Thomas Jefferson and the Reform of the College of William and Mary
By Dr. Joseph Heim
Looking back upon his life’s work in his draft 1821 autobiography, Thomas Jefferson noted that among his early achievements was the reform of the College of William and Mary. His efforts were such that “I effectedÖa change in the organization of the institution.”1
The Williamsburg college always had a call upon Jefferson’s affections ñ even as an elderly man, he could fondly recall the spring day in 1762 when the chiefs of the Cherokee visited the college. As a young scholar of promise, Jefferson was encouraged to enroll at William and Mary, where it was hoped his talent and dedication would find ample fulfillment. He did not disappoint such expectation. John Page, his contemporary and later Governor of Virginia, remembered that Jefferson “could tear himself away from his dearest friends, to fly to his studies.” Family lore, no doubt with some exaggeration, tells of the future author of the Declaration of Independence studying at his desk from twelve to fifteen hours per day. Nonetheless, Jefferson’s academic accomplishment was real and exceptional. No other undergraduate was regularly invited to the nearby Governor’s mansion for dinner and intellectual conversation with such leading luminaries as Lt. Governor Francis Fauquier, William Small, the professor of natural philosophy at William and Mary, and George Wythe, perhaps the leading lawyer of Colonial Virginia.2
The College of William and Mary served not merely as a cherished memory for Jefferson; it also figured large in his hopes. The American Revolution opened new vistas into the future, bringing in its wake not only the overthrow of aristocratic pretension, but also its replacement by a commonwealth of political equality.3
But how was the resulting new republic to be maintained? It was this question that preoccupied the revolutionaries of Jefferson’s generation. Jefferson, too, concerned himself with plans for establishing government upon a new foundation, but while he shared many of those ideas of limited government and popular sovereignty, he harbored the suspicion that institutions alone were an insufficient guarantee of liberty. The enlightened citizen, defensive of his rights against tyrannical encroachment, was the bulwark of freedom. Importantly, Jefferson never believed civic virtue was innate or characteristic of the general populace. In his famous letter to John Adams on the idea of a natural aristocracy, he emphasized that while talent and ability were randomly distributed throughout society without regard to wealth or birth, potential would only emerge with careful schooling.4 Or, as Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) put the matter more forcefully, government leaders could design a system whereby “genuisses will be raked from the rubbish.”5
This need for educated citizens, the continuation of the revolutionary generation of patriot gentlemen, clearly required government to be concerned with education. In Virginia, this meant the College of William and Mary, the only existing institution of higher learning in the Old Dominion, was the logical choice for Jefferson’s attention.
Unfortunately, choice and possibility were quite different matters. Even before the disruption of the Revolution, William and Mary was wracked by dissension concerning its mission. At the same time, discord prevailed over the governance of the college. Since its founding in the 1690’s, two bodies ñ the President and the Fellows (the permanent faculty, of whom the overwhelming majority were Anglican clergymen) and the outside Board of Visitors ñ continually jousted for control. In 1763, a spiteful Board of Visitors, resentful of faculty support for an American bishop that would have reduced lay influence in Virginia’s established church, passed a statute requiring the submission of the faculty, only to have it reversed by the faculty’s resort to a royal veto.6 There were other conflicts, not so dramatic, but no less real. In 1772, Robert Carter Nicholas and a number of conservative Visitors unsuccessfully attempted to muzzle Reverend Samuel Henley, a faculty member whose preaching and liberal theology had provoked some of Virginia’s young men (including Jefferson) to re-examine the relations between church and state in this Anglican colony.7
In a sense, the Revolution only worsened a situation that was already marked by disarray. The college faculty, resolute Tories as the King and his officers had been their shield against the zeal of the gentry exercised through the Board of Visitors, abandoned the college in 1776. Left in place was one faculty member, Reverend James Madison (cousin of the future president who possessed his name, and later the first Episcopal bishop of Virginia), who was willing to work with any Patriot leader that might wish to preserve the college.
That there might be anything to save, however, was doubtful. The college’s finances, as well as its faculty, were shattered. Heretofore dependent upon a portion of the proceeds the royal government collected on the sale of tobacco and hides and other sundries, the college by the fall of 1776 was nearly destitute. By the spring of 1777, Edmund Randolph, speaking on behalf of the Board of Visitors told the Virginia House of Delegates that the college was in “a ruinous state” and if the effects of “neglect and misconduct” were not soon corrected, it would cease to exist.8
It was at this moment Thomas Jefferson, believing he could offer little assistance to those planning the war in Philadelphia given his lack of experience in soldiering, turned his attentions to Virginia’s home affairs. Securing a place on the Board of Visitors ñ and equally important, a seat on the Committee of the Revisors of the Laws of the House of Delegates, under which the plight of William and Mary was to be considered ñ he set about designing a system of education. His goal, expressed to many at that time, was finding a means that would perpetuate rule by liberal and patriot gentlemen. Jefferson wrote three bills that addressed this matter: Number Seventy Nine, A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, Number Eighty, A Bill for Amending the Constitution of the College of William and Mary College, and Number Eighty One, A Bill for Establishing a Public Library.9
In these bills, Jefferson proposed changing the very context that defined the College of William and Mary. What he wished was nothing less than the transformation of a somnolent academy that fashioned the tempers of an idle Anglican gentry into a politically charged nursery that would foster a new generation of patriot leaders, fired with the zeal of building a new republican society. Indeed, the significance of Bill Number Seventy-Nine was that it spoke directly to this issue. Jefferson’s plan saw general education as the essential winnowing instrument that would remove the chaff of unwarranted privilege and promote the emergence of natural aristocracy, the scholarship boys who would take their seats at the new William and Mary.
And new, the college certainly would be. The size of the faculty would be increased, the complexion and number of students changed, the governance of the college altered. In the new dispensation, the Board of Visitors was streamlined, its term of office limited to one year, its accountability to the House of Delegates fixed in law. Eschewing an oath of allegiance (Virginia citizens were often required to give this to their local Committee of Safety) as incompatible with academic freedom and open inquiry, Jefferson instead supported the idea that the public deportment of the faculty should demonstrate acceptance of general republican values. All told, William and Mary was firmly placed within the orbit of republican government.
Older features of the college that might hinder this realization were reduced or shoved aside. In striving to establish patriot republicanism as the prevailing orientation of William and Mary, Jefferson was prepared to diminish its traditional Anglican features. The divinity school was closed; teaching chairs in theology and Oriental languages (Hebrew) abolished or merged. The duties of the post of Missionary to the Indians, and its attached Brafferton endowment, were widened. The traditional instruction of Indians in the principles of Christianity remained, but there was also the charge to” collect their traditions, laws, customs, languages, and other circumstances which might lead to a discovery of their relations with one another, or descent from other nations.”10
Discovery, as the above passage from the Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) illustrates, was a vital element in Jeffersonian learning, and for Jefferson this pursuit found its best expression in the study of science. In his plans, William and Mary was to be given new professorships in Anatomy and Medicine, Natural Philosophy and Mathematics, Moral Philosophy, and the Law of Nations and Nature. An astronomical observatory was to be built and Jefferson urged that Virginia make the famous Philadelphia scientist, David Rittenhouse, its first director. Behind this dramatic expansion of science within the collegiate curriculum ñ no other institution in America gave so large a place to such subjects ñ was a powerful belief that demonstrated Jefferson’s Enlightenment optimism. For him, to the extent republican government was the best form of government, it had to be linked with the encouragement of academic experiment, because it was through science that knowledge was discovered. And following that, the resulting application of knowledge would lead to greater self-government and the betterment of mankind.11
An understanding of history, too, was included in the education of the patriot leader. If science was his lance, the instrument with which he probed the external world in the quest for discovery, history was the patriot’s armor, against which tyranny, with its momentary excitements and heated passions, could not penetrate. The study of history, Jefferson believed, gave one a long and calm perspective, which good men could use to detect “ambition in all its shapes,” and be moved “to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.”12
If history was essential to the preservation of republican government, the study of law ñ Jefferson included a Professorship of Police and Law among his new creations ñ saw to its orderly working. Still, Jefferson’s reforms in legal education retained a classical and historical flavor. Pupils were expected to grapple with philosophical issues raised by thinkers like Blackstone and Coke. Technical competence, such as the drafting of a will or the proper construction of a brief, was left to tutors or prominent local attorneys, under whom the student operated in a manner equivalent to that of the traditional English articled clerk.13
All of this illustrates a point regarding Jefferson’s educational reforms at William and Mary that must not be overlooked. His goal was the making of an enlightened and patriotic gentleman, a liberal aristocrat zealous for republican liberty. In this sense, Jefferson did not anticipate and was certainly not the forerunner of those democratic educators who later created that enduring and distinct feature of American higher education, the land grant college and university. What formed the core of their mission, a general popular higher education centered on agriculture, economics and farm management, was altogether missing from Jefferson’s William and Mary. Even the one area of technical training that surely would have been of interest in a Virginia that prized status according to land holding, surveying and the measurement of territory, was conspicuously absent from the curriculum of Jefferson’s William and Mary.
Perhaps it was this very elevated tone and seriousness of purpose that limited the appeal of Jefferson’s proposed reforms. Even with the added prestige of having become Governor in 1779, Jefferson found it difficult to persuade his fellow Virginians of the necessity of immediate action. Certainly, the approach of the war made any social experiment inopportune; indeed, the British invasion of Virginia in1781 underlined how credible those advocating the need for delay had been.
Yet, it was not only the pressure of the war’s economy that made Virginia reluctant to provide a public subsidy for a renovated William and Mary. Baptists and Presbyterians, who now greatly out-numbered the once dominant Anglicans, had painful memories of the college’s place in an establishment that had discriminated against them. Their opposition both puzzled and frustrated Jefferson, and he later remarked to the famous scientist Dr. Joseph Priestly that he wondered why the obvious secular nature of his proposals went largely unnoticed. Further, he could not understand why these had been unable to dispel the prevalent Protestant notion that there had been “some secret design of a preference to a sect [Anglicans]” which operated so as to maintain their subordination and wean their young men away from the tenets of their faith. 14
But Presbyterian fears and distrust of a secular education outside the influence of their synods were all too real.15 Ironically, the very Anglicans of whom the Presbyterians were most suspicious were no more eager to embrace Jefferson’s reforms, believing them part of a more general scheme to overthrow the already faltering Anglican establishment in Virginia.16
Left only with the support of like-minded individuals such as Reverend James Madison at the College of William and Mary 17 and the dwindling number of liberal reformers in the House of Delegates, Jefferson was unable to secure full passage of his reforms in the Virginia legislature. What could be considered partial victories ñ the abolition of the divinity school, the establishment of a firm financial footing, even the creation of a Professorship of Law, given to his old tutor, George Wythe ñ suggested that the school for patriot gentlemen was at least partly realized.
Yet, beyond the many incremental improvements ñ and the experience Jefferson gained and later deployed in his great effort in the foundation of the University of Virginia from 1815 to 1825 ñ Jefferson’s campaign to reform the College of William and Mary had one lasting effect. It helped to establish the principle that the government has a responsibility, indeed, a sacred duty, to support education. With the eventual acceptance of this principle, America realized the civic promise inherent in the Revolution.
1. Adrienne Koch and William Peden, editors, The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (New York, 1944), p. 52.
2. On Jefferson’s student life at William and Mary, see Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1948), pp. 49-61; and, Herbert L. Ganter, “William Small, Jefferson’s Beloved Teacher,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Volume IV, (1947), pp. 505-511.
3. Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, (New York: Knopf, 1992).
4. Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 28, 1813 in Lester J. Cappon, editor, The Complete Adams-Jefferson Letters, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), pp. 387-392. Background on this central idea of Jefferson can be found in Jenings L. Wagoner, “That Knowledge Most Useful to Us: Thomas Jefferson’s Concept of Utility in the Education of Republican Citizens,” in James Gilreath, editor, Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen, (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1999), pp. 115-133; Ralph Lerner, The Thinking Revolutionary: Principles and Practice in the New Republic, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp. 60-90; and, Thomas Jewett, “Jefferson, Education and the Franchise,” The Early America Review, (Winter 1996-97), http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/winter96/jefferson.html.
5. Thomas Jefferson, Query XIV in Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) printed in Merrill D. Peterson, editor, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (New York: The Library of America, 1984), p.272.
6. On the organizational conflicts concerning colonial William and Mary college, see especially Robert Polk Thomson, “The Reform of the College of William and Mary, 1763-1780,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 115, No. 3, (June 1971), pp. 187-213.
7. On this, see Rhys Issac, The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), pp. 209-240. The papers of Robert Carter Nicholas are included in the papers of Wilson Cary Nicholas, his son, and are available at the Special Collections Department of the Library of the University of Virginia.
8. Virginia Gazette (Dixon), 4 April 1777.
9. Complete texts are found in Julian Boyd, editor, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, II: 1777-1779, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), pp. 526-545.
10. Thomas Jefferson, Query XV, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) in Merrill Peterson, editor, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: The Library of America, 1984), p. 277.
11. On Jefferson and science, see I. Bernard Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, (New York: Norton and Company, 1995), pp. 61-132; and, Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America 1735-1789, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1956).
12. Thomas Jefferson to William Jarvis, September 18, 1820, in Ford edition, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. X, pp. 160-161. On Jefferson and history, see Jennings Wagoner, Ibid.; and, Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution, (Indianapolis, Indiana: The Liberty Press, 1998), pp. 193-205.
13. Herbert Jones, “Thomas Jefferson and Legal Education in Revolutionary America, ” in James Gilreath, editor, Thomas Jefferson and the Education of A Citizen, (Washington: Library of Congress, 1999), pp. 103-114; and, Frank L. Dewey, Thomas Jefferson: Lawyer, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987).
14. Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Joseph Priestly, January 27, 1800, in Merrill Peterson, editor, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (New York: The Library of America, 1984), pp. 1072-1074.
15. Howard Miller, The Revolutionary College: American Presbyterian Higher Education, 1707-1837, (New York: New York University Press, 1976).
16. Sadie Bell, The Church, The State and Education in Virginia, (New York: Arno Press, 1969), pp. 188-202; and Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia 1776-1789, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1977).
17. Charles Crowe, “Bishop James Madison and the Republic of Virtue,” in Journal of Southern History, Vol. 30, (1964), pp. 58-70