On October 3, 1825, in what he later described as a "most painful event," Thomas Jefferson appeared before a gathering of students, professors, and trustees at the University of Virginia inside its now-famed Rotunda. Recent unruly student behavior had culminated in an attack on two professors with bricks and canes that was quickly followed by threats by faculty to resign. Open less than a year, the university Jefferson had conceived, designed, and championed through Virginia’s legislature — the institution he called “the hobby of my old age” — was suddenly in jeopardy.
In this latest episode of our “In the Course of Human Events” podcast, Andrew O’Shaughnessy, the Saunders Director at Monticello’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies and author of "The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind:" Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University, narrates the story with help from colleagues Ann Lucas and Aaron Ojalvo.
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: This riot had taken the form of one student throwing a bottle of urine through the window. They proceeded to get into fistfights. And the students were indignant, indeed, at the professors for even daring to confront them.
Ann Lucas: My name is Ann Lucas. I'm a senior historian at Monticello, and I'm a graduate of the University of Virginia.
Aaron Ojalvo: My name is Aaron Ojalvo and I also attended the University of Virginia.
Ann Lucas: This is our podcast, in the horse . . . in the horse of cumin events.
Aaron Ojalvo: In the horse of cumin events.
Ann Lucas: This is our podcast, "In the Course of Human Events," and our topic today is Andrew O'Shaughnessy's newest work, The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson's Idea of a University. And today's podcast will focus on a riot that took place at the University in 1825.
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: My name is Andrew O'Shaughnessy. I am the Vice President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, the Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, and also a professor at the University of Virginia.
The final chapter of my book opens with Jefferson weeping. It's especially dramatic. This took place in the Rotunda, which is the loveliest and largest of all the buildings at the University of Virginia. And Jefferson was weeping in front of all of the students, in front of all of the faculty, and in front of the Board of Visitors, who were the governing board of the University.
And the reason that he was weeping is because there had been a student unrest and riotous behavior just a couple of days earlier, and this riot had taken the form of one student throwing a bottle of urine through the window of one of the pavilions, the house of George Long, a professor of classical literature and history.
The students proceeded to get into fistfights with two other professors. One of these was George Tucker, a very interesting man. He wrote the first science fiction novel in America. He was certainly no weakling. And ripped the shirt of one of the students before the guy got away. He was with another professor, John Patton Emmett. The two of them had been sitting, talking together when they'd heard all the commotion on the grounds.
They found the students disguised in masks. That was very popular in the period. It conformed with the Southern honor code. The main thing with honor was not necessarily that you'd be a good, chivalrous individual, but that you should appear to behave in a very civilized way, and if you did indeed not do so, you should disguise yourself and not get caught. Honor was all about maintaining your reputation, and it was an obsessive issue among male southerners. The best way to think about it would be like modern day gangs. If you insulted one of them, they would regard it as a matter of honor to fight a duel. And the students were indignant indeed at the professors for even daring to confront them.
Aaron Ojalvo: The disciplinary problems at UVA started almost immediately with the arrival of students. But that being said, I think there was a lot of what Andrew called strict and sometimes petty rules for the students to resent. He noted that when they arrived on grounds, they had to turn in their money to the provost and then accept it back in the form of a weekly allowance. They were prohibited from drinking and smoking and gambling. They had to be in bed by 9:00. They were expected to wear uniforms. They were expected to attend their first lectures at 5:30 in the morning.
Ann Lucas: The earliest students were the sons of plantation owners, they were the sons of wealthy merchants, and they were really part of a culture of entitlement, and being at the University of Virginia was for them part of a status system, and it encouraged, in some ways some of this poor behavior.
Aaron Ojalvo: What was interesting to me is that any time that their insubordination is called out, the students throw tantrums. They put out petitions where they assert what they call the "irreproachable character" of the guilty parties.
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: Eventually 14 students came forward, and when they came forward, Jefferson stopped crying and became very angry, because it turned out that the student leader was someone called Wilson Miles Cary, Jefferson's great-grandnephew. Cary had already been removed from two previous colleges: William and Mary and Hampden-Sydney. He had a drinking problem, So it was one of his own relatives who'd led the riots. And Jefferson was incensed.
It's not surprising that he was distraught at the student unrest, because he had devoted the last 10 years of his life to what he admitted was an obsession. As the son of a surveyor, he personally surveyed the ground on which the University would stand. As a lawyer, he wrote all the bills that created the University. As a self-trained architect, he designed the buildings and supervised the construction. As a politician, he really thought through the political strategy of creating the University. As an intellectual, he designed the curriculum and set out the criteria for selecting the faculty. As a bibliophile, he chose the books for the libraries. And he would invite every student up to Monticello, usually in groups of three to seven on a Sunday evening. He would show them the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, and give anecdotes about some of the leading members of the revolutionary generation, such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. He was engaged in every aspect conceiving the University, as a result of which it was often simply known as Mr. Jefferson's University.
Aaron Ojalvo: He could really be obsessive in the way that he managed the world around him. Think about the fact that he recorded the wind direction, the temperature, the precipitation, the humidity, the atmospheric pressure every day, twice a day, for 40 years. So, I don't think that it's surprising that he felt a need to ,oversee every detail of the founding of UVA, from the architecture to choosing the books.
Ann Lucas: The riot was, I can imagine, an incredible disappointment at the end of a long life. And it was at a time when he is fearful of his legacy. He is desperately aware that his finances are in complete ruin. The University, being the hobby of his old age, there's a lot riding on its success.
Aaron Ojalvo: When the riots break out, you start seeing these stories cropping up in Washington, DC and Richmond that sort of attack the University. People are talking about the students being in an absolute state of insurrection and rumors going around that they're tearing down houses in Charlottesville and that the whole institution had come to an end. I think that put Jefferson in a really difficult place. He was devastated, and like you said, Ann, he was embarrassed.
Ann Lucas: It is absolutely uncharacteristic for Jefferson to show emotion openly. Much has been made of his sort of acknowledgement of various losses through his life in a very seemingly analytical way to write about it, to be very internal about it, to catalog loss, not to express emotion. And so the fact that he bursts into tears, I think reveals the depth of his despair and all that was riding on the success of the University for him.
Aaron Ojalvo: And that sort of desperation very quickly turns to anger when he finds out that a member of his own family was involved in leading the riots. I mean, he becomes furious.
Ann Lucas: It would be the ultimate act of betrayal by a family member.
Aaron Ojalvo: And Andrew makes the point that the idea of being a patriarch was very important to him in how he saw himself in relation to his family, to the enslaved community at Monticello, and also the University. He really thought that there was going to be this patriarchal relationship where students could look to him and to faculty members as father figures, and I think that's part of why he was so disappointed with the misbehavior of students when the University opened, because it just did not pan out that way during Jefferson's lifetime. That kind of father-son relationship was not the dynamic that was going on.
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: The University of Virginia was very demanding. It had the longest semesters of any university. They broke off just for a week or so over Christmas with virtually no summer holiday, except on the date of the 4th of July. And this was actually one of the legitimate grievances of the students. It was one of the first universities in America, if not the first, to introduce an exam system, making the requirements very demanding.
Jefferson said that the students divide into three groups. He said, you have some excellent students in the top third, which was praise indeed, because people claim that Jefferson never praised any of these students unless they were as bright as he was and had the same work ethic. He said another third were solid. And then he said finally the other third were " idle ramblers, incapable of application."
Aaron Ojalvo: I don't think that Jefferson could wrap his head around the mindset of these students. He would work as many as 15 hours a day During his time at William and Mary. He'd study till 2:00 in the morning and then wake up at dawn. And when the University opened, it had the longest terms and the shortest vacations of any school in the country, I think because Jefferson couldn't fathom that students would want to waste time that they could be using to improving themselves , which I think just gives him a great degree of disdain for these ramblers.
But Honestly, I think it's so funny that Jefferson feels the need to calculate things like this. It kind of reminds me of the math that he does leading him to claim that there was a 14 to 1 chance that his daughters would marry blockheads and that that's why they needed to be educated.
Ann Lucas: Well also, he essentially ranks his grandchildren. And he has decided that Ann Cary Randolph the eldest is great. She's fantastic as a gardener. Thomas Jefferson Randolph is next and he's pretty good too. But Randolph has his portrait made and Jefferson is very open about the fact that Randolph's portrait will never hang above the second tier in the parlor at Monticello. So he will not ascend to the highest tier, which is reserved for Bacon, Locke, Newton, Franklin, and others of that ilk. And then comes the third one, and that is Ellen Wayles Randolph, and he makes this decision, at age three, that she's got it. She's smart. And he treats her differently. So it just gives you some insight into the way his mind works that he would divide his students into thirds. That's how he operated.
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: We've tended to caricature the students at the University as though they were all just gambling, smoking, drinking. It's often treated as almost a source of pride, or at least a source of fun, the hi-jinks of the early period of student life. More recently, people have suggested that it was a reflection of the entitlement that went with the children of slave owners and growing up on plantations, in which they could play the role of mini-tyrants. But I was interested in this and tried to investigate a bit further and actually, Harvard was far more riotous in the same period than the University of Virginia. And they had virtually no Southern students. And so my thought is that there were more reasons as to why this event occurred. I see it as part of the larger problem in America at the time with student insurrections, the breakdown of authority with the American Revolution.
Jefferson went to great lengths to appoint what he wanted to be the best faculty in America. He paid them the highest salaries outside of Harvard. Only one of the first eight professors was American-born, and that I think was also part of the problem. These faculty were European and much more used to a hierarchical world. They tended to be disciplinarians. And the students, therefore, in their complaints, specifically spoke of what they called the "damned European professors."
Aaron Ojalvo: I think that a lot of the displeasure with the European professors stemmed from these students feeling that their parents had cast off the shackles of the old world, and suddenly they were expected to take orders from foreigners, in their mind. These professors represented all of the values that their parents and grandparents had fought against.
I think that Andrew rightly points out that violent student riots like this were taking place all over the country and that Northern schools like Harvard experienced them too, but at a place like Princeton, where a third of the student body is coming from Southern states, that third of the student body was disproportionately delinquent in violent behavior.
In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson makes the case that children absorb everything. So when a white child sees their parent punish enslaved people on a daily basis, they're being nursed in tyranny, and he argues that destroys the morals of white southerners and transforms them into despots. And honestly, I think you see that over and over again at the University.
Ann Lucas: It's worth pointing out that there were riots subsequent to the 1825 riot, culminating in a horrible incident in 1840, where John A. G. Davis, a professor, was fatally shot during an insurrection on the lawn. So it's 15 years of unrest.
Aaron Ojalvo: One anecdote that Andrew included in the book was in 1828, where a group of students beat an enslaved waiter with a broken stick until one of the hotel keepers, the sort of outside contractors that managed the dining halls, came out and found the waiter covered in blood, and he broke up the fight and reported the students. And then during the hearing, the student expressed indignation at being called before the faculty for so trifling an affair as that of chastising a servant. And then of course, you know, he challenges the hotel keeper who had reported him to a duel and threatens to shoot him in front of a crowd.
And in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson ends that section where he talks about slavery on an ominous note. He admits that he trembles for his country when he reflects that God is just and that his justice cannot sleep forever. And honestly, I think that he's capable of seeing that there's retribution for centuries of violence on the horizon, and that if there's a benevolent God, there's no way that he's taking the side of the Southern whites in that contest.
Ann Lucas: There's a great quote that I want to get in here. There's a British sociologist named Harriet Martinelle, who visits the University in 1835, and she writes, "The eyes of the world will be fixed on Jefferson's University during the impending conflict between slaveholders and free men." And it's incredible than in 1835, she is forecasting the tension and she's recognizing the University as this microcosm of what will come. And I think Andrew does an incredible job of looking at how others have viewed the University as sort of a lightning rod for conflict. It's no accident that the Unite the Right rally, in 2017, chooses the lawn at the University of Virginia. I feel like it would be wrong to not bring that into the conversation when we talk about riots that take place in that space.
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: One of the students I talk about in the book is a man called Henry Tutwiler, who later becomes president of the University of Alabama, and founds a school which was distinctive for encouraging both boys and girls, it was co-ed. One of his daughters became one of the first women principals of a college. Tutwiler was also unusual as a southerner in that he had been an anti-slavery campaigner, and it was a view in which he did not waver. And I like to use him as an example of the progressive nature of university education. The great hope of Jefferson was that each generation would improve the country and improve their society.
Tutwiler gave a talk to the alumni society, in 1875, 50 years after the riot. And he said to all the assembled that he could remember Jefferson as well as if he could see him in the room at that moment. He then described what it was like, as a student, to go up and dine at Monticello. And Tutwiler gave quite an amusing description. He said that Jefferson was going deaf, and so during these dinners he would push back his chair and he did this in order to see the students in animated discussion. He envisioned the University as a community, in which professors lived among students and acted almost in a parental role, encouraging and supporting the students. He wanted to observe, I suppose, the fruits of what he'd labored so long to achieve.
Ann Lucas: Whenever I have the vision of the students coming to dine at Monticello, I'm reminded of the work that Jefferson accomplished as a politician at the dining table. He excels in creating an atmosphere where conversation is the most important aspect of the meal. And the fact that Jefferson tipped himself back in his chair so that the students could speak freely to one another without having to raise their voices for him because his hearing is failing, and the joy that he takes in watching them have those conversations, that's ultimately what the dining room at Monticello was designed to do-- that entire space exists to create those sort of heady intellectual conversations.
Aaron Ojalvo: Jefferson thought that education was vital for the success of republicanism. People had to be educated to vote in their best interests so that they could hold those in power accountable. One of the places where you really see Jefferson's vision for education is in his unsuccessful "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge." He essentially sets up a system where every white child in Virginia, both boys and girls, would receive a minimum of three years of education and then, the best male student from each one of those schools would be invited to attend a countywide grammar school, and then, the very best student from each one of those would receive a scholarship to attend a central university at no cost. And I think that that rigorous selection process doesn't create much of an opportunity for a poor disadvantaged student, but Jefferson saw it as an opportunity to, I think he said something like rake the diamonds from the rubbish. He thought that this was a way of keeping that natural talent that a poor student might have from going to waste. I feel like he would bring up this bill over and over again over the course of the next, like, 40 years and every time it's just shot down.
Ann Lucas: Andrew quotes Annette Gordon-Reed in one of his chapters as saying that Jefferson's vision of equality was not all-inclusive, but it was transformative. And I think that you could modify that statement to say that Jefferson's vision of education was also not all-inclusive, but it was transformative.
Aaron Ojalvo: That's exactly it.
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: What is remarkable is that Jefferson's ideas for a university had a huge impact on higher education, generally, in America. I'll just give you a couple of examples one is the elective curriculum of students being allowed to choose their subjects. And the other is the fact that it was really the first secular university, although others had tried it for a short period, this was the first attempt to create a secular university, and in that sense, it anticipated many of the features of the modern 21st century university.
Ann Lucas: Aaron, thanks so much for joining me today.
Aaron Ojalvo: Yes, I want to thank you for spending so much of your morning with an idle rambler like me. This was an absolute joy and a big thank you to Andrew for the work that went into telling the story, and giving us such a rich subject to talk about.
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Narrated by Andrew O'Shaughnessy
Hosted by Ann Lucas and Aaron Ojalvo
Direction and editing by Joan Horn
Sound design by Dennis Hysom
Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn