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Rot, Riot, and Rebellion

Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson's Struggle to Save the University That Changed America

Rex Bowman
Carlos Santos
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Rot, Riot, and Rebellion
    Book Description:

    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.

    InRot, 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3471-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (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’sthebest. 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. The university’s endowment stands at an incredible $5 billion. Nearly two centuries after its creation, its success now seems preordained—its founder, after all, was the American genius Thomas Jefferson. But his school—a radical experiment that would lay the groundwork for fundamental and dramatic changes in...

  4. 1 “Acts of Great Extravagance”
    (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. They were both angry. And armed. William Binford and Thomas Russell had been ordered off the university grounds a month earlier for “gross violations” of school rules. Binford, from outside Richmond, had been suspended until the end of the session. Russell, a Yorktown native, had been dismissed altogether. Harrison, serving as the chairman of the...

  5. 2 The Ugly Beginning
    (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. Many citizens of the new nation did not warm to the laconic Jefferson the way they did to his equally taciturn fellow Virginian George Washington. Upon the old general they virtually conferred Old Testament status. Meanwhile, the studious Jefferson, with his hair the color...

  6. 3 Building a University in Virginia
    (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 and reinforced the anticlerical views he would hold for the rest of his life. And those views, in turn, would help him define for himself how a modern university should work.

    As the year 1800 opened, Jefferson was serving out his final...

  7. 4 “Vicious Irregularities”
    (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 “with the tenderness of a father,”² but they responded with looks of defiance and hostility. The students stood erect. He, in contrast, was ailing and bent by age. The murmur of the youthful crowd echoed against the high...

  8. 5 Tales of Horror
    (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. Rough-hewn tree trunks served as footbridges over streams and rivers. The town of Charlottesville, located in the center of the rolling hills and mountains of Albemarle County (with a population of about 9,000 whites and 11,500 black slaves), was a collection of small homes, busy hotels, taverns, a courthouse, and a stone jail. This...

  9. 6 Scholars amid Scofflaws
    (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. The task required steely determination—or, as Cabell once grumbled, steel of another sort: “I am particularly anxious to be informed on the best mode of governing a large mass of students without the use of the bayonet.”¹

    The professors numbered...

  10. 7 “A Most Villainous Compound”
    (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 was to be a “duel of an unusually savage kind.”¹ The students planned to shoot at each other with rifles mounted on rests from a distance of a mere ten paces. At such close range, and with the accuracy of steadied...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. 8 “Nervous Fever”
    (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. Madison, now the rector, was the sole member of the board to oppose the measure, preferring instead that students wear a simple black gown as was done at Oxford and other European schools.

    Meanwhile, so desperate was the school for more money to operate that Madison and the other Visitors agreed to borrow $20,000 from a private citizen. Madison had...

  13. 9 Riot
    (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. Though professors were long tired of their wards’ chewing tobacco in class, insulting preachers, and wagering on cockfights, the students were not. They continued to casually smash the high-dollar Rotunda windows, sleep late, and ignore the much-hated Uniform Law of 1827.

    Board members viewed the dull gray uniform as an easy way to identify wayward students in town, as well as...

  14. 10 Diary of a College Boy
    (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 The diary recorded Ellis’s second year at school in a three-month period from March 10, 1835, to June 25, 1835. The diary gives readers more than just a running account of violence and misbehavior. It details how students studied, with whom they associated, how...

  15. 11 “Rebellion Rebellion!”
    (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.

    Nighttime on the Lawn often remained a scene of drunken revelry. Students blew horns, fired pistols, and sang profane songs. When professors rolled out of their beds and left their pavilions to end the disturbances, more students would pour out of their dormitories, joining in the commotion or hiding those who...

  16. 12 “His Only Motive Was to Have a Little Fun”
    (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. The board didn’t stop there. In a sweeping new round of rule writing, the board sought to extend its control over the most picayune aspects of college life. The board forbade the students from bringing horses, hacks, or carriages onto the precincts; barred all student orations; and refused to pay any bills...

  17. 13 Caning, Whipping, Murder
    (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. They tangled with local merchants over debts and the quality of their goods. They fought each other for the slightest reasons. And they bullied, beat, and abused slaves who had little protection by law and custom. They pummeled overworked slaves who failed to promptly light the morning fire in their dorm rooms. They kicked...

  18. 14 Henry St. George Tucker and His “New” Old Strategy
    (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—Rector Chapman Johnson and the Board of Visitors moved to fill the crucial vacancies. As the new school year began, only five professors remained. Gessner Harrison continued to teach Greek and Latin. Emmet, the last professor left from the inaugural year, still taught chemistry. Tucker remained chair of moral philosophy. James L. Cabell, one of Virginia’s Cabell clan, lectured in anatomy and...

  19. 15 “Critical and Perilous Situation”
    (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. Students Addison White of Abingdon, Virginia, and John Wooten of North Carolina claimed they were defending themselves against ruffians who were trying to oust them from the bordello. The two were also accused of giving a “free negro a most cruel and unmerciful flogging.” They both denied having anything to do with beating the free black man. White said he...

  20. 16 A New Kind of University
    (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. Enemies had lashed out at him personally, but to the end, he remained optimistic that history would vindicate him. “The attempt [to create the university] ran foul of so many local interests, of so many personal views, and of so much ignorance, and I have been considered as so particularly its promoter, that I see evidently...

  21. A Note on Sources
    (pp. 159-160)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 161-172)
  23. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 173-176)
  24. Index
    (pp. 177-182)