Moral depravity: The little-known legacy of Jefferson at the College

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April 15, 2011

12:50 AM

This past Wednesday marked Thomas Jefferson’s 268th birthday. At the College of William and Mary, we revere our famous alumnus and rightly credit him with being a major influence on our institution. Many of the legacies and traditions at the College originated with Jefferson, and as a result, he deserves our respect and admiration. There is, however, a darker side to this story. Jefferson’s legacy at the College is not all good. It is, in large part, due to Jefferson that the fortunes of the College began to decline following the American Revolution and that the institution eventually came within an inch of its life during the Civil War. This is the untold story.

Jefferson’s affiliation with the College stems from his father who, as a surveyor, worked closely with mathematics professor Joshua Fry. This prompted the elder Jefferson to secure for his son a liberal arts education at the College. One 18th century historian of the College gives a pleasant account of the youth’s time here, beginning with his relationship with his mentor William Small. Jefferson names Small as the person who inspired Small with inspiring his “first views of the expansion of science, and of the system of things in which we are placed.” Small also introduced the boy to his other mentors: George Wythe, from whom he learned the art of law, and Virginia Governor Fauquier, who sat on the Board of Visitors. Jefferson credits these men, and especially Small, for fixing “the destinies of [his] life.”

This happy picture is by no means a complete account of Jefferson’s experience at the College. In a 1995 journal article, architectural historian Mark Werner portrays the climate of the College in the late colonial period less sympathetically. The College was rife with political, religious and cultural frictions which often erupted into violence.

The state of town-gown affairs may have been at an all-time low. In 1763, William Thomson was expelled from the school for “an act of no small Violence and Outrage in the Town.” This was just one of the many skirmishes in the ongoing war between the haughty students and unwashed townies which raged during Jefferson’s time here.

The elders of the College provided no better example: in the 1700’s, there was constant bickering between the professors and the Board of Visitors. The original charter did not adequately delineate the authorities of each group, and both fought for power. It did not help that the College was the fulcrum of the political and spiritual authority. The professors at the College were mostly Anglican clergy imported from England and who exercised ecclesiastical authority. The Visitors, by contrast, were predominantly laypeople and Virginian politicians. Any disagreements immediately took political, religious and colonial dimensions. The BOV routinely sought to cement its authority over the faculty and the faculty tried to go over the BOV memebers’ heads by appealing back to England for support. In one instance, the BOV fired several professors and had to forcibly evict them before changing all of the College’s locks.

The moral climate at the College was also unstable. The tenure of Jacob Rowe — ironically the professor of moral philosophy — is illustrative. Rowe, a noted alcoholic, was known for his offensive outbursts; once he expressed the wish that certain Burgesses should be hanged. After being reprimanded, he responded by leading a mob of armed students in a raid on Williamsburg townsfolk. After a vicious fight in which he drew a pistol on Peyton Randolph, a Williamsburg Burgess and one of the College visitors, he personally flogged two of the captured townspeople. He then “grossly insulted” the College president and the governor when they approached him about his activities. Then, and only then was he shipped back to England.

It was in this environment that Jefferson pursued his studies. The experience would shape him as much as his beloved mentors. He learned from the College all that could go wrong in education. When in a position of power, he would attempt to reform the school and, when that failed, to supplant it.

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