Book Review by Frank Blechman

Thomas Jefferson was a Member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Governor of Virginia, Member of the Continental Congress, US Ambassador to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice-President under John Adams, third President of the United States, and engineer of the Louisiana Purchase. Yet at the end of his life, none of those were on his “most important achievement” list. On his tombstone, he asked to be remembered for just three things: The Author of the Declaration of Independence, Author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.

Alan Taylor, since 2014 the Jefferson Foundation Professor at the University of Virginia, follows in the footsteps of previous holders of this title, including Jefferson scholars Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson, carefully considering the man who envisioned, designed, and then supervised the building of the University of Virginia. Unlike his predecessors who paid homage to “the sage of Monticello,” Taylor digs under the philosophy to the political and social realities of Jefferson and the Virginia culture he knew. Specifically, Taylor’s new book explores Jefferson’s own education and how it shaped his ideas about society, governance, and education.

Taylor begins with Jefferson’s home schooling. The story quickly moves forward to the College of William and Mary, where Jefferson confronts a harsh paradox. He and his fellow students are the cream of Southern Plantation gentry. Most are fully immersed in a comfortable lifestyle dependent on slavery, and trained in a culture that supports utter despotism and tyranny over those of lesser rank. “Born to command” means “born to abuse.” Bookish Jefferson quickly realizes he has little to gain in classes with his peers, and seeks the company of his elders; first his professors and then the royal Governor.

Emerging as one of the best-read young men of his time, he practices a little law and a lot of politics. Quiet, at first, he is a back-bencher, drafting language for others. Gradually, he takes ownership of his own work, winning recognition that takes him to Philadelphia, where he is given the task (along with Franklin and Adams) of drafting the resolution (the Declaration of Independence) that made him famous.

That document establishes Jefferson as a premier American philosopher of liberty. A romantic, he finds his privileged life very good as what we would call today “a gentleman farmer.” He corresponds widely, advocating for broad public education, the freeing of slaves, and the virtues of the yeoman self-sufficient, self-governing small farmer. He favors all these good things, but never succeeds in implementing any of them. In fact, he is rarely successful in balancing his own budgets.

After retiring from public life, he fears that the monarchists (not just the Federalists but the anti-Republicans behind every tree) will overtake his fragile creation. He cannot forever defend his vision. The next generation must be trained to take on this task. To do that, he must replace the old College (of William and Mary) with a new University of Virginia, built around his ideas and designed from the ground up to achieve his goals.

Not everyone shares his vision or optimism. Gathering support takes years. Raising the money to actually create it takes longer. By the time construction begins, Jefferson is in his 70s and in failing health. Nonetheless, he rides down from his hilltop to oversee the work, directs the hiring of the first faculty, and advises on books for the first library. Even before the first students arrive, critics denounce his “Academical Village” as a folly. It is over-budget. It has no chapel for moral instruction. It has no structured course of study. Worse, it is so costly that it will have to be the most expensive school in the United States, double the cost of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.

Once students arrive it gets worse. Those students are not yeoman farmers eager to learn the wisdom of the ages. They are not interested in self-discipline. They are the children of the richest families of the South. They bring their slave-dependent culture with them, expecting others to do work for them, and deeply resentful of any perceived challenge to their honor. They abuse slaves, but they also feel free to defy and even beat faculty and staff of the University. Riots in which students assault townspeople are common. When Jefferson comes down to scold them and call them to serve his higher vision, they are polite to his face but dismissive behind his back.

This book is harsh. Fans of Thomas Jefferson will not be pleased. But it is well written, historically accurate, and an excellent contribution to the evolving scholarship on the American Revolution and its aftermath.

Desperate for funds, the trustees cannot discipline the students, get cooperation from them, or create any kind of progressive intellectual environment. Within a few years of his death, most of Jefferson’s vision for the University was abandoned. Rather than producing a generation to achieve high goals, such as ending slavery, the University of Virginia became a hotbed of pro-slavery states’ rights resentment of any central government, and opposition to all efforts to inject moral standards into social discussions.

These students become the exact opposite of what Jefferson hoped his educational model would achieve.

Those of us who have studied Jefferson even a little, know that he deluded himself, especially about finance. We know he deluded others about his values and beliefs. This book shows convincingly that he also deluded himself and others about the role his ideas on education would play in the future. In the end, he was prisoner of his economic system, unable to escape from the smothering slave culture in which he lived.

This book is harsh. Fans of Thomas Jefferson will not be pleased. But it is well written, historically accurate, and an excellent contribution to the evolving scholarship on the American Revolution and its aftermath.


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