Thomas Jefferson wanted his gravestone to acknowledge only three of his many achievements: his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and his being the “father of the University of Virginia.” Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor tells about the last of these in his engrossing and disturbing Thomas Jefferson’s Education.
Jefferson, a prominent slave owner, was involved in every aspect of planning for the university, in a society in which slavery dominated everything. How he dealt with his vision for a preeminent institution of higher learning exclusively for young white men, with structures from his complex architectural designs built by enslaved people, makes for compelling reading.
During the 1780s, Jefferson was optimistic that a new generation raised in a free republic would work toward a better society. Later, however, he believed almost all young men who had inherited their fathers’ property and become new leaders in Virginia were arrogant and lazy. Higher education, he thought, could enlighten them to become better legislators.
He dedicated the university to the “illimitable freedom of the human mind,” but he assumed that the free pursuit of truth always led to his own conclusions. He clashed with those who wanted education for people who weren’t the sons of the wealthy and vetoed offering a professorship to a distinguished scholar who differed with him on political philosophy.
He knew emancipation was necessary, but he described black people as “inferior to the whites” and said they would, if freed, seek revenge on their oppressors. Jefferson wished to free and then deport them. In 1808, a freed person sent an anonymous appeal to Jefferson to free his slaves. The writer asked, “Is this the fruits of your education, Sir?” After his death and his estate’s financial collapse, Jefferson’s heirs sold 130 enslaved people from Monticello.
This absorbing narrative offers crucial insights into Jefferson’s thinking as he pursued his vision for what he hoped would be a better future for his state.