Thomas Jefferson, to a degree greater than many founding fathers, believed that people are the guardians of their own freedom. To his oft-repeated expression of faith in the ability of the people to govern themselves, however, he attached a caveat: The citizenry, in order to become "safe depositories" of their freedom, must be educated. Simply put, he stated: "wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government."
In November of 1776, a few months after leaving Philadelphia and the momentous events surrounding July 4, Jefferson was at work in the Virginia General Assembly rewriting the colonial statutes to conform to the ideals of the Revolution. He joined a committee of "Revisors," including George Wythe and Edmund Pendleton, which proposed 126 new or amended laws. Three of these bills, authored by Jefferson, proposed a system of public education for the state. In 18th century Virginia, schooling was largely tuition based, thereby denying children of less prosperous families access to any formal education. Parents who could afford to do so took in visiting tutors or enrolled their children in small private schools. The girls of Peter and Jane Jefferson were schooled at home, while the boys were taught out of the house. Thomas Jefferson lived for five years with the Reverend William Douglas and later with Reverend James Maury. Only Peter Jefferson's slaves cost more than Thomas's yearly schooling and board with Dr. Maury. With sufficient background, the male children of this privileged class would perhaps move on to the College of William and Mary, as Thomas did in 1760, or migrate to northern colleges or to ones abroad. To make all citizens safe depositories of their freedom would require a different system of education.
One of the bills written by Jefferson called for a public library (No. 81), another for restructuring William and Mary (No. 80). The introduction to the third, "A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" (No. 79), echoes the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence. It reads, in part:
Whereas it appeareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, ... whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.
The bill provided for tuition-free education at local elementary schools for three years to "all the free children, male and female," tuition-based secondary education for boys at district grammar schools, and subsequent entry to the College of William and Mary. Scholarships were available for students "of the best and most promising genius and disposition" but "whose parents are too poor to give them farther education." All three bills failed in the legislature – a matter of too much, too soon. War-time concerns in Virginia and the cost of public education were contributing factors to the defeat, as was resistance among the Virginia wealthy "to finance education of children other than their own," and, consequently, "jeopardize their own privileged position atop the social hierarchy of the state."
Jefferson's attempts to reform public education in Virginia were the genesis of his idea for a public university. In particular, "A Bill for Amending of the Constitution of the College of William and Mary, and Substituting More Certain Revenues for Its Support" (No. 80) is where we get the first glimpse of Jefferson's thoughts on the proper organization and curriculum for the pinnacle of his plan for general education. He did not mince words when talking about his alma mater, stating that after a hundred years the College had not fulfilled the public's expectations and "that it would become more useful, if certain articles in its constitution were altered and amended." He proposed changes related to the governance, funding, and organization of the College.
Although the plan to amend the College's constitution was not approved in the General Assembly, in 1789 Jefferson was elected Virginia's Governor and to the Board of Visitors for the College. In these positions he was able to convince the board to make some of the changes proposed in his earlier bill – among others, eliminating the professorship in divinity and adding one of modern languages and one of anatomy, medicine, and chemistry. All was not accomplished during these war-focused years, but it is here that we see Jefferson's first steps at designing a modern secular university, unfettered by religious tenets.
If Jefferson had not soon embarked on his mission to France, and then been occupied as Washington's Secretary of State, his presence might have led to an earlier adoption of his plan for public education, and in a form closer to his original proposal than the watered-down version adopted by the Assembly in 1796. This was not for want of effort, however, even from a distance. In 1786 Jefferson wrote from Paris to George Wythe, urging him to work with James Madison to see the plan succeed: "I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowlege among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness." The next year, still in Paris, he wrote to Madison: "Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty."
The statesman from Virginia never gave up on the idea that education of the common people, including entry to the highest level of education, a college or university, was necessary for preserving the democracy. Many years later, in 1818, as part of the plan for a new state university, the 75-year-old Jefferson identified more specifically the "objects of that higher grade of education" by which freedom and happiness are preserved. Proper higher education would, he wrote, prepare people for citizenry in the new democracy, enabling them to make right choices of government, harmonize various aspects of the economy, and, importantly, form the country's future leaders. As Jefferson's pre-eminent biographer, Dumas Malone, states: "To the venerable Sage as to the bold Revolutionary patriot, freedom and knowledge were inseparable."
- Gene Zechmeister, June 8, 2011
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902