus, 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 go. …

To 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. …

Jefferson knew the commission’s report would do no good unless he could muster popular and legislative support for it. … he prepared an elaborate set of calculations to prove that Charlottesville was the true center of the state.

His case was accepted by the commission, sixteen of whom voted for Charlottesville and only two each for Lexington and Staunton. …

After the only contentious issue was settled, that of the site, the commission took up other matters assigned it by the Assembly—the 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 findings.

Though 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.

From the book Mr. Jefferson’s University by Garry Wills. Copyright 2002 Garry Wills. Reprinted by arrangement with National Geographic Society.




© Copyright 2002 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

UVa Home Page UVa Events Calendar Top News UVa Home Page