Book Reviews - Winter 2020

A Founding Class

Two new studies of the man from Monticello

By Henry Wiencek | December 2, 2019
The College of William & Mary and the University of Virginia were the premier institutions of Virginia's aristocratic, landowning elite. (Wikimedia Commons)
The College of William & Mary and the University of Virginia were the premier institutions of Virginia's aristocratic, landowning elite. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas Jefferson’s Education by Alan Taylor; Norton, 426 pp., $29.95

Revolutionary Brothers: Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Friendship That Helped Forge Two Nations by Tom Chaffin; St. Martin’s Press, 529 pp., $29.99

Alan Taylor revels in having a broad canvas to fill, so readers who pick up Thomas Jefferson’s Education expecting a concise treatment of that narrow topic will instead find themselves swept along on a panoramic journey through Virginia history from the 1730s to the 1860s. Jefferson’s alma mater, the College of William & Mary, shares the spotlight with the institution he founded, the University of Virginia, where Taylor is the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History. But Taylor’s learned, sprightly text illuminates the larger milieu that educated Jefferson—Virginia’s rabidly partisan politics; its struggles over the role of religion in public life; its conviction that it is the finest place on earth; its prickly, explosive sense of honor; and a pervasive inequality perpetuated by slavery, by the planters’ firm grip on the levers of power, and by the refusal to extend education to all.

Eleven of Virginia’s first 17 governors attended William & Mary, but the college declined after the Revolution and earned a reputation for tumult. Amid horrific rioting, dueling, and dissipation, the students doggedly clung to their honor code—a code of silence—even when one of their “pranks” involved digging up a woman’s corpse for display. When these students refused to give evidence against each other, their parents and political leaders backed them up. Former governor William Cabell declared that informing on fellow students was a breach of a gentleman’s honor, and no honorable man would attend a school that compelled such testimony. Scholarship lagged. Between 1800 and 1805, only three students received degrees. When one is destined to take command of a plantation, literature and philosophy hold little appeal. Looking back on his years at William & Mary, Jefferson recalled how education saved him from a society of horse racers, card players, and fox hunters, a “worthless” bunch. Taylor reinforces this notion, finding that wherever southern young men attended college, they raised hell: “The most troubled northern university was Princeton, which had the largest proportion of southern students, usually a third.” One father of a student wrote that dissipation “pervades all the States where Slavery abounds,” and a Virginian attending Princeton wrote, “there is something wonderfully inflammable in the nature of young men. … A feeling of resentment or indignation communicates itself like electricity, and what I most wonder at, is that we have not more riots.”

Thomas Cooper, president of South Carolina College, told Jefferson that the indulgence of southern parents “renders young men less fit for college government than the habits of the northern people; and the rigid discipline of the northern seminary must be put in force inexorably in the south.” But one of Jefferson’s primary reasons for establishing a new university in Virginia was to protect young southern men from potentially dangerous northern ideas. He denounced the colleges of the Northeast as nests of fanaticism, hypocrisy, selfish morals, and crooked politics. Jefferson’s nephew, Peter Carr, echoed his uncle’s sentiments when he referred to the northern states as “foreign countries” and said that their colleges fill “young, open, and unsuspecting minds” of southern students with opinions and sentiments “inimical to the interest and happiness of their parent country.” When his grandson Francis Eppes was considering colleges, Jefferson suggested South Carolina despite Thomas Cooper’s warning. Eppes was suspended for riotous behavior.

Taylor writes that by the early 1800s, Virginians could not fail to discern the “widening gap” between their state “and the rapidly growing North,” partly due to the state’s refusal to fund education. Former Virginia governor John Tyler Sr. denounced the commonwealth’s “eternal war …  against the Arts and Sciences and a determination to pay nothing by way of taxes to the support and encouragement of Education.” In 1810, a Federalist legislator got the General Assembly to pass an ingenious plan for a literary fund to support schools with fines, penalties, and forfeitures made to the state, but no new taxes—“and that was its political genius,” Taylor writes. In his own stroke of genius, Jefferson used funds from the confiscation of church property in Albemarle County to buy a tract of land for his dreamed-of college. He started construction with private funds, garnering pledges of $35,000 from friends and wealthy residents of nearby counties. He was determined that the university rise in Charlottesville rather than farther west, where Federalist sentiment was stronger. In 1819, the legislature voted to locate “Central College” in Charlottesville. The university opened on March 7, 1825, dedicated to what Jefferson called “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

Taylor’s chapters on Jefferson’s home life at Monticello, his extended family, and slavery are the only parts of the book in which he indulges in old-style Jefferson worship. He goes into raptures over the beauty of Monticello and assembles a mini-anthology of the most gushing physical descriptions of Jefferson and tributes paid by visitors: his overseer compared him to a fine horse; a visitor said he walked “like a man in a reverie.” Taylor writes: “His attire of shabby, dated gentility conveyed his combination of old money and republican ease.” But Jefferson’s money, such as it was, was hardly old. His father, a surveyor with good business connections, bequeathed Jefferson land and slaves; from his father-in-law Jefferson acquired slaves and debt. Jefferson’s “money” actually consisted of enslaved people. Sally Hemings gets a brief mention. Citing Jefferson’s pledge to his dying wife never to remarry, Taylor writes that he instead “relied for intimacy on Hemings.” This is the euphemism to end all euphemisms.

Taylor does occasionally link the plantation to education. At a mountaintop factory, enslaved boys were taught how to make nails, for example, but Taylor neglects to mention that they learned under the whip, wielded by one of Jefferson’s cruelest slave drivers. Taylor has fallen under the spell of the “amelioration” myth, now being touted at Monticello, which holds that Jefferson tried to soften slavery. Members of the extended Hemings family did receive special treatment, but they were Jefferson’s black family, related to him through his wife, Martha. The majority of his slaves labored under overseers, under the constant threat of punishment. Taylor’s Monticello interlude detracts from an otherwise clear-eyed work.

Meanwhile, Tom Chaffin’s Revolutionary Brothers tells an old-fashioned tale rich in narrative detail. Lively but long, the book explores the friendship of Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette from their first encounter in 1781, when Lafayette commanded troops trying to save Governor Jefferson’s Virginia from the depredations of the British. They met again in Paris, when Jefferson was serving as U.S. minister to France, and had a final, extremely emotional meeting at Monticello in 1824, when Lafayette was making a grand tour of the country he helped free from the British. For those who enjoy their history chock-full of action and anecdotes, Chaffin’s is a fine book.

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