Jefferson - Enlightenment: Intellectual Freedom Intellectual Freedom

"Educating the common people" is the only "sure foundation...for the preservation of freedom and happiness." The University of Virginia

Thomas Jefferson considered the founding of the University of Virginia the last great accomplishment of his life. He had first proposed the idea in 1779, as part of a public education system that would give all Virginians the opportunity to advance from grade school through college. Over the decades, Jefferson encouraged others to have his plan implemented, for he believed that "educating the common people" is the only "sure foundation...for the preservation of freedom and happiness."

Finally, when he retired from the Presidency in 1810, Jefferson was able to champion the cause of education himself and eventually found support for a new state university - really a new kind of university, one that would teach students to search out new knowledge rather than instruct them in the lessons of the past.

His university, Jefferson wrote, would be "based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation." And it would be open to all with a mind to begin that exploration, regardless of rank or religion.

To house this new kind of university, Jefferson invented the first college campus, believing, as he said, that "a University should not be a house but a village." For nearly eight years Jefferson directed construction of this academic community, designing individual homes where the college professors would both live and teach, and linking these with dormitories for the students along the sides of a great lawn, with a massive domed library at one end and an open view of the Blue Ridge Mountains at the other.

Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, 1818
Education...engrafts a new man on the native stock, and improves what in his nature was vicious and perverse into qualities of virtue and social worth. And...each generation, succeeding to the knowledge acquired by all those who preceded it...must advance the knowledge and well-being of mankind, not infinitely, as some have said, but indefinitely, and to a term which no one can fix and foresee....How much more encouraging to the achievements of science and improvement is this, than the desponding view that the condition of man cannot be ameliorated, that what has been must ever be, and that to secure ourselves where we are, we must tread with awful reverence in the footsteps of our fathers.

  • How does the University of Virginia reflect Jefferson's ideas about the nature and purpose of a university?

  • Why would he think a university belongs in the foothills of Virginia's western frontier?

  • Why would he center university life around a lawn?

  • Why would he place the university's students between a library and a view of unspoiled nature?

  • How do Jefferson's ideas about the intellectual freedom fostered by a university connect with his beliefs about freedom in government, religion and society?

This study sheet provided on PBS ONLINE courtesy of General Motors
for Thomas Jefferson, "A General Motors Mark of Excellence Presentation."
Photograph courtesy of the University of Virginia Library.