[1819] - University of Virginia founded by Jefferson

The University of Virginia (sometimes referred to as Mr Jefferson’s University) was formally established on 25 January 1819. It had been in planning for almost twenty years. The College of William and Mary had been founded in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1693, and although Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe had been educated there, they had become disillusioned by its restrictive constitution and its reluctance to embrace the study of new sciences. In a letter to Joseph Priestley of 18 January 1800, Jefferson, with reference to the College of William and Mary, had complained that ‘We have [in Virginia] a college just enough endowed to draw out the miserable existence to which a miserable constitution has doomed it’. Instead, Jefferson proposed ‘to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and to be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us’ (Nathaniel Cabell, Early History of the University of Virginia, xx). The university was built on land that had been owned by James Monroe, the fifth US president. As Monroe began his first term as president the land was purchased from him by the governing committee of what was then Central College. In 1817 Jefferson laid the first cornerstone, and two years later it received a charter from the Commonwealth of Virginia. The university held an inaugural celebration in 1824 attended by James Madison and the Marquis of Lafayette, who toasted Jefferson as the ‘father’ of the institution. Controversially, the university proposed to separate education from religious doctrine. At the centre of the university was a library, rather than a chapel. In addition, Jefferson was keen to prohibit the teaching of theology to maintain the institution’s independence from religious denominations. Today the university is a World Heritage Site and is widely acknowledged to be one of the best public universities in America.

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