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Funding the University of Virginia

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 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 its execution.”1

The Assembly approved an annual sum of fifteen thousand dollars 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 sale of glebe lands.2 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.3

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 still others were indifferent to higher education in general. And there were always those politicians who opposed most anything connected with Jefferson.4  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.5 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 fourteen professors and 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 knowledge is power.” While 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 and science by which we shall be surrounded. It is a comfort that I am not to live to see it.”6

Although Cabell initially doubted funds could be obtained during the 1819-1820 legislative session,7 he managed to get the General Assembly to empower the University Board of Visitors to borrow sixty thousand dollars “for the purpose of finishing the buildings of the University.”8 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 leave the University in the position of being “unavailed of the higher advances already made elsewhere, and of the advantages contemplated by the statue 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.9

In November of the same year, Jefferson  pens a lengthy and emotional critique of the Virginia educational system. He contrasts it with the system in New York with its numerous schools and colleges and which spends 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 knowledge and the prosperity it produces.”  Jefferson also included estimates for a library ($40,000) and an observatory (“about ten or twelve thousand dollars”).10

As the 1820-1821 session of the General Assembly got underway Cabell once again expressed little confidence in securing more funds.11  His report caused Jefferson’s spirits to sink further.12  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 and more distressing symptoms of pulmonary affection,” and he was looking forward to “domestic, rural and literary leisure.” He tells Jefferson that his service in support of the University “will always constitute one of the most agreeable reflections of my life.”13

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 own 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 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 has “neither vigor of body nor 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.”14

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 writes to Jefferson on February 8th.15  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 sixty thousand dollars. He makes it clear that no more money is likely to be forthcoming, stating that even friends of the university want Jefferson “to commence no building which cannot be finished, and, above all, not to come here again for money to erect buildings.”16 The allocated funds were judged to pay for land purchased, and “for the whole system of buildings of accommodation, and all accessory expenses.” The Board of Visitors believed that the  “whole establishment, except that of the library” could be completed by the ensuing summer.17 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.18

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 dollars. Reiterating the Board’s belief that it is “indispensable to complete all the buildings before opening the institution,” yet another request was made of the legislature for more money.19                                                                                                   

As the 1822-23 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 is unfavorable. He is 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?20  Shortly thereafter Cabell tells Jefferson he saw a letter “stating that the undertakers had ascertained that they could not 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 states that $70,000 is out of the question and suggests asking for $50,000 for the library from capital on hand and seeking relinquishment of the debt. He mentions, however, that “the public mind seems impatient for a commencement of the operations of the institution, “ and some wonder whether money should be put towards books and apparatus to get the University started.21

Jefferson is 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 the enemies of the institution.”  The goal, Jefferson reminds Cabell, is “to make the establishment the most eminent in the United States.”  It is only by the “distinguished scale of its structure and preparation,” he states, will we draw faculty of the highest calibre and the youth from every state.  Jefferson says the figure of $70,000 for the library is due to “greediness of a undertaker” and that no more than $60,000 is needed.22 Two months later Cabell now reports that a third loan of $60,000 to finish the library is certain to be had, but, he emphasizes: “We must never come here again for money to erect buildings.”23  The bill passes February 5, 1823.24  The next month work on the principal building of Mr. Jefferson’s University, the Rotunda, began.25

When the 1823-24 session of the Assembly begins, Cabell tells Jefferson that the Governor “has put our claims before the Legislature in his happiest manner,” and that sentiment is running high in favor of remitting the entire debt.26 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 on its behalf.”27 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.28  Jefferson replied simply: “Certainly the largest you can obtain.” But he acknowledged that forty or fifty thousand would “enable us to set out with tolerable competence.”29

Cabell was not able to get any more money from the legislature but did gain approval for fifty thousand dollars of money expected from the National Government in payment for interest on loans obtained from Virginia during the War of 1812.30 However, the General Assembly would release the funds only when the government money was assured and that did not happen until the winter of 1825.31 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."32

There was still much undone when the first students arrived in the spring of 1825.33 The Rotunda was not yet finished, nor was there an anatomical theater, which Jefferson viewed as “indispensable,” 34 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





  • 1. 1.  Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, January 28, 1819, in Cabell, Nathaniel Francis, ed., Early History of the University of Virginia: as contained in the letters of Thomas Jefferson and Joseph C. Cabell, hitherto unpublished; with an appendix consisting of Mr. Jefferson’s bill for a complete system of education, and other illustrative documents; and an introduction comprising a brief historical sketch of the university, and a biographical notice of Joseph C. Cabell (Richmond, Va.: J. W. Randolph,  1856), 154.
  • 2. Minutes of the Board of Visitors of Central College, February 26, 1819, in ibid., 451-452. The Minutes of the Board of Visitors of Central College and then of the University of Virginia also can be found online.
  • 3. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, February 4, 1819, in ibid., 155. Note: In the Jefferson-Cabell Letters the date is mistakenly reported as December.
  • 4. Philip Alexander Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, 1819-1919: The Lengthened Shadow of One Man  (New York: Macmillan Co., 1920), 1:289.
  • 5. Malone, Jefferson, 6:385. See also Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, March 6, 1822, in Cabell, Jefferson-Cabell Letters, 245-251.
  • 6. Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, January 22, 1820, in ibid., 178.
  • 7. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, February 3, 1820, in ibid., 180.
  • 8. Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, October 3, 1820, in ibid., 461.
  • 9. Ibid., 464.
  • 10. Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, November 28, 1820, in ibid., 186, 189.
  • 11. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, January 4, 1821, in ibid., 194-195.
  • 12. 12. Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, January 31, 1821, in ibid., 201-203.
  • 13. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, January 25, 1821, in ibid., 198-199.
  • 14. Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, January 31, 1821, in ibid., 202.
  • 15. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, February 8, 1821, in ibid., 203.
  • 16. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, March 10, 1821, in ibid., 210.
  • 17. Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, November 19, 1821, in ibid., 468.
  • 18. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, January 7, 1822, in ibid., 229-231.
  • 19. Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, October 7, 1822, in ibid., 472.
  • 20. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, December 19, 1822, in ibid., 255-257.
  • 21. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, December 23, 1822, in ibid., 257, 259.
  • 22. Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, December 28, 1822, in ibid., 260-262.
  • 23. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, February 3, 1823, in ibid., 273.
  • 24. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, February 5, 1823, in ibid., 274.
  • 25. Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, March 12, 1823, in ibid., 278-279.
  • 26. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, December 3, 1823, in ibid., 285. Note: James Pleasants was Governor of Virginia, 1822-1825.
  • 27. Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, 1:306.
  • 28. 28. Joseph C. Cabell to Jefferson, January 29, 1824, in Cabell, Jefferson-Cabell Letters, 288-290.
  • 29. Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, February 23, 1824, in ibid., 291.
  • 30. 3Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, 1:307-308.
  • 31. Ibid., 2:40.
  • 32. William B. O’Neal, “Financing the Construction of the University of Virginia: Notes and Documents,” Magazine of Albemarle County History 23 (1964-1965): 11. Note: This is an excellent source for further reading about the funding of Mr. Jefferson’s University.
  • 33. Frank Edgar Grizzard, Jr., Documentary History of the Construction of the Buildings at the University of Virginia, 1817-1829 (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1996). See Chapter 10.
  • 34. Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, January 11, 1825, in Cabell, Jefferson-Cabell Letters, 331.


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