A New Classic on Thomas Jefferson and Public Education in Virginia

Courtesy University of Virginia

by James C. Sherlock

On April 29, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed a group of Nobel Prize winners at a dinner in their honor at The White House.

Kennedy, raised patrician, classically educated and fired in war and politics graciously toasted another such man.

“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

The polymath Jefferson saved the indulgence of a great passion, public education and the creation of a new style of American university, until his last years.

Influenced early by the writings on education of Sir Francis Bacon and John Locke, he completely re-imagined higher education in America from what consisted in 1800 largely of a few colleges teaching religion and the classics under church leadership and funding.

Jefferson’s idea of the university was an institution publicly funded and teaching republican ideals for the preservation of the form of government he and the other founders had labored so hard and risked so much to bring about.

It emphasized education in history, languages, the principles of the Enlightenment and the sciences with graduate schools in law and medicine. Of those he thought history to be the most critical of all to the preservation of freedom.

He banned the teaching of religion in his university. The powerful evangelical Christian churches in Virginia were not amused. They and the Federalists fought him endlessly and nearly won.

Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy has written a vivid and lively account of those contests and Jefferson’s indomitable skill and endurance in facing and overcoming opposition to his vision.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy has gifted historians, educators and the public with Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University from the University of Virginia Press. It is available at Amazon and other outlets.

Vice President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, O’Shaughnessy’s new research into Jefferson’s retirement correspondence and original manuscripts relating to the early history of the university allow him to break important ground in this book.

In doing so, he has created a history of the development of a core system of higher education that Americans take for granted, but one that in the event was a close fought thing.

Jefferson, his political philosophy grounded in limited government, nonetheless wanted local and state governments in Virginia and throughout the states to sponsor a public education system. He understood education to be a fundamental requirement for the maintenance of a robust republic.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy writes that

“Jefferson regarded intellectual freedom as the most important of all liberties but realized that its full expression was dependent on political and religious freedom.”


Jefferson wrote to William Roscoe on 27 December, 1820, that the university should serve as a citadel for

“the illimitable freedom of the human mind.  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.”

The quest to turn that vision into reality began early but then dominated Jefferson’s life from the end of his presidency in 1808 until his death on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson from Monticello fought an 18-year battle with the politically powerful Presbyterians in particular and with the Federalists to bring such a university into being with funding from the General Assembly and to build it in Charlottesville.

He had to use all his interpersonal, organizational, intellectual, writing and political skills to see his last great project through to fruition. His Rockfish Gap Report provided the complete foundational blueprint for his university. It is still considered one of the most important treatises on education ever written.

Funding for his university, as in his personal life, dogged him until the end.

A sign of both his erudition and financial woes, Congress bought Jefferson’s personal library to replace the one lost when the capitol was burned by the British in 1814. By the time he died, he had created a new one that was the envy of all.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy renders the whole of this story as the epic it was.

He has written his eloquent book with a sure touch, serves up much new information and populates its 262 pages with some of the greatest men ever to serve Virginia and the nation.

Jefferson’s vision of a university was supported personally and professionally at every step by James Madison and James Monroe among many others. Their sometimes clandestine use of the press to support their vision is one of the great revelations in the book.

Lifelong allies against state-supported religion, Madison served with Jefferson on the first Board of Visitors. Monroe replaced Jefferson on that board upon the latter’s death. The three together laid the cornerstone in Charlottesville in 1819.

Jefferson wanted three of his accomplishments acknowledged on his tombstone: his authorship of the Declaration of Independence; his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom; and his founding of the University of Virginia.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy has written a book worthy of Jefferson and his university.

It is less the story of the University of Virginia than of the final act of one of the history’s greatest men.

Well done.

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1 year ago

Sounds like an outstanding book. Cannot wait to read it.

1 year ago

Must read before it is removed from the country’s school and public libraries

Patrick Alther
Patrick Alther
1 year ago

I first saw that Kennedy quote in Bill Adler’s book The Kennedy Wit long before I imagined attending Mr.Jefferson’s University(I will continue to use that phrase!).
I wonder how much of his writings his detractors have read But then again, like the Bible, he often gets quoted out of context by someone trying to defend a particular view.
I was an undergrad in the late 60s when coeducation was being debated. I remember someone citing what he wrote about women’s education to oppose UVa becoming coed.
What to make of that? Jefferson was a man of his time- but also ahead of his time. He may well have felt differently had he come to know women of intellect , !ike Margaret Fuller. He was open-minded,willing to change his mind in light of new evidence. That is another sign of his greatness.
No, he was not perfect, the same as everyone else. But imperfect people have done good and wonderful things.As for the Sally Hemings matter- does whether it happened or not diminish his achievements, the ones listed on his grave marker? Of course not!
One of those that may not get the accolades it deserves is the authorship of the Virginia Statute of Religous Freedom.Recently someone posted on Facebook about how America was founded on Christian principles. My response was have you ever seen what Thomas Jefferson had to say about religion? The Religous Right of his day detested him!
He was indeed a radical in his thought, a true progressive for his times(and even ours) and those who go around spouting “slaveholding rapist” and the like only display their own myopic worldview.

1 year ago
Reply to  Patrick Alther

Very well said, Patrick.