The Education of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The third president completed studies at William and Mary 250 years ago, and went on to create a college of his own. Professor Susan Kern describes what he learned and what he later built.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. The year 2012 marks the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s completion of studies at the College of William & Mary here in Williamsburg. Professor Susan Kern is our guest today and she’s here to talk about the education of the third president. Susan, thank you for being our guest again today.

Susan Kern: Thank you for having me.

Harmony: Well we’re thinking about Thomas Jefferson, a local boy, his education; it didn’t begin though at the College of William & Mary. For an 18th century gentry young man like Thomas Jefferson. Where would his education have begun?

Susan: It began at home and then generally for most gentry with clergymen who educated young boys usually on their plantations. The wealthiest Virginians were often sent to Europe for their educations, but many of them were taught by hired Anglican clergy.

Harmony: And what would they have been taught?

Susan: Languages. Greek and Latin ideally and some practice in the Bible and really reading the classics is where they began but it was basically a grammar education.

Harmony: Would this education have been available to young men as well as young women?

Susan: Well, what I know best is the Jeffersons, and Thomas Jefferson and his brother Randolph were educated by clergy both sent from home: Jefferson to the Reverend William Douglas who was at Tuckahoe Plantation, and then James Maury’s school in Albemarle County and his brother went to the home of an uncle to be educated by Benjamin Sneed. The sisters were educated at home. The same tutor, Benjamin Sneed who tutored the brother Randolph came to the Jefferson’s home at Shadwell and educated the women at home. They didn’t need to learn the same things. They weren’t expected to know the same things. They were expected to be able to read French, perhaps, but not speak it. They were expected to know basic mathematics and basic reading and music and dance so education included behavior as well as facts and figures.

Harmony: So a different standard to be achieved for young men and young women?

Susan: Absolutely.

Harmony: While we’re thinking about Jefferson’s early years and his early education I want to think about the educational culture of his family. As far as his mother and father are concerned, are they highly educated? Is education a priority for them to give to their children?

Susan: That’s a good question, and we tend to make the distinction now between formal education and informal education. So his father didn’t go to college. He was self-educated, but as were most Burgesses in colonial Virginia, most did not receive a college-level education. So his father was called self-educated.

His mother was literate. We don’t know anything about her education, but she read books. In fact, she and her daughter Jane are the only women who owned books in colonial Albemarle County. And when Peter Jefferson died, all of his children are minors, but he left money for the boys to go to college, and for the girls, money for their educations. It was important enough to him that in his will he specified which pieces of land should be sold to preserve the education money above other things.

So a basic literacy was important to the Jeffersons. They all wrote letters to each other. They evidently could all read. They knew music and dance. So, and I think we see this play out in Jefferson’s own instructions to his daughters and then his granddaughters about what a young lady should know, and then letters to his nephews about what a young man should know. A young man needed a more formal education to be able to be a public figure whereas a young woman needed an education to raise children in gentry Virginia.

Harmony: So that brings that up to speed on his sort of early elementary education then he does go to college. He chooses the College of William & Mary.

Harmony: What course of study does he embark on once he gets here?

Susan: Well, the college had a professor of moral philosophy which was rhetoric and ethics, and a professor of what was called natural philosophy which is science, mathematics and metaphysics. And when Jefferson arrived, the professor of moral philosophy had left, and so William Small who became Jefferson’s mentor in a way, was teaching both of those. He was the professor for almost all of those topics. In addition to that, the College had professors of divinity, professors of language for the grammar school and then also a professor for the Indian school, the Brafferton.

Harmony: I want to think for a minute about the College physically. When we picture it today in our minds it’s a sprawling campus. At the point that Thomas Jefferson was enrolled…he enrolled in 1760? It was one building!

Susan: It was one building, and it was called The College.

Harmony: And that building would have been your dormitories, your dining as well as your classrooms…

Susan: Classrooms and the chapel, which is an important of it being an Anglican or Church of England college, an institution attached to the church. So those rooms and four major classrooms; one for mathematics, one for language, one for grammar and the other for sciences, for philosophy.

Harmony: A lot of Jefferson biographers look at this time in his life and look at it as a real intellectual awakening for him. What is he learning? What’s happening to him during this period of his education and in his young life?

Susan: Well what he discovers during his two years at William & Mary was led again by William Small who was a professor from Scotland and who opens Jefferson’s mind to three figures who remain important in Jefferson’s world throughout his life. Locke, Bacon and Newton give Jefferson the sort of three major ways of thinking about the world.

Locke’s ideas are about his treatise on government, on how people should live in society, but also his ideas about how humans experience the world and that humans have to learn, the educated person learns to evaluate whether they know something intellectually or whether they know something emotionally. And this is very important in how Jefferson thinks about education as different from a religious education; how he thinks about the relationship to the teachings of the church. Bacon is responsible for the idea of empiricism, of scientific method, and then Newton for Newtonian science, science based on gravity, based on observation and deduction and so these three ways of thinking about the world set up what then Jefferson brings out into the world.

Harmony: So the College really forms Jefferson’s mind and his way of thinking. Now we’ve said that he completes studies there. We can’t use the word graduate.

Susan: We can’t use the word graduate.

Harmony: Why is that?

Susan: There wasn’t a degree. There wasn’t a system of graduation. People went until they were ready to leave. In fact it’s thought that in 1756 when Benjamin Franklin comes to the College that that’s probably the first degree that William & Mary ever gave when they gave him an honorary degree. I don’t know when the next actual degree is awarded, but Thomas Jefferson didn’t get a degree from the College. He left to study law with George Wythe.

Harmony: He goes on and he reads law for 5 years after that. How does that continue to form his mind and his political mind?

Susan: Well, he calls George Wythe, one of his oldest friends, and Wythe also helps set Jefferson on the trajectory that he would follow in thinking about law and man’s relationship to man in society and the role of law in society. When Jefferson then, later when he is no longer a student at the College, he’s asked to advise on the College curriculum and George Wythe becomes the first professor of law. Actually it’s called law and police is the title, but becomes the first professor of law and law is one of the schools that’s added to the College in 1779.

Harmony: Jefferson goes back and is able to give service to the college that he studied at, he serves on its board and he actually has a hand in some reformations he sees that it needs. What are his ideas about how the education provided at the College of William & Mary could be improved, perfected, and modernized.

Susan: There really are two phases of this. One is Governor Dunmore, the last colonial governor of Virginia asked Jefferson in 1772 to design an addition for the Wren Building, the college building to finish it in a sense. So there’s a wonderful Jefferson drawing from 1772 that takes the college building that we see today and completes that into a quadrangle basically doubling the footprint of it. It’s from that actually that we know how those classrooms in the existing building were used. And that addition was started in 1774, but never finished because of the Revolution.

So his idea for sort of completing the college space was also part of looking forward into what the College should be. In 1779, when he’s governor of Virginia, he is on the Board of Visitors and he puts into place ideas in thinking about turning the College into a university and so one of the first things he wants to do is change what is taught within the College. He wants to remove the divinity professorship. He wants to end the grammar school because he thinks it and he remarks that it was hard for the gentlemen of the College, the people who were there to learn their classics and their philosophy; to learn with all the boys from the grammar school running around. And he doesn’t fill the seat of the Brafferton, the Indian college, but he retains the professorship in physical science, in natural philosophy, in moral philosophy. He adds modern languages to the curriculum, or at least that’s his idea that there will be modern languages, medicine and anatomy, the law and police as he calls it and then he keeps the Brafferton position, but he doesn’t fill it so his idea is expanding it, removing it from its relationship with the church and teaching clergy to something that’s more of a liberal arts education.

Harmony: The sort of twist at the end of this story is that Jefferson becomes sort of disenchanted with the changes he’s able to effect and the course that the College of William & Mary is taking and he goes off and builds his own college. What is he trying to establish when he creates the University of Virginia? What does he want to do with that school that he wasn’t able to do in Williamsburg?

Susan: Really he wants to start new. He wants a whole new conversation about education and he wants a real university based in liberal education. He actually, numerous times, comes up with plans for what a university should be. Incidentally, on the way to the University of Virginia, when he’s president, he authorizes the military academy of West Point so that’s another of Jefferson’s universities.

But in 1814 he comes up with an idea for something he calls central college and there’s a lot of discussion in the General Assembly of Virginia about where it should be and finally he gets the land in Albemarle County and gets his friends who are architects to discuss how this university should take form and so what he comes up with is this plan where the physical, the physical part of the university reflects what the mind should be, how he envisions education. And so it accounts for the library at the center in the rotunda, the two story pavilions where the faculty will live and teach the boys of the college, the men of the college, the single-story dormitories where the boys will live, you know there are covered ways that so boys can get exercise when it’s raining. And so this whole, a university, a life of the mind and he calls it an academical village. It doesn’t take form exactly as he envisions it when it opens in 1825. It has five of the ten professorships that he’s thinking about and but it does move along a very different trajectory for the idea of education, what education should be.

Harmony: When we look at Jefferson’s life we can see that this is a guy for whom education was very important. What did he view as the importance of education to society, to the civic life?

Susan:  That’s probably the most important part of this. He thinks that education will create a true republic; that a citizen needs to be educated to ensure that democracy moves safely forward and he sees knowledge about science as part of the progress of human liberty.

He sees this as part of ensuring that the republic will move forward, that it requires an educated citizenry to be active citizens in a nation so education is part and parcel of how he envisions the expansion of the United States.

Harmony: Susan, thank you so much for being our guest today.

Susan: You’re welcome. Thank you.


  1. I enjoyed the topic of jefferson’s education. I appreciated the scholarship of the speaker, professor Kern. However, I was distracted by the 131+ “ahhh”s throughout the conversation. Perhaps a refresher course on public speaking…

  2. Thanks for a fantastic podcast! I must say, in my time at W&M, there were lots of jokes about how “Young Tom” never graduated. I was glad to learn that, in fact, no one did, since degrees weren’t being awarded (even if it punctures a hole in the joke!).

    With respect to the comment above – most podcasting I know isn’t regarded as “public speaking” but informal and informative conversation, which this episode certainly was. I thought Professor Kern did a fine job.

    Again, thank you for a wonderful discussion!

    Mike Poteet (W&M ’94)

  3. […] Food for thought from the always great podcast of the Colonial Williamsburg museum: Thomas Jefferson… […]

Leave a Reply to Mike Poteet Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *