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Jefferson and the Crisis of the American University

ISSUE:  Summer 2000

Sometime after my retirement from the classroom a few years ago I was asked for an interview about my career. Flattered by the request, I half seriously indulged the fancy that I had reached the time when I might assume the role of a detached academic sage talking about American literary life as I had known it for half a century, albeit in a small way, not only through an editorial association of 35 years with the second series of the Southern Reviewbut for a considerably longer time than that in my experiences as undergraduate and graduate student, teacher, literary historian, and would-be cultural critic in the academic field of American studies. But when I saw what I had said in print, I discovered that not only had my response to the interviewer been less than magisterial, it had taken a somewhat strident turn when he had asked, “Do you think it will ever be possible, for another magazine to have the impact the original Southern Review had in its short life (1935-1942)? If so, what conditions might make this possible?” Let me quote from my reply:

Frankly, no I don’t think it possible; I can’t imagine any future time when the possibility might exist. The historical circumstances cannot possibly rise again in the so-called post-modern age. This is a silly term. Modern means here and now, and you can’t be post-now. But you can be anything if you assume that words don’t mean anything, have nothing but ideological referents; and that has been the tendency of the past twenty years or so, certainly in the hothouse of American academe, and unfortunately language and literature have come to have almost the whole of their self-conscious existence in this rather fetid hothouse. Only in the most marginal sense is there a literary life left—the life that Hemingway and Faulkner knew, a life once lived in the printing houses, cafes, salons, and clubs of Paris and London and Rome and Berlin, and in a more limited fashion in Boston and New York, and even in little cities like Nashville, Tennessee, and even in country towns like Oxford, Mississippi. This was the life I have attempted to describe in The Brazen Face of History and elsewhere, the life of the Republic of Letters. This was the secular yet spiritual community of minds that emerged with the ending of the medieval cast of mind. Out of it I have argued came the Declaration of Independence, the U.S.Constitution—also the Confederate Constitution. Out of the Republic of Letters, in other words, came the American Republic, which was an idea, not an ideology, though the difference between ideology and idea is hard to define, and idea is easily transformed into ideology.

Only one thing seems clear in this fumbling comment: the foolishness of any thought I had about making myself out to be a sagacious, withdrawn interpreter of history. I could not pretend that I had escaped the disturbing sense of having spent half a century on American university campuses while much of the time feeling lost on familiar grounds. The source of this sense, one I think I share with any American academic humanist of my generation, is uncertain, even elusive. In a general way, however, it would seem to be our anxiety about the displacement—to be sure, the virtual disappearance in the 20th century—of faith in the university as the embodiment of a transcendent realm of humanistic letters and learning. Although our anxiety about the loss of this faith prompts us to hold numerous conferences on the crisis of the university in America, when we look into its history in America, we may well conclude that our anxiety is an expression of nostalgia for a faith that was displaced by historical circumstances even at the beginning of the nation.

The concept of the realm of letters, a realm additional to those of Church and State, and independent of both—a “republic of letters “—originated in the 11th and 12th centuries with the beginning of the differentiation of the university as a realm apart from the realm that had created it, the ecclesiastical realm, the res publica Christiania.An aspect of the historical process in Western civilization Hegel described as the “secularization of the spiritual,” the rise of the university was at first marked by the increasing inclination of “masters” in the medieval universities—i.e., “clerks” like Abelard, the most famous example—to recover the significance of the classic authors of a pagan antiquity. Drawing increasing numbers of students to study under them at the sites of learning in Paris, Bologna, Oxford, and elsewhere, masters and students provided for the rise of the medieval universities when, for their mutual protection and other benefits, they organized themselves as corporations. But as the humanistic movement became more definitive during the 14th and 15th centuries, it resulted in the formation of a novel order in history: a moral dominion, so to speak, of secularized clerks. In an age when the terms “letters” and “literature” referred to “knowledge in general” (as they did down to the time of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary and beyond) the clerks became known as “men of letters,” or, in the 18th century, by the French alternative philosophes.Either term was comprehensive, embracing philosophers, scientists, poets, novelists, essayists, etc. By the 17th and 18th centuries the realm of men or letters was asserting its presence in history in myriad ways: in academies like the French Academy, the British Royal Academy, and the American Philosophical Society; in the literary and intellectual life associated with clubs, salons, coffee-houses, book stores, and printing shops; in the ever growing number of books and periodicals; and not least in the massive correspondence among men of letters. Bonded in “a fellowship of intellect, spread everywhere and everywhere independent,” Voltaire declared in the mid-18th century, the Republic of Letters had become a “great society of free minds.”

Wherever they lived—in St. Petersburg, Leipzig, Paris, London, Edinburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, New York—the members of this society were dedicated, in the name of the mind’s capacity for rational inquiry, to a great critique not only to the state of our knowledge of God, man, and nature but to the question of how we acquire knowledge, to, that is, a critique of mind itself. This critique had one moment of fulfillment in the American Revolution and the subsequent invention by the American philosophes—Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others—of the Republic of the United States; the moment, so to speak, when out of the great critique came the Great Experiment. The great critique had another, and more violent, moment of fulfillment in the outbreak of the French Revolution, and the subsequent Reign of Terror, followed by the crowning of Napoleon as the Emperor of France.


The relationship between the Republic of Letters and the “Great Experiment,” as the new American republic was called, is illuminated, I think, when we recognize the formative centering of the life of the mind in our late colonial and early national epochs in two American philosophes: Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Franklin is indissolubly associated with Philadelphia. But it is important to recall that he began his career as a man of letters in 1722 in Boston with the anonymous publication of the Dogood Papers in the New England Courant, a weekly of news and opinion edited by his older brother James, to whom he had been apprenticed at the age of seven. When the 17-year-old Ben quarreled with James in 1723 and ran away to Philadelphia to seek his fortune, he left his literary mark on the place he was leaving in the satirical sketches that compose the Dogood Papers, In one sketch the fictitious author, Silence Dogood, the self-educated daughter of a country preacher who assumes the guise of a feminine Mr. Spectator, describes an allegorical dream vision in which Learning, attended by figures representing the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, is seated on her “magnificent Throne” in the Temple of Learning writing the New England Courant.In the broad sense the message Silence conveys in her vision is a prophecy of what Franklin’s massive career would represent, the freeing of letters and learning, not only in New England but generally, from the authority of the university tradition. Franklin gives a still more radical twist to his satire by imagining the observer of this triumph to be a self-made woman of letters, a type of what a later age would call a “feminist.”

Had he had the privilege of attending Harvard, Franklin would probably have taken an attitude toward the university different from that he assumed in his early fable of learning. The basic motive of his youthful satire on Harvard may have been personal, his resentment of his exclusion by social status from, as one contemporary described it, the Boston-Cambridge “intercommunity of the learned.” As it was, the largely self-educated Franklin, one of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment, began his education and his career simultaneously in a printing shop and always considered his vocation to be that of printer. But he was not a self-made man who discounted the value of formal education. He had spoofed the elitism of Harvard, not the value of a university education, and 30 years later, after his career in printing and other enterprises had rewarded him so well that he could afford to devote himself altogether to public service, he established the Academy of Pennsylvania in 1749, and in 1779 supported its transformation into the University of Pennsylvania. But Franklin had first turned his attention to the founding in 1742 of the American Philosophical Society. According to his perspective, the connection between the man of letters and the university was secondary to the role societies of men of letters had played in the rise of the great secular polity of letters celebrated by Voltaire. Meanwhile, Franklin was a participant in the rise of letters as a profession and publishing as a business, activities conceived as essentially independent of both the university and associations such as the American Philosophical Society.

Self-consciously enacting the role of printer as man of letters, Franklin was aware that printing had become the most important activity in the Western world; but he was also aware that it marked the historical moment when the printer’s art, having become sufficiently advanced to make the uniformity and repeatability of the printed word seem virtually analogous to a natural process, had transformed the image of the scripted word into the image of the printed word. With this transformation, Franklin was further aware, the basic distinction between literacy and illiteracy—between the man of letters and the man of no letters—was being replaced by a more subtle distinction between the man who has a vocation to letters and the man, who whether he has abundant or limited skills in reading and writing, simply employs his abilities as a necessity for getting along in the print society.

The mere ability to use letters being no longer a reliable guide to the difference between civilization and barbarism, a serious vocation to letters demanded from the man of letters a commitment to protect the literary republic from those who employed the knowledge of letters for the vulgar, and essentially immoral, purpose of merely getting on in the world. The quality of literacy, as in Pope’s The Dunciad, became a central issue in the politics of the third realm. As literacy expanded with the expansion of printing and the quest for power through the use of the printed word became ever more important in modern history, the relationship between the politics of the political state and a politics of the literary order became ever more complex. Although it would not be defined explicitly until after the French Revolution, this relation centered in an analogy between what was conceived on the one hand to be the decorum of a “republic” and the disorder of a “democracy” on the other.

Franklin, who died just as the revolution in France was getting fully underway, never drew such an analogy. But as the new nation began its life as a federal republic in the decade following Franklin’s death in 1790, a fear that the American Revolution might be transformed from a republican revolution into a democratic revolution seized American men of letters like the “American Addison,” Joseph Dennie, a native Bostonian and graduate of Harvard, and arch Federalist, who in 1801 had transplanted himself to Philadelphia, where he founded a weekly periodical called The Portfolio and devoted himself to opposing the threat of the democratization of letters.

But the Federalist case against this threat was formulated less explicitly by Dennie than by the group of Boston-Cambridge men of letters, nearly all young, nearly all graduates of Harvard, who from 1803 to 1811 jointly edited The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review.In their effort to grasp the literary and intellectual situation in the new nation the Anthologists drew on a singular resource, a deeply felt regard for the nature and meaning of literacy as this had been expressed in Harvard’s representation of the realm of letters and learning for a period now approaching two centuries.

Harvard’s founding in 1636 had been an act motivated not only by the Puritan theocracy’s determination to perpetuate in New England a learned ministry that in England, according to Michael Walzer, had acquired the status of an “intelligentsia,” a “clerical third estate.” Emphasizing values quite different from the burgher values of “sobriety, caution, and thrift,” which have been misrepresented as the core of Puritan values, the 17th-century Puritan intelligentsia, Walzer points out, were moral activists imbued with the sense of “ascetic discipline” and “high-mindedness” that not only produced the great Puritan preachers but the great lay disciple John Milton, who, out of his concern that the “commonwealth” of letters, as he called it, not be “damnified” by the laws of the Puritan Commonwealth, wrote in Areopagitica a classic assertion of the moral authority of the polity of letters over a quest for power that at the extreme sought to reunify state, church, and letters as one seamless authority.


By the time of the Anthologists the issue of the separation of church and state in New England had largely become redundant, but the issue of the connection between the political state and the literary polity had become a consuming one. In their concern with this problem the Anthologists drew a direct analogy between politics and literature. In a Phi Beta Address delivered at Harvard in 1802 and later published in The Monthly Anthology, the Reverend Theodore Dehon asked, “Shall we be pardoned the expression if we . . .observe that through the innovating spirit of the times the republick of letters may have its dignity and prosperity endangered by sliding inadvertently into a democracy?” Responding to his own rhetorical question, Dehon pronounced that it “is with literature as with government. Neither is the subject of perpetual experiment. The principles of both are fixed. They spring from sources and have relations, which are unchangeable and eternal.” In another Harvard Phi Beta Address published in The Monthly Anthology the most brilliant member of the Anthology circle, the Reverend Joseph Stevens Buckminster, appealed to a more complex analogy between politics and letters. Effective opposition to the democratization of letters in the new nation, he said, must recognize the paradoxical nature of the literary republic. In truth it is not anti-democratic, it is the “only permanent example” of a “pure and original democracy.” But it is a democracy that exists only in its own self-defined boundaries.

In this state under the protection of truth and reason, whose authority alone is acknowledged, wars may be carried on with the utmost innocence, though not always with impunity; for here every man is sovereign, and every man is also under the jurisdiction of every other. The laws of civil society have in no degree abridged the independence of the state of nature as to errour and ignorance. No man can be excluded from the social compact because of his inalienable right to be a fool; and, on the other side, every man retains the right of the sword and may exercise it without a commission.

Buckminster’s depiction of the polity of letters as a dominion in which those who champion “truth and reason” are perpetually engaged in warfare with those, who, exercising their “inalienable right” to be fools, champion the dark forces of “errour and ignorance,” was inspired less by his adherence to Federalist politics as such than by his realization that, in a nation that had originated as a verbal invention, the relation between the politics of the literary order and the politics of the state was without historical precedent. The realm of letters and the realm of the state, the one being necessary to the other and vice versa, have been joined in something like a symbiotic relationship. Consequently the perpetuation of the political state will involve generation after generation in a crisis of verbal interpretation, and men of letters will be responsible for the character of this interpretation. Moreover, in a nation not so much written as printed into history—a nation in which literacy seems destined to become universal, and in which the power of interpretation no longer resides in the small group of men who possess letters in contrast to the majority of men who have no letters—the character of interpretation will depend as never before on the quality of the literacy possessed by the interpreters.

In this situation the Federalist literati might well ask what hope for letters and learning in a nation that has as its chief official a man of letters who not only supported the French Revolutionists but is capable of proclaiming, at least in one of his more extreme pronouncements, that a bloody revolution should occur each generation in order to “water” the “tree of liberty” with “the blood of martyrs”? Ironically, however, in making him out to be a virtual Jacobin, New Englanders ignored the fact that, even if the term democracy was not a scare word to him, Jefferson no more desired to see the Republic of Letters “slide” into a democracy of letters than they did. Although Jefferson had no college degree and was not quite a university man in the way the New Englander with a Harvard degree was, like his Boston-Cambridge enemies he assumed that the relationship between the realm of letters and the American republic basically subsisted, not in the connection between the Franklinian academy and the state, but between university and the state. This assumption was owing in good part to the youthful Jefferson’s association, while a student at the College of William and Mary for two years (prior to reading for the law with George Wythe), with a Scotsman of independent views, William Small. In contrast to the other members of the faculty, undistinguished Anglican clerics committed to maintaining the official connection between the Church of England and Virginia, Small, according to Jefferson, was a scholar “profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind.” As one of his biographers says, Small made Jefferson into a life-long disciple of the Enlightenment; and it may not be an exaggeration to say that the long years Jefferson spent devising plans for a state-supported university and persuading the Virginia legislature to fund it were a tribute to his brief sojourn at William and Mary under the tutelage of William Small.

“Mr. Jefferson’s university” was not the first state university in the new nation. The University of North Carolina had been established by legislative act in 1776, but, viewed at its inception as primarily an instrument of the Federalist cause, it became hostage to the politics of the state for a hundred years or more. The University of Virginia affords the first historical instance in any country in which the university was deliberately and purposefully conceived as an agency of the realm of the secular state, yet as a realm of letters and learning was presumed to be independent of the state. Responding to the need to provide for the continuity of freedom in Virginia, and the nation as a whole through the operation of the “free rights to the unbounded exercise of reason and opinion,” the University of Virginia, as Jefferson initially envisioned it, would not only become a “bulwark of the human mind in the Western hemisphere” but would institutionalize a new land of relationship between the state and the third realm. But this new relationship, it must be noted, would not be predicated on intellectual egalitarianism. According to Jefferson’s plan, as the apex of a selective educational system that would provide all Virginia youths (white males, that is) with a basic education, the university would admit only those youths who had proven themselves to be members of the only aristocracy, the “natural aristocracy” of intellect. Upon graduation from the university, these young men would be entrusted with the welfare both of the political state and the Republic of Letters, and with the relationship between these realms. Witnessing the first great crisis about the nature of the Federal Union over the question of whether the new state of Missouri should be admitted as a slave state or a free state, Jefferson had distinct intimations that the perilous and endless effort to answer the multiple questions about freedom and equality through legislative and judicial interpretations of the wording of the Constitution would defy the efforts of even the best educated citizens.


Seeking to avert the catastrophe that would come with the collapse of these efforts, trying always to make the rational mind the model of society, Jefferson, led to some indeterminate extent by his understanding of the way in which the new nation had been invented through the power of secular letters, asserted the paradoxical centrality of the university, an imperium in imperio created and fostered by the imperium as the source of the educated citizenry necessary to nurture its conception of itself as a free political entity. But Jefferson did not contemplate that in nurturing freedom the state within the state would be allowed to endanger the state’s existence. In 1820 he wrote a letter to a member of the Virginia Assembly pleading that funds for beginning the university be provided as soon as possible, for the institution was needed to fulfill the “holy charge” of “inculcating young minds with the principles of Virginia.” He was, he said, especially concerned about the way in which Virginians were spending thousands of dollars to send their sons to Harvard and elsewhere, “there to imbibe opinions and principles in discord with those of their own country.”

There is an interesting ambivalence in Jefferson’s reference to “their own country.” Is it to Virginia, the South, or the whole nation? In any event, Jefferson’s inclination to subordinate his professed dedication to unbounded freedom of the mind to the political order was not limited to the year of the Missouri crisis. It is graphically present in the anxious letters that Jefferson exchanged with James Madison during the next five years about the courses of instruction to be offered by the University of Virginia and the recruitment of its faculty. While in general these letters show that both subscribed to the policy of making the university as an institution a place where no one should be “afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate error so long as reason is left free to combat it,” they also reveal a consistent qualification of the pursuit of truth. Jefferson and Madison were especially fearful of allowing unguarded freedom of thought in the case of the branch of the university in which the relation between literature and politics was the most intimate, the law school.

In an eloquent argument to the Board of Visitors about the appropriateness of inviting eminent Europeans to assume professorships at the University of Virginia, Jefferson had said that “with scientists and men of letters, the globe itself is one great commonwealth, in which no geographical divisions are acknowledged; but all compose one fraternity of fellow citizens.” But looking at the list of those who were at one time or another considered to be possibilities for the law professorship, we find that, in contrast to the cosmopolitan breadth of the names that came up in connection with other appointments, the list of candidates for this professorship is distinctly “geographical,” all of the real possibilities being Virginians. As a matter of fact, Jefferson and Madison never intended to be anything but parochial in the selection of the law professor. Basing his conception of “orthodoxy” in a teacher of law on whether or not he exhibits a devotion to the principle of freedom exemplified by what Madison referred to as the “Virginia Creed,” Jefferson had said at the beginning of the search for the faculty of the university that “our professor of law must be a native,” and he meant of Virginia. He stipulated this because he believed that “nearly all” the young men who had recently entered “the nursery of our Congress” [i.e.the nursery of the legal profession] in recent years had been corrupted by the reliance on the “toryism” of the universally used law text, Blackstone’s Commentaries.It was up to the University of Virginia to address the shortcoming of a legal education that had led youths to “suppose themselves . . .to be whigs, because they no longer know what whiggism or republicanism means.” The teaching of the true character of “republicanism” will insure that “in a dozen or 20 years a majority of our own legislature, and many disciples will have carried its doctrines home with them to their states, and will have leavened thus the whole mass.”

Since the imparting of “true” political doctrines would be of prime importance to the formation of the “character of our state, and the U.S.,” Jefferson asserted that he and Madison not only had the “duty to lay down the principles which are to be taught” in the law school but to prescribe the legal texts to be consulted by the students. To this end he made a mandatory list of the texts be used. It included items ranging from the writings of Locke and Sidney to the Declaration of Independence to The Federalist to “the Virginia Document of 1799” [the resolution passed by the Virginia Assembly during the administration of John Adams denouncing the Alien and Sedition acts].

Madison was not so adamant as Jefferson in seeking the assurance of “political purity,” or as it might be put today, “political correctness,” in the teaching of law. He suggested that instead of being regarded as prescriptive the works on Jefferson’s list be considered simply the “best guides” for the law students. But Madison and Jefferson alike were adamant in their agreement that, in Madison’s words, “the most effectual safeguard against heretical intrusions into the School of Politics,” will “be an Able and Orthodox Professor, whose course of instruction will be a example to his successors”—so adamant, in fact, that when the University of Virginia opened its doors for the first time on March 7, 1825, the law professorship was still vacant. It would be another year before the faculty of the fledgling university was completed with the “safe” appointment of one of the less distinguished candidates to the law professorship. Yet Jefferson and Madison undoubtedly saw this appointment as marking the completion a faculty roster that was a true representation of the Republic of Letters.


Two decades after Jefferson’s death his prediction that in “a dozen or twenty years” the teaching of the true principles of republicanism at the University of Virginia would “leaven” opinion not only in Virginia but other states came to ironic fulfillment. Citizens of the Southern states decided that to preserve the “truth” of the Union of American states—to continue to foster, as Jefferson had said, “our habit of thinking of our country as one and indivisible”—it had become mandatory to insist that the American Republic is based on the paradoxical principle that the preservation of the institution of chattel slavery is necessary to the preservation of freedom. Since the citizens of the Northern half of “the one and indivisible nation” did not agree, Southerners invented a Southern nation, a Southern civil religion, and a Southern literary polity. In its representation of the Southern nation the University of Virginia, committed to defending, and extending if possible, its “politically correct” version of liberty, fulfilled Jefferson’s trust that “our Seminary” would keep alive what he called the “Vestal flame” of freedom and Madison called “the sacred fire” of freedom.”

As he designed and attended to the construction of the academical village that is still cherished as the historical center of what would become known as “the Grounds of Mr. Jefferson’s University,” Jefferson, failing to recognize that he was even then using the institution he envisioned as an agency of the cosmopolitan Republic of Letters as in effect a political agency of the state, was lost on his own grounds. If we today recognize the irony of Jefferson’s situation, it is because we are aware that the association between the university and the political state has drastically changed in character. The period in modern history when the subscription of intellectuals to faith in the idealism of the Republic of Letters was sufficient to maintain a generative tension between the existential political republic and the symbolic Republic of Letters now seems to have been remarkably brief. Writing in the dark aftermath of the First World War, the French critic Julien Benda argued vividly in his once notorious La Trahison des clercs that the decline of faith in the cosmopolitan polity of mind and letters was owing to “the treason” the “clerks” (or the intellectuals) committed when they not only accepted but glorified the nationalization of the literary polity.

Yet the influence of nationalism may be reckoned as secondary to another, if closely related, phenomenon in the decline of the symbolic power of the Republic of Letters in the 19th and 20th centuries, namely, the progressive loss of the identity of the third realm that has occurred in the struggle to effect a radical democratization of letters and learning. The central issue with respect to the character of the American university, we may well conclude, was defined in the beginning of the nation—no more so by the conservative Federalist literati than by Jefferson and the “liberal literati” —as the opposition between the idea of a “republic of letters” and the idea of an egalitarian “democracy of letters.” For a century and a half after the founding of the nation the dynamics of the opposition between these concepts of the literary and intellectual realm—an opposition involving the most fundamental conflict in American culture, freedom versus equality—constituted a meaningful quarrel in American culture. The quarrel sustained a sense of connection with the literary origin of the nation in the revolutionary inquiry, not only into knowledge but into consciousness itself, that had been undertaken with progressive diligence by the secular realm of letters and learning. With the decline of the third realm as the major symbol of modernity, the university in America has lost its sense of identity as a representation of faith in the ideal dominion of letters and learning as this was known to Franklin, Jefferson, and the other makers of the American Republic. And, as a consequence, the American university campus has lost its capacity to serve as the scene of the moral and intellectual, the humanistic, process of political self-interpretation necessary to the functioning of a nation invented by the Republic of Letters.

There is even yet a tendency to assume—perhaps this assumption is the chief motive of the National Endowment for the Humanities— that we can restore the status of the humanities in America through somehow recovering the generative tension in American cultural history between a “republic of letters” and a “democracy of letters.” But in our historical moment, when the utilization of the scientific knowledge and techniques developed by university scientists is deemed by Washington to be essential not only to the enhancement of national power but to the very preservation of the nation, it is difficult to imagine how such a recovery could occur. The only truly meaningful connection that presently exists between the university and Washington is necessarily the one that exists between the relation of the university to a major educational agency of the government, the National Science Foundation.


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