When the Virginia General Assembly, on January 25, 1819, formally established a state university at the site of Central College in Charlottesville, it did so without providing the funds necessary to make Thomas Jefferson’s vision a reality. Responding to Senator Joseph Cabell’s news of the legislative victory, Jefferson expressed his joy at the passage of the University bill, but then quickly described the situation confronting supporters of the University: “... we shall fall miserably short in the execution of the large plan displayed to the world, with the short funds proposed for it’s execution.”
The Assembly approved an annual sum of $15,000 from the Literary Fund in support of the state university. To this amount could be added funds in-hand or those anticipated from the subscription drive for Central College, as well as proceeds from the sale of glebe lands. Jefferson immediately requested Cabell to petition the legislature for more money from the Literary Fund, but the senator replied that the timing was wrong. With continued opposition to the University bill, Cabell did not want it to appear that supporters of the University sought the whole fund, some of which was designated for educating the poor.
The historian Philip Alexander Bruce points out that opposition to taking money from the Literary Fund was from many quarters, including from friends of the College of William and Mary, and of smaller institutions like Hampden-Sydney College and Washington College, all of whom felt their schools would be overshadowed by the state university. Members of several denominations believed the University had irreligious tendencies, while others were indifferent to higher education in general. And there were always those politicians who opposed most anything connected with Jefferson. Supporters of the state university also met opposition from individuals who felt the general plan for the University was extravagant — that Jefferson had set his sights too high. Over the years a perception of “extravagance” would dog Jefferson and Cabell’s efforts at securing funds. It did not help that Jefferson often was perceived (correctly at times) as underestimating costs.
Jefferson showed little patience with the tight-fisted legislature. He complained to Cabell that nearby Kentucky “has an University, with 14. professors & upwards of 200 students” while Virginia is “higgling without the heart” to spend money on its own University. As he saw it: “all the states but our own are sensible that knolege is power.” Meanwhile we, said Jefferson, “are sinking into the barbarism of our Indian aborigines, and expect like them to oppose by ignorance the overwhelming mass of light & science by which we shall be surrounded. it is a comfort that I am not to live to see this.”
Although Cabell initially doubted funds could be obtained during the 1819-1820 legislative session, he managed to get the General Assembly to empower the University Board of Visitors to borrow $60,000 “for the purpose of finishing the buildings of the University.” Jefferson, writing for the Board of Visitors, reported to the President and Directors of the Literary Fund that completion of the pavilions and student residences with their supporting hotels would not leave enough funds for the erection of a principal building to serve as a library and for other purposes. Moreover, there were not enough monies for maintenance nor would the present annuity suffice to “furnish sufficient inducement to ten professors, of high degree each in his respective line of science.” Consequently, unless the University received more money, it would end up having “to employ inferior persons” and would leave the University in the position of being “unavailed by the higher advances alread[y] made, elsewhere, & of the advantages contemplated by the statute under which we act.” He went on to suggest the University could open in fall of 1821 in an incomplete form, but if it be wished that “the whole objects of the law” be executed, then more money must be forthcoming.
In November of the same year, Jefferson penned a lengthy and emotional critique of the Virginia educational system. He contrasted it with the system in New York with its numerous schools and colleges and which spent millions on education: “what a pigmy to this is Virginia become! with a population all but equal to that of New York! and whence this difference? from the difference their rulers set on the value of knolege, and the prosperity it produces.” Jefferson also included estimates for a library ($40,000) and an observatory (“about” $10,000 or $12,000).
As the 1820-1821 session of the General Assembly got underway Cabell once again expressed little confidence in securing more funds. His report caused Jefferson’s spirits to sink further. Adding to his gloom, the senator said he was contemplating retiring from public life at the end of the Assembly’s session. Always of weak constitution, Cabell worried the rigors of his legislative duties “might carry me to the grave, or bring on me further & more distressing symptoms of pulmonary affection,” and he was looking forward to “domestic, rural, & literary leisure.” He told Jefferson that his service in support of the University “will always constitute one of the most agreeable reflections of my life.”
Jefferson would have none of it, stating that abandoning the cause would be a “desertion” from a “sacred duty.” He challenged Cabell to consider how better he might serve his country: “what object of our lives can we propose so important? what interest of our own, which ought not to be postponed to this? health, time, labor, on what in the single life which nature has given us, can these be better bestowed than on this immortal boon to our country? the exertions and the mortifications are temporary; the benefit eternal.” Jefferson declared that if anyone could justifiably withdraw it would be himself as he had “neither vigor of body or mind left to keep the field. but I will die in the last ditch.” He appealed to Cabell: “pray then, dear and very dear Sir, do not think of deserting us; but view the sacrifices which seem to stand in your way, as the lesser duties, and such as ought to be postponed to this, the greatest of all.”
The emotional, even desperate, words of Jefferson resulted in the only response possible from the man who for years had been a steadfast ally in support of a state university. “It is not in my nature to resist such an appeal,” he wrote to Jefferson on February 8. Cabell’s return to the fray yielded, if not outright grants from the state, at least an authorization by the Assembly for a second loan of $60,000. He made it clear that no more money was likely to be forthcoming, stating that even friends of the University wanted Jefferson “to commence no building which cannot be finished, and above all not to come here again for money to erect buildings.” The allocated funds were judged to pay for land purchased, and “for the whole system of buildings of accomodation, and all accessory expences.” The Board of Visitors believed that the “whole establishment, except that of the library” could be completed by the ensuing summer. Jefferson, however, was not to be denied the centerpiece of his University, which would close the buildings on the north side. Ignoring Cabell’s earlier warnings, he continued to push for more money from the Assembly as well as a suspension of interest on the loans already obtained, but no money was forthcoming during the 1821-1822 session.
By fall of 1822, all the buildings proposed by the Commissioners of 1818 were nearly completed, except the library. The Proctor’s cost estimate for this building was $46,847. Reiterating the Board’s belief that it was “indispensable to compleat all the buildings before opening the institution,” yet another request was made of the legislature for more money.
As the 1822-1823 session began, Cabell reported to Jefferson that leading members of the House of delegates now “seem well disposed towards the University” but the state of finances in the Literary Fund was unfavorable. He was undecided as to the direction to take and how much money to request from the Assembly. Should money be sought for the library or for relinquishing the debt? Shortly thereafter Cabell told Jefferson he saw a letter “stating that the undertakers had ascertained that they could not afford to build the Library for less than $70,000.” So as not to be “seen by our enemies” he had the letter thrown into the fire. Cabell stated that $70,000 was out of the question and suggested asking for $50,000 for the library from capital on hand and seeking relinquishment of the debt. He mentioned, however, that “the public mind seems impatient for a commencement of the operations of the institution,” and some wondered whether money should be put towards “books & apparatus” to get the University started.
Jefferson was quick to respond: “of all things the most important is the completion of the buildings. the remission of the debt will come of itself. it is already remitted in the mind of every man, even of the enemies of the institution.” The goal, Jefferson reminded Cabell, was “to make this establishment the most eminent in the United States.” Only by the “distinguished scale of it’s structure and preparation,” he stated, would the University draw faculty of the highest calibre and “the youth of every state.” Jefferson said the figure of $70,000 for the library was due to “greediness of an Undertaker” and that no more than $60,000 was needed. Two months later Cabell now reported that a third loan of $60,000 to finish the library was certain to be had, but he emphasized: “We must never come here again for money to erect buildings.” The bill passed February 5, 1823. The next month work on the principal building of the University, the Rotunda, began.
When the 1823-1824 session of the Assembly began, Cabell told Jefferson that the Governor “has put our claims before the Legislature in his happiest manner,” and that sentiment was running high in favor of remitting the entire debt. As historian Bruce notes: “This new feeling was to be attributed either to impatience with Jefferson’s patent determination to keep the University shut up until it was fully completed, or to admiration for his stubborn and disinterested zeal in its behalf.” Progress was slow, but due to Cabell’s extraordinary efforts on the University’s behalf, in January 1824, he could report that the legislature had relieved the University Board of Visitors of the $180,000 loans and interest. He then asked Jefferson what sum was needed for books and apparatus in order to begin classes. Jefferson replied simply: “certainly the largest you can obtain.” But he acknowledged “40. or 50,000.D. would enable us to set out with tolerable competence.”
Cabell was not able to get any more money from the legislature but did gain approval for $50,000 of money expected from the National Government in payment for interest on loans obtained from Virginia during the War of 1812. However, the General Assembly would release the funds only when the government money was assured and that did not happen until the winter of 1825. The architectural historian, William B. O’Neal, states that the Proctors’ accounts reveal the eventual total cost “of each part of the University, inclusive of land, was slightly more than three-hundred thousand dollars."
There was still much undone when the first students arrived in the spring of 1825. The Rotunda was not yet finished, nor was there an anatomical theater, which Jefferson viewed as “indispensable,”  and numerous other tasks were not completed. Nevertheless, when the doors opened on March 7, 1825, the University of Virginia was preparing to take its place among “the most eminent in the United States.”
- Gene Zechmeister, November 2, 2011
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902