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.

His idea emphasized education in history, languages, the principles of the Enlightenment and the sciences, with graduate schools in law and medicine. Of these disciplines, 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 has broken important new ground in this book.  His position has allowed him to complete new research into Jefferson’s retirement correspondence and original manuscripts relating to the early history of the university.

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’s political philosophy was grounded in limited government. Nonetheless, he wanted state and local governments in Virginia and throughout the new nation 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:

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 and then dominated Jefferson’s life from the end of his presidency in 1808 until his death on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

From Monticello, Jefferson 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 with his personal finances, dogged him until the end.

Recognizing 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 and Jefferson served on the university’s 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  history’s greatest men.

Well done.