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Rot, Riot, and Rebellion

Mr. Jefferson's Struggle to Save the University That Changed America

Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos

Publication Year: 2013

Thomas Jefferson had a radical dream for higher education. Designed to become the first modern public university, the University of Virginia was envisioned as a liberal campus with no religious affiliation, with elective courses and student self-government. Nearly two centuries after the university’s creation, its success now seems preordained—its founder, after all, was a great American genius. Yet what many don’t know is that Jefferson’s university almost failed.

In Rot, Riot, and Rebellion, award-winning journalists Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos offer a dramatic re-creation of the university’s early struggles. Political enemies, powerful religious leaders, and fundamentalist Christians fought Jefferson and worked to thwart his dream. Rich students, many from southern plantations, held a sense of honor and entitlement that compelled them to resist even minor rules and regulations. They fought professors, townsfolk, and each other with guns, knives, and fists. In response, professors armed themselves—often with good reason: one was horsewhipped, others were attacked in their classrooms, and one was twice the target of a bomb. The university was often broke, and Jefferson’s enemies, crouched and ready to pounce, looked constantly for reasons to close its doors.

Yet from its tumultuous, early days, Jefferson’s university—a cauldron of unrest and educational daring—blossomed into the first real American university. Here, Bowman and Santos bring us into the life of the University of Virginia at its founding to reveal how this once shaky institution grew into a novel, American-style university on which myriad other U.S. universities were modeled.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-8


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-8

The University of Virginia is one of the nation’s top public universities. Its alumni, known as the Wahoos, would say it’s not one of the best— it’s the best. The school annually tops collegiate rankings, routinely produces captains of industry, and turns out top-notch scholars the way lesser schools crank out football champions. ...

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1. “Acts of Great Extravagance”

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pp. 9-12

On March 19, 1839, Professor Gessner Harrison, a mild-mannered scholar generally liked by the young men who attended his classes at the University of Virginia, strolled out of his lecture hall in the school’s stately Rotunda unaware that two students had come looking for him. ...

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2. The Ugly Beginning

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pp. 13-19

Among his many talents, Thomas Jefferson knew how to make enemies. Long before his profile was stamped on the nickel and long before his bust was carved into a South Dakota mountainside—in short, long before his image became a symbol of the American democratic impulse— the sage of Monticello had adversaries, and they were legion. ...

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3. Building a University in Virginia

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pp. 20-32

Americans spent much of 1800 embroiled in one of the first—and possibly still the fiercest—partisan presidential campaigns in the nation’s history, and at the center of the political storm that threatened to capsize the ship of state stood Jefferson. The campaign attacks on his character from politicians and preachers alike deepened the Virginian’s mistrust of power ...

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4. “Vicious Irregularities”

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pp. 33-44

On October 3, 1825, Thomas Jefferson, who had imposed his will on history so many times before, stood in a crowded room in the still unfinished Rotunda of his fledgling university to face what he described as “the most painful event” of his life.1 With the other members of the Board of Visitors at his side, he looked upon his assembled students ...

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5. Tales of Horror

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pp. 45-53

Edgar Allan Poe was one of the youngest students to arrive on the university precincts in 1826. Like most students he traveled over a series of rough roads and ragged paths; it took twelve hours to ride the sixty miles from Richmond to Charlottesville by horseback. ...

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6. Scholars amid Scoffaws

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pp. 54-63

Professors, who had anticipated that most of their work would take place within the confines of a classroom, were now forced to capture miscreants, judge their guilt, and mete out punishment. With students refusing to form a court to punish each other, the task of school discipline fell to the professors and, more particularly, to Faculty Chairman George Tucker. ...

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7. “A Most Villainous Compound”

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pp. 64-72

In the course of a duel, pistols were often shot in the air or combatants aimed merely to wound each other to satisfy their offended honor. Unlike most duels, though, the one about to unfold on this mild spring day promised to end in death. The showdown between students Louis Wigfall of South Carolina and Charles Hamer of Mississippi ...

Image Plates

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pp. 83-90

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8. “Nervous Fever”

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pp. 73-82

In 1827—the school’s third year—professors and school leaders continued their efforts to control the students. Exasperated and oblivious to how students would react, the Board of Visitors imposed the “Uniform Law” that gave students another cause to rebel. ..

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9. Riot

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pp. 83-92

In the aftermath of the suffering and death of fellow students and despite the admonitions of the clergy, students continued their unrepentant misbehavior. Faculty records from 1829 and the years that followed contain a long list of schoolboy recklessness. ...

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10. Diary of a College Boy

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pp. 93-100

Charles Ellis Jr. of Richmond enrolled at the University of Virginia in 1834, in the heart of its early, wild years, and the diary he left provides perhaps the only complete snapshot of daily student life—its tedium, its joys, its dangers, its burdens, and the perennial yearnings of youth for love and an adventurous life.1 ...

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11. “Rebellion Rebellion!”

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pp. 101-111

For nearly a decade, the professors and governing board of the university had labored to keep the students in check. Yet the mayhem continued unabated. After a decade of trying, the school’s leaders still had not hit on the right formula to tame the wild teenagers in their midst. ...

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12. “His Only Motive Was to Have a Little Fun”

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pp. 112-118

The Board of Visitors, stung by the humiliating publicity surrounding the 1836 riot, met in August 1837 to reiterate that any student military company would be under faculty control. Furthermore, the board asserted, a military company could be “abolished at the pleasure of the Faculty” at any time. ...

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13. Caning, Whipping, Murder

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pp. 119-127

Wayward students did not clash only with professors. Others had to be wary of the young hell-raisers. The students also scrapped with hotelkeepers over dirty linen and lousy food. They argued with local wagoners and laborers over their failure to show the proper respect to gentlemen. ...

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14. Henry St. George Tucker and His “New” Old Strategy

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pp. 128-135

America was changing. Railroads, steamboats, the telegraph—all were combining to transform the American landscape. The university was changing too. Following the loss of three professors in 1840—Bonnycastle to death, Davis to murder, and Blaettermann to scandal— ...

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15. “Critical and Perilous Situation”

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pp. 136-152

Student promises to stay sober and out of trouble once again proved empty. The year 1843 opened with a brawl between roughneck townies and students at a cheap, popular whorehouse located on the road between the university and the town. ...

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16. A New Kind of University

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pp. 153-158

Jefferson, twenty years after his death, had finally triumphed. His vision, the dream of his old age, had won out after a perilous birth and infancy. As a result of his efforts to create the university, Jefferson’s already controversial reputation had suffered a blow. ...

A Note on Sources

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pp. 159-160


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pp. 161-172

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 173-176


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pp. 177-182

E-ISBN-13: 9780813934716
E-ISBN-10: 0813934710
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813934709
Print-ISBN-10: 0813934702

Page Count: 200
Illustrations: 22 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2013