Skip to main content

Thomas Jefferson’s Prayer for the Future

A look back at his forward-looking mission for the University

For Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia was not an end in itself. It marked instead the culminating moment of a career dedicated to promoting the ongoing progress of Enlightenment and republican self-government in America and the world. With his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the founding of the University was one of the three achievements he had inscribed on his tombstone. All of those achievements would empower the people to make their own history. He and his fellow founders would not rule from the grave. If they succeeded, every succeeding generation of Americans would govern itself, looking toward an ever more enlightened future.

Jefferson wanted to be remembered for the disinterested role he played as “The Father of the University of Virginia.”

Jefferson was a revolutionary republican dedicated to liberating the “living generation” from the “dead hand of the past.” True self-government depended on demolishing hierarchy and hereditary authority: There was no place for monarchs and aristocrats in the land of the free, where “all men are created equal.” Jefferson celebrated the American Revolution as the epochal triumph of the Sons of Liberty over the tyrannical rule of King George III, an unnatural father who betrayed his own children.

Jefferson would be a different kind of father. By founding a university rather than a dynasty, he would not perpetuate his power and privilege across the generations, exalting his family over all other families. The “dead have no rights,” no claims on the future. Conforming to nature’s dictates and recognizing their own mortality, Jefferson and his fellow Revolutionary fathers instead prepared the way for succeeding generations of fathers to take their place. “The earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” Jefferson famously wrote his dear friend James Madison in 1789. By using the term “usufruct”—a civil law term meaning the use or stewardship of property belonging to another—Jefferson underscored the responsibility of each generation for the welfare of its successors. The earth only “belonged” to the living temporarily, in trust.

Defining the mission of the University of Virginia in the Rockfish Gap Report of 1818, Jefferson urged the state legislature to provide for “the gratification and happiness of their fellow-citizens, of the parent especially, and his progeny, on which all of his affections are concentrated.” When Virginia’s lawgivers and taxpayers founded the University, they exemplified the enlightened paternalism that would secure the future progress and ultimate success of the Commonwealth’s experiment in republican government. Enlightenment was synonymous with progress. “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man,” Jefferson wrote in his life’s penultimate letter, to politician Roger Weightman, in June 1826. With the “general spread of the light of science,” future generations—including, particularly, students at the University—would see more clearly and thus be better enabled to discharge their responsibilities to future generations. Republican patriots looked hopefully to the future. They did not worship the past.

Student paragons

Jefferson wanted to be remembered for the disinterested role he played as the “Father of the University of Virginia.” The University was, in the language of the Enlightenment, a “project” whose promise would be fulfilled in the progress of time, in ways the father could not possibly anticipate. Those other two tombstone-worthy achievements—“Author of the Declaration of American Independence” and “of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom”—also looked to the future. They would only be worth remembering, however, if successive generations redeemed their promise. Jefferson’s legacy, as he imagined it, was not an “inheritance,” a property to be distributed among privileged heirs. It would instead be a living faith in the future, the “spirit of 1776” and “sacred fire of liberty” that animated him through his long life of public service.

For nearly a half century, from 1779 when he offered his unsuccessful “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” until his death, he understood that education and enlightenment were vitally important for all Virginians, not just the meritocratic few. His 1779 Bill was a comprehensive, bottom-up scheme for public schools, envisioning broad popular participation in local “hundreds” or townships—a jurisdiction that did not then exist—and imagining that war-torn Virginians would be willing to take on an enormous tax burden. In subsequent decades, when he argued for reforming the College of William and Mary or establishing a new university for the Commonwealth as the capstone of the educational pyramid, the larger civic context remained paramount. The University would be for, not simply of, Virginia. Of course, it would produce “the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness so much depend.” But the University would also inspire “habits of reflection and correct action” among students, making them “examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.”

His doubts, his prayer

As he struggled to establish the University, Jefferson could not avoid knowing that Virginia was far from being—or even becoming—a perfect commonwealth. Dreams of the future exposed his own limitations and failures, as well as those of his countrymen. Jefferson recognized that the monstrous injustice of slavery would not soon be redressed, that the institution was instead becoming ever more deeply entrenched in Virginia and in the expanding American “empire of slavery.” He was also profoundly disturbed by economic uncertainty and an enterprising, acquisitive culture that made invocations of old-fashioned virtue and patriotism seem increasingly archaic. He may sometimes have wondered if the sacrifices of the Revolutionary fathers were for naught.

Writer Peter S. Onuf is a historian and professor emeritus at UVA, currently studying Jefferson and the origins of American democracy. Dan Addison

In his last years, Jefferson nonetheless reaffirmed his faith in the fundamental principles of republican self-government that he had so memorably articulated in the Declaration of Indepen- dence. Jefferson’s crusade to establish the University was a testimonial to his republican faith—a prayer for the future, not only for succeeding generations of Virginians but for all mankind. In that June 1826 letter, declining an invitation to attend a celebration of the 50th anniversary of American independence—on July 4, 1826, the day he would die at his mountaintop home—Jefferson eloquently expressed his most fervent hopes. “May” the Declaration of Independence—the creed of his faith—“be to the world, what I believe it to be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”

The burden on us

Jefferson laid a heavy burden on future generations. Finding that he fell so conspicuously short of the values he so ostentatiously celebrated, critics might well question his good faith and dismiss him as a hypocrite; disenchanted with the Enlightenment, they might wonder if there is such a thing as “progress” in the affairs of men and women. But the point of thinking about Jefferson’s long-past hopes for the future should not be to settle intergenerational scores with the “Father of the University.” Jefferson instead asks us to take the measure of where we are now, by whatever lights now guide us. How well are we, the “living generation,” preparing the way for those who follow?