Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 2

Author: Thomas Jefferson

The University of Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson, Its Father.1

The lives of institutions, like those of human beings, have their vicissitudes. This University in whose honor we are gathered together to-day, has not been an exception. It had a long struggle even for existence. Joy and triumph followed when, eighty years ago, its first corner-stone was laid with pomp and ceremony in the presence of a distinguished company which included three illustrious men who had filled the office of President of the United States. A long succeeding period of growth, prosperity and happiness was rudely interrupted by the desolating storm of war—war raging with fury around its own temples, and driving even its own peaceful children into the grim work of destruction and slaughter. But even war, which spares almost nothing, yet spared the walls with their precious contents. The heart of the soldier will still melt before the sad pleading of the Muse.

"Lift not thy spear against the Muses’ bower:
The great Emathian conqueror bid spare
The house of Pindarus, when temple and tow’r
Went to the ground; and the repeated air
Of sad Electra’s poet had the pow’r
To save the Athenian walls from ruin bare."

The dawn of peace found the University weak and exhausted, but not disheartened. The people of Virginia who had learned to cherish it, its sons who looked back to it with fond affection, the warm-hearted and open-handed friends of learning in distant places came forward with liberal help. The Muses returned and re-peopled their haunts, and a new era of prosperity, stimulated by the new national life, began its course.

But another stroke of adversity awaited it,—this time, not from the hostile passions of man, but from the rage of the elements, less savage indeed, but not less unsparing. Its very walls were laid in ruins and their precious treasures wasted. But if any evidence were needed to show the extent to which the University had increased in power, in grandeur, in usefulness, and in the esteem of the people of Virginia and the friends everywhere of the higher education, it would be found in the undaunted spirit with which this disaster was faced. There was an immediate resolve that it should rise from its ashes in yet fairer proportions, more worthy of the spirit in which it was originally founded, better equipped for the great work to which it was originally dedicated, and a more glorious monument to the great name forever associated with it.

This great purpose has now been accomplished, and we are gathered together to-day to celebrate its completion. The scene before me and around is the best evidence of the interest of the occasion. The sons of the University from near and far have returned to the bosom of their Fair Mother to rejoice together over her happiness. Representatives of other seats of learning are here to offer their congratulations. The diplomatic representative of the great empire at the antipodes—an empire in which learning has for ages been held in honor—lends to the occasion the dignity of his presence. The venerable Commonwealth is here in the person of the Chief Magistrate and principal officers of state to manifest her own interest in an institution which her bounty has cherished and which has given back in return the support upon which alone a free Commonwealth can rest.

It is the custom on such occasions to make provision for deliberate utterance of the thoughts which they are calculated to excite, and the authorities of the University have thought it suitable to invite to this office, not—I have been made to feel—an entire stranger, but a friend from a distance, whose opportunities have not been such as to permit a close observation of the history and fortunes of the institution. Profoundly sensible of the honor thus conferred upon me, I cannot help feeling how inadequate I am to its due performance. I cannot speak of the University of Virginia with all the affection which the graduate cherishes for his Alma Mater, nor with the full pride which the Virginian alone can feel; but to those who regard this institution as their own, who have control over its destinies, or have been reared within its walls, a view of it, as it appears to outside observers, may not be unwelcome, or wholly uninteresting. We are sometimes enabled to correct our own conceptions of ourselves, and qualify ourselves in some degree for the better performance of our own duties, by learning what is thought of us and what is expected of us by others.

Let me then occupy your thoughts for a brief hour with a sketch, very rude and imperfect, of the origin of the University and of its principal features as they appear to the world at large, to which I may add some allusion to its illustrious founder, and to the political philosophy the teaching of which he so ardently desired to promote.

Its origin offers a strong contrast with the beginnings of our principal seats of learning which preceded it. Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton began as mere schools for humble colonies; with no prevision of the great destinies which awaited them. Their majestic proportions have been developed and shaped, during long periods of time, by many different hands and many varying influences. But the University of Virginia sprang into life, in full panoply, from the conception of a single man, like Minerva from the brain of Jove. The aim of its founder was not to supply merely local and immediate wants, but to make provision for the growth, maintenance and glory of the new civilization and the new empire with which his visions were filled. No sketch can even be outlined of the origin and character of this institution which does not take in as a principal element the figure of this illustrious man.

The leading feature in the mind and character of Thomas Jefferson was a firm and undoubting belief in the worth and dignity of human nature, and in the capacity of man for self government. This was at once the conclusion of his reason and the passion of his soul. Whence it came to him it is difficult to discover; it was not from the sense of subjection and oppression felt by an inferior class in society towards those above it, for he belonged to the class of well to do, if not wealthy, Virginia land-holders; not from the venerable college of William and Mary; in which he was bred, for his opinions were not the cherished sentiments of that institution; not from his early and familiar acquaintance, to which he has acknowledged his great indebtedness, with Dr. Small, the President of that College, George Wythe and Gov. Fauquier, for their tendencies were towards very conservative views; not even from the fiery eloquence of Patrick Henry, to which he had often listened with admiration,—that may have fanned the flame in his bosom—but indignation at the Stamp Act would scarcely have nerved him to his early effort in the House of Burgesses to facilitate the manumission of slaves. It seems to have been inborn; but whether inborn or communicated, it ruled his life; it burst from him like the peal of an anthem when he came to pen the immortal Declaration; his long residence in Europe only confirmed it; the excesses of the French Revolution had no effect to abate it, and it breathes through every line of his public utterances from his seat as President of the United States; it was the foundation of his virtues and the source of his errors; and not only the source of these, but the cause of the false imputation to him of errors he never committed; his friendships and his enmities were alike due to it; he distrusted all who were not in full sympathy with it, and they distrusted him. Taught by bitter experience that the principles of true democracy are often as distasteful to the multitude as they are to the possessors of wealth and privilege, that the masses of men, fascinated by the splendors and force of concentrated power, may easily be persuaded, sometimes, to surrender in exchange for them the sense of individual freedom, even this did not dishearten him, and after filling, for eight years, the highest office in the gift of his countrymen with undeviating fidelity to the principles of popular government, he retired to the rest and repose of his beloved Monticello, carrying thither convictions of the worth and dignity of human nature, and ideals of government by the people, as distinct and fresh as those which animated him in the morning of his life.

Men have forever been prone to cast either a doubt or a sneer upon the apparently beneficent deeds of those whose principles they reject and whose influence they fear. A large part, at least, of the acts of Mr.. Jefferson’s official life still remain, and will, perhaps, forever remain, the subjects of dispute; but he himself has happily singled out, to be engraven upon his tomb, three particular achievements with which he wished his name to be associated, by friend or stranger, in all future time. The latest generation of his countrymen will not question the justice of his claim, nor withhold any part of the full tribute of honor and glory which belongs to the "author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and to the Father of the University of Virginia." 1

Mr. Jefferson, at his retirement, was sixty-six years of age. His intellectual faculties were unimpaired, his bodily strength was well preserved, and he was still conscious of the possession of a large capacity for usefulness to his countrymen and to mankind. His ambition for public office, never very deeply cherished, had been fully satisfied, and he was inwardly resolved never again to seek it. He had cherished through life a passion for the acquisition of knowledge, and was one of the best educated men, if not the best educated man, of his country and time, and he could have filled the remainder of his days with a serene and tranquil enjoyment of the pleasures of literature and science; but such a life was not possible for him, nor was any life possible for him the strength of which was not devoted to the advancement of the liberty and happiness of men. He had in early manhood formed a scheme of public education, which, from time to time, had pressed itself on his attention throughout even the busiest years of his public life. It was part of his political philosophy. Lover of liberty as he was, firmly as he believed that popular government was the only form of public authority consistent with the highest happiness of men, he yet did not believe that any nation or community could permanently retain this blessing without the benefit of the lessons of truth, and the discipline of virtue to be derived only from the intellectual and moral education of the whole people.

His general scheme appears to have embraced three branches: (1) the division of the whole state into districts, or wards, and the establishment in each of a primary school in which the rudiments of knowledge should be taught to all; (2) the establishment of a sufficient number of higher academies or colleges, in which those exhibiting in the primary schools superior intellectual endowments might acquire, gratis, a further and higher education; and (3) a State University, in which each science should "be taught in the highest degree it has yet attained."1

The length of time during which, and the intensity with which Mr. Jefferson had devoted himself to this great object, is well manifested by an extract from a letter written by him in 1818, some ten years after his retirement from the presidency. "A system," says he, "of general instruction which shall reach every description of our citizens, from the highest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so will it be the latest, of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest."1

The two branches of his scheme relating respectively to the primary schools and the higher academies encountered obstacles which it was impossible for him to surmount, and they are not those features which chiefly concern us to-day; but I cannot resist the temptation to read before this audience his statement of the objects of primary education contained in the celebrated report prepared by him for the Commission appointed by the Governor of Virginia under an act of the General Assembly and which met in 1818 at the unpretending tavern at Rock fish Gap in the Blue Ridge. There have been held since that day, in many parts of the United States, conventions and conferences of teachers, educators and friends and patrons of learning more numerously attended, favored with more abundant information, and with other advantages for the consideration and discussion of educational questions; but none, certainly, more distinguished for the dignity and ability of its members. Besides senators and judges, there were among those who assembled on that occasion, James Monroe, then President of the United States, and his two predecessors, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. And, certainly, we may look in vain for any public statement before that time or since, of the objects of public education so concise, so comprehensive and so just as that contained in the report of this Commission written by Jefferson. He thus defined the objects of primary education:

"1. To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business.

"2. To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts in writing.

"3. To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties.

"4. To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.

"5. To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and judgment.

"6. And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed. "1

This statement of the objects of primary education will never be improved. It ought to be written in letters of gold and hung in every primary school throughout the land and be known by heart to every teacher and child therein. It is, indeed, more than a statement of the elements of rudimentary education. It is an enumeration of the duties of every good citizen under a popular government.

The apparent impossibility, at the time he began his effort, of impressing upon the Commonwealth his sense of the necessity of a universal provision for primary education, moved Mr. Jefferson to turn his attention to the third branch of his scheme, that which embraced a State University. This, although not, in his democratic view, the part of his plan which promised results of the widest utility, was the one which offered to him the most congenial field of effort, and held out to his hopes a better promise of success.

His conception in its main elements had been in his mind from early manhood. He had never dismissed it from his thoughts. He cherished it during the gloomy years of the Revolution. He improved it during his long sojourn in France. He recurred to it again and again in the midst of the perplexities which distracted him during both his presidential terms, and he brought it gradually to a completion after his retirement. He sought every aid which he could derive from independent study, from unceasing correspondence with men of learning familiar with university education and from personal intercourse with those interested in his project whom he could attract to his own hospitable roof.

I have no time to recount the successive steps by which his plan proceeded towards its realization; its partial embodiment in the Albemarle Academy, its fuller development in the Central College, under which name the corner-stone of the future University was laid, and its final establishment in fact and in name by the passage through the General Assembly, on the 25th of January, 1819, of the bill uniting the Central College and the University of Virginia.

It would be no disparagement of the glory to which Mr. Jefferson is entitled for this great achievement to say that he could never have accomplished the work without the aid of others. The assent of the Legislature was needed, and for this a favoring public sentiment was necessary; but it was here that Mr. Jefferson’s task began. For forty years he had been laboring in every form in which public sentiment could be reached, through the press, and by correspondence and personal influence with leading public men, to create, and he finally created, a conviction of the importance and necessity of the work. But, however conspicuous the place which may be assigned to him, there was one coadjutor whose devoted labor and effective aid can never be forgotten. The right arm upon which he relied in later years, and without which it may well be doubted whether this audience would be gathered together to-day, was Joseph C. Cabell. The alumni and friends of the University of Virginia may be trusted to take care that that name shall not perish from the grateful memory of men.

The whole work, however, was as yet by no means accomplished. I have just said that the University had become established in fact and in name; but the fact was only the legislative fiat, and the name as yet but a name. The conception of a University embraces noble buildings which contain its libraries, its collections, its hails of instruction, and which, in most instances prior to this time, had been the contributions of successive generations. Of these there were as yet none; and in nothing does this institution more clearly appear as the creation of Mr. Jefferson’s mind than in its material structures and their situation.

In respect to the situation, the presence of a selfish interest may be recognized and excused. Among the motives which stimulated his zeal was undoubtedly a desire, of which we have more than one example among democratic statesmen, to spend the years of retirement in the congenial neighborhood of a great institution of learning and science; and it was the longing of his heart that the University should have her permanent seat, "her arms and her chariot," in the neighborhood of his own Monticello. To this end he employed every resource of argument, and when this failed, of art, to persuade the body of which he was himself a member, of the superior claims of this locality. They were obliged to admit that healthiness and centrality ought to be the predominating considerations; but, admitting this, they could hardly resist the argument afforded by Mr. Jefferson’s "imposing array of octogenarians" then still living in this region; and, as to centrality, he was ready with a demonstration that on whatever theory the lines might be run "they would be found to pass close to Charlottesville."1

The form, the architecture, and the arrangement of the material structures seem to have been altogether his own; and here he did not allow the simplicity and frugality of his political philosophy to lead him astray. His vision was of a University which would appeal to the sentiments, and thus attract to itself the most famous teachers, with crowds of scholars. He knew the Muses could not be enticed to take up their abode in mean and squalid habitations. He wrote to his efficient helper, Cabell: "The great object of our aim from the beginning has been to make the establishment the most eminent in the United States in order to draw to it the youth of every State, but especially of the South and West. We have proposed, therefore, to call to it characters of the first order of science from Europe, as well as our own country, and not only by the salaries and the comforts of their situation, but by the distinguished scale of its structure and preparation, and the promise of future eminence which these would hold up, to induce them to commit their reputation to its future fortunes. Had we built a barn for a college and log huts for accommodations, should we ever have had the assurance) to propose to an European professor of character to come to it?"2 He sought, therefore, to reproduce on the American frontier a vision of the architecture and art of Greece and Rome. He seems to have been his own architect and almost his own builder. It would be strange, indeed, if the results had altogether escaped criticism, or if personal vanity had not, to some extent, usurped the place of knowledge; but it is no mean tribute to the merit of the original design that it has been, after the lapse of three-quarters of a century, reproduced and perpetuated in the principal restoration which we dedicate to-day.

On the 7th of March, 1825, the University was thrown open for the reception of students, and its actual career began. It must have been a day of unspeakable satisfaction to Mr. Jefferson. A long life filled with public service and public cares had been at last crowned by what he regarded as its most useful achievement, at the very moment when he had reached the boundary which limits human endeavor; but if he was capable of no further effort there was no further effort which he was called upon to make. It was the very point at which, as he had many times declared, he could with happiness pronounce his "nunc dimittis," and the moment was not long deferred. On the 4th day of July of the succeeding year, just half a century after the American Colonies had rung out to the world in his own immortal language their declaration of nationality, he dosed his career on earth.

This is not the time, had I the ability, to make any attempt to assign the place to which this illustrious man is entitled on the roll of philanthropists. Coming as he did upon the theatre of conspicuous life at a period when the fundamental principles of government were the subjects of universal discussion, subjects upon which freemen are at all times inclined to array themselves on one or the other of two opposing sides,—one dreading the effects of popular ignorance, the other fearing the selfishness of the enlightened,—one looking back to the supposed wisdom and virtue of the past, and the other looking forward with confidence to the possibilities and promise of the future,—plunging, as he did, into these conflicts with all the earnestness of long cherished and positive convictions, he could hardly fail to encounter hostilities which would stop at no methods by which his principles or his character could be discredited. By some irony of fate the great apostle of democracy was made to suffer in his own person all the injustice which democratic societies can perpetrate. The great defender of the liberty of speech and the press was rewarded by an outpouring from the press and the pulpit of calumny and detraction unparalleled before or since; and the foremost champion of popular principles, faithful to them in every act of his life, retired from the high office of President under a load of unpopularity.

"Time! the corrector where our judgments err,
* * * * * * *
* * * * * * *
Time, the avenger !"
has dispelled the clouds of detraction and the mists of prejudice and revealed in clearer light the true image of the statesman and the patriot. Looking at the denunciation poured out upon him by his contemporaries and the applause with which posterity has hailed his name, we are moved to think with the great English orator "that obloquy is a necessary ingredient in the composition of all true glory," and that "it was not only in the Roman customs, but it is in the nature and constitution of things that calumny and abuse are essential parts of a triumph."

He had, indeed, few of the qualities which mark the great military chieftain, the conqueror, or the dictator, but what figure in the gallery of American renown can point to such a catalogue of pacific achievement ?—the abolition in his native State of the laws of primogeniture and entail—the Virginia Statute of religious freedom—the Declaration of Independence—the kind and peaceful removal of the Indian tribes to the west of the Mississippi—the near extinction of the national debt—the acquisition of Louisiana—the University of Virginia—where are the crimes or the vices which dim the lustre of these deeds? Those whose ideal of the duty and destiny of the Republic is that of a conquering nation ready at any moment for the grim business of war, eager to avenge an insult real or supposed, greedy of military and naval renown, inclined to erect its own will into law, and enforce it against all opposition, to strike first and reason afterwards—these will find little to admire in the career of Mr. Jefferson. He knew too well the lessons of history. He knew what visions of empire had dazzled the ambition of Rome, while Rome was yet free,—

"Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento;
Hae tibi erunt artes; pacisque imponere morem,
Pareere subjectis, et debellare suberpos."

And he knew also the terrible penalty to Rome and the world which an indulgence of those visions cost. He had lived in the midst of the interesting scenes which ushered in the emancipation of France, and had afterwards shuddered to see how ruthlessly the passion for extended empire and military glory would trample upon true liberty. He was a pacific ruler. War, except in self-defence, and as a last alternative, he held in detestation, as the enemy both of civilization and liberty. His patriotism expanded into philanthropy, and permitted no other ambitions respecting foreign nations than those of cultivating the peaceful relations of trade and commerce with the whole family of man.

Whatever abatement we may be required or disposed to make from his credit as a practical statesman, the sum of his achievements was hardly equalled by any of his contemporaries, save one alone, and the general features of his political philosophy still remain as the nominal creed at least of the great body of his countrymen.

But what, if any, was the particular conception of university education which he enshrined within these walls? Is it still cherished here, and will it be a worthy guide in training the intellect and directing the aspirations of the future generations who are to flock hither? These are questions which more immediately concern us on this occasion.

I suppose most men who have given great attention to the subject of education have not thought it appropriate to inquire for what it was useful; they would deem it useful in itself, as being the development of the faculties of man, or, if required to assign an ulterior object to which it should be held subservient, they would point to nothing less general, or less absolute, than human happiness.

This, however, was not Mr. Jefferson’s view. Lover as he was of the sciences, and of all learning for their own sake, happy as he had always been made while cultivating them, he yet would never have expended so many years of his life in founding this institution, if he had had no hopes other than those of establishing a university on the ordinary model, even though there were a promise of rivaling the fame of Oxford or Bologna. With him, university education was important as being a part of general education, and this was important because necessary to the development and preservation of that civil and political liberty which he deemed essential to the progress and happiness of man.

His idea of university education was, therefore, a part of his political philosophy. He believed that there was a system of government founded upon the principles of human nature under which the largest liberty and happiness were attainable, but only upon the condition of a wide—a universal—diffusion of popular education, and that such education embraced the cultivation in the highest degree of those selected minds exhibiting the highest order of genius. It was by means of a systematic cultivation of the best natural geniuses in the land that he hoped to carry all the sciences to the highest degree of cultivation, and among them especially, the science of free government.

The animating principle of his political philosophy was a jealousy of all governmental power in whomsoever vested. Such power is, of necessity, to be exercised by some over others. It may be wrongfully usurped, or voluntarily entrusted, but, in either case, is liable to be abused; and, in Jefferson’s view, the best guaranty against abuse consisted in preventing usurpation and withholding delegation. He knew, indeed, that government to a certain extent was necessary, and, therefore, that it was necessary to delegate and entrust power; but this he would do with stingy parsimony, measuring the amounts doled out by the rule of rigid necessity. This was the ground of his animosity towards any concentration of power in the hands of one, or a few; because concentrated power is a common form and fruit of usurped or delegated power. Nor did his democracy assume that socialistic form which would merge the liberty of the individual in the equality of the masses. It was the natural, original freedom of man which he sought to preserve. He was the apostle of individualism. He lost no opportunity of inculcating his favorite principle, and a question as to whether primary schools should be supported and managed by counties, or each by the particular district in which it was situated, led him into a very concise and excellent statement of his whole theory: "No, my friend," said he, "the way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one; but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the National government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State government with the civil rights, laws, police and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics, from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm and affairs by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian Senate. And I do believe, that if the Almighty has not decreed that man shall never be free(and it is blasphemy to believe it) the secret will Be found in the making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competency by a synthetical process to higher and higher orders of functionaries, so as to trust fewer and fewer powers, in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical."1

At the present day we are so familiar with these ideas that it is difficult to imagine that they were ever novel; but in Mr. Jefferson’s time it was far otherwise. Not all of those who espoused the side of the colonies against Great Britain and joined in the struggle for independence were believers in popular government, and many even of those who supported the new constitution had but feeble faith in democratic principles. Many even preferred monarchical government, and many more what they called a strong government, that is, a government strong enough to maintain itself even against the popular will.

And it is difficult also to understand the partisan hostility and bitterness engendered by these conflicting views. Each side seemed to believe that the other was bent upon the destruction of everything valuable in society. Jefferson and Marshall, two great Virginians, incomparably the first political geniuses in the land, utterly distrusted each other.

Nor could men be much blamed for withholding assent from the political ideas of Jefferson. There was but little in the teachings of history to support them. They were based in large degree upon a priori conceptions. He was obliged to admit that all previous attempts at popular government had’ been failures; but this was, in his view, because of special disfavoring conditions; the long habit of submitting to despotic authority had enervated the people, or the true principle of popular government had been violated by delegating and concentrating too much power in the hands of a few. He saw in the conditions exhibited by the American colonies the first real opportunity for establishing liberty. For a century these colonies had been exempt from the dominion of feudalism, from sectarian domination, and from nearly every form of severe governmental oppression. Here was a virgin soil, an abundance of land, no degrading poverty, a brave and intelligent people which had just vindicated its title to independence after a long struggle with the mightiest of European powers. He could not help thinking that "unless the Almighty had decreed that man should never be free (and it would be blasphemy to believe this)" that the golden opportunity was now offered; that here the free spirit of mankind should "put its last fetters off ;" that here should be established no bastard, degenerate freedom, no government affecting to be popular, but really resting upon monarchical or aristocratic contrivances but a freedom in which every man should be master of his own destiny, in which there should be no usurpation of power, and no delegation of power, unless its natural possessor was unfitted to exercise it, and consequently no concentration of power, beyond what rigid necessity required—no great standing armies—no powerful navies carrying the flag in triumph over every sea,—no interference with liberty of opinion or speech—no interference with liberty of action, so long as the public peace and order were not broken—this was Jefferson’s vision of republican freedom.

It would be a gross injustice to impute to him hostility to government itself, or any indulgence of mere license. Government was in his view the first and most important of human necessities; but instead of regarding it, as some seemed to do, as being in itself the source of good, and therefore presumably beneficent wherever its power was felt, he looked upon it as beneficial only so far as it was necessary to prevent one man from encroaching upon the liberty and rights of another, and as carrying with it great possibilities of mischief and wrong, whenever its interference was pushed beyond its just limits.

Such was Mr. Jefferson’s conception of liberty and government which he intended should be accepted by this University, and be therein defended and propagated. It was only through the universal adoption of this idea that it seemed to him possible for the newly created nation to reach the glorious destiny which the future had in store for it; and hence the importance he attached to it, and the unquestioning assent which he demanded for it. By nature the most tolerant of men, upon this point he was dogmatic, even to bigotry. A thorough believer in the inherent power of truth to triumph ultimately over error, he was yet unwilling to subject his favorite dogma to the temporary hazards of a contest. In one of his communications just before the University was thrown open to students, he expressed to one of his fellows upon the Board of Visitors his anxieties in this direction. Said he: "In most public seminaries text-books are prescribed to each of the several schools as the norma docendi in that school; and this is generally done by authority of the trustees. I should not propose this generally in our University, because I believe none of us are so much at the heights of science in the several branches as to undertake this; and, therefore, that it will better be left to the professors, until occasion of interference shall be given. But there is one branch in which we are the best judges, in which heresies may be taught, of so interesting a character to our own State, and to the United States, as to make it a duty in us to lay down the principles which shall be taught. It is that of government. Mr. Gilmer being withdrawn, we know not who his successor may be. He may be a Richmond lawyer, or one of that school of quondam federalism, now consolidation. It is our duty to guard against the dissemination of such principles among our youth, and the diffusion of that poison, by a previous prescription of the texts to be followed in their discourses."1

Of the fidelity heretofore of this University to the political theory thus entrusted to it, no doubt will be entertained. Its own convictions have concurred with the sentiments of grateful admiration for its father. Successive generations of the sons of the South have become deeply imbued with it by lessons received upon this spot and have greatly aided in making it the unchallenged popular faith throughout the largest part of the land.

Shall this fidelity be continued into the indefinite future? Shall Jefferson’s theory of Liberty be forever cherished around his tomb? Has the experience of a century vindicated its pretensions as the only sure foundation of popular government, or stamped upon it the discredit of an illusive impracticability? These are not uninteresting questions and they deserve my few remaining words.

If an intelligent observer removed from any participation in our political strifes were to survey the history of our country for a century with the view of ascertaining how far events had justified the teachings of Mr. Jefferson and his followers, he would find difficulty in reaching at first, at least, a favorable verdict. He would impute, perhaps not unjustly, to that peaceful policy the national humiliations which preceded and accompanied the War of 1812 with Great Britain. He would see one of the supposed conclusions of that political philosophy as originally drawn and carefully expressed by the great apostle himself in the celebrated Kentucky resolutions of 1798, and afterwards re-stated and vindicated by another illustrious son of the South, made the justification for a bold and deliberate attempt to nullify, throughout the territory of a State, a law of the United States. He would see this conclusion at a still later period made the ground for a widespread defiance of the entire national authority, and the main support of a civil strife which deluged the land with fraternal blood.

Further reflection, however, would probably dispel in part, if not altogether, the unfavorable impression. Mr. Jefferson’s political system was, no doubt, based upon the assumption of peace. He held in abhorrence large standing armies and powerful navies, and a nation unprovided with these will sometimes find itself subjected to humiliation, as we were in the era of 1812, either by submitting to injury from a consciousness of unreadiness to make good a defiance, or by being suddenly overwhelmed by an inferior hostile force. But are nations unprepared for war the only ones likely to be subjected to humiliations? Was England never humiliated, or France, or Germany? And what can be a greater humiliation than that of an unjust aggression upon the rights of others and the peace of the world so likely to be committed by those who think themselves armed with resistless power? And had we always been armed on the land and on the sea in proportion to our power, should we have gained and held the glory hitherto accorded to us by civilized mankind of being the promoters everywhere of international law, and the advocates of peace and justice among nations? And, even in respect to power itself, were we called upon to exhibit our strength in a just cause, could we under a more consolidated government, assemble the overwhelming forces which the emulation of rival States will now willingly place at the service of the nation?

For the theoretical doctrine which supported the claims of nullification and secession, Mr. Jefferson must, indeed, be held largely accountable; but this was never any essential part of his philosophy of free government, if indeed it be consistent with it. It concerned only the interpretation and effect of the particular constitutional instrument by which the colonies united themselves together.

I must employ a few words here to make this more plain. In the great political division which took place soon after the adoption of the constitution, men arrayed themselves on the one side or the other according as they favored the advanced doctrines of popular government, or, distrusting the capacity of the people, inclined towards the principles and methods of a constitutional monarchy. The impulse of the movement which culminated in the French Revolution, reaching these shores, stirred the sympathies and passions of both parties, the one espousing the cause of Democratic France and the other of monarchical England. The Federal party, alarmed for the public welfare, and fearful lest the license of the French revolutionists should be repeated on this side of the water, sought to strengthen authority by those acts of repressive Federal power, since generally condemned, called the Alien and Sedition laws. The constitutional validity of these was attacked by Jefferson, and his argument was formulated in the celebrated Kentucky resolutions, in which he affirmed the right of each State, under the Constitution, to determine for itself the validity of any Federal enactment. The main question was not whether under a Federal government formed to secure the ends which ours had in view, it would be wise to delegate to the general government the exclusive right to determine the extent of its own powers, but whether in point of fact such a delegation was contained in our own constitution. Upon this point it would be true to say that Mr. Jefferson and his followers had their own way, until the appearance of the scene, at a later period, of those great protagonists in constitutional debate, Webster and Calhoun. In what condition the struggle between these renowned champions left the dispute I will not undertake to say,—

" Non nostrum tantas componere lites;" but I may hazard the opinion that if the question had been made, not in 1861, but in 1788, immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, whether the Union as formed by that instrument could lawfully treat the secession of a State as a rebellion and suppress it by force, few of those who had participated in framing that instrument would have answered in the affirmative.

Nor has that question been in any manner settled by the result of that civil strife which has effected such a profound revolution in the political and social world of America. I cannot admit the efficacy of force to settle any question of historic or scientific truth. Truth is eternal and immutable, and the warfare of those who seek to suppress it will forever be in vain. The question which the result of that strife did settle, as has been eloquently and powerfully shown by a distinguished statesman and jurist of the South—shown, too, in pronouncing a glowing eulogy upon his great teacher and master, Calhoun—was, not whether our Constitution actually created a consolidated nation—nations cannot be created by agreement—but whether the Federal Union, composed originally of colonies the people of which had been subjects of the same sovereign, and which had never occupied the attitude of independent States before the world, embracing, also, new States created out of territory which was the common property of all, could—after they had been knit together into a nation during the life of nearly a century by the thousand processes which time and nature employ to cement and consolidate a people—by trade, by commerce, by railways, by social and business alliances, by common perils and sufferings in war; by the blessings, hopes and aspirations of peace,—could, after all this, at the will and pleasure of one of its parts, be instantly and peacefully resolved, not into its original elements, but into supposed constituent parts, most of which had had no participation in its original formation. That was a question which from its nature could be settled only by trial, and the trial has indeed forever settled that, and—strange thing in human history—neither side would wish the decision to be reversed. Nor should it be forgotten that, whatever the consequences, in the form of disunion or secession, the doctrine of Mr. Jefferson, as propounded in the Kentucky resolutions, might possibly involve, no such project was ever suggested, or in any manner countenanced, by him. Whatever discredit may be attached to any suggestions, in his day, of disunion or secession belongs altogether to his political opponents.

Are there any other respects in which it may be plausibly suggested that the political philosophy of Mr. Jefferson has been discredited by the teachings of experience? Does the General Government now need a larger delegation of power? Are there any functions hitherto performed by the States which should be relegated to the central authority? Do we need a large standing army? Must we confront the gigantic naval armaments of the European nations with a corresponding array? Must we mingle in the ambitions of the great powers of the world? Must we extend the area of our territorial dominion? Must we look on and behold with unconcern the partitioning of Africa among the European powers, and the dismemberment of China? Must we assert before the world the might and majesty of seventy millions of the most energetic and productive people on the globe? Shall we form alliances with kindred peoples, or remain in calm and forbidding isolation among the nations? All these questions to which, if proposed in Mr. Jefferson’s time, his teaching would have returned an answer in the negative, are likely to press themselves, if they are not already pressing themselves, upon the public attention.

Time, of course, does not permit me to indulge in any consideration of either of them; but I venture to express my conviction that unless the answer the American people make to them shall be consistent with those principles of which Mr. Jefferson has hitherto been regarded as the champion, there will be an end of true popular government among men. There is—there can be—but one true basis of liberty, and that lies in constantly cherishing the dispersion rather than the concentration of power. The individual loses something of his liberty the moment he clothes another with any power over himself. Nothing can justify the surrender except the promise that by making it he better secures the liberty he retains. But with every new surrender of power there comes a peril. Power entrusted will sometimes be abused, and the temptation to abuse increases with the extent of the delegation. Liberty is safe when, and only when, for each delegation of power which is demanded a necessity is shown.

No; the fundamental political philosophy of Mr. Jefferson has not been discredited by time or experience. It never will be discredited while men retain a real love and a true comprehension of civil liberty. And never more than at the present time has there been a necessity for studying and teaching within the walls of universities the true principles of republican liberty and the practical art of applying them to human affairs. Recreant, indeed, would this University be to the fame of its founder, to the purposes for which it was established, and to its own obligations to present and to future times, if it failed to continue to maintain, not in the spirit of dogmatism, but of devotion to truth, those great principles upon which free popular government stands.

If anything were needed to impress upon patriotic minds the supreme importance of cultivating anew these principles and implanting in all hearts the determination to maintain them, it would be supplied by the extraordinary spectacle which our country exhibits at the present moment. We have voluntarily chosen to break the peace of the world and engage in a war which already imposes a heavy burden upon the industry and resources of the nation, and which may become enlarged into gigantic proportions—a war undertaken not to repel aggression, but to check the disorders and relieve the oppressions to which a neighboring people have been subjected. It is, indeed, true that nations have their duties not only to themselves, but to the world; and these must be performed at whatever hazard. If we have not the virtue to perform them without sacrificing our own freedom, we have no right to be a republic. We believe, and have solemnly avowed, that we have taken this perilous step under the influence of those humane motives which civilization and humanity enjoin us to obey. For the sincerity of that avowal we must abide the judgment of civilized nations, and this will largely depend upon the consistency with that declaration which our future conduct shall exhibit. Even now the passion for national glory, growing by what it feeds upon, stimulated by the deeds of naval skill and daring on distant seas—deeds which reflect undying lustre on the American name and excite the admiration of the world—is indulging new visions of territorial aggrandizement.

But have a care, Americans! These national duties which call upon us to raise an avenging arm arise only in those rare alternatives when all else has proved to be ineffectual, and when we have good reason to know that such avenging arm will be effectual. Have a care that among your ruling motives no place shall be allowed to the mere love of military and naval renown. The pathway marked out for the republic by its fathers was one of peaceful achievement. Its mission is peace. A free nation can rightfully have no other aspiration. But there are temptations which come with the possession of power. Men take pride in being the citizens of powerful nations, and enjoy the consciousness of strength. These temptations are to be resisted, for we may be sure that for any undue indulgence in them the price will be exacted with the certainty of fate; and this price is grinding taxation, the oppression of the poorer classes, the multiplication of the official corps, the intensifying of the struggle for the possession of governmental patronage and consequent spread of corruption, the increasing power of political bosses and chieftains, the decay of public and civic virtue, and the resulting danger of resorts to revolution. Let not our future confirm the sad lament of the misanthropic poet, that history has but one page which reads,

"First Freedom, and then Glory—when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption,—barbarism at last."

Here, then, of all places, let the true principles of liberty and free government, as expounded by Jefferson, be forever studied and taught. Let the youth of the land who are to resort hither here learn the true objects of national ambition and the methods by which they are to be reached. Let them study here the new problems arising from the prodigious growth of the nation and its rapid material consolidation. Let them be taught the true principles of legislation, and by what methods liberty is best reconciled with order and with law; and above all let them learn to prefer for their country that renown among the nations which comes from the constant display of the love of peace and justice.

And the ancient Commonwealth of Virginia,—to what nobler object can she extend her favor and support than the building up upon this historic spot of a great university which shall be at once the home of the Sciences and the Arts and the nursery of political freedom? Outshining all her sister colonies in the splendor of her contribution to the galaxy of great names which adorns our Revolutionary history, how can she better perpetuate that glory than by sending forth from her own soil a new line of patriot statesmen? No jealousies will attend her efforts to this great end, and her sister States would greet with delight her re-ascending star once more blazing in the zenith of its own proper firmament.

1 An Address delivered by James C. Carter, LL. D., upon the occasion of the Dedication of the new Buildings of the University, June 14, 1898.

1 From the inscription on his tomb.

1 See Jefferson’s Autobiography; vol. 1, p. 47.

1 Correspondence of Jefferson and Cabell; p. 106,

1 U. S. Bureau of Education, Circular No. 1, p. 33.

1 U. S. Bureau of Education, Circular No. 1, 1888, p. 37.

2 Correspondence of Jefferson and Cabell; p. 260.

1 Correspondence of Jefferson and Cabell; p. 54.

1 Correspondence of Jefferson and Cabell; p. 339.


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Chicago: Thomas Jefferson, "The University of Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson, Its Father," Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 2 in Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.III-XXXVIII Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RNSE34Z6BJCBUER.

MLA: Jefferson, Thomas. "The University of Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson, Its Father." Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 2, in Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.III-XXXVIII, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RNSE34Z6BJCBUER.

Harvard: Jefferson, T, 'The University of Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson, Its Father' in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 2. cited in , Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.III-XXXVIII. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RNSE34Z6BJCBUER.