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Early in 1814 Jefferson began to make definite efforts toward the establishment of a university to give better educational advantages than were then attainable at William and Mary. Half a year later the legislature authorized the President and the Directors of the Literary Fund to look into the establishment of a new educational institution. Jefferson was requested to prepare and address for this Board. In this address was to be embodied his best thought upon higher education. In 1817 the University was established with Jefferson as the first Rector of its Board of Visitors. As late as 1823 so strenuous had been the opposition to the University that as yet nothing had been done. In that year the Board decided to wait not longer. Professors were selected from Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Edinburgh. March, 1825, was set as the date of opening. In spite of great opposition and much adverse criticism by June a hundred students were in attendance.
To Joseph C. Cabell, one of his co-workers, he wrote in 1820:--
"Surely the pride as well as the patriotism of our legislature will be stimulated to look to the reputation and safety of their own country, to rescue it from becoming the Barbary of the Union, and of falling into the ranks of our own negroes. To that condition it is fast sinking. We shall be in the hands of the other States, what our indigenous predecessors were when invaded by the science and arts of Europe. The mass of education in Virginia, before the revolution, placed her with the foremost of her sister colonies. What is her education now? Where is it? The little we have we import like baggage from other States; or import their beggars to bestow on us their miserable crumbs. And what is wanting to restore us to our station among our competitors? Not more money from the people. Enough has been raised by them, and appropriated to this very object. It is that it should be employed understandingly, and for their greatest good".
In 1821 he again wrote Cabell:-- "I am filled with gloom as to the disposition of our legislature toward our University. I perceive that I am not to live to see it open. ***** My individual opinion is, that we had better not open the institution until the buildings, library and all are finished, and our funds cleared of incumbrance. ******* If we were to begin sooner, with half funds only, it would satisfy the common mind, prevent their aid beyond that point, and our institution remaining at that forever would be no more than the paltry academies we now have. Even with the whole funds we shall be reduced to six professors, while Harvard would still prime it over us with her twenty professors. How many of our youths she now has ****** I know not; but a gentleman lately from Princeton told me he saw there the list of the students at that place, and that more than half were Virginians".
To George Tickner, 1917 [sic]:--
"I am now entirely absorbed in endeavors to effect the establishment of a general system of education in my native State on the triple basis (1) of elementary schools which shall give to the children of every citizen gratis competent instruction in reading, writing, common arithmetic, and general geography. (2) Collegiate institutions for ancient and modern languages, for higher instruction in arithmetic, geography and history, placing for this purpose a college within a day's ride of every inhabitant of the State and adding a provision for the full education at the public expense of select subjects from among the children of the poor who shall have exhib- [added by hand] (over) [this appears to be a mimeograph copy of the document. The last line of this page appears as only the top pars of a few letters and is unreadable. Hence the jump from the partial word in the last complete sentence and the first word of page 2]