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Thomas Jefferson's Education
by Alan Taylor




Overview -

By turns entertaining and tragic, this beautifully written history reveals the origins of a great university in the dilemmas of Virginia slavery. It offers an incisive portrait of Thomas Jefferson set against a social fabric of planters in decline, enslaved black families torn apart by sales, and a hair-trigger code of male honor. A man of "deft evasions" who was both courtly and withdrawn, Jefferson sought control of his family and state from his lofty perch at Monticello. Never quite the egalitarian we wish him to be, he advocated emancipation but shrank from implementing it, entrusting that reform to the next generation. Devoted to the education of his granddaughters, he nevertheless accepted their subordination in a masculine culture. During the revolution, he proposed to educate all white children in Virginia, but later in life he narrowed his goal to building an elite university.

In 1819 Jefferson's intensive drive for state support of a new university succeeded. His intention was a university to educate the sons of Virginia's wealthy planters, lawyers, and merchants, who might then democratize the state and in time rid it of slavery. But the university's students, having absorbed the traditional vices of the Virginia gentry, preferred to practice and defend them. Opening in 1825, the university nearly collapsed as unruly students abused one another, the enslaved servants, and the faculty. Jefferson's hopes of developing an enlightened leadership for the state were disappointed, and Virginia hardened its commitment to slavery in the coming years. The university was born with the flaws of a slave society. Instead, it was Jefferson's beloved granddaughters who carried forward his faith in education by becoming dedicated teachers of a new generation of women.

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Overview

By turns entertaining and tragic, this beautifully written history reveals the origins of a great university in the dilemmas of Virginia slavery. It offers an incisive portrait of Thomas Jefferson set against a social fabric of planters in decline, enslaved black families torn apart by sales, and a hair-trigger code of male honor. A man of "deft evasions" who was both courtly and withdrawn, Jefferson sought control of his family and state from his lofty perch at Monticello. Never quite the egalitarian we wish him to be, he advocated emancipation but shrank from implementing it, entrusting that reform to the next generation. Devoted to the education of his granddaughters, he nevertheless accepted their subordination in a masculine culture. During the revolution, he proposed to educate all white children in Virginia, but later in life he narrowed his goal to building an elite university.

In 1819 Jefferson's intensive drive for state support of a new university succeeded. His intention was a university to educate the sons of Virginia's wealthy planters, lawyers, and merchants, who might then democratize the state and in time rid it of slavery. But the university's students, having absorbed the traditional vices of the Virginia gentry, preferred to practice and defend them. Opening in 1825, the university nearly collapsed as unruly students abused one another, the enslaved servants, and the faculty. Jefferson's hopes of developing an enlightened leadership for the state were disappointed, and Virginia hardened its commitment to slavery in the coming years. The university was born with the flaws of a slave society. Instead, it was Jefferson's beloved granddaughters who carried forward his faith in education by becoming dedicated teachers of a new generation of women.



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Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393652420
  • ISBN-10: 0393652424
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • Publish Date: October 2019
  • Page Count: 448
  • Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.65 pounds


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BookPage Reviews

Thomas Jefferson's Education

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.

 

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