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Setting the Stage

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) described the founding of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as "the last act of usefulness I can render" to the new nation.¹ After leaving Washington, D.C. in 1809, Jefferson resumed his advocacy for a cause that had occupied his thoughts since before the American Revolution, the implementation of a state-wide system of education in Virginia that would insure the education of the common man rather than just the elite of the state. He joined a group interested in founding an academy in Charlottesville, Virginia, near his home at Monticello. Jefferson expanded the project to the establishment of a private college, Central College, which was chartered in 1816.

Although the Virginia Legislature refused to fund a general plan for primary and secondary education, it finally approved $15,000 in 1818 to establish a state university. The governor appointed Jefferson to the Rockfish Gap Commission which was responsible for selecting a site for the university, choosing plans, and executing them. After debating the issue, the commission confirmed Jefferson's Charlottesville college project to be the site of the new university. The Legislature named and chartered the University of Virginia on January 25, 1819. It finally opened on March 7, 1825, although construction on the Rotunda and other projects continued after Jefferson's death on July 4, 1826.

¹Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Bergh, editors, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 20 Volumes, (Washington, D.C.: 1903-1904), 15:326.

 

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