Two hundred years ago this month, Thomas Jefferson planted the first seeds of what would become the University of Virginia.
On April 5, 1814, the board of Albemarle Academy appointed Jefferson as a member. The board consisted of a group of local gentry who, for several years, had floundered in their efforts to start a secondary school in Charlottesville.
While Jefferson at the time was claiming he had retired from politics, his selection to the board marked the beginning of one of his greatest political triumphs, says Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor emeritus at UVA.
Jefferson planned from the beginning to leverage the appointment to create the state university that he had envisioned sprouting up in Charlottesville years earlier.
“He wanted to establish Charlottesville as central to the state, and he saw this as his opportunity to do so,” Onuf says. “It was sort of a coup.”
According to a letter Jefferson wrote in January of 1814 to Thomas Cooper, a friend who would become president of what is now the University of South Carolina, Jefferson conceded as much.
“I have long had under contemplation, and have been collecting materials for, the plan of an university in Virginia which should comprehend all the sciences useful to us, and none others,” Jefferson wrote. “This would probably absorb the functions of William & Mary College, and transfer them to a healthier and more central position, perhaps to the neighborhood of this place.”
While Jefferson had attended William and Mary, Onuf said he was contemptuous of the education he received there and was more than happy to help move it out of Williamsburg.
“He saw William and Mary as ‘old Virginia,'” Onuf says. “He had a lifelong hostility toward it. He called the central building there, the Wren building, a ‘brick kiln.’ He always saw his home as the center of his world, and he imagined it to be central to a world that was expanding westward. He was also sympathetic to people of western Virginia and thought they were underrepresented. Having a university here, he thought, would help counter that.”
It took two years for a bill to pass through the state legislature funding what was originally called Central College. And while Jefferson didn’t get everything he had wanted in that first bill, it was enough: The first cornerstone was laid in 1817, and the University of Virginia was chartered by the state in January of 1819.