200 YEARS AGO on May 26, 1817: John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson about the founding of the University of Virginia:
“I congratulate You and Madison and Monroe, on your noble Employment in founding a University. From Such a noble Tryumvirate, the World will expect Something very great and very new. But if it contains anything quite original, and very excellent, I fear the prejudices are too deeply rooted to Suffer it to last long, though it may be accepted at first. It will not always have three Such colossal reputations to Support it.”
Adams was right that the University of Virginia contained something original and quite excellent — unlike other universities that offered schools in only medicine, law, and divinity, Virginia would allow students eight courses of study: medicine, law, mathematics, chemistry, ancient languages, modern languages, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy. “A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution,” Jefferson wrote, and that has always been the case.
And though it did not always have the colossal reputations of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe to support it, it has certainly lasted long. Today the university is renowned for its scientific breakthroughs, and US News & World Report ranked it the #2 public school in the nation in 2017.
One of Jefferson’s proudest accomplishments, he made sure its founding would be listed on his gravestone which reads: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.”