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Jefferson's Formal Education

As a member of the gentry class, Thomas Jefferson received a good formal education. In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote that his father, Peter Jefferson, "placed me at the English school at 5. years of age and at the Latin at 9. where I continued until his death."1 The Latin school was conducted by the Reverend William Douglas, of whom Jefferson wrote, "[he] was but a superficial Latinist, less instructed in Greek, but with the rudiments of these languages he taught me French."2 Early in 1758, Jefferson began attending the school of Reverend James Maury, whom Jefferson credited as "a correct classical scholar." He continued studies with Reverend Maury for two years before entering the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg in the spring of 1760, at the age of seventeen.3

Jefferson spent seven years studying in Williamsburg, first pursuing his education at William and Mary from March 1760 until April 1762, and then reading law with George Wythe. During his two years at William and Mary, he studied primarily under Dr. William Small.  Jefferson described that tutelage as, "my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life."4 Jefferson went on to say of Small that, "He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me & made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science & of the system of things in which we are placed."5 Before Small returned to Europe in 1762, he arranged for Jefferson to read law under the direction of George Wythe. Jefferson remained in Williamsburg under Wythe's guidance for the next five years, saying later that, "Mr. Wythe continued to be my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life. In 1767, he led me into the practice of the law at the bar of the General Court."6

Jefferson's seven years of study at Williamsburg culminated in the practice of law but without any type of "degree" as might be granted today. In 1762, when Jefferson was completing his two-year course of study, William and Mary did grant degrees, but the course of study leading toward a degree took four to five years and was directed toward a career in the Anglican Church or as a professor. The gentry of Virginia followed the English model in seeking what would be considered a "gentleman's education." The emphasis was upon an appropriate education, not a degree.7

Much later in his life, Jefferson would be concerned with the education of his grandson, Francis Wayles Eppes. In a letter to Francis's father, John Wayles Eppes, Jefferson expressed his opinion that the prescribed course of study that led to a degree would not be the wisest use of Francis's time and proposed that Francis should concentrate upon a course that would be of particular use to him: "This relinquishes the honorary distinction of a Diploma, a good enough thing to excite the ambition of youth to study, but, in modern estimation, no longer worth tacking, by it's initials to one's name; and certainly not worth the sacrifice of a single useful science."8

Jefferson himself could have "tacked initials" to his name had he felt it important, as he was awarded four honorary degrees during his lifetime.

More generally, education was very important to Jefferson and, as part of the general law revisal at the time of the Revolution, he recommended adoption of a broad educational system with a primary school for boys and girls, academies (secondary schools), and a university – Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. In Jefferson’s scheme, primary schools were to be free to students (both boys and girls), and the best male students were to attend the academies and university at public expense. The third part of this scheme was eventually adopted in the University of Virginia. Jefferson, though, always regretted that the most important part – broad, primary public education – was not adopted in his lifetime. He told his allies in the formation of UVA that if it was a choice between public primary schools and the University, he would choose the former “because it is safer to have a whole people respectably enlightened, than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance.”9

- Gaye Wilson, 12/99; revised John Ragosta, 5/2/18

Primary Source References

1800 January 27. (Jefferson to Joseph Priestley). "I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having put into my possession this rich source of delight [knowledge of Greek and Latin]: and I would not exchange it for any thing which I could then have acquired & have not since acquired."10

1819 August 24. (Jefferson to John Brazer). "I think myself more indebted to my father for this [knowledge for Greek and Latin] than for all the other luxuries his cares and affections have placed within my reach: and more now than when younger, and more susceptible of delights from other sources ...."11

 

Further Sources

 

 

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