PODCAST#19 … Review of Thomas Jefferson’s Education, by Alan Taylor

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Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson wrote those very words and sketched out the obelisk they would be carved upon. For those who have studied him, that he not only composed his own Thomas Jefferson’s Educationepitaph but designed his own grave marker was—as we would say in contemporary parlance—just “so Jefferson.” His long life was marked by a catalog of achievements; these were intended to represent his proudest accomplishments. Much remarked upon is the conspicuous absence of his unhappy tenure as third President of the United States. Less noted is the omission of his time as Governor of Virginia during the Revolution, marred by his humiliating flight from Monticello just minutes ahead of British cavalry. Of the three that did make the final cut, his role as author of the Declaration has been much examined. The Virginia statute—seen as the critical antecedent to First Amendment guarantees of religious liberty—gets less press, but only because it is subsumed in a wider discussion of the Bill of Rights. But who really talks about Jefferson’s role as founder of the University of Virginia?

That is the ostensible focus of Thomas Jefferson’s Education, by Alan Taylor, perhaps the foremost living historian of the early Republic.  But in this extremely well-written and insightful analysis, Taylor casts a much wider net that ensnares a tangle of competing themes that not only traces the sometimes-fumbling transition of Virginia from colony to state, but speaks to underlying vulnerabilities in economic and political philosophy that were to extend well beyond its borders to the southern portion of the new nation. Some of these elements were to have consequences that echoed down to the Civil War; indeed, still echo to the present day.

Students of the American Civil War are often struck by the paradox of Virginia. How was it possible that this colony—so central to the Revolution and the founding of the Republic, the most populous and prominent, a place that boasted notable thinkers like Jefferson, Madison and Marshall, that indeed was home to four of the first five presidents of the new United States—could find itself on the eve of secession such a regressive backwater, soon doomed to serve as the capitol of the Confederacy? It turns out that the sweet waters of the Commonwealth were increasingly poisoned by the institution of human chattel slavery, once decried by its greatest intellects, then declared indispensable, finally deemed righteous. This tragedy has been well-documented in Susan Dunn’s superlative Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia, as well as Alan Taylor’s own Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and the War in Virginia 1772-1832. What came to be euphemistically termed the “peculiar institution” polluted everything in its orbit, often invisibly except to the trained eye of the historian. This included, of course, higher education.

If the raison d’être of the Old Dominion was to protect and promote the interests of the wealthy planter elite that sat atop the pyramid of a slave society, then really how important was it for the scions of Virginia gentlemen to be educated beyond the rudimentary levels required to manage a plantation and move in polite society? And after all, wasn’t the “honor” of the up-and-coming young “masters” of far greater consequence than the aptitude to discourse in matters of rhetoric, logic or ethics? In Thomas Jefferson’s Education, Taylor takes us back to the nearly forgotten era of a colonial Virginia when the capitol was located in “Tidewater” Williamsburg and rowdy students—wealthy, spoiled sons of the planter aristocracy with an inflated sense of honor—clashed with professors at the prestigious College of William & Mary who dared to attempt to impose discipline upon their bad behavior. A few short years later, Williamsburg was in shambles, a near ghost town, badly mauled by the British during the Revolution, the capitol relocated north to “Piedmont” Richmond, William & Mary in steep decline. Thomas Jefferson’s determination over more than two decades to replace it with a secular institution devoted to the liberal arts that welcomed all white men, regardless of economic status, is the subject of this book.  How he realized his dream with the foundation of the University of Virginia in the very sunset of his life, as well as the spectacular failure of that institution to turn out as he envisioned it is the wickedly ironic element in the title of Thomas Jefferson’s Education.

The author is at his best when he reveals the unintended consequences of history. In his landmark study, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Taylor underscores how American Independence—rightly heralded elsewhere as the dawn of representative democracy for the modern West—was at the same time to prove catastrophic for Native Americans and African Americans, whose fate would likely have been far more favorable had the colonies remained wedded to a British Crown that drew a line for westward expansion at the Appalachians, and later came to abolish slavery throughout the empire.  Likewise, there is the example of how the efforts of Jefferson and Madison—lauded for shaking off the vestiges of feudalism for the new nation by putting an end to institutions of primogeniture and entail that had formerly kept estates intact—expanded the rights of white Virginians while dooming countless numbers of the enslaved to be sold to distant geographies and forever separated from their families.

In Thomas Jefferson’s Education, the disestablishment of religion is the focal point for another unintended consequence. For Jefferson, an established church was anathema, and stripping the Anglican Church of its preferred status was central to his “Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom” that was later enshrined in the First Amendment. But it turns out that religion and education were intertwined in colonial Virginia’s most prominent institution of higher learning, Williamsburg’s College of William & Mary, funded by the House of Burgesses, where professors were typically ordained Anglican clergymen. Moreover, tracts of land known as “glebes” that were formerly distributed by the colonial government for Anglican (later Episcopal) church rectors to farm or rent, came under assault by evangelical churches allied with secular forces after the Revolution in a movement that eventually was to result in confiscation. This put many local parishes—once both critical sponsors of education and poor relief—into a death spiral that begat still more unintended consequences that in some ways still resonate to the present-day politics and culture of the American south. As Taylor notes:

The move against church establishment decisively shifted public finance for Virginia. Prior to the revolution, the parish tax had been the greatest single tax levied on Virginians; its elimination cut the local tax burden by two thirds. Poor relief suffered as the new County overseers spent less per capita than had the old vestries. After 1790, per capita taxes, paid by free men in Virginia, were only a third of those in Massachusetts. Compared to northern states, Virginia favored individual autonomy over community obligation. Jefferson had hoped that Virginians would reinvest their tax savings from disestablishment by funding the public system of education for white children. Instead county elites decided to keep the money in their pockets and pose as champions of individual liberty. [p57-58]

For Jefferson, a creature of the Enlightenment, the sins of medievalism inherent to institutionalized religion were glaringly apparent, yet he was blinded to the positive contributions it could provide for the community. Jefferson also frequently perceived his own good intentions in the eyes of others who simply did not share them because they were either selfish or indifferent. Jefferson seemed to genuinely believe that an emphasis on individual liberty would in itself foster the public good, when in reality—then and now—many take such liberty as the license to simply advance their own interests. For all his brilliance, Jefferson was too often naïve when it came to the character of his countrymen.

Once near-universally revered, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson often triggers ambivalence for a modern audience and poses a singular challenge for historical analysis. A central Founder, Jefferson’s bold claim in the Declaration “that all men are created equal” defined both the struggle with Britain and the notion of “liberty” that not only came to characterize the Republic that eventually emerged, but gave echo with a deafening resonance to the French Revolution—and far beyond to legions of the oppressed yearning for the universal equality that Jefferson had asserted was their due. At the same time, over the course of his lifetime Jefferson owned hundreds of human beings as chattel property.  One of the enslaved almost certainly served as concubine to bear him several offspring who were also enslaved, and she almost certainly was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife.

The once popular view that imagined that Jefferson did not intend to include African Americans in his definition of “all men” has been clearly refuted by historians.  And Jefferson, like many of his elite peers of the Founding generation—Madison, Monroe, and Henry—decried the immorality of slavery as institution while consenting to its persistence, to their own profit. Most came to find grounds to justify it, but not Jefferson: the younger Jefferson cautiously advocated for abolition, while the older Jefferson made excuses for why it could not be achieved in his lifetime—made manifest in his much quoted “wolf by the ear” remark—but he never stopped believing it an existential wrong. As Joseph Ellis underscored in his superb study, American Sphinx, Jefferson frequently held more than one competing and contradictory view in his head simultaneously and was somehow immune to the cognitive dissonance such paradox might provoke in others.

It is what makes Jefferson such a fascinating study, not only because he was such a consequential figure for his time, but because the Republic then and now remains a creature of habitually irreconcilable contradictions remarkably emblematic of this man, one of its creators, who has carved out a symbolism that varies considerably from one audience to another. Jefferson, more than any of the other Founders, was responsible for the enduring national schizophrenia that pits federalism against localism, a central economic engine against entrepreneurialism, and the well-being of a community against personal liberties that would let you do as you please. Other elements have been, if not resolved, forced to the background, such as the industrial vs. the agricultural, and the military vs. the militia. Of course, slavery has been abolished, civil rights tentatively obtained, but the shadow of inequality stubbornly lingers, forced once more to the forefront by the murder of George Floyd; I myself participated in a “Black Lives Matter” protest on the day before this review was completed.

Perhaps much overlooked in the discussion but no less essential is the role of education in a democratic republic. Here too, Jefferson had much to offer and much to pass down to us, even if most of us have forgotten that it was his soft-spoken voice that pronounced it indispensable for the proper governance of both the state of Virginia and the new nation. That his ambition extended only to white, male universal education that excluded blacks and women naturally strikes us as shortsighted, even repugnant, but should not erase the fact that even this was a radical notion in its time. Rather than disparage Jefferson, who died two centuries ago, we should perhaps condemn the inequality in education that persists in America today, where a tradition of community schools funded by property taxes meant that my experience growing up in a white, middle class suburb in Fairfield, CT translated into an educational experience vastly superior to that of the people of color who attended the ancient crumbling edifices in the decaying urban environment of Bridgeport less than three miles from my home. How can we talk about “Black Lives Matter” without talking about that?

The granite obelisk that marked Jefferson’s final resting place was chipped away at by souvenir hunters until it was relocated in order to preserve it.  A joint resolution of Congress funded the replacement, erected in 1883, that visitors now encounter at Monticello. The original obelisk now incongruously sits in a quadrangle at the University of Missouri, perhaps as far removed from Jefferson’s grave as today’s diverse, co-ed institution of UVA at Charlottesville is at a distance from the both the university he founded and the one he envisioned. We have to wonder if Jefferson would be more surprised to learn that African Americans are enrolled at UVA—or that in 2020 they only comprise less than seven percent of the undergraduate population? And what would he make of the white supremacists who rallied at Charlottesville in 2017 and those who stood against them? I suspect a resurrected Jefferson would be no less enigmatic than the one who walked the earth so long ago.

Alan Taylor has written a number of outstanding works—I’ve read five of them—and he has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for History. He is also, incidentally, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, so Thomas Jefferson’s Education is not only an exceptional contribution to the historiography but no doubt a project dear to his heart. While I continue to admire Jefferson even as I acknowledge his many flaws, I cannot help wondering how Taylor—who has so carefully scrutinized him—personally feels about Thomas Jefferson. I recall that in the afterword to his magnificent historical novel, Burr, Gore Vidal admits: “All in all, I think rather more highly of Jefferson than Burr does …”  If someone puts Alan Taylor on the spot, I suppose that could be as good an answer as any …

Note: I have reviewed other works by Alan Taylor here:

Review of: American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, by Alan Taylor

Review of: The Internal Enemy: Slavery and the War in Virginia 1772-1832, by Alan Taylor

Review of: The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies by Alan Taylor