Jennings Wagoner’s Jefferson and Education tells Jefferson’s side of the story. But even in Wagoner’s sympathetic version of the founding of the University of Virginia, it is impossible to ignore Jefferson’s antipathy to the yeomen for whom he sometimes said he spoke. As a member of the board that projected the Albemarle Academy, the first incarnation of the institution that was to become the university, he dismissed out of hand the interests of those he called the “laboring classes.” With them and their education, he assured his fellow trustees, “we shall have nothing to do.” They would learn to read, write, and cipher and then become farmers or artisans. The academy would concern itself solely with the “learned classes.” They would go on to more advanced studies and then enter “the learned professions” or become leaders in “conducting the affairs of the nation.”

As Jefferson’s ambitions for an academy expanded—as the Albemarle Academy became Central College became the University of Virginia—his appetite for public financing grew apace. He enlisted his friend Joseph Cabell to seek the support of the state, and specifically to secure the resources of Virginia’s Literary Fund. Cabell reported that the legislature was likely to balk at Jefferson’s request, since the Fund was explicitly dedicated to the education of the poor. Jefferson, undeterred, pressed Cabell to press on.

It was in the context of his campaign to raid the Literary Fund that Jefferson helped orchestrate the defeat of the proposal for a public school system in the Commonwealth. By 1817, it was widely believed that the federal government would reimburse the Old Dominion for its expenditures on national defense in the War of 1812. Once past their incredulity, state legislators agreed among themselves to put the promised repayment into the Literary Fund. Together, the money already in the Literary Fund and the windfall from Washington amounted to a million dollars, enough in 1817 to enact a comprehensive scheme of schooling for all the children of the state.

In December 1817, Charles Mercer introduced a bill in the legislature to effect exactly such a scheme. The moment could not have been more propitious for the fulfillment of Jefferson’s decades of dreaming of an enlightened citizenry. Yet Jefferson did all in his power to defeat the bill. When push came to shove, when he had to act rather than revel in rhapsodies of rhetoric, his allegiance lay wholly with his own planter class. Mercer’s plan, he fumed, would “exhaust the whole funds” in establishing primary schools and leave nothing for his darling university.

At the one auspicious moment when the system of public education he professed to seek could have been secured, Jefferson resumed his old endeavor to found a university. As he did, he abandoned the cause of public education. He fought for its defeat in the assembly, and he did everything in his power to divert funds designed for commoners to the creation of his college. He was shameless in his assaults on the Literary Fund. He was more shameless still in his determination to seize money appropriated for counties in support of pauper schools. Without a twinge of embarrassment or even of ambivalence, he played the part of Robin Hood in reverse. He stole from the poor to pay for the prerogatives of the rich.

Yet the myth of Jefferson’s democratic devotion to the cause of common schooling persists. It is the nature of myths to be invincible, or at any rate to rise invincibly above their contradictions.

In fact, there is a Founding Father who can be invoked as a visionary exponent of popular education. But that Founder is not Jefferson.
 

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