After retiring from the presidency of the United States, Thomas Jefferson devoted his remaining years to founding a new public university in Virginia. No one else in the nation was as qualified to take on such a daunting challenge. Like Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson was a cosmopolitan intellectual, one of the faces of the Enlightenment in America. He believed that education was the key to reforming society. After all, young men, properly trained, would become the country’s leaders. In 1820 he declared, ‘This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead.’
Transforming Jefferson’s dream into a functioning campus was a slow and expensive process. Begun in 1817 at Charlottesville, the university was not complete until 1825, the year before Jefferson’s death. Although elite Virginians praised his ambitious plans, they soon discovered that his idealistic proclamations about the importance of quality education in the new nation were not sufficient to bring forth a world-class institution. Alan Taylor, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, tells a melancholy story of how Jefferson’s noble aspirations were frustrated at every turn. The book documents the way deep-seated racism and widespread anti-intellectualism defeated his plans. The ageing president was also a major part of the problem. As Taylor persuasively argues, Jefferson’s stubborn refusal to compromise on issues from curriculum design and faculty hiring to slavery and states’ rights doomed the university from the start.