"To give to every citizen the information he needs...to understand his duties to his neighbors and country...to know his rights..."

- Thomas Jefferson, 1818

Resources ... The Idea ... Making the Idea a Reality ... Legacy


A Closer Look

The Idea

Thomas Jefferson believed only educated citizens could make the American experiment in self-government succeed. He proposed a system of broad, free, public education that was radical in his day and his founding of the University of Virginia partially achieved his larger goals.

Yet in Jefferson's lifetime and beyond, Blacks, both free and enslaved, were denied citizenship and women were excluded from full citizenship. Education was a key factor in the struggle of Monticello's enslaved community and their descendants to win their rights to full citizenship.

The impact of these endeavors and the legacy of Jefferson's ideas about accessible and equal education can still be seen today, as Americans continue to debate the ends, ways, and means to provide for a well-informed citizenry.

Jefferson dreamed of self-government by informed citizens

"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."
(Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, August 13, 1786)

Making the Idea a Reality

Unable to realize his vision of a system of public education from childhood to adulthood, Jefferson focused his energies to found the University of Virginia as a first step in achieving his larger goals.

Click for a podcast about the founding of the University of Virginia

In the ongoing journey to extend the full rights of citizenship to all Americans, the student body at the University of Virginia has grown to include people of color and all genders and identities.

UVA through the years

"the people are safe depositories of their own liberty, and ... are not safe unless enlightened..."
~ Thomas Jefferson to L.W. Tazewell, 1805

Making the Idea a Reality

"The Education We Stole for Ourselves"

During Jefferson’s lifetime it was not illegal to teach enslaved people to read or write. While Jefferson did not establish a school to educate those he enslaved, and expressed reservations about enslaved people learning to write, he did not forbid those he enslaved from achieving literacy. Surviving letters and firsthand accounts by members of Monticello's enslaved community indicate their understanding that knowledge is power.
Education Leads to Freedom: Peter Fossett (1815-1901) was born into slavery at Monticello, yet he learned to read and write from one of Jefferson's grandsons. At age eleven, he was sold during the Monticello slave auction and remained in slavery until 1850, but continued to learn in secret. He used his education to forge free papers for members of the enslaved community. Read his recollections of life at Monticello and beyond »
Andrew Davenport, descendant of the Hemings Family and Public Historian at Monticello, discusses informal education practices among the enslaved community and how those early endeavors towards literacy and learning resonate today.

The Legacy

"[I] consider what education I have as a legitimate fruit of freedom"

-Israel Gillette Jefferson, born into slavery at Monticello

The lives and educational achievements of descendants of Monticello's enslaved community exemplify a quest for full citizenship and to manifest American ideals.

Moving Towards the Future

Two hundred years ago, Jefferson said, "Whenever the people are well informed, they may be trusted with their own government." Throughout our nation's history, there has been a struggle to make Jefferson's ideas a reality -- from Brown vs. The Board of Education and Massive Resistance to Title IX, ADA, school curricula, and admissions standards -- who becomes informed, and how, remains an ongoing challenge. How can we use Jefferson’s ideas and principles today to extend access to education and strengthen our democracy?

"To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business. to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts in writing. to improve, by reading, his morals and faculties. to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either. to know his rights. to exercise with order and justice those he retains, to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates. and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and judgment. and in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed."

Thomas Jefferson: Report for University of Virginia, 1818


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