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Thomas Jefferson - A Character Sketch
Jefferson and the University of Virginia
by Ellis, Edward S. (A.M.)


In the epitaph of Jefferson, written by himself, there is no mention of his having been Governor of Virginia, Plenipotentiary to France, Secretary of State, Vice President and President of the United States. But the inscription does mention that he was the "Author of the Declaration of American Independence; of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom; and Father of the University of Virginia."

These were the three things which, in his own opinion, constituted his most enduring title to fame. and it is to be observed that freedom was the fruit of all three. By the first he contributed to the emancipation of the American colonies from British rule; by the second he broke the chains of sectarian bigotry that had fettered his native State; and by the third he gave that State and her sisters the chance to strike the shackles of ignorance from the minds of their sons.

Free Government, free faith, free thought—these were the treasures which Thomas Jefferson bequeathed to his country and his State; and who, it may well be asked, has ever left a nobler legacy to mankind?

His was a mind that thrilled with that active, aggressive and innovating spirit which has done so much to jostle men out of their accustomed grooves and make them think for themselves.

No one appreciated more than he the fact that the light of experience, as revealed in the history of the race, should be the guide of mankind. But, for that very reason, he did not slavishly worship the past, well knowing that history points not only to the wisdom of sages and the virtues of saints, but also to the villainy of knaves and the stupidity of fools.

The condition of life is change; the cessation of change is death. History is movement, not stagnation; and Jefferson emphatically believed in progress.

The fact that a dogma in politics, theology or educational theory had been accepted by his ancestors did not make it necessarily true in his eyes. "Let well enough alone" was no maxim of his. Onward and upward was ever his aim.

His interests were wide and intense, ranging from Anglo-Saxon roots to architectural designs, from fiddling to philosophy, from potatoes to politics, from rice to religion. In all these things, and in many more besides, he took the keenest interest; but in nothing, perhaps, did he display throughout his life a more unfaltering zeal than in the cause of education.

"A system of general instruction," said he in 1818, "which shall reach every description of our citizens, from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so it will be the latest of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest."

From first to last Jefferson's aim was to establish, in organic union and harmonious co-operation, a system of educational institutions consisting of (1) primary schools, to be supported by local taxation; (2) grammar schools, classical academies or local colleges; and (3) a State University, as roof and spire of the whole edifice.

He did not succeed in realizing the whole of his scheme, but he did finally succeed in inducing the Legislature to pass an act in the year 1819 by which the State accepted the gift of Central College (a corporation based upon private subscriptions due to Jefferson's efforts), and converted it into the University of Virginia.

This action was taken on the report of a commission previously appointed, which had met at Rockfish Gap, in the Blue Ridge Mountains — a commission composed probably of more eminent men than had ever before presided over the birth of a university. Three of these men, who met together in that unpretentious inn, were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe (then President of the United States).

Yet it was remarked by the lookers-on that Mr. Jefferson was the principal object of regard both to the members and spectators; that he seemed to be the chief mover of the body—the soul that animated it; and some who were present, struck by their manifestations of deference, conceived a more exalted idea of him on this simple and unpretending occasion than they had ever previously entertained.—R. H. Dabney.

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