Thomas Jefferson- A Bad Alumnus

Thomas Jefferson is certainly one of the College of William and Mary’s most cherished alumni. If the University of Virginia prides itself on being the school that was founded by Jefferson, then William and Mary prides itself on being the institution that educated him. However, Jefferson shared little of the love that the college has professed for him over the years. In fact, Jefferson had almost nothing good to say about his alma mater for most of his life. Although he thrived under the tutelage of William and Mary professor William Small, Jefferson had nothing but contempt for the other members of the faculty and for the facilities themselves.[1] He described the Wren Building as a “rude, misshapen pile”, and disdained the city of Williamsburg, referring to it as “devilsburg” in his personal correspondence.[2] Indeed, except for a short period during which his friend George Wythe served as the dean of the school of law, Jefferson continued to denigrate William and Mary for most of his adult life, describing the College as an institution “just well enough endowed to draw out the miserable existence to which a miserable constitution has doomed it.”[3] By the 1810’s Jefferson had completely abandoned William and Mary as a failed institution, and instead began to focus on getting a new, modern, public university established in Charlottesville. However, Jefferson would take two actions in the 1810’s and 1820’s that brought the College to the brink of ruin. The first move was to secure a loan from the College that was worth almost a fifth of the College’s endowment. This loan, which allowed Jefferson to live comfortably in his old age and then was passed on to his grandson, was never collected upon by the College.[4] After a combination of this loan and the disastrous effects of the Panic of 1819 brought financial ruin to the College, Jefferson managed to destroy his alma mater even further. When College President Dr. John Augustine Smith attempted to have William and Mary moved to Richmond in 1824, Jefferson did everything  in his power to stop the move, eventually getting the Virginia General Assembly to force William and Mary to stay in Williamsburg, a place where there was no money and no students.  In other words, Jefferson grew rich off the College, and then doomed it to irrelevancy.

How did Jefferson manage to receive $20,000 worth of the College’s money? The story actually begins with William Coleman, the College’s incompetent bursar, and Wilson Cary Nicholas, a loyal Jeffersonian politician and governor of Virginia.[5] Although he was a chronic debtor, Nicholas wielded a large amount of political influence and was a William and Mary Alum, and these connections allowed him to secure a loan from Coleman worth $24,705, using his 2000 acre plantation as collateral. Nicholas was land speculator, and in his capacity as the President of the Bank of the United States’ branch in Richmond he speculated wildly. When the Panic of 1819 came and land prices plummeted, Nicholas was ruined. During the time leading up the Panic, Jefferson had endorsed Nicholas’s notes to the Bank of the United States, and now that Nicholas was an abject bankrupt, Jefferson’s own , already shaky, finances were threatened.[6] However the College once again came to the rescue of its alumni. Instead of taking the much needed financial capital gained from the sale of the land Nicolas had put up as collateral, the College instead lent the proceeds of the sale to Jefferson, an amount which came to $20,000.

Even as they were lending Jefferson such exorbitant sums, the college was facing financial ruin. The Panic of 1819 and the ensuing depression hit the college hard, as most of its money came from the interest it collected on loans to various individuals, including alumni like Jefferson and Nicholas. The depression of the early 1820’s wiped out many of these debtors, and the College was rarely able to collect.[7] In 1822, the nominal value of the College’s Financial Capital was $154,635.43 but a combination of bad debts and reneged payments meant the College collected only $6,457 from its many debtors; this was not even enough money to cover basic operating costs.[8] Jefferson, who owed his continued financial survival to the College, criticized the institution, saying that it had been “much reduced by ill management of its funds.”[9] Of course, Jefferson neglected to point out that he had been gained from this “ill management.”  Meanwhile, William and Mary’s ruined finances meant the college soon fell into ruin (see my previous blog post for a description of what the college looked like in 1824). At the same time, enrollment dwindled to almost nothing- there were only eight students at the college in 1824.[10]

It was soon decided that in order for the college to survive as an institution it would have to be moved to Richmond. Dr. Smith, president of the College, knew that a move to the capital would bring important political and social connections that would allow his school to thrive.  In 1824, Smith proposed such a move. Richmond’s city hall saw the obvious benefits of having an institution of higher learning headquartered in their city, and pledged to provide a site and buildings worth $30,000.[11]

Unfortunately for Smith, Jefferson would not allow a rival to his newly established university in Charlottesville to emerge in Richmond.  Working together with state senator Joseph C. Cabell, Jefferson did everything in his power to block the move. He wrote various letters and appealed to members of the Virginia General Assembly to prevent the move. The aged Jefferson even drafted a bill which called for the College of William and Mary to be dissolved and its endowment reallocated should it be moved to Richmond. [12] Eventually, Smith lost the legislative battle with Jefferson (he had little chance of beating the elder statesman) and the College remained in Williamsburg.[13]

Not only had Jefferson helped to ruin the College financially, he had also succeeded in thwarting one of the most radical ideas in the College’s history. If the school had managed to be moved to Richmond, it possibly could have a become a top tier institution- Jefferson prevented this from happening. Jefferson took the College’s money and then essentially consigned it to oblivion by making sure  it would remain in impoverished and unimportant Williamsburg. Although the school now commemorates his memory, Thomas Jefferson was no friend to William and Mary.

[1] Ludwell H. Johnson III, “Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth: Thomas Jefferson and His Alma Mater,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 99, no. 2 (April 1, 1991), 146.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia” in We Were There: Descriptions of Williamsburg, 1699-1859, ed. Jane Carson(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965), 61.

[3] Ludwell H. Johnson III, “Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth”, 147.

[4] The College of William & Mary: A History (Williamsburg, Va: King and Queen Press, Society of the Alumni, College of William and Mary in Virginia, 1993), 216.

[5] Ludwell H. Johnson III, “Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth”, 147.

[6] The College of William & Mary,216.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thomas Jefferson to Sidney Morse, 9 March 1823, quoted in Ludwell H. Johnson III, “Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth.”

[10] The College of William & Mary, 220.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 224.

[13] Ibid.