Thomas Jefferson's Correspondence Evidenced Respect for the University of Georgia

In his recent Dawgography, Doug Gillett made a passing mention of the fact that he, as a University of Georgia graduate, oftentimes is on the receiving end of some good-natured ribbing from his father, a University of Virginia alum. Wrote Doug:

Now, when it comes to academics, my dad rarely misses an opportunity to tell me how UVA is the closest thing to a "public Ivy" and, oh yeah, Thomas Jefferson founded the place.

In a comment commending Doug on his posting, I suggested a defense against such remarks:

For what it’s worth, prior to the founding of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to one of the early University of Georgia presidents (I’m pretty sure it was Josiah Meigs, but I need to look that up before stating it with certainty) telling him that colleges like Georgia would forge the future of science and industry in the South.

I know I have a book of Jefferson’s letters with that letter in it somewhere . . . remind me, and I’ll get you the details, so you can have something to counter with next time.

In response, NCT offered a bit of encouragement:

Ooh. Do share.

When you find that Jefferson letter, let us all in on it.

It took some doing to hunt it down---my library contains no shortage of books about either Thomas Jefferson or the University of Georgia---and it turns out that my memory is slightly faulty (although, in my defense, it was only slightly faulty).

A bit of background is in order: Lyman Hall, signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Georgia, was a proponent of public education. While serving as the chief executive of the Empire State of the South, Hall called upon Abraham Baldwin to develop a plan for secondary and post-secondary education. Baldwin’s comprehensive plan, which mirrored a similar plan devised by Thomas Jefferson for the Old Dominion, led to the chartering of the University of Georgia on January 27, 1785. Later that year, Baldwin was elected to the Continental Congress, and, in 1787, he represented Georgia at the Constitutional convention.

Josiah Meigs, a political supporter of Jefferson who regularly corresponded with the Sage of Monticello later in life, succeeded Baldwin as president of the University in 1801. It was Meigs who presided over Franklin College when the first classes were held, and it was Meigs who implemented the physics curriculum at the institution at which the LeConte brothers matriculated.

On May 20, 1803, Jefferson (who was then the president of the United States) wrote the following to Meigs (who was then the president of the University of Georgia):

It is with great pleasure I learn that the college of Georgia is under your care. Science is indispensibly necessary for the support of a Republican government, and it is to the middle and southern States we must look for support until the clerical chains in which the New England states are bound can be broken or lightened.

Obviously, Jefferson was generalizing about the deficiencies of a northeastern education more than he was praising the University of Georgia specifically, but the fact remains that, several years before founding the University of Virginia upon principles similar to those advanced by Hall, Baldwin, and Meigs, Jefferson was holding up the institution in Athens as an example of what a state university ought to be.

And that’s another Bulldog point of pride!

Go ‘Dawgs!

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