HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA!
194 years ago today— January 25, 1819— the Virginia Senate passed legislation, by a vote of 22 to 1, awarding the charter of a state university to Thomas Jefferson’s Central College near Charlottesville. The University of Virginia was born.
That same “University Bill” as they called it, had passed out of the House of Delegates a few days earlier— January 19, 1819— by a vote of 143 to 28. Thomas Jefferson was the author of the bill.
Just before the historic vote in the Senate 194 years ago today, there was ANOTHER vote: and that was to strip the name “Central College” out of the proposed bill, paving the way to grant the state charter to some other school— William and Mary perhaps, or Washington College in Lexington (later Washington & Lee). But that effort failed by a 16 to 7 vote.
State Senator Joseph Cabell, the University’s strongest advocate in the General Assembly, wrote Jefferson at Monticello immediately following the successful passage of the bill— a victory to which they had both worked for many years.
Jefferson wrote back on January 28, and his response was typical— a moderated enthusiasm, tempered by knowledge of the real challenges that remained, which were all about funding: “Dear Sir, I join with you on the passage of the University bill….But we shall fall miserably short in the execution of the large plan displayed to the world with the short funds proposed for its execution…it is vain to give us the name of an University without the means of making it so.”
Thomas Jefferson was then on the eve of his 76th birthday. He had already dedicated the last five years of his life working towards this moment. It would be another six years before the University would finally open its doors to students, Monday morning, March 7, 1825.
Jefferson was working to realize a dream he’d had for over 40 years: a revolutionary vision for a new kind of university, one that would be a model of higher education for the world. He envisioned a university that did not serve the interests of a church, a king, or any one political class. It would instead serve to strengthen the interests of democracy.
For Jefferson, the University of Virginia was never to be an end in itself but always a tool, a mechanism, by which the freedoms born in the war for independence would be protected and strengthened for future generations.
A university, he once wrote, should be an “incubator where the future guardians of the rights and liberties of their county may be endowed with science and virtue, to watch and preserve the sacred deposit.”
“Science and virtue.” Knowledge and character. Enlightenment and honor. The “father” of this institution made absolutely clear that this would forever be the ground on which the University would stand.
The University of Virginia, this literal gift from our founding fathers, has a profoundly unique, historic and vital purpose— one that has never been more important than it is today.
The University of Virginia was, for Thomas Jefferson, the insurance policy for the revolution. For here, the flame of the Enlightenment would be protected and would burn brighter than anywhere in the world.
For here, generations of new leaders would come forth to ensure that the freedoms born in 1776 would only grow stronger.
If that is not the guiding force behind all that we do and stand for at the University—then we have lost our way.
“For here, we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Happy Birthday UVA!