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Central College

On April 5, 1814, Thomas Jefferson was named a trustee of Albemarle Academy in Charlottesville. At that time, the Academy existed only on paper, but it would end up playing the role of “midwife” for the founding of the University of Virginia.1 The school had been chartered in 1803, but nothing of substance transpired in the following years before the Board of Trustees met in March of 1814 to revive the plan for an educational institution and to elect additional trustees.2 Jefferson was soon involved with creating plans for the governance of the proposed institution, as well as petitioning the General Assembly to appropriate funds for the support of the Academy.3 At the meeting of the board on August 19, the question of the academy’s site was discussed, and while it was decided not to use an existing building but a site away from town, the exact location was not specified. Meanwhile, a campaign to obtain personal subscriptions for the school was underway.4

Jefferson’s thoughts while serving on the Board of Trustees were on something more than the revival of a boys’ academy in Charlottesville. In January of the same year, writing from Monticello to Dr. Thomas Cooper, Jefferson had described where a state university might be placed. He explicitly made clear his hope that the institution would be in the shadow of Monticello:

I have long had under contemplation, & have been collecting materials for the plan of an university in Virginia which should comprehend all the sciences useful to us, & none others, the general idea is suggested in the Notes on Virginia Qu. 14. this would probably absorb the functions of Wm & Mary college, and transfer them to a healthier and more central position. perhaps to the neighborhood of this place.5

Having been elected to the Albemarle board, he found an opportunity to promote the educational vision that had long been on his mind.6 Jefferson’s “hidden agenda,” as it has been called, was to transform the duly approved preparatory school into a first-rank university in Albemarle.7

His correspondence in the weeks following the August meeting of the board continued to reveal evidence of his intentions. Writing to Dr. Cooper once again on August 25, Jefferson reiterated his desire to establish a university in the state “in which all the branches of science useful to us, and at this day, should be taught in their highest degree.” He then added that “we are about to make an effort for the introduction of this institution.”8 Two weeks later, on September 7, writing to Peter Carr, “On the subject of the Academy or College proposed to be established in our neighborhood,”9 Jefferson penned his most important statement to date, offering a comprehensive statement of his views on education, while making it clear that his mind was now focused on converting the projected academy into the university that he had so long contemplated.10 He told Carr that over the years he had acquainted himself “with the organization of the best seminaries in other countries, and with the opinions of the most enlightened individuals, on the subject of the sciences worthy of place in such an institution.” He then described his plan for public education from elementary schools through general schools (the “second grade of education”) to professional schools, with detailed notes on the subjects to be taught at each level and the duties of professors. The plan represented a somewhat revised version of his ideas for a system of public education that he had submitted to the Virginia General Assembly more than thirty years earlier.

Later in the fall of 1814, the petitions on behalf of the Albemarle Board of Trustees were forwarded to Delegate David C. Watson by Peter Carr for presentation to the General Assembly. However, with Carr’s obvious concurrence, Jefferson added to one of the petitions several critical proposals, namely, those referring to the number and appointment of board members, and most importantly, the recommendation that the school’s name be changed from Albemarle Academy to Central College. The historian Neil Shawen summarizes Jefferson’s strategy: “By working the concept of centrality into the school’s title, Jefferson sought to plant in the minds of Richmond legislators and Virginians at large the notion that Charlottesville was in fact geographically and demographically convenient to the state. As this notion became accepted and interest in a state university increased, the adoption of Central College in Albemarle would become the next logical step.”11

Joseph C. Cabell entered the Virginia House of Delegates in 1809 and two years later the Senate. He was a member of the House committee that in 1810 helped establish the Literary Fund, which would later play an important role in the funding of the state university.12 It was his collaboration with Jefferson, however, along the path from academy to university, that, as a fellow senator stated, “cannot be forgotten; for he, in promoting that monument of wisdom and taste, was second only to the immortal Jefferson.”13 It was to Cabell whom Jefferson turned in January of 1815 when petitions of the Albemarle Trustees given to Delegate Watson failed to be presented to the General Assembly during its recent session. Cabell told Jefferson that the “papers were never shewn to me, nor did I ever hear of them but incidentally, and I believe after it had been determined not to bring them to the view of the Assembly.” If they had, Cabell assured Jefferson, “I should have paid to it the greatest attention imaginable, & done any thing in the compass of my feeble abilities to promote your views.” Then, he added optimistically, “I confess I see nothing at this time that ought to impede the passage of your Bill thro’ the Assembly.”14 This must have heartened Jefferson, who already was recruiting professors for the college.15 

Cabell’s optimism was misplaced. The bill was not introduced in the House of Delegates until December of 1815, and then questions quickly were raised regarding various provisions of the bill, in particular that which requested monies from the Literary Fund. In order to move the bill through the House, Cabell reported to Jefferson that he asked the sponsor to remove this item.16 In the Senate, objections were raised concerning the board’s authority and the role of the school’s proctor.17 Nevertheless, due chiefly to Cabell’s tireless efforts, the bill passed on February 14, 1816, although stripped of several important provisions. As Shawen again aptly comments, “Under the law a local academy with a charter and an historically lethargic board, but without faculty, students, buildings, and funds, was elevated to the Central College.”18

The next step in Jefferson’s scheme was the elevation of Central College to the highest tier of education: a state university.

- Gene Zechmeister, June 28, 2011

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