The College of William and Mary was the subject of Thomas Jefferson’s earliest surviving letter. Writing to his guardian in January 1760, the sixteen-year-old Jefferson described the advantages of transferring his education to Williamsburg. “[B]y going to the College,” Jefferson argued, “I shall get a more universal Acquaintance, which may hereafter be serviceable to me; and I suppose I can pursue my Studies in the Greek and Latin as well there as here, and likewise learn something of the Mathematics.”[1]

Before Jefferson’s appeal for enrollment, sons of the Virginia gentry had been attending the College of William and Mary for more than half a century. In 1691, on behalf of the Virginia General Assembly, the Reverend John Blair had traveled to London to request a charter for a college. King William III and Queen Mary II granted the charter in February 1693. Blair was named president, more than 300 acres of land were purchased, and, in 1695, the foundations were laid. The young institution included a grammar school, a divinity school, the philosophy school, and the Indian School, founded for the education and Christianizing of Indian boys. By the mid-eighteenth century, when Jefferson was ready to enroll, the College of William and Mary was experiencing an extended period of disorder. Professors and students alike were guilty of unruly behavior. Moreover, an unclear division of authority produced constant strife between the faculty, the president, and the Board of Visitors.[2]

Thomas Jefferson was familiar with the College of William and Mary long before he became a student. William Randolph, his great-grandfather, was an original trustee. His grandfather, Isham Randolph, and other relatives attended the institution. One of Jefferson’s cousins, William Stith, was appointed the College’s third president. Joshua Fry, a frequent visitor at Shadwell during Jefferson’s boyhood, had served as both Grammar School Master and Professor of Mathematics in Williamsburg.[3]

On March 25, 1760, Thomas Jefferson enrolled at the College of William and Mary. He was a student in the philosophy school’s two-year collegiate program.[4] Collegiate courses included natural philosophy (physics, metaphysics, and mathematics) and moral philosophy (rhetoric, logic, and ethics). College life revolved around the College Building — students lodged in its dormitory rooms and attended classes in the lecture rooms, communal meals in the “great hall,” and morning and evening prayers in the chapel.[5] Jefferson’s classmates included John Page of Rosewell, John Walker from Albemarle County, and Dabney Carr, an old friend from the Reverend James Maury’s school. Jefferson was one of a half dozen students who were members of the F.H.C. Society, or Flat Hat Club.[6]

Jefferson was the studious member of his group. John Page recalled that Jefferson “could tear himself away from his dearest friends, to fly to his studies.”[7] Indeed, when Jefferson remembered his experience at William and Mary, he focused on his scholarly mentor. “[I]t was my great good fortune,” he wrote, “ ... that Dr Wm Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics .... he was the first who ever gave in that college regular lectures in Ethics, Rehtoric & Belles letters.”[8]

In 1772, a decade after completing his collegiate course, Jefferson was called upon to make an architectural contribution to the College of William and Mary. John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, Virginia’s royal governor and the rector of the College’s Board of Visitors, asked Jefferson to design an addition to the College Building. Jefferson designed a quadrangle with an interior arcade around an open courtyard. The plan would double two existing wings, add a new west wing, and extend the arcaded loggia. Construction began in 1774, but was disrupted by the Revolutionary War and then never resumed.[9]

In the late 1770s, when serving on the Virginia House of Delegates’ Committee of Revisors, Jefferson prepared three bills addressing education. One of the bills provided for reforming the curriculum and governance of the College of William and Mary.[10] Jefferson’s proposals for his alma mater would modernize the curriculum and secularize the governance. The reform bill failed in the House of Delegates; however, Jefferson was able to address the school’s needs when he became Governor of Virginia, and a member of the College’s Board of Visitors, in 1779. Under Governor Jefferson’s leadership, the Board of Visitors adopted resolutions that incorporated some of his earlier recommendations. The grammar school and the divinity school were abolished, and new professorships were created in modern languages, anatomy and medicine, and law and government. Natural history and the fine arts were also incorporated into the curriculum.[11] The resolutions came to be known as the Jeffersonian Reorganization. On December 31, 1782, the College of William and Mary conferred on Thomas Jefferson the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law.[12]

Despite the broad reorganization, Jefferson remained skeptical about the future of the College of William and Mary. In a 1788 letter to South Carolina’s Ralph Izard, Jefferson advised cautiously, “I know no place in the world, while the present professors remain, where I would so soon place a son.”[13] Seventeen months later, Jefferson’s tone was more negative. Confiding to William Short, he noted that “Mr. Wythe has abandoned the college of Wm. & Mary, disgusted with some of the conduct of the professors, .... The visitors will ... press him to return: otherwise it is over with the college.”[14]

For the next quarter century, Jefferson’s involvement in national politics took precedence over higher education in Virginia. Upon retirement, however, he once more turned to academic matters. “I have long had under contemplation, & been collecting materials for the plan of an university in Virginia,” he wrote to Professor Thomas Cooper in 1814. “[T]his would probably absorb the functions of Wm & Mary college, and transfer them to a healthier and more central position.” An institution “better adapted to the present state of science” would bring to an end “the long & lingering decline of Wm & Mary.”[15] To his nephew, Peter Carr, Jefferson described a new establishment “with or without incorporation into that of William & Mary.”[16]

In November 1814, Jefferson drafted a bill to create Central College in Albemarle County.[17] Once the bill was introduced in the General Assembly, Jefferson and his supporters had to consider the obstacles that might arise. Senator Joseph Cabell, Jefferson’s friend and neighbor, wrote that objections could come “from certain Delegates from the Lower counties who might have fears for William & Mary.”[18] Cabell worked to overcome the opposition, and the General Assembly passed a charter for the creation of Central College on February 14, 1816. Central College would become the University of Virginia in 1819.

For several years, the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary were rivals for state funding.[19] In 1824, a petition presented in the General Assembly addressed the removal of William and Mary to Richmond, a move that could be financially advantageous for the struggling College. The plan was opposed by Jefferson and by supporters of his institution, who feared that the University of Virginia would “be blasted by an unnecessary & destructive competition.”[20] Supporters of the University successfully defeated the plan in the House of Delegates.[21]

Late in life, Thomas Jefferson was further linked to the College of William and Mary. The complex circumstances involved two significant people in Jefferson’s life. One was Wilson Cary Nicholas, Jefferson’s friend and Governor of Virginia in 1814-16. The other was Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s grandson and Nicholas’s son-in-law. In 1811, the College of William and Mary made a loan to Nicholas. In 1818-19, Nicholas secured a separate loan from the Bank of the United States and Jefferson was his cosignatory. Nicholas died in 1820 with both debts outstanding. The College of William and Mary settled Nicholas’s debt to that institution by selling the land that had secured the loan. In 1823, the College agreed to lend money, accruing from the sale of Nicholas’s land, to Thomas Jefferson Randolph. The loan was made with the stated purpose of discharging Nicholas’s $20,000 debt to the Bank of the United States, which was now Jefferson’s responsibility. Jefferson gave Randolph the property that would be used to initially secure his grandson’s debt to the College of William and Mary. When Jefferson died in 1826, Randolph was in the long process of reimbursing the College. When Randolph died in 1875, with $12,000 unpaid, the property then securing the debt went to the College.[22]

The College of William and Mary remained a small institution throughout the nineteenth century. Before 1889, enrollment never exceeded 140 students and was often much lower. During the Civil War, the College Building was used as a Confederate barracks before Federal troops occupied the campus in 1862. Having suffered considerable physical damage, the College of William and Mary was unable to recover from the war years. The doors were closed in 1881 until an annual appropriation was approved by the General Assembly in 1888. In 1906, the College was transferred to the Commonwealth of Virginia.[23]

Today, the College of William and Mary is a well-respected university-level state institution with nearly 8,000 students. The College has not forgotten its most distinguished alumnus. Each year campus leaders are recognized through the Thomas Jefferson Award (for “significant service”), the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, and the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. [24]

-Nancy Verell, 4/6/2015

Further Sources


  1. ^ Jefferson to John Harvie, January 14, 1760, in PTJ, 1:3. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ Mark R. Wenger, “Thomas Jefferson, the College of William and Mary, and the University of Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 103, no. 3 (July 1995): 351-55.
  3. ^ College of William and Mary, Thomas Jefferson and the College of William & Mary; An Exhibit of Books, Manuscripts, and Artifacts Prepared in Observance of Charter Day, February Eighth, Nineteen Sixty-Three (Williamsburg: College of William and Mary, 1963).
  4. ^ At the time of Jefferson’s enrollment, the College of William and Mary offered a four-year program leading to the Bachelor of Arts degree; Jefferson, however, chose to complete his studies in two years and then to focus on reading law with Williamsburg lawyer George Wythe.
  5. ^ The College Building is now known as the Sir Christopher Wren Building.
  6. ^ Jefferson to Thomas McAuley, June 14, 1819, College of William and Mary. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  7. ^ John Page, “Governor Page,” in The Virginia Historical Register and Literary Notebook, ed. William Maxwell (Richmond: MacFarlane and Fergusson, 1850-51): 151.
  8. ^ Jefferson, Autobiography, January 6-July 29, 1821, in L&B, 1:3. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  9. ^ A. Lawrence Kocher and Howard Dearstyne, “Discovery of Foundations for Jefferson’s Addition to the Wren Building,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 10, no. 3 (1951): 28-31.
  10. ^ A Bill for Amending the Constitution of the College of William and Mary, and Substituting More Certain Revenues for Its Support, June 18, 1779, in PTJ, 2:535-43. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  11. ^ Jefferson, Autobiography, January 6-July 29, 1821, in L&B, 1:74. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  12. ^ Thomas Jefferson and the College of William & Mary; An Exhibit.
  13. ^ Jefferson to Izard, July 17, 1788, in PTJ, 13:372. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  14. ^ Jefferson to Short, December 14, 1789, in PTJ, 16:25-26. Transcription available at Founders Online. For his continued disillusionment with William and Mary, see Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, January 18, 1800, in PTJ, 31:320-21. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  15. ^ Jefferson to Cooper, January 16, 1814, in PTJ:RS, 7:127. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  16. ^ Jefferson to Carr, September 7, 1814, in PTJ:RS, 7:636. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  17. ^ Jefferson’s Draft Bill to Create Central College and Amend the 1796 Public Schools Act, [ca. November 18, 1814], in PTJ:RS, 8:90-94. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  18. ^ Cabell to Jefferson, March 5, 1815, in PTJ:RS, 8:317. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  19. ^ See, e.g., Cabell to Jefferson, January 4, 1821, Thomas Jefferson PapersSpecial Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  20. ^ Cabell to Jefferson, May 5, 1824, Thomas Jefferson PapersSpecial Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Jefferson to Cabell, December 22, 1824, Thomas Jefferson PapersSpecial Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  21. ^ See Cabell to Jefferson, February 7, 1825, Thomas Jefferson PapersSpecial Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  22. ^ Ludwell H. Johnson III, “Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth: Thomas Jefferson and His Alma Mater,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 99, no. 2 (April 1991): 145-62.
  23. ^ The College of William and Mary, History and Traditions, accessed February 1, 2015.
  24. ^ Ibid.