to the MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.
Thomas Jefferson left the White House in March of
eighteen hundred and nine. His secretary of state, James Madison, had been
elected president. Jefferson believed the nation was in good hands. He returned
to Monticello, his country home in Virginia, and never went back to Washington
again. But Jefferson and the new president exchanged letters often. Jefferson
offered advice on a number of problems that Madison faced as the nation's
There were many visitors to Monticello. But Jefferson was
happiest when he could discuss books, government, science and education.
This week in our series, Maurice Joyce and Kay Gallant
discuss the final days of Thomas Jefferson and his lasting contributions -- to
Virginia and the nation.
Jefferson believed firmly in the value of education. His
whole idea of government depended on the ability of citizens to make
intelligent decisions. He spent the final years of his life building a better
educational system for Virginia.
Jefferson had been interested in education for most of
his life. He had developed many ideas about the best way to educate the people.
He believed that every citizen had the right to an education. But, he
understood that all people do not have the same ability to learn.
Jefferson divided the people into two groups: those who
labor and those who use their minds. He thought both should start with the same
simple education -- learning to read and write and count. After these things
were learned, he believed the two groups should be taught separately.
Those in the labor group, he thought, should learn how to
be better farmers or how to make things with their hands. The other group
should study science, or medicine or law.
Jefferson did not wait long to begin working to improve
education in Virginia. A group of men decided to build a college at
Charlottesville, near Jefferson's home. Jefferson immediately offered to take a
leading part in starting the school. He said he would plan the buildings and
also plan what the students would study. He wrote to many of his friends --
experts in education. He asked for their advice.
One of the experts told Jefferson he should not include
religion among the studies. Jefferson agreed. But he understood that leaving
out religious studies would cause problems. He explained it this way:
"We cannot always do what is absolutely best. Those
with whom we act have different ideas. They have the right and power to act on
their ideas. We make progress only one step at a time. To do our fellow men the
most good, we must lead where we can, follow where we cannot. But we must still
go with them, watching always for the moment we can help them move forward
Jefferson began by planning a program of studies for the
Charlottesville College. But he did not stop there. Before he finished, he had
completed plans for a complete education system for Virginia. He proposed a
school system of three steps.
The first step would be elementary schools, where all
children could learn reading, writing, arithmetic and geography. These schools
would be built in all areas of the state and would be paid for by the people
living in each area.
The second step would be colleges -- equal to the high
schools of today. He proposed that nine of these schools be built in the state.
Students would begin the study of science, or would study agriculture, or how
to use their hands to make things. These schools would be paid for by the
The third step would be a state university, where
students of great ability could go to get the best of educations. The
university would produce the lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists and
government leaders. Young men whose families had money would pay for their own
educations. The state would pay the costs of a small number of bright students
from poor families.
Jefferson also proposed that the University of Virginia
be built at Charlottesville. He already had begun work on the college there and
offered to give it to the university.
His education program was offered to the Virginia
legislature. Many lawmakers thought it was excellent. But many others opposed
it. They did not want to raise taxes for the large amount of money such a
system would cost.
The legislature, however, agreed to part of the plan. It
approved a bill to help pay the cost of educating poor children. And it agreed
to spend fifteen thousand dollars each year for a university. There was much
debate about where the university should be built. Several other towns wanted
the school. Finally, Charlottesville was chosen.
By this time, Jefferson had completed plans for the university
buildings. He borrowed many of his ideas from the beautiful buildings of
ancient Greece and Rome. The buildings were so well planned that one hundred
years later, when the university was to put up a new building, the builder
could find no reason to change the plans drawn by Jefferson.
Work began on the university immediately. But it was six
years before the school was open to students.
Jefferson was there almost every day, watching the
workmen. He was quick to criticize any mistake or work that was not done well.
When he was sick and not able to go down to the university, he would watch the
work through a telescope from a window of his home.
The cost of the university kept growing. And Jefferson
had to struggle to get the legislature to pay for it. He also worked hard to
get the best possible professors to teach at the university. He sent men
throughout the United States to find good teachers. He even sent a man to
Europe for this purpose. Finally, in March, eighteen hundred twenty-five, the
University of Virginia opened.
Jefferson's health had suffered during his years of work
for the university. He was eighty-two years old and feeling his age. He
suffered from rheumatism and diabetes, and was so weak he could walk only short
distances. Jefferson also found his memory was failing.
He knew he did not have much longer to live. He told a
friend one day: "When I look back over the ranks of those with whom I have
lived and loved, it is like looking over a field of battle. All fallen."
As his health grew worse, Jefferson turned his thoughts
to death. He wrote how he wished to be buried. He wanted a simple grave on the
mountainside below his house. He drew a picture of the kind of memorial he
wanted put at his grave.
On this stone he wanted the statement: "Here was
buried Thomas Jefferson -- author of the Declaration of American Independence,
of the Virginia Law for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of
He did not choose his work as governor of Virginia,
secretary of state, or president. There was not a word about his purchase of
the Louisiana Territory from France, which added so greatly to the United
States. Jefferson did not explain why he chose the Declaration of Independence,
the law for religious freedom, and the university as his greatest works.
Writer Nathan Schachner, in his book on Jefferson, offers
"He chose those points in his life when he performed
some service in the unending struggle to free the human mind. Freedom from
political tyranny, freedom from religious tyranny, and finally, freedom through
education -- from all the tyrannies that have ever clouded and held back the
On the Fourth of July, eighteen twenty-six, the nation
began its celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of
Independence. Then, from Boston, came news that former president John Adams had
died. His last words were: "Thomas Jefferson still lives."
But Adams was wrong. At ten minutes before ten in the
morning, on that same Fourth of July, his friend, Thomas Jefferson, had died.
As the news of the deaths of the two great men spread
across the country, the celebrations turned to mourning and sorrow. Jefferson
was buried the next day, as he had ordered, in a simple grave on the quiet
To learn more about America's third president, go to
voaspecialenglish.com. We have transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs
along with historical images. Today's program was written by Frank Beardsley.
Join us each week for THE MAKING OF A NATION – an American history series in
VOA Special English.
This is program #43 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION