Mr. Jefferson's University [Secure]
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by Garry Wills
Description: In Charlottesville, Virginia, at the University of Virginia, there is today--beneath the irregular rhythms of modern student comings and goings--a severely rhythmic expression of the Enlightenment, a philosophy concretized in brick and timber. The play of one architectural element into another is meant to express the interconnectedness of all knowledge. It is Jefferson's last but not his least achievement, and one of the three things that he put on his own tombstone to be remembered by. In important ways, this architectural complex is a better expression of Jefferson's mind than is his home on the hill overlooking the campus. Chance had a great deal to do with the way Monticello grew up over the years. But everything in the university's structure was planned, to the last detail--a meticulous ordering that is both romantic and quixotic. It is a place of study that itself repays study, and makes on lost world of the 18th century only half lost after all.
eBook Publisher: Random House, Inc./National Geographic,
eBookwise Release Date: June 2007
Available eBook Formats [Secure - What's this?]: OEBFF Format (IMP) [1.3 MB]
The Struggle to Create
On October 6, 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. (G1.14) Following them were bearers of the corn and oil and wine used in the Masonic ceremonies, and a designated orator (Valentine Southall), 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, Hampden-Sidney say, or Washington College (it would later be Washington and Lee). The humpbacked site was cut and scarred with ongoing efforts to grade it, placing the new building asymmetrically on the western edge of a ridge of land more carefully leveled. Piles of freshly kilned bricks stood ready for use. White workers and black slaves moved around the outskirts of the crowd, waiting for it to disperse so they could go to work on the construction.
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, followed by a second rank of their fellow board members. William Thornton, the architect of the United States Capitol, when he read a newspaper report of the event, wrote to Jefferson: "I was also pleased to see an account of the meeting of such distinguished characters as the three presidents of the United States on so praiseworthy an occasion. How different to the meeting of the three emperors on the continent of Europe, after a bloody battle!" (G 1.6-7)
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. 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. The board was holding a special two-day meeting to plan this move.
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. Any artist needs means and material to create with. The means often come from a patron, and an artist's foes and friends usually find reason to contest any major act of patronage. This can be especially true for architects—when, for instance, the patron commissioning a work is a corporate body with divided and shifting demands, when funds come in installments, when costs outrun estimates, when members of the commissioning body resign or are replaced. All these things applied to Jefferson's patron, the two chambers of the Virginia state legislature, whose members had conflicting views and whose constituents made conflicting demands. Jefferson needed shrewd and determined allies to deal with this difficult relationship, 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, who would labor year after year in the Virginia senate to wrestle installments of funding from the Assembly, was a master strategist who often had to compel Jefferson to take practical steps to protect his idealistic dream. A fellow graduate of William and Mary, Cabell had made the grand tour of Europe, where he met, among other leaders, the education reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. He would implement some of Pestalozzi's ideas in a ladies' academy he sponsored. Cabell married the wealthiest heiress in Virginia, the daughter of George Carter and granddaughter of Peyton Skipwith. From Cabell's plantation, Edgewood, he promoted reforms and improvements for his state, and served tirelessly in the senate despite ill health. Without him, Jefferson's university could never have got off the ground.
John Cocke's plantation was Bremo, whose great house was built in a distinctively Jeffersonian style by one of the master craftsmen Jefferson had trained, John Neilson (pronounced Nelson). Cocke, known as General Cocke for his rapid promotion during the War of 1812, 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, as one might suspect from his successful wartime service. He had more experience than Jefferson in the running of schools, since he established an academy for boys under fifteen near his plantation, and conducted it with signal results. He was able to use that experience in tempering some of Jefferson's enthusiasms. After Jefferson's death, Cocke tried to rent Monticello to set up a preparatory school for the University of Virginia, but the entanglements of Jefferson's estate made this impossible.
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, and over three dozen in the early days of the federal union. Indeed, the competition of religious bodies was what led to the pullulation of small and insufficient establishments. Even the early state schools, like William and Mary itself, had chapels and chaplains. Jefferson had been disgusted by the lazy clergy he encountered during his own college days there, and he tried to reform the school in 1779, when he was governor of the state. But his efforts were resisted, since he was seen by his foes as an enemy of religion. He knew, therefore, that his own scheme of a state school without an establishment of religion would be denounced. He made no provision for a professor of divinity or chaplain. His seventeen buildings did not include a chapel, though he let it be known that religious bodies could hold student services on their own, so long as none was sponsored by the university itself. This was not enough to end the criticism, and some of his early efforts to recruit professors just exacerbated the problem.
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. Cooper had edited Priestley's works after his mentor's death. Presbyterians in Virginia, frightened of Priestley's reputation, mounted a public campaign against Cooper's appointment. Jefferson privately called these critics "satellites of religious persecution" and insisted that Cooper had been the cornerstone of his whole design. (May 16, 1820) 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. Presbyterians in the legislature had been voting in favor of the new university, out of long discontent with the established Anglicanism of William and Mary. In fact, one of the university's best defenders was the very Presbyterian, Dr. John H. Rice, who was leading the attack on Cooper. With every vote in the legislature teetering on the possibility of defeat, Cabell said he could not carry the day if Presbyterians deserted him. "I have devoted two winters and one summer of my life to the most sincere cooperation with you in getting this measure through the Assembly. I think I am well apprised of the state of the public mind; and, believe me, the contest is not over." (Feb. 22, 1819) Jefferson had to swallow his pride, spell out the facts to Cooper, and let the latter resign (with a handsome remuneration the university could ill afford).
Cabell taught Jefferson the abiding lesson of this contretemps. Professors should not be appointed one by one, letting people pick over their record and nibble at their qualifications. Jefferson should wait till the end of the building process to make appointments—for two reasons: to present critics with a batch of teachers less easily scrutinized in detail, and to prevent the legislature from cutting off further funds at an early stage after several men had already begun teaching. (C Feb. 22, 1819) Jefferson and the board agreed with this shrewd but risky all-or-nothing approach to the opening of the school; and religion played its part in this decision. Not that this ended religious sniping at Jefferson's scheme. Some Presbyterians circulated the rumor that no clergy, except perhaps Unitarians, would be allowed onto the university's grounds. (C Jan. 7, 1822) The soundness of Cabell's determination to jettison Cooper was proved when Dr. Rice, Cooper's fiercest critic, rallied to knock down the rumor of clergy-free grounds in Charlottesville. Rice went on to perform another important service. He 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.
Jefferson had been aware, from the outset, of the religious opposition to him, and what it might cost him. In the year after work on Pavilion VII had begun, when a state commission was created to decide on the site of a future university, he told Cabell that it would probably hinder their site's effort for him to serve on the commission:
Would it promote the success of the institution most for me to be in it or out of it? Out of it, I believe. It is still to depend ultimately on the will of the legislature; and that has its uncertainties. There are fanatics both in religion and politics, who, without knowing me personally, have long been taught to consider me as a raw head and bloody bones, and as we can afford to lose no votes in that body, I do think it would be better that you should be named for our district. Do not consider this a mock modesty. It is the cool and deliberate act of my own judgment. (Feb. 26, 1818)
Cabell luckily persuaded Jefferson to put aside his fears and serve on the commission, where his service was crucial to the final choice of a site.
Though Jefferson wanted desperately to complete his university, he could not sacrifice the principle of free enquiry in it, and therefore had to stick to his troublesome resolution to have no divinity taught there.
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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). Here his plan came into opposition with a cause for which he had himself been the principal advocate. At the time of the Revolution, he had proposed an extensive system of public support for primary and secondary education in Virginia. That scheme was only gradually and spottily realized, but it consumed (and indeed strained) most of the budget of the Literary Fund, the state moneys devoted to education of its citizens. Jefferson had argued that the primary schools should be under local control, guaranteed by local funding; but this was unrealistic, since many of the small units he envisaged (divided into "hundreds," according to his theory of "Anglo-Saxon" local democracy) were too poor to provide schools on a level with those in other areas. So critics of the university accused Jefferson of trying to deprive children of basic education in order to create exotic studies for an elite.
When this conflict became acute, Jefferson reversed his stand on the need for local funds to insure local control. He said that money could go to both the primary schools and the university if the secondary schools, funded by the state in his original proposal, were left temporarily (until the university was completed) to shift for themselves:
[The secondary schools] may more conveniently than either of the others be left to private enterprise; 1, because there is a good number of classical schools [that teach Latin] now existing; and 2, because their students are universally sons of parents who can afford to pay for their education. (Jan. 13, 1823)
Later he would reverse himself again, to block the relocation and expansion of the College of William and Mary, by proposing that its funds should be used to establish ten secondary schools throughout the state. This kind of scrimmage activity along shifting lines of conflict would consume his energies year after year, even as he was aging and Cabell's health problems were growing. 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. Despite Jefferson's belief that there should be a "rotation" of officeholders, he pleaded, sometimes demanded, that university sympathizers in the legislature run again for office in order to keep voting for the needed funds. Cabell even gave him the names of men outside the Assembly who sympathized with the project, so Jefferson could urge them to offer their candidacy for the next session.
Copyright © 2002 Garry Wills