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Politics, by Any Other Name

Why Jefferson chose “Central College” over center stage

Engraving of the Academical Village, 1827

Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

A few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday, Thomas Jefferson was there that Monday morning, March 7, 1825, to see the University of Virginia’s first students file into Pavilion VII and inscribe their names in the Matriculation Book. We can imagine how he must have felt, to have realized a dream he had nurtured for the better part of 50 years: to bring the full promise of public education to Virginia and to create a new exemplar for higher education in America.

Approaching 200 years on, it is appealing to think that UVA was created to an ovation of support—that when the author of the Declaration of Independence offered to build a new college in Virginia, state leaders showered him with praise and funding.

The opposite was true. To come into existence, the University of Virginia had to overcome determined opposition. For more than a decade, Jefferson—along with James Madison and state Sen. Joseph Cabell—contended with a shortage of financing and a surplus of intrigue as political conservatives and religious traditionalists conspired against them.

Jefferson had spent his entire adult life forming and fine-tuning his vision for the American university, both the pedagogy and the physical layout. When he was enlisted in March 1814 to join the board of Albemarle Academy, a never-realized plan for a local boys school, he saw the opportunity to turn concept into reality. The former president, soon to turn 72, wasted no time inspiring the group to imagine a grander project—not a children’s school but a college that would attract the brightest from around the state, one that might even compete for the charter to become the University of Virginia.

A lifetime of political scars had taught Jefferson when to step to the fore, when to step to the shadows and how to think several steps ahead. So when the board wanted to call the new institution Jefferson College, Jefferson knew better than to accept the honor. As his grandson George Wythe Randolph later recounted, “Mr[.] Jefferson objected and said emphatically and repeatedly ‘call it the Central College.’ [H]is wishes prevailed and the Central College was founded.”

And why not Jefferson College? Most likely there were three reasons. First, there’s the long view of a statesman at twilight. Having already attained his country’s highest honors and highest office, he had no need for the glory. He cared more about the goal.

Second, and following from that, his decision reflected a well-developed political acumen. His long career of public service had earned him not a few enemies, especially in Virginia. He recognized that keeping his name off the project would instantly improve its political chances.

Third, using “Central” in the name was a brilliant stroke of marketing. His unbuilt university was competing for the state charter against the eminently more established College of William and Mary to the east and Washington College (later Washington and Lee) to the west. Tipped that many in the General Assembly preferred a site located more centrally, Jefferson selected a brand name that gave his Charlottesville upstart a perceived geographic advantage.

In the summer of 1814, Thomas Jefferson set pencil to graph paper and sketched the first surviving iteration of what would become the University of Virginia. His path forward would lead him into treacherous territory. He would have to endure personal attacks and severe criticism, even from those closest to him. It would be at least 10 more years of struggle before anyone had need to crack the cover of a matriculation book at his university—and all the while Jefferson would suffer excruciating pain as his health steadily deteriorated.

Author, journalist and media personality Coy Barefoot is executive producer at the University’s Center for Media and Citizenship and is a popular lecturer on UVA history.