The University Of Virginia At Charlottesville


When Thomas Jefferson retired from the Presidency he was surrounded at Monticello by his daughter, her husband, and eleven grandchildren. Daily association with the young people made him more anxious than ever to carry out a plan that was the growth of years. He wanted to see other children as happy as were those in his own home, and he felt that the one thing he could do to increase their happiness would be to see that the State made provision for their education.

During the remainder of his life he never lost sight of his project. While he did not live to see his system of common schools established in Virginia, it was his joy to see the University of Virginia grow under his hands from an academy to a college and then to a university. From 1817 he labored for State appropriations for the school. A friend in the State Senate assisted him nobly. The reader of the published volume of the correspondence between the two men, a volume of 528 pages, will see how untiring was the labor that had its reward when the appropriation of funds made sure the founding of the university. Three hundred thousand dollars were provided for construction, as well as $15,000 a year for maintenance.

Jefferson himself drew the plans for the buildings and superintended the construction. Sarah N. Randolph, in ” The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson,” says that ” the architectural plan and form of government and instruction for this institution afforded con-genial occupation for his declining years. . . . While the buildings were being erected, his visits to them were daily; and from the northeast corner of the terrace at Monticello he frequently watched the workmen engaged on them, through a telescope which is still [1871] pre-served in the library of the University.”

Edmund Bacon, the overseer at Monticello, gave to Hamilton W. Pierson, the author of ” Jefferson at Monticello,” a humorous account of the early days of the project:

” The act of the Legislature made it the duty of the Commissioners to establish the University within one mile of the Court House at Charlottesville. They advertised for proposals for a site. Three men offered sites. The Commissioners had a meeting at Monticello, and then went and looked at all these sites. After they had made their examination, Mr. Jefferson sent me to each of them, to request them to send by me their price, which was to be sealed up. Lewis and Craven each asked $17 per acre, and Perry, $12. That was a mighty big price in those days. . . . They took Perry’s forty acres, at $12 per acre. It was a poor old turned-out field, though it was finely situated. Mr. Jefferson wrote the deed himself. Afterwards Mr. Jefferson bought a large tract near it. It had a great deal of timber and rock on it, which was used in building the University.

” My next instruction was to get ten able-bodied hands to commence the work. . . . Mr. Jefferson started from Monticello to lay off the foundation, and see the work commenced. An Irishman named Dins-more, and I, went along with him. As we passed through Charlottesville, I . . . got a ball of twine, and Dinsmore found some shingles and made some pegs. . . . Mr. Jefferson looked over the ground some time, and then stuck down a peg. . . . He carried one end of the line, and I the other, in laying off the foundation of the University. He had a little ruler in his pocket that he always carried with him, and with this he measured off the ground, and laid off the entire founda tion, and then set the men at work.”

This foot-rule was shown to Dr. Pierson by Mr. Bacon, who explained how he secured it :

” Mr. Jefferson and I were once going along the bank of the canal, and in crawling through some bushes and vines, it [the ruler] fell out of his pocket and slid down the bank into the river. Some time after that, when the water had fallen, I went and found it, and carried it to Mr. Jefferson. He told me I . . could keep it.

When I die, that rule can be found locked up in that drawer.

” After the foundations were nearly completed, they had a great time laying the corner-stone. The old field was covered with carriages and people. There was an immense crowd there. Mr. Monroe laid the corner-stone. He was President at that time. . . . He held the instruments, and pronounced it square. I can see Mr. Jefferson’s white head just as he stood there and looked on.

” After this he rode there from Monticello every day while the University was building, unless the weather was very stormy. . . . He looked after all the materials, and would not allow any poor materials to go into the building if he could help it.”

A letter from Jefferson to John Adams, written on October 12, 1823, spoke of the ” hoary winter of age.”

” Against this tedium vitae,” he said, ” I am fortunately mounted on a hobby, which, indeed, I should have better managed some thirty or forty years ago; but whose easy amble is still sufficient to give exercise and amusement to an octogenary rider. This is the establishment of a University, on a scale more comprehensive, and in a country more healthy and central than our old William and Mary, which these obstacles have long kept in a state of languor and inefficiency.”

In designing the buildings Jefferson acknowledged his indebtedness to Palladio, who guided him in his adaptation of Roman forms. The visitor who is familiar with Rome is reminded of the baths of Diocletian, the baths of Caracalla, and the temple of Fortuna Virilis, while a reduction of the Pantheon, with a rotunda, is the central feature of the group.

The University was opened in March, 1825. Forty students were in attendance, though at the beginning of the second year the number was increased to one hundred and seventy-seven.

The central feature of the collection of buildings, the wonderful Rotunda, was badly injured in the fire of 1895 which destroyed the Annex. The Rotunda was soon rebuilt according to Jefferson’s original plan, and the group of buildings is more beautiful than ever.