Jefferson and the University

Compared to others, my Omicron experience was a fleeting wisp of a dark cloud. While biking around France, I began sneezing and blowing my nose. One afternoon I had some chills, although those might well have been from the January winds blowing across the Saint-Mihiel Salient, where I was on the bike and later waited to catch a train in Commercy (a station made famous by Burt Lancaster in The Train, a superb 1964 movie about the French resistance in World War II and a German art heist).

When I got home to a positive test at the kitchen table, I decided to stick with what I called “the bicycle cures”, which involved a ride every afternoon and a glass of wine in the evenings. (Who could object to those clinical trials?)

My only concession to infirmity was to settle on the sofa and read Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy’s The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University, the story of the founding of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which admitted its first students in 1825, the year before Jefferson died. It was the third president’s last, and a lasting, achievement, in a career that had many. The book had been on my deskside table since it was published in autumn, 2021.

In 2006, at a dinner at the C & O Restaurant in Charlottesville, I heard O’Shaughnessy speak about the intellectual influences in Jefferson’s life. He talked about the Enlightenment, the books Jefferson read, the friends that he cultivated, the letters that he wrote, and the travels that he made—and I came away from the evening impressed that O’Shaughnessy, a British academic, spoke so effortlessly and understood so well a man as complex as Jefferson.


I was further drawn to a history of the University of Virginia because I first saw the Grounds (never use the phrase “campus”) on a magical spring evening when I was in the seventh grade.

It was during my spring break in March 1967, and I was tagging along with my father, who was on a business trip from New York to Virginia, with some whistle-stops in between. (He rarely traveled in a straight line.)

My father worked in the sugar business, selling bulk sugar to what he called “the trade”, and often he travelled by train. During school breaks he took one or several of his children. I have no doubt he chose a career that gave him access to Pullman cars. On various vacations—while friends were at the beach in Florida or skiing with their families—I was riding sleepers to places such as Ogden, Utah, or Harlingen, Texas.

On that particular spring break, after school ended I would have taken the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan and met my father on a platform in the “new” Pennsylvania Station. By 1967, the “old” Penn Station (with its eagles and its Roman arches) had been torn down, and what remained felt like a urinal (and often it was) with tracks in the basement.

First class, however, was still an option in those railroad years, and to get to Washington we would have started in an observation car (I drank soda and read my book) and moved on to a dining car, arriving in the capital after dark, when the Capitol Rotunda would have been illuminated opposite Union Station.

After a few days in Washington (I must have been sent on bus tours as my father would have been in meetings), we took the train to Charlottesville, where on a warm spring night I was taken to the Grounds of Mr. Jefferson’s University, a collection of classical brick buildings and walking paths that, like the Capitol in Washington, seemed to glow in the dark.

The next day I toured Monticello, Jefferson’s house on a nearby hill (it means “little mountain” in Italian), and I came away from Charlottesville a Jefferson admirer. No revelation (about slave holding, miscegenation, cowardice during the British invasion, bankruptcy, etc.) will ever shake my respect. I might have doubts about Jesus, Shakespeare, and Santa Claus, but I keep the faith for Thomas Jefferson.


O’Shaughnessy does much more in his book than tell the story of the founding of the University of Virginia. In describing Jefferson’s conception of a university and higher education, O’Shaughnessy addresses many thorny issues of Jefferson’s legacy—his ownerships of slaves and their presence in the construction and operation of the university; his opposition to organized religion (in an 1814 letter Jefferson said to a friend that “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest…”); his relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves and the mother of six of his children; and his dependence on slavery to service his considerable debts, some owed to London counting houses. O’Shaughnessy might have set out to write an early history of the University of Virginia, but what he gives us is an intellectual biography of Thomas Jefferson. While addressing head-on the many dualities of Jefferson’s often tortured soul, O’Shaughnessy makes it clear that we have Jefferson to thank for our vision of a university education, just as we have him, in part, to thank for so many of our democratic values.

Officially the University of Virginia was founded in 1819 by an act of the Virginia legislature. (Jefferson lobbied hard for its approval and funding.) But Jefferson’s conception of what a university should be began to evolve in the 1760s, when he was a student at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, then the capital of Virginia.

Jefferson thrived at William and Mary, where several of his professors were more like tutors—there to recommend books and correct his papers. This intimacy of the classroom explains a key element at the University of Virginia (which Jefferson not only conceived but then designed).

At the time UVA was built in the early 1820s, it was, according to O’Shaughnessy, the largest public works project in the United States. The result was what Jefferson called an “academical village”. He wanted students to live near their classrooms and professors, and he also wanted them to have enough time for reading, writing, and reflection (having slaves on the Grounds made that easier). O’Shaughnessy describes Jefferson’s conception of what university should be:

He advised…of a series of buildings for faculty residence and student dormitories “connected by covered ways of which the rooms of students should open,” concluding that “in fact a University should not be an house but a village.”

Not only did Jefferson pick the site of the university, survey the Grounds, and sketch out the buildings, but he personally chose the books for the library, and he was active in recruiting, especially from Europe, the first group of professors. (A restless innovator, Jefferson even had the idea of acquiring the University of Geneva in Switzerland and moving the staff and all the books to Charlottesville, as a way of jump-starting his university, but nothing came of this acquisition and merger.) Before he died, he invited every university student, some more than once, to his house for dinner, where he would show them the original version of the Declaration of Independence and rag on his editors (all writers do) for going with a bowdlerized version on July 4, 1776.


In reading The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind (the full Jefferson quote adds “for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is free to combat it”), I was fascinated to learn that, beyond believing that “knowledge is good,” Jefferson conceived of his university as a way to train future leaders in his political party’s ideals. Jeffersonians were Democratic-Republicans; George Washington and John Adams were Federalists.

From his dealings with Alexander Hamilton and John Adams during the George Washington presidency (1789-1797), Jefferson grew to despise the Federalists, who in his mind wanted to restore monarchy to the New World and sell out the fledging American republic to an imported English aristocracy (themselves). Federalists spoke for big-city capitalism and an early form of the national surveillance state (see the Alien and Sedition acts), and at the University of Virginia Jefferson hoped to breed a new generation of revolutionaries who might keep the republic free of aristocratic entitlement. O’Shaughnessy says: “Writing to Joseph Priestly in 1801, Jefferson accused the Federalists of being barbarians who wanted to return to the age of Vandalism, ‘when ignorance put every thing in the hands of power and priestcraft.”’ Elsewhere O’Shaughnessy adds: “Influenced by Jefferson, [James] Madison believed that representative government, in the absence of an educated public, would end in farce and tragedy.”

At the time that Jefferson was creating the University of Virginia, most higher education in the United States was affiliated with one of the churches. (Jefferson was often contemptuous of northern universities, dismissing them as “seminaries.” He once referred to students at Yale and Harvard as “pious young monks.”) In those days American colleges largely trained ministers. Yale was a hotbed of Puritanism. Princeton (in its early days The College of New Jersey) was in the hands of Presbyterians. Harvard took its name from a Christian minister. By contrast, Jefferson’s University of Virginia wasn’t simply non-denominational: he wrote into its articles of affiliation that religion would not be a subject of the curriculum, and in his architectural designs he omitted the presence on the Grounds of a chapel. (He viewed education as a political activity, hence the reason to maintain the divide between church and state.) Later on, in 1910, in front of the Rotunda and a statue of Jefferson, the university took note of his principle of religious freedom, and listed all those faiths that Jefferson had worked so hard to keep away from the Grounds in the 1820s.

It is thanks to Jefferson that the university was located in his hometown of Charlottesville, then little more than a village crossroads. Jefferson associated cities with Federalism, capital, vice, and corruption, and thought that only in an American Arcadia (the Shenandoah Valley) would young scholars be free from the distractions of the cities and able to concentrate on their studies. But in his chapter about slavery entitled “The Deplorable Entanglement,” O’Shaughnessy makes the point that the university was built and functioned until the Civil War on the backs of its enslaved laborers. In 1820, there were 425,153 slaves in Virginia, which was the largest slave-owning state. Despite Jefferson’s philosophical opposition to slavery, at both his home Monticello and at the University, Jefferson turned a blind eye to the labor force that was enchained to realize his architectural visions. “Jefferson’s views on race,” O’Shaughnessy writes, “represent what some writers like Jamelle Bouie called ‘the dark side of the Enlightenment.’” In his lifetime he would hold title to more than 600 slaves.


It’s hard to imagine an American more tortured or confused about slavery than Thomas Jefferson. As a political theorist, he was opposed to its presence in the body politic of the United States, and pushed to add the clause in the Constitution that banned the slave trade (although only after 1808). Jefferson supported the “back to Africa” movement as a way of ridding the United States of its slavery problem (Lincoln did too), although he must have known that forced deportations would have been as degrading as the peculiar institution itself. As a plantation owner, Jefferson lived most of his life in endless debt rollovers, which forced him to hang on to his slaves, if only because he never could have afforded to pay workers in the fields around Monticello. Finally, as a man, Jefferson found emotional solace in his thirty-year relationship with Sally Hemings (probably his deceased wife’s half sister, fathered by Jefferson’s father-in-law John Wayles), with whom he had six children, although Sally herself is hardly mentioned in his voluminous papers and correspondence, and such was his financial situation that only grudgingly did he free members of her family upon his death. O’Shaughnessy believes Jefferson (a practical politician as well as a political philosopher) was never able to reconcile his devotion to the principles of the Enlightenment with “his political base in the South”. He adds that by the time of the Civil War “only twenty-eight African Americans had earned degrees in America.”

Because O’Shaughnessy is scrupulous in addressing the personal and political turmoil that embroiled Jefferson’s life, there are elements of sadness in reading The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind. For all that Jefferson conceived of the first public university in the United States, available to students of all economic levels and designed along the lines of an academy in Periclean Athens, there are reminders in each chapter of Jefferson’s personal and political compromises. After he dies, his estate and personal effects, including some of his enslaved laborers, are broken up and sold for the benefit of his creditors. Taking advantage of the ambiguities in his legacy, many southern politicians in the 1830s and 40s, as the United States was drifting toward Civil War on the question of slavery, appropriated parts of Jefferson’s thoughts on local self-governance to make the claim that he would have stood with secessionists in the stand-off with federal Washington.


In the current preoccupation to re-write American history, in which the statues of Confederate generals are falling like flies, is it a stretch to imagine that one day there will be calls to remove the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC? (The Jefferson Memorial was built between 1939 and 1943 at the prompting of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who admired Jefferson’s struggles to establish American democracy and wanted to give hope to the people during the dark days of the Depression and World War II.) Already the New York City council has removed a bust of Jefferson that was in City Hall for almost two hundred years. The question asks us to weigh the balance of Jefferson’s life and career, and for that O’Shaughnessy’s biography is a useful guide, as he is judging him by contemporary standards.

In contemplating his own mortality, Jefferson asked that his tombstone remember him for three things: the writing of the Declaration of Independence, his Virginia statute on religious freedom, and his founding of the University of Virginia. (As O’Shaughnessy notes, he preferred to think of himself as the “father” of the university, not as its founder.) Left off his marker were other achievements: the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the size of the United States; his two terms as president (among the most enlightened in the country’s history); his contributions to the drafting of the Constitution (mostly by letter, as he was in Paris during the convention); the sale of his books to the government, helping to re-establish the Library of Congress that was burned during the War of 1812; his diplomatic service as an ambassador and Secretary of State; his long correspondence with John Adams toward the end of their lives, among the foundation documents of American political theory and history; his authorship of Notes on the State of Virginia that helped to define the capacities of the new nation; and his ideas about public education, expressed not just in the establishment of the University of Virginia but in his work as governor of Virginia. (If you ever took an elective in college, you can thank Jefferson for the privilege; he set the precedent.)

Weighing against this list of achievements is Jefferson’s embrace of slavery in his personal life. Considering this, O’Shaughnessy comes to the conclusion that “while Jefferson’s own vision of liberty and equality was limited in some way and pitiful in regard to his attitudes on race, a key part of his achievement was crafting capacious language that could be broadened to be more inclusive and provide hope for future generations of different races, genders, and nationality.” He quotes from the American historian Annette Gordon-Reed (the author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family) who said: “Jefferson’s vision of equality was not all-inclusive but it was transformative.”

While it doesn’t vindicate Jefferson’s failings, it should be pointed out that twelve American presidents, including the Union Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant, owned slaves at one point in their lives, and many other presidents were the beneficiaries of an economic system that—while it might not have cracked the whip on chained slaves picking cotton—treated its workers as enslaved laborers. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s family fortune, for example, came from the opium trade in China; John F. Kennedy’s father was a bootlegger during Prohibition. And Jefferson was by no means the only president to have fathered children out of wedlock.

While I might well be applying a double standard to Jefferson (and still wearing the rose-colored glasses from my first visit to Monticello in 1967), I continue to believe that he is the quintessential American revolutionary without whom there might never have been a United States. Admittedly, he alone did not write the Declaration of Independence, fight the wars of independence, or draft the Constitution, but for a critical fifty-year period, from 1776 to 1826, Jefferson nurtured the ideals of democracy and the union as best he could. Intellectually and emotionally, I think he realized that slavery was the Achilles heel of the republic, but for a multitude of reasons (personal, professional, financial, political) he was unable to put into practice his own words that “all mean are created equal.” O’Shaughnessy concludes:

Historian Harold Hellenbrand writes that the “final project, building a university, reveals Jefferson’s core identity…a man compelled by psychological and historical circumstances to refine and then reproduce his own education” so that, as Jefferson observed to John Adams, “a more instructed race’ might complete the revolution that they had only begun.”


In his lifetime Thomas Jefferson was famous for saying that the United States (he thought of them as a plural compact, not a singular body) belonged to the current generation, which had the right, if not the obligation, to write its own laws and govern its politics without the hovering influence of the “dead hand of the past”.

In trying to make sense of Jefferson’s life and ideals, I sometimes imagine his despair if he were to learn that what governs the elections of American presidents today is a 1787 electoral law and some amendments from 1800 (that followed his own contested election), or that a majority of senators represent less than thirty percent of the voters.

What would Jefferson make of a fossilized Supreme Court—with its members serving lifetime imperial appointments and glad-handing with Federalists—beyond the recall of the citizenry? Or that the Republican Party is in the thrall of a cult devoted to the toppings served with slices of QAnon?

I don’t believe he could countenance a national budget given over to war-making and the trillion-dollar appropriations of the national security state—far from the priorities that he set for the fledging republic, which were education, exploration (he dispatched Lewis and Clark), and science.

Finally, imagine Jefferson having to come to terms with the likes of Donald J. Trump, a grifter-in-chief in the White House, with the democracy fallen hostage to a mail-order confidence man for whom political office was just another primetime get-rich-quick scheme.

As we know from this biography and many others, Jefferson himself was far from perfect. But as O’Shaughnessy makes clear, Jefferson, as much as anyone in the 1776 and 1787 cohort, helped define American conceptions of liberty and equal justice under the law, so that later generations would have the tools in hand to correct the errors of the past, his own included.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.