Thomas Jefferson’s Education
By Alan Taylor
WW Norton, 2019
“Never quite the egalitarian that we now wish him to be,” writes Alan Taylor in his new book Thomas Jefferson’s Education, “Jefferson believed in elite rule; he just wanted to improve the planter class into a meritocracy through education.” His main means of doing this was the creation of the University of Virginia, his conceptual darling and, in his own estimation, one of his greatest accomplishments.
Taylor, a terrific writer and the author of American Revolutions and American Colonies, writes about that kind of possessive in this thought-provoking new book: this isn’t so much about the education Thomas Jefferson received as it is about the one he intended to bestow on the Tidewater slave-owning aristocracy he hoped to gentle and refine.
As Taylor makes clear, he hoped to do this without benefit of clergy. Jefferson retained a life-long horror of institutional religion and maintained that the clergy “dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of day-light.” When he dreamed his beautiful, expensive university into existence, he dreamed of a campus that had libraries instead of chapels and ethics classes instead of catechisms.
This kind of vision was destined to clash with the fundamentalist religious reformist zeal of figures like Presbyterian preacher John Holt Rice, a wonderfully-drawn character in Thomas Jefferson’s Education. According to Taylor, Rice and his ilk viewed Jefferson’s stance as “murderous to souls.” Education in their terms was strictly a moral process. “Troubled by the low state of education,” Taylor writes, “Rice wanted Virginians to read more - and talk, drink and sleep much less.”
In the university’s early years, this seemed every bit as impossible as Jefferson’s deist paradise. One of the strongest impressions to come out of Taylor’s book is the sheer vicious loutishness of the planters’ sons who were the university’s earliest students. They drank, they swore, they fornicated, they destroyed property, they brutalized the school’s slaves and their own, they tormented, beat, and terrorized their instructors. They had been raised as thuggish bravos, and Jefferson’s sweet reason couldn’t make the smallest dent in their entitlement.
That task fell largely to John Hartwell Cocke, who was appointed to the university’s board in 1819, stayed for forty years, and oversaw the school’s virtual second founding as a heavily religious academy. Cocke gradually reversed the university’s well-deserved reputation as a “den of dissipation,” to such an extent that by mid-century it had a very different character:
Christian temperance and self-discipline emerged among the students as Jefferson’s philosophy ebbed at the University of Virginia. In 1856 a student attested to the radical change at the University: “I think it is the last place in the world for a lazy man to try to enjoy himself.” That shift made the University more attractive to an increasingly evangelical southern gentry.
Taylor tells this university story with cool skill and a very discerning eye for personal detail. The standard national hagiography surrounding Jefferson won’t be much troubled by the inept fantasist who comes across in these pages, but readers will be fascinated to make the acquaintance of men like Rice and Cocke in Taylor’s gripping and judicious portraits.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.