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great rotunda of the central hall of the college,” says Herbert Baxter Adams, "as Michael Angelo did on the dome of St. Peter's.” And he had the great satisfaction of living to see the university opened to its first class of students in the spring of the year 1825.
The University of Virginia was the most liberal institution of learning in the world. Its curriculum was wholly elective. There were no religious tests for professors or pupils. Attendance at chapel was voluntary. The modern languages and the sciences stood on a par with the classics and mathematics. The honor system in examinations and student selfgovernment in discipline were adopted. The university was divided into a number of "schools," so that specialization could begin with the pupil's entrance. There was no president of the faculty. The professors stood on an equality and exercised a chairmanship in turn. Physical training was compulsory. Agriculture and the science of government were for the first time recognized as subjects worthy of a place in a university curriculum. Students of theological schools were invited to attend the university, enjoying the privilege of the lectures, the library, and “any other accommodations we can give them.” “By bringing the sects together, and
Jefferson wrote Mr. Roscoe on December 7, 1820: "The institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error, so long as reason is left free to combat it."
mixing them with the mass of other students,” said Jefferson, “we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.” The student of the history of education stands amazed at the “modernness” of the various measures which Jefferson recommended in his famous series of reports as rector of the University of Virginia. Some of these measures have been adopted by us only yesterday, as it were;others still wait until, to use Jefferson's phrase, “the public mind can bear them.”
The influence of Jefferson and his co-workers in the cause of higher education extended far beyond the boundaries of Virginia. The University of Michigan, the first of that splendid group of pioneer colleges in our Western States, was founded by Jefferson's friend, Judge Woodward, of Michigan Territory, in full sympathy with the Jeffersonian principles. The new State of Maine (1820) inserted in its constitution a "literary article" for the “general diffusion of the advantages of education” through the State, which the president of the constitutional convention and first governor of Maine, William King, acknowledged that he owed to Jefferson's suggestion during a visit to the “hospitable mansion" of Monticello the previous winter. George Ticknor, another welcome guest at Monticello, took back to his new professorship at Harvard valuable advice on the advantages of the elective system and the emphasis on the study of the modern languages. Herbert Baxter Adams could well call the University of Virginia “the noblest work of Jefferson's life,” marking “the continuation of his personal, vitalizing influence in Virginia and in the country at large more truly than any other of his original creations."
1 For example, the recent arrangement between Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, by which Jefferson's plan of the interchange of courses between the religious and the secular institutions was adopted, nearly a hundred years after his suggestion, as a "new departure" in education.
It was not a merely professional scientific motive that led Jefferson to devote himself with such zeal to the cause of education in Virginia and the country at large. The enlightenment of the people was for him the corner-stone of the structure of democracy, hence a system of free, popular education was a chief article in his political creed. In the admirable preamble to the revisers' bill of 1779, "For the more general diffusion of knowledge,” he declared that even under the best forms of government those intrusted with power had sometimes perverted that power into tyranny. "The most effectual means of preventing this,” he continued, “would be to illuminate as far as practicable the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thoroughly of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes." And again in his Notes on Virginia he wrote: “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. ... It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier people, but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption."
Finally, to complement and justify Jefferson's conviction that the political health of a people depends on its own enlightened participation in government, and that “no nation,” as he nobly wrote in his rectorial report of 1821, "is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity," came his faith in the illuministic philosophy of the perfectibility of the human mind. “We should be far from the persuasion that man is fixed by the law of his nature at a given point,” he wrote to the Virginia Legislature in 1818, “that his improvement is a chimera and the hope delusive of making himself wiser, happier, or better than our forefathers were. ... As well might it be urged that the wild and uncultivated tree, hitherto yielding sour and bitter fruit only, can never be made to yield better. ... It cannot be but each generation must advance the knowledge and well-being of mankind, not infinitely as some have said, but indefinitely and to a term which no man can fix and foresee.”
To the end of his days Jefferson maintained his faith in the essential accuracy and justice of the judgment of the mass of the "common people.” For him the people were not an object for government to play upon, as it were, but government itself was a function of the people. Liberty was not a privilege granted by the government, but government was a responsibility delegated to its officers by the people. On this distinction hangs all the philosophy of democracy. The last letter penned by Jefferson's aged and trembling hand was a summons to his countrymen to renew with "undiminished devotion" their faith in the rights of man and the blessings of self-government. The last word and gesture of his ebbing life was a hand raised feebly and the murmur: “Warn the committee to be on the alert.” He died as he had lived, under the inspiring compulsion of a single great aim-human freedom. Freedom was the text of his life: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Freedom was the burden of his labors: “I endeavor to keep attention fixed on the main object of all science, the freedom and happiness of man.” Freedom was the legacy for which alone he wished to