Thomas Jefferson's Education

Norton, 426 pages, $29.95

In recent years, America’s oldest universities have begun to explore and confront their deep historical ties to slavery. Whether through the direct ownership of enslaved workers, or through income from investments in the slave trade or in goods produced by unfree labor, universities in the northern and southern states grew and prospered from the system of human bondage that fueled the rapid growth of the early American economy. Like Brown, Georgetown, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, the University of North Carolina, and many other institutions both public and private, the University of Virginia has sought to document the role of enslaved persons in its construction and early life by supporting research, establishing memorials, preserving significant historic African American sites, and seeking to identify and contact descendants of the approximately 4,000 unfree persons who worked on its campus, known as the Grounds, between 1817 and 1865.

Alan Taylor’s latest book, Thomas Jefferson’s Education, also addresses the connection between slavery and the University of Virginia (UVa), where he has served as a professor of history since 2014. But Taylor approaches the question from a different perspective. His focus is not so much on illuminating particular financial links between the university and slavery, or on documenting the indispensable contributions of African Americans to university life, although he does do both these things. The overarching purpose of his book is instead to demonstrate how UVa was, from its very conception, shaped and distorted by slavery, by the habits of mind and behavior slavery necessitated, by the social structures and values it yielded, by the moral compromises it required. “Slavery dominated that society,” Taylor writes, “affecting everyone and every institution.” Jefferson’s “noble aspirations” for the university he cherished as his most significant legacy became, as Taylor forcefully demonstrates, “entangled” in the inequalities and injustices of his society.

Jefferson’s original program for education in Virginia encompassed a plan for schools, secondary academies, and, at the apex, an elite university. But the hierarchical assumptions of a slave-owning society, which limited female education and prohibited black literacy, also made publicly supported schools for common whites seem unnecessary. Virginia and the early national South regarded education as training for an individual to occupy an already determined social position. A subordinated class or race had little need for extensive learning, which might even prove dangerous if it nurtured unrealistic expectations. After his 1779 proposal for the education of all white children failed in the legislature, Jefferson narrowed his attention to only the higher-education aspect of his plan.

Taylor describes Jefferson’s disappointment, indeed his alarm, at the society he saw emerging around him after the war. Two-fifths of Virginians were enslaved, and Virginia’s conservative post-revolutionary constitution — to Jefferson’s dismay — disfranchised a third of the state’s white males. The republican promise of independence had been stymied by the undemocratic nature of the state constitution, and slavery, as Jefferson famously observed, was like holding a wolf by the ears. Jefferson longed for an end to the system of human bondage, which he saw as a threat to the safety and moral values of his state, but he could imagine no means of achieving such a goal. His assumptions about racial difference and inequality led him to believe that freed African Americans would have to be deported, a costly and all-but-impossible notion. And Jefferson himself led a life of heedless extravagance enabled by his ownership of enslaved laborers. He amassed levels of debt that would prevent him from freeing more than a handful of his workers upon his death.

Unable to see a resolution of the challenges facing his beloved state, Jefferson turned his attention to a younger generation who, he hoped, could remake Virginia. He believed, as Taylor explains, that it was “too late for him to transform society”; younger men would have to take up the work of “democratizing the state constitution and emancipating the enslaved.” As Jefferson declared, “It is to them I look, to the rising generation, and not to the one now in power for these great reformations.” In creating the University of Virginia, Taylor writes, he “claimed to keep faith with his radical goals, even as he backed away from pushing them.”

Jefferson’s hopes for the university were not widely shared, and certainly not by its students. When it opened in 1825, the university was the most expensive in the nation and offered no scholarships. Sons of the most elite Virginians filled an “academical village” funded, erected, and serviced by enslaved labor. These young aristocrats were committed to conserving, not overturning, the privileges of rank they held as masters in a slave society. And their interest in study and learning was close to nonexistent. Jefferson decried their “spirit of insubordination and self-will.” He saw student disorder, Taylor notes, “as the greatest threat to the University.”

Violent student riots in October 1825, just months after the university opened, brought Jefferson to tears. Drinking, fighting, tormenting faculty members, and abusing and assaulting enslaved workers seem to have been regular pastimes for these aspiring masters of the universe. Their attitudes and actions, Taylor argues, were direct products of the code of honor that defined their elite social and racial standing. The habit of command was essential to those who would be entrusted with exerting and maintaining control in their slave society. Here again the requisites of slavery were undermining Jefferson’s goals for his university. Ironically and tragically, the institution of slavery Jefferson both condemned and tolerated would subvert his dream of educating a new generation of statesmen ready and able to accomplish what he could not.

But Taylor warns that Jefferson’s misconceptions about education are not just history; they remain in important ways our own. We too are inclined to burden education with responsibility for solving the difficult social questions we are reluctant to confront. “Better schools,” he writes, “while necessary, are not sufficient to heal social divisions.” We have too readily, he argues, adopted the “Jeffersonian conceit of seeking reform on the cheap by redesigning education for the coming generation.” Taylor would have us recognize that we, not our children or grandchildren, bear responsibility for our world.

And Taylor has an important message as well for a university community still haunted by Jefferson’s shadow: “There is more to celebrate,” he insists, “in what the University has become than in how it began.” Those beginnings, as Thomas Jefferson’s Education makes clear, were in every aspect inseparable from the distorting and poisonous influence of the slave society Jefferson hoped his university would transform. Taylor’s book might well have been titled Thomas Jefferson’s Delusions.

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