The north face of the Rotunda

The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University

Date & Time

October 16, 2021 @ 10:00 AM - 11:00 AM EDT

Location

UVA Alumni Hall, Ballroom
211 Emmet Street South
Charlottesville, VA 22903

Overview

Thomas Jefferson had an inspiring and clear-sighted vision for what a university could and should be, as well as the political and practical skills that were so essential to its implementation. He was intimately involved with every aspect of creating the University of Virginia. Along with the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, he regarded the founding of The University as one of his three greatest achievements in his life. Join Andrew O’Shaughnessy, the Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, and a professor of history at the University of Virginia, to discuss his most recent book, The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University.

Jefferson’s vision and its execution revealed his greatest talents as a lawyer who drafted the legislation; a politician who cajoled the assembly into supporting him against furious opposition; an architect who designed the layout, chose the building materials, and corresponded with the craftsmen; and an intellectual who developed an innovative curriculum and suggested the books for the library and the criteria for selecting faculty. His achievement was even more remarkable for a man in his seventies and early eighties, who until the last few months of his life rode over five miles to The University several times a week to oversee its construction.

His founding highlights the perennial issue of the civic importance of education in the success of the republican/democratic experiment. He had a creative vision that still inspires and stimulates discussion. In contrast to the mission statements of The University’s modern counterparts, Jefferson’s description of the role of universities was poetic, emotionally engaging, and highly resonant even today as seen in his famous invocation of what he regarded as the most valuable of all liberties, “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.” The university was just the apex of a much broader vision of public education and his desire for what he called “a general diffusion of knowledge.”

Like the Declaration of Independence, his university project was tainted by the presence of slavery, and Jefferson’s loftier aspirations for The University were not fully realized. Nevertheless, this remarkable personal achievement and the richness of his vision—historically unparalleled among current or former heads of state—deserve wide recognition. In The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University, Andrew O’Shaughnessy reveals underappreciated elements of Jefferson’s character, abilities, and skills through which he aimed to encourage progress and extend happiness among a greater number of people.

The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University | UVA Press (virginia.edu). Monticello website: The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind | Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

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Speaker(s)

Andrew O'Shaughnessy

Saunders Director, Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, Professor, History

Andrew O’Shaughnessy is the Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and a professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (2013) and An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (2000). He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society; a member of the advisory council of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies; and a member of the advisory board of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. His recent book, The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University, was published by the University of Virginia Press in 2021.

Program Host

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About the Book

The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University
O’Shaughnessy, Andrew

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