As a graduate of the University of Virginia who relished the beloved traditions of my alma mater, I’m grateful that one of its own professors, Alan Taylor, has chosen to take as an object of inquiry the founding and founder of the school itself. Thomas Jefferson’s Education is a timely and necessary corrective to the received wisdom eagerly and uncritically promulgated during admissions tours and which suffuses so many of the University’s cultures and traditions, whether the irrational worship of its architecture or obsession with Edgar Allan Poe. If like me you thought the one of the more unseemly things to have happened in the history of U.Va. was the habit of interjecting the phrase “not gay” into the Good Ol’ Song, you are in for a big reality check.
I began Taylor’s book while on vacation in February 2020 and picked it up again over Fourth of July weekend, realizing that the need for personal re-education about American’s past could no longer be put off. And with Hamilton suddenly available for streaming and on everyone’s mind again I was also newly curious to see a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian provide some real talk about a Founding Father.
A few quick caveats about Thomas Jefferson’s Education if it wasn’t already becoming clear:
- If you are looking for a straightforward chronological history of the University of Virginia this is not the book for you.
- If you are seeking to read about how brilliant and amazing Thomas Jefferson was, this book is also not for you.
- If, like me, you were crying like a baby while watching Hamilton stream on Disney Plus because man, you didn’t realize how much you needed to be reminded that America can produce things that are powerful and beautiful, BUT you felt a twinge of guilt as you choked back tears because you knew full well that it glosses over a lot of the Bad Stuff – in part through its jocular treatment of Jefferson – this book could be the thing for you. (Of course as soon as you’re done you can watch Hamilton a second or third or fourth time and cry over its power and beauty.)
Taylor’s book offers a fascinating and unabashedly granular deep dive into the political and economic dynamics of colonial and post-Revolutionary Virginia. Like much of America, Virginia was built by the enslaved labor of African Americans, and along with many other aspects of the state Jefferson used the profits of this uncompensated work – along with his charm, power, and influence – to shape the character of its educational systems, culminating in the unlikely and chaotic founding of U.Va. Taylor offers an honest and unvarnished take on Jefferson and the men and women who surrounded him. Hewing closely to sources, Taylor is attuned to Jefferson’s contradictions and faults and metaphorically takes him down off of the pedestals on which we often encounter him, including on the Grounds of U.Va. itself. Thomas Jefferson’s Education is compelling but not light reading, and the play or musical it might inspire would more likely be commissioned by the Volksbühne than the Public Theater.
As a white person seeking to re-educate himself about US history and the legacies of racism and white supremacy I am especially grateful to understand the problematic history of the college that educated me. I was shattered to learn details of the myriad ways that enslaved African American workers suffered to produce capital for the landed classes, including but not limited to the construction and operation of the buildings in which my fellow students and I studied and lived at U.Va. Among the many heartbreaking passages was the following detail about early medical education at U.Va.: “Not even death could end coerced service by enslaved people to the University. At night, medical students exhumed recent graves of slaves to get cadavers for dissection and study.” This macabre incident would be troubling enough as the subject of an entire chapter, and is all the more disturbing as the brief concluding moment of a litany of other abuses and horrors.
Taylor is a measured and meticulous historian and his book is all the more devastating and convincing thanks to his even-handed approach. This book is far too methodical to be construed as any sort of explicit call to action. Nevertheless, its findings have reoriented me about the truth about my college and I suspect would have the same effect for other alumni and current students. Armed with Taylor’s insights I feel empowered to demand that my school acknowledge the ugly truths about its history rather than celebrate what I now realize are fantastical and in fact damaging mythologies about its origins, especially but not limited to tales of its troubled “founder.”