On February 14, 1816, the Virginia General Assembly granted a charter for Central College in Charlottesville. The hard-fought legislative victory was won mainly due to the unfailing efforts of Senator Joseph C. Cabell, Thomas Jefferson’s stalwart ally in the legislature. The elevation of Albemarle Academy to Central College constituted a major step toward fulfilling Thomas Jefferson’s vision for a state university.
Members of the Board of Visitors for Central College, in addition to Jefferson, included another ex-president, James Madison, a presidential incumbent, James Monroe, as well as Joseph Cabell, John Hartwell Cocke, and David Watson. The visitors did not have their first meeting until April 8, 1817, more than a year after the college received its charter. Although a quorum was not reached on that day, Jefferson, not being one to waste valuable time, led Cabell and Cocke on a tour of possible building sites. Land west of Charlottesville owned by Frank Perry was deemed desirable, although this was not Jefferson’s first choice, the latter being owned by a man at odds with Jefferson who refused to sell to him.
At the May 5 board meeting, Alexander Garrett was appointed both Proctor and Treasurer. The board authorized him to purchase the land from Perry and, following the architectural plan presented earlier by Jefferson to trustees of the Albemarle Academy, determined that one of the pavilions should now be erected along with “dormitories for the students adjacent to the said pavilion, not exceeding ten on each side ....” After proposing that construction “be compleated if possible during the ensuing summer & winter,” the board turned its attention to finding money to accomplish this. The minutes state:
Resolved that a subscription paper be prepared, and placed in such hands as the Proctor shall deem will be most likely to promote it with energy and success in which shall be different columns, to wit one for those who may prefer giving a donation in gross, another for those who may be willing to give a certain sum annually for the term of four years; and a third for donations in any other form; and that the monies subscribed be disposed of as they are recieved by the Proctor ....
At the same meeting Jefferson and Cocke were appointed a “Committee on the part of the Visitors with authority jointly or severally to advise and sanction all plans and the application of monies for executing them ....”
Soon after the board’s May meeting Jefferson wrote both to William Thornton, the architect of the Capitol Building in Washington, as well as Benjamin Henry Latrobe, seeking comments on his plans for the college. On July 18, he personally surveyed the building site, reporting to Cocke the next day that “our squares are laid off, the brickyard begun, and the levilling will be begun in the course of the week.” A few weeks later the board approved the hiring of the college’s first professor, Dr. Samuel Knox of Baltimore, and also authorized Jefferson to import a stone cutter from Italy. The subscription drive was producing enough money that at the October 7 meeting the board proposed “two other pavilions be contracted for and executed the next year with the same number of dormitories to each.” Student tuition was set at $60 per annum, of which $20 was to be paid to his professor; dormitory space was set at $15.
Successful construction of buildings during the last months of 1817 served to achieve the strategic goal of giving Central College the appearance of an ongoing concern before the legislature reconvened. Lest anyone not know about the rise of Central College, Jefferson’s biographer, Dumas Malone, indicates that Jefferson sent a letter, an “unsigned communication,” to the Richmond Enquirer. Essentially a progress report, the letter appeared in the newspaper with a laudatory preface by the editor in which Jefferson was identified as the “chief founder” of Central College and expressing the hope that the college would be a “future nursery of Science and of Liberty.”
In preparation for the 1817-1818 session of the General Assembly, Cabell asked Jefferson to draft a bill for a system of public education. Jefferson did so, building on his earlier bill proposed forty years earlier, and including extensive thoughts on education later delivered in 1814 to his nephew Peter Carr, as well as ideas contained in a missive of 1816 to Governor Wilson C. Nicholas who was seeking advice on a plan for public education in Virginia.
The “Bill for Establishing a System of Public Education,” drafted by Jefferson in 1817, called for free elementary education, followed by tuition-based secondary (collegiate) education, and, for those eligible, entry to a state university. Whereas grammar schools would be built and administered within wards of each county, nine collegiate districts across various counties would be created for schools for secondary education. Jefferson then suggested guidelines “for establishing in a central and healthy part of the State an University wherein all the branches of useful science may be taught.” In addition, the bill provided plans for the buildings of such a university, including dormitories for students which “shall be such as may conveniently admit additions from time to time.” It was no coincidence that Central College was located in the central region of district four (which in turn was centrally located in the state), was founded to teach all the useful sciences, and was in the process of constructing dormitories that might be expanded when enrollment demanded. Jefferson clearly intended that the legislature would view Central College as the obvious choice for the state university. With this in mind, he composed alternative paragraphs for the bill, specifically naming Central College. These were to be substituted if it appeared that Central College would be chosen as the state university.
The fate of Jefferson’s bill was once again in the hands of the faithful Cabell. In the face of opposition to the college, he was required to make changes that would more easily move the bill through the legislature. The result was a much more modest proposal than Jefferson had drafted. A university was still part of the package, but its site was unspecified, and the prospects of even this stripped-down version, Cabell warned Jefferson, were uncertain.
Jefferson attempted to sway legislators by sending a letter signed by the visitors of Central College to the Speaker of the House of Delegates, touting many reasons for the selection of Central College. He described its central location in the state, ideal climate (“nothing in it’s vicinity which could threaten the health of the students”), the amount of land already purchased, and the innovative architectural design of the separate pavilions and student dormitories that avoided a single large edifice and which allowed “greater security against fire and infection,” as well as permitting “extending the buildings in equal pace with the funds.” His list of positives, in addition, included the success of the subscription campaign, construction in progress or contemplated, and the ongoing process of securing faculty. Jefferson also stated that if “the legislature shall think proper to proceed to the establishment of an University, and to adopt for it’s location the site of the Central College,” that all property and rights of the college would be delivered. Cabell reported that, unfortunately, the report from the visitors had little influence on the majority of House members.
Supporters of a state university were up against numerous factions in the Assembly who did not agree on the structure of an educational system for Virginia, how money from the Literary Fund should be spent, or where a state university, should it be approved, should be located. And then there were political opponents of Jefferson who were simply against anything the ex-president proposed. Debate in the Assembly continued through January and into February, with Cabell becoming more and more pessimistic that a university bill would pass in this session. He later complained that they were “the victims of local interests, factious views: and lamentable ignorance.”
Jefferson’s bill failed, as Cabell expected, but when all things looked bleak Cabell saw a way to the goal. A bill funding primary schools for indigents made its way from the House to the Senate and was referred to a committee of which Cabell was a member. He won approval of a rider for the establishment of a university, location unspecified, with a yearly appropriation of $15,000. It was approved by the Senate and returned to the House for a vote, where it passed mainly due to the fact that: (a) it was not closely identified with Jefferson, (b) it was not very costly, and (c) it did not designate a location for the university. The last feature apparently did not threaten supporters of a university at William and Mary in Williamsburg, or those who favored locating it in Charlottesville, Staunton, or Lexington. These groups would now wait until the next legislative session to renew the fight over a site.
On February 21, 1818, the General Assembly formally approved the appropriation of funds for a state university “to be called ‘The University of Virginia,’ wherein all the branches of useful science shall be taught.” Central College was still in the running for its location, but there remained other fast horses in the race. The governor was called upon to appoint a commission that would meet and recommend a site for the university. The showdown over a site for the university was set for the first day of August at the tavern in Rockfish Gap on the Blue Ridge.
- Gene Zechmeister, June 28, 2011
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902