The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind
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Already renowned as a statesman, Thomas Jefferson in his retirement from government turned his attention to the founding of an institution of higher learning. Never merely a patron, the former president oversaw every aspect of the creation of what would become the University of Virginia. Along with the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, he regarded it as one of the three greatest achievements in his life. Nonetheless, historians often treat this period as an epilogue to Jefferson’s career.

In The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind, Andrew O’Shaughnessy offers a twin biography of Jefferson in retirement and of the University of Virginia in its earliest years. He reveals how Jefferson’s vision anticipated the modern university and profoundly influenced the development of American higher education. The University of Virginia was the most visible apex of what was a much broader educational vision that distinguishes Jefferson as one of the earliest advocates of a public education system.

Just as Jefferson’s proclamation that "all men are created equal" was tainted by the ongoing institution of slavery, however, so was his university. O’Shaughnessy addresses this tragic conflict in Jefferson’s conception of the university and society, showing how Jefferson’s loftier aspirations for the university were not fully realized. Nevertheless, his remarkable vision in founding the university remains vital to any consideration of the role of education in the success of the democratic experiment.



Publié par
Date de parution 28 septembre 2021
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780813946498
Langue English

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The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind
The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind
Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy
University of Virginia Press
charlottesville and london
University of Virginia Press
© 2021 by Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy
All rights reserved
First published 2021
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson, author.
Title: The illimitable freedom of the human mind: Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a university / Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy.
Description: Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, [2021] | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2020053650 (print) | LCCN 2020053651 (ebook) | ISBN 9780813946481 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780813946498 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH : University of Virginia—History. | Jefferson, Thomas, 1743–1826. | Public universities and colleges—Virginia—History—19th century. | Education, Higher—United States—History—19th century.
Classification: LCC LD 5678.3 . O 84 2021 (print) | LCC LD 5678.3 (ebook) | DDC 378.755/482—dc23
LC record available at
LC ebook record available at
Cover art: “Thomas Jefferson” by Thomas Sully, 1821, oil on canvas (American Philosophical Society) and “Jefferson’s elevation and floor plan for a typical pavilion and dormitories at Albemarle Academy,” A Calendar of the Jefferson Papers of the University of Virginia, Jefferson Papers, 1814 (Courtesy of Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia)
To Peter S. Onuf,
friend and mentor
1. Feast of Reason
2. Enlighten the People
3. My Single Anxiety in the World
4. We Shall Have Every Religious Man in Virginia against Us
5. The Academical Village
6. Useful Knowledge
7. A Wall of Separation
Color Images
8. This Deplorable Entanglement
9. Idle Ramblers Incapable of Application
10. This Athenaeum
T HE U NIVERSITY OF V IRGINIA has always seemed in between. It was born in the vast space between the visions of the ancient philosophers and a worn field in the Piedmont of Virginia, between the ideals of the Enlightenment and the dominion of evangelical Christianity, between a Roman temple and bricks formed from local clay by the hands of enslaved people.
Thomas Jefferson’s university embodied many of the puzzles of Thomas Jefferson himself. He too was a paragon of Enlightenment dependent on the labor of enslaved people, a global visionary sometimes given to parochial concerns. And just as his words in the Declaration of Independence came to be embraced by people denied political voice in his time, so did his university eventually welcome people excluded from education for generations.
After two centuries of change, the institution remains, with its complications intact, “Mr. Jefferson’s University.” Jefferson’s vision of the Academical Village remains as evocative as ever, his Rotunda as beautiful and graceful. Meanwhile, the university struggles, as it has from its origins, to serve its home state while priding itself on its place among elite institutions and with national reach. The university reckons with a past whose shape and meaning change with the passage of time and has made its fair share of contributions to that past.
This eloquent book helps us understand how such a university came to be, to change, and to endure. Andrew O’Shaughnessy’s thoughtful study offers the deeply researched exploration the university needs and deserves, positioning it in the context of American higher education, allowing us to see how emblematic and influential the institution has been since its inception, revealing the University of Virginia to be as complex and compelling as the man whose vision it embodies.
I T HAS BEEN A PLEASURE and an education to write this book. I was especially fortunate in doing so at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, whose activities include the editing of the retirement correspondence and many of the manuscripts relating to the early history of the university, as part of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, published by Princeton University Press. First begun under the editorship of Julian P. Boyd in 1943, the series was split in 1998 when the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, agreed to publish the Retirement Series, whose first volume appeared in 2005. I am much indebted to the staff of the Retirement Series for their assistance and support, especially to J. Jefferson Looney, the Daniel P. Jordan Editor, who read, corrected, and commented in detail on an early draft. Jeff insisted that the quotes should be exact transcriptions that include Jefferson’s idiosyncratic spellings and no capitals at the beginnings of sentences. Lisa A. Francavilla, the senior managing editor, read and offered corrections, in addition to providing references and access to unpublished archives. Ellen Hickman shared copies of unpublished papers and alerted me to the importance of the hitherto unknown drafts of Jefferson’s Rockfish Gap Commission.
The Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies arranges conferences, both international and domestic, including a 2018 conference on the early history of the University of Virginia. Thanks to the alacrity and persistence of my colleague John Ragosta, the conference papers were published as a volume by the University of Virginia Press in 2019, coedited by him, Peter S. Onuf, and myself, entitled The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University. The conference was entirely funded by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, thanks to the generosity of trustee J. F. Bryan and his wife, Peggy Bryan. The work of our research scholars, along with that of the archaeology and curatorial departments, has transformed the interpretation of Monticello, especially in the study of slavery and the lives of the descendants of enslaved families in the Getting Word African American Oral History Project. My thinking was also stimulated by the visiting fellowship program at the center, in which some thirty recipients give talks about their works in progress.
The research for this book was conducted at the center through the Jefferson Library, which holds copies of the relevant documents, including digital duplicates of manuscripts in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. Jack Robertson, the Fiske and Marie Kimball Librarian, along with his colleagues, Endrina Tay and Anna Berkes, helped check the endnotes, pursued references, and arranged numerous interlibrary loans. In addition to carefully reading and annotating the manuscript, Endrina Tay provided information about Jefferson’s book purchases on educational topics after the sale to the Library of Congress. Fraser Neiman, the director of archaeology, reviewed the manuscript and assisted with the tables relating to students in chapter 9. Senior Fellow Gaye Wilson took notes from the first manuscript workshop on my behalf and helped with the illustrations. As scholarly programs coordinator, Whitney Pippin arranged the illustrations permissions, checked notes, set up the manuscript workshops, and helped in myriad ways, supported by interns Christian Guynn and Bolling Izard. As president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Leslie Greene Bowman was unflinching in her encouragement and support of this project. It is additionally a pleasure to acknowledge the remarkable commitment to research by the foundation’s Board of Trustees; their chairman, Jon Meacham; and his predecessor, Don King.
The process of writing this book was facilitated by a 2019 Miegunyah Distinguished Visiting Fellowship at the University of Melbourne (Australia), thanks to the sponsorship and generous hospitality of Jennifer Milam in the School of Culture and Communication and Trevor Burnard in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. Alan Taylor generously shared much of his then-unpublished manuscript and later the full proofs of his book Thomas Jefferson’s Education. Others kindly answered questions, sent references, and shared unpublished papers, including Jeremy Adams, Melissa Adler, Brian Alexander, Jonathon Awtrey, Coy Barefoot, Robert Battle, Bruce Boucher, George Boudreau, Jane Calvert, Jeremy Catto, Elizabeth V. Chew, Stephen Conway, William J. Courtenay, Robert Rhodes Crout, Rebecca Dillingham, Gerald Donowitz, Dennis Dutterer, William Ferraro, Sandy Gilliam, Andrea R. Gray, Adam Griffin, Kevin Gutzman, Robert F. Haggard, Gardiner Hallock, Scott Harrop, Andrew Holowchak, Arthur Kiron, David Konig, Elizabeth Jones, David McCormick, Christine McDonald, Holly Mayer, David Moltke-Hansen, Kenneth Morgan, Johann Neem, Mark Peterson, Eric Proebsting, Sandra Rebok, Nicholas Richardson, Lyndsey Robertson, Chris Rogers, Simon Sun, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, John Charles Thomas, Peter Thompson, John C. Van Horne, Paula Viterbo, David Wang, Gaye Wilson, and Richard Guy Wilson. Daniel Keith Addison gave me access to his extensive archive of photographs of the University of Virginia, and Travis McDonald provided photographs of Poplar Forest, where he is the director of architectural restoration. Eduardo Montes-Bradley filmed a pilot documentary about this book that featured an interview with me at Kenwood. Andrew Mullen translated Maria Cosway’s songs and Jours H

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