Choosing the University Site
Following weeks of debate during the 1817-1818 session of the Virginia General Assembly, Senator Joseph C. Cabell, Jefferson’s point man in the legislature, orchestrated a significant victory aiding Jefferson’s plan for a state university. He attached a rider designating a state university to a bill for primary education, but without identifying a location. Cabell realized this was the only way a bill would succeed, given the various interests at odds over a site for the future university. On February 21, 1818, the Assembly formally approved a state university to be called the University of Virginia, but with the site unspecified.
The revised bill called for the governor to appoint a commission to meet at Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge on the first of August to recommend a location for the university “in some convenient and proper part of the State.” Specifically, the commission was to advise the Assembly at their next session regarding:
“First—A proper site for the University.
Secondly—A plan for the building thereof.
Thirdly—The branches of learning which should be taught therein.
Fourthly—The number and description of professorships; and
Fifthly—Such general provisions as might properly be enacted by the Legislature, for the better organizing and governing the University.”
Clearly more was on the table than choosing a site for the university, but it was only in Charlottesville, in sight of Monticello, that Jefferson’s long-contemplated vision would be fulfilled.
Jefferson and Cabell set out to influence the race for a university site, but the politically savvy Cabell had already given the Central College supporters a head start. His amendment to the primary education bill, requiring the governor to appoint to the commission representatives from each of the twenty-four senatorial districts, immediately gave Central College supporters an advantage. As historian Neil Shawen observed, “With fifteen of the twenty-four Rockfish delegates coming from east of the Blue Ridge and two of the three competing sites located west of that divide, geography alone suggested that the majority would favor Charlottesville while the minority would be split between support for Staunton and Lexington.”
The Virginia senator set out to improve upon that advantage by persuading Governor James P. Preston to appoint delegates who were known to be sympathetic to Jefferson’s plans. Cabell remarked in a February 20 letter to Jefferson, “I think we are safe in the hands of the Executive.” Indeed they were, as Preston appointed delegates who were known supporters of a university in Albemarle, from families that had donated money to Central College, or had political ties with Jefferson and Cabell.
Because the 1818 bill asked the commission also to consider what “voluntary contributions” might be obtained to support a university, Jefferson and Cabell gathered signatures from subscribers to Central College on a document transferring any monies to a university located in Charlottesville. It had been Jefferson’s plan all along to speed construction of buildings at Central College in order to impress the legislature. This fact, together with the funds now released to a university from college donors, as well as the extensive acreage for a school already purchased and available in Charlottesville, provided an impressive set of assets to establish a university. Nevertheless, Jefferson was aware that supporters of a site in Lexington, home of Washington College, appeared to have the edge if only material assets were considered.
Jefferson was reluctant to be chosen as a representative on the commission, citing concerns that people bore grudges against him which would prejudice Central College’s chances. He wrote to Cabell within a week of the bill being passed by the Assembly:
“As to myself, I should be ready to do anything in my power for the institution; but that is not the exact question. Would it promote the success of the institution most for me to be in or out of it? Out of it, I believe. It is still to depend ultimately on the will of the Legislature; and that has its uncertainties. There are fanatics both in religion and politics, who, without knowing me personally, have long been taught to consider me as a raw head and bloody bones, and as we can afford to lose no votes in that body, I do think it would be better that you should be named for our district. Do not consider this as mock-modesty; it is the cool and deliberate act of my judgment. I believe the institution would be more popular without me than with me; and this is the most important consideration---and I am confident that you would be a more efficient member of that body than I should. Do, then, dear sir, act on this subject without any scruples as to me or your self. Regard nothing but the good of the cause.
In the end, Cabell and his advisors decided it was more important to have Jefferson on the commission than not. It was a proper and fortunate choice, as the sage of Monticello went about his typical meticulous preparation of details concerning all aspects of the Assembly’s charge to the commission, gathering population data demonstrating Charlottesville’s central position in the state, as well as laying out plans for buildings, a curriculum, professorships, and university governance.
Twenty-one delegates met at the tavern in Rockfish Gap on August 1. Because the choice of a location for the university loomed so important, the commissioners voted to focus on that issue and leave the remaining agenda items to a sub-committee composed of Jefferson, James Madison, and four others. On August 4, the delegates formally rendered their decision, stating that, “all other circumstances in general being favorable to it, as a position for an university, they do report the Central College, in Albemarle, to be a convenient and proper part of the State for the University of Virginia.” The commissioners’ report, drafted by Jefferson and signed by the delegates, was forwarded to the Virginia General Assembly for consideration at its next session.
It was not yet a done deal. The factions in the Virginia Assembly which were so under-represented at Rockfish Gap were now given a chance to organize opposition to Jefferson’s plan for a university. Nevertheless, Cabell optimistically reported to Jefferson on December 8th that: “Present prospects are very favorable to a successful issue.”  The senator, however, underestimated opposition in the Assembly to locating a university in Charlottesville, or, for that matter, to establishing any university. His correspondence with Jefferson over the next six weeks revealed his optimism over passage of the bill waxing and waning. The legislative battle also was exacting a toll on Jefferson’s steadfast ally. Cabell’s health was always fragile and at this time he was seriously ill. He reported to Jefferson that “...information again revises my hopes of a favorable issue...Rest assured, sir, that nothing I can do on this occasion, shall be omitted to procure success. I will not stir from the seat of government till this business is settled; my friends have urged me to go to Williamsburg; but I have refused. Even if the dangers to my life existed, which they apprehended, I could not risk it in a better cause.”
On December 24th Cabell described delegates’ objections to the Charlottesville site. Some claimed the Literary Fund was being diverted from its mission of educating the poor; others questioned Jefferson’s calculations and conclusions concerning the population center of Virginia; while others “...feel difficulties from the smallness of the town. They think a town of some size necessary, to attract professors, to furnish polished society for the students, to supply accommodations, to resist the physical force, and present the means of governing a large number of young men, &c.” Two weeks later, on January 7, 1819, Cabell expressed his concern about the “great inroads” by the opposition, stating that “an eastern and western feeling supercedes all other considerations.” The debate was clearly coming to a head, and Cabell put on a good front, his parting words wishing that Jefferson “may in a few weeks be cheered by the intelligence of the final success of the bill for the University.”
This time Cabell’s wishes were realized. On January 18 he reported: “Grateful truly grateful, is it to my heart, to be able to announce to you the result of this day’s proceedings in the House of Delegates.” The House had voted overwhelmingly to locate the university in Charlottesville. Moreover, Cabell said, “Immediately after this decision, Mr. Baldwin, of Augusta, rose and made a most eloquent appeal to the Western delegation, calling on them to dismiss local feelings, and to unite with the majority in the support of the measure.” The eloquent appeal by Briscoe G. Baldwin, a supporter of a site in Staunton, was met with applause and, reported Cabell, brought delegates to tears.
After clearing a few remaining hurdles in the Senate, Cabell reported that a final victory had been achieved. The win, however, was costly for Cabell who, in the same letter, admitted to Jefferson: “I began to take some part in the discussion which has taken up all Saturday and to-day; but, in my first effort, the blood vessel, which had broken within me, opened again, and I was compelled to abandon the attempt, by the discovery that I was spitting blood. I am now under serious apprehensions on the score of my health. I have retired to Judge Coalter’s, where Mrs. Cabell met me on yesterday. Should I not get better, I must withdraw to Williamsburg.”
No doubt reflecting on the efforts of Joseph C. Cabell to secure the establishment of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the historian Garry Wills wrote that the making of "Mr. Jefferson's University" was "accomplished only by a series of truly heroic acts."
On January 25, 1819, the Virginia General Assembly formally established the University of Virginia on the site of Central College in Charlottesville. It was a university, however, without sufficient funds to continue construction of its buildings nor hire professors, a fact both Jefferson and Cabell recognized. Much more would have to be accomplished before a state university became a reality and opened its doors to the first students - an event that would not occur for six more years.
- Gene Zechmeister, June 28, 2011
- 1. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, February 20, 1818. Reprinted in Cabell, Nathaniel Francis, ed., Early History of the University of Virginia: as contained in the letters of Thomas Jefferson and Joseph C. Cabell, hitherto unpublished; with an appendix consisting of Mr. Jefferson’s bill for a complete system of education, and other illustrative documents; and an introduction comprising a brief historical sketch of the university, and a biographical notice of Joseph C. Cabell. (Richmond, VA: J. W. Randolph, 1856), 125-126.
- 2. "An Act Appropriating Part of the Revenue of the Literary Fund, and for Other Purposes," February 21, 1818, in ibid., 430, 431.
- 3. Neil McDowell Shawen, "The Casting of a Lengthened Shadow: Thomas Jefferson’s Role in Determining the Site for a State University in Virginia" (EdD diss., George Washington University, 1980), 256-7.
- 4. Ibid., 257.
- 5. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, February 20, 1818, in Cabell, Jefferson-Cabell Letters, 126.
- 6. Shawen, 261-262.
- 7. Ibid., 266.
- 8. Ibid., 276-277.
- 9. Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, February 26, 1818, in Cabell, Jefferson-Cabell Letters, 128-129.
- 10. Shawen, 272.
- 11. Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Fix the Site of the University of Virginia, &c, August 4, 1818, in Cabell, Jefferson-Cabell Letters, 433.
- 12. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, December, 8, 1818, in ibid., 137.
- 13. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, December 17, 1818, in ibid., 141.
- 14. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, December 24, 1818, in ibid., 143.
- 15. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, January 7, 1919, in ibid., 149.
- 16. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, January 18, 1919, in ibid., 149, 150.
- 17. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, January 25, 1919, in ibid., 153.
- 18. Garry Wills, Mr. Jefferson’s University (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006), 1.
- 19. "An Act Establishing the University," January 25, 1819, in Cabell, Jefferson-Cabell Letters, 447-450.
- 20. 20. Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, January 28, 1819, in ibid., 164; also, Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, February 4, 1819, in ibid., 155.