Reflections on the founder
A “Jeffersonian” legacy is one that rests on contradictions
First years and new transfer students, welcome to the University. This edition of The Cavalier Daily is for you.
As you settle into Charlottesville, you will have noticed the figure that looms large over the school: Thomas Jefferson. Every student who attends the University has to confront Jefferson’s legacy. For many, perhaps most, the University’s origins are cause for mild satisfaction, nothing more. Others find aspects of Jefferson’s life—such as the fact that he owned slaves—disquieting.
Rarely do we at The Cavalier Daily feel compelled to talk about Jefferson. And it is possible that you are already tired of hearing about him. But given the massive role Jefferson occupies in the University’s mental (and physical) architecture, incoming students should consider this question: What do we mean when we say we attend “Mr. Jefferson’s University?”
Walk by the Lawn nearly anytime this week and you are likely to hear the words “Thomas Jefferson” fall from the lips of a smartly dressed tour guide. Rush inside, and you’ll find an administrator who, in an address to incoming students or parents, takes care to mention our school’s famous founder.
Jefferson’s legacy—while rightfully a point of pride—is invoked so frequently at the University, and in such a range of contexts, that the term “Jeffersonian” has lost a clear meaning. Often we use the word “Jeffersonian” as a synonym for “traditional.” Jefferson, of course, was no traditionalist. At other times, University professors and officials cite “Jeffersonian ideals” to support trendy higher-education initiatives in news releases. We do not use “trendy” pejoratively. Many such initiatives—interdisciplinary seminars held in pavilions, efforts to increase undergraduate students’ exposure to study-abroad programs and international internships—are worthwhile. But it is not as if other schools, those unlucky enough to be founded by someone other than America’s third president, are not thinking about interdisciplinary programs and global studies. Rather, Jefferson is enmeshed in the way we talk about things at the University. People call on Jefferson to argue for the old, the traditional, and also the new and cutting-edge.
In venerating Jefferson, we tend to turn him into myth. Images of his statue (located on the Rotunda’s north side) appear prominently on numerous University websites. Frozen in bronze, parchment in hand, Jefferson embodies the part we want him to play: the semi-divine figure who conjured up democracy, America and the University in a few pen strokes.
Jefferson the man was more complex. Sandy-haired and gangly, fearful of public speaking, Jefferson was, like many gifted people, consistently inconsistent. Pick a quote from his voluminous correspondence. What he says in one letter he will contradict in another.
We can, however, perceive some consistent strains in Jefferson’s thought. His love of learning is chief among them. Jefferson’s commitment to free, spirited inquiry was an impulse that sparked the University’s founding. It may also be the root of his tendency to negate himself: to argue, in page after page, with what he wrote elsewhere.
His thoughts on newspapers are no exception. The man who affirmed that had he to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would “not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” wrote elsewhere that “the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper” are the advertisements.
Despite Jefferson’s hot-and-cold attitude toward the press, we at The Cavalier Daily turn to him for legitimacy much as the rest of the University does. Walk into our office in the basement of Newcomb Hall and you will see yet another quote from Jefferson—“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead…”—displayed on our plaque. We, like the University, lay our foundation on the conflicted legacy of one man. In doing so, we rest on a bundle of contradictions.
Given his complexity as a thinker and the range of causes to which the term “Jeffersonian” is applied, appeals to Jefferson’s legacy often sound nice but do not mean much. But we at The Cavalier Daily try, in our own way, to follow in his footsteps—to be inspired by the best of his thoughts. We encourage you, new students, to do the same.