If I could not go to Heaven but with a Party, I would not go there at all.
—Jefferson, in a Letter to Madison
William and Mary College was founded in Sixteen Hundred Ninety-two by the persons whose names it bears. The founders bestowed on it an endowment that would have been generous had there not been attached to it sundry strings in way of conditions.
The intent was to make Indians Episcopalians, and white students clergymen; and the assumption being that between the whites and the aborigines there was little difference, the curriculum was an ecclesiastic medley.
All the teachers were appointed by the Bishop of London, and the places were usually given to clergymen who were not needed in England.
To this college, in Seventeen Hundred Sixty, came Thomas Jefferson, a tall, red-haired youth, aged seventeen. He had a sharp nose and a sharp chin; and a youth having these has a sharp intellect–mark it well.
This boy had not been “sent” to college. He came of his own accord from his home at Shadwell, five days’ horseback journey through the woods. His father was dead, and his mother, a rare gentle soul, was an invalid.
Death is not a calamity “per se,” nor is physical weakness necessarily a curse, for out of these seeming unkind conditions Nature often distils her finest products. The dying injunction of a father may impress itself upon a son as no example of right living ever can, and the physical disability of a mother may be the means that work for excellence and strength. The last-expressed wish of Peter Jefferson was that his son should be well educated, and attain to a degree of useful manliness that the father had never reached. And into the keeping of this fourteen-year-old youth the dying man, with the last flicker of his intellect, gave the mother, sisters and baby brother.
We often hear of persons who became aged in a single night, their hair turning from dark to white; but I have seen death thrust responsibility upon a lad and make of him a man between the rising of the sun and its setting. When we talk of “right environment” and the “proper conditions” that should surround growing youth, we fan the air with words–there is no such thing as a universal right environment.
An appreciative chapter might here be inserted concerning those beings who move about only in rolling chairs, who never see the winter landscape but through windows, and who exert their gentle sway from an invalid’s couch, to which the entire household or neighborhood come to confession or to counsel. And yet I have small sympathy for the people who professionally enjoy poor health, and no man more than I reverences the Greek passion for physical perfection. But a close study of Jefferson’s early life reveals the truth that the death of his father and the physical weakness of his mother and sisters were factors that developed in him a gentle sense of chivalry, a silken strength of will, and a habit of independent thought and action that served him in good stead throughout a long life.
Williamsburg was then the capital of Virginia. It contained only about a thousand inhabitants, but when the Legislature was in session it was very gay.
At one end of a wide avenue was the Capitol, and at the other the Governor’s “palace”; and when the city of Washington was laid out, Williamsburg served as a model. On Saturdays, there were horse-races on the “Avenue”; everybody gambled; cockfights and dogfights were regarded as manly diversions; there was much carousing at taverns; and often at private houses there were all-night dances where the rising sun found everybody but the servants plain drunk.
At the college, both teachers and scholars were obliged to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles and to recite the Catechism. The atmosphere was charged with theology.