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Mr. Jefferson's Struggle to Save the University that Changed America

March 12th 2014

Rot, Riot and Rebellion

Rot, Riot and Rebellion. Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos. University of Virginia. 2013. 216 pp.

Thomas Jefferson’s epitaph memorializes him as “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”  In his last years, this paragon of the Enlightenment worked hard on that final legacy.  Architecturally and academically, his plan for his “academical village” was a model of balance and rationality: the campus near Charlottesville was geometrically exact, with pavilions for professors and rooms for students arrayed around a central library (not, as at other colleges, a chapel).  The curriculum would allow students a choice of studies, including secular and scientific fields not offered at the more traditional colleges that already dotted the landscape of the new nation.

Alas, it turned out that there was a worm in the apple of this intellectual Eden.  For two decades after its founding, the University was rattled, hammered, battered, and baffled by wave after wave of student violence.  Journalists Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos note that “in schools both of the North and the South, students looked for excuses to smash furniture, break glass, and resist authority.  Students often seemed glad to escalate confrontations with professors into riots.”  But at Virginia the outbursts were especially common and violent.   “What made the mayhem at the University of Virginia unique,” the authors add, “was the stakes; the school was new and experimental, unsure of the public’s support and uncertain of its own future.  No powerful church denomination backed the university, no well-connected alumni group stood ready to come to its defense.”  Indeed, many religiously inclined people devoutly hoped that the “godless” institution would fail.  If the University’s reputation sank low enough, the Virginia legislature might well be persuaded to cut off its vital annual funding.

The first students arrived in 1825, and with them the fighting, drunkenness, and other misbehavior that would mark the coming decades. Jefferson, over 80 years old and in failing health, lasted long enough to plead with them to, well, knock it off. To no avail. He had provided for student self-government; no in loco parentis for him. Offenses would be judged by a student court. “The university would also have its own jail so that errant gentlemen students would not have to suffer the shame and indignity of spending the night in a local jail with common miscreants and hardened criminals.” Finally, reluctantly, he cracked down—sort of. Professors would be required to take attendance in class, note late arrivals, and send parents monthly reports about their charges. The havoc continued.

What the authors call “Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University” actually ended with his death on July 4, 1826. His successors—Joseph Cabell, Henry St. George Tucker, and others—carried on gamely, alternating between the carrot and the stick, with equal lack of success. “Rot, Riot, and Rebellion” chronicles it all, episode by vivid episode, and offers some explanation for why it persisted for so long.

Year after riotous year, the hot-headed, self-indulgent sons of Southern chivalry made “Animal House” look like a Phi Beta Kappa meeting. Their attitude toward academics was, shall we say, cavalier: “while students slept badly, ate poorly, fought constantly, lost their money at gambling, and woke with hangovers, the heaviest burden was attending class….They turned their dorm rooms into gaming establishments and whorehouses and the university into a vast saloon….But of all bad behavior, university officials feared duels the most.”

Even in an age (and a region) that tolerated swordplay and gunplay, drunkenness, and violent “pranks” far more than they would be tolerated today, the hijinks at the University of Virginia were over the top. Citing Bertram Wyatt Brown’s studies of the Southern obsession with “honor” helps place such behavior in context. Had the authors also looked at William Rorabaugh’s Alcoholic Republic, they could also have noted that per-capita alcohol consumption across the nation spiked (sorry—couldn’t resist) in this period and was about triple what it is today. The students of Charlottesville did more than their share.

The Board of Visitors and the faculty (the University had no president—too hierarchical for Jeffersonian tastes) tried everything. They installed an Early Rising Rule, requiring students to be at their first class by 5:30 a.m. Didn’t work. They required students to wear “a dull gray uniform [as] an easy way to identify wayward students in town, as well as a way to counter the image of the school as a place for elite, well-dressed planters’ sons.” Students pretty much ignored it, then claimed—apropos of the time—that they would “nullify” it. The faculty was given the right to initiate grand jury investigations of suspected law-breaking, but that got nowhere. “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 were involved.”

An 1836 rebellion that led to 70 dismissals was particularly dramatic. Students considered their military company separate from the University and hence not subject to its rules. Being told that they had to give up their muskets led to “two nights of violence [as] students fired shots across the campus, smashed windows, rang the Rotunda bell without ceasing, battered doors, and heaved rocks and sticks at the professors’ pavilions.” Board members warned them that such activities made it less likely that the faculty would reverse its policy on the muskets. (Way to stand firm, gentlemen.) So students appealed to public opinion with “a circular letter explaining their version of events, casting themselves as heirs to the Revolutionary fervor that built the nation, and imploring the public to give them the benefit of the doubt.” Remarkably, or perhaps not, some newspapers agreed with them. Eventually the faculty allowed them to return.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to enforcing the rules was the students’ code of silence, an integral part of their particular definition of “honor.” They could “shoot dogs, beat slaves, whip professors, hole up with prostitutes, vandalize and scandalize the university, and settle arguments at the point of a knife and expect nothing but support and understanding from their fellow scholars.” But when in 1840 an unknown student shot and killed Prof. John Anthony Gardner Davis, a line was apparently crossed and a corner began to be turned. Students helped to identify the murderer, and the Board and faculty leaders such as Henry St. George Tucker began to see ways to employ “honor” as way of keeping the peace.

Not that all was calm and bright right away. In 1844 the state legislature, thoroughly fed up with reports of dissoluteness and mayhem, and influenced by advocates for other state schools such as Virginia Military Institute and the proposed University of Richmond, again seriously considered eliminating UVA’s annual $15,000 subsidy. The school defended itself vigorously, pointing to the respect its curricular reforms supposedly received, even from Harvard. “As if on cue, students again rioted.” The self-named “Calathumpians,” dedicated, they proclaimed, to “fun—and frolic and childish folly” (and apparently hoping to end the school year early) marched up and down the campus night after night, “tooting horns, beating drums, and torturing other instruments.” When several of their number were suspended, “they donned masks and attacked” a hotel and the home of the faculty chairman “with sticks and stones, breaking down a door and smashing windows.” The uprising was eventually quelled by civil authorities.

Amazingly, the Board and faculty managed to make just enough changes to persuade the legislature not to pull the trigger. They proposed giving a full scholarship to a student from each senatorial district (making the institution seem less elitist), setting up a new History and English Department, and hiring two faculty (John B. Minor and William Holmes McGuffey, of “McGuffey’s Readers” fame) whose “religion and reputations were widely esteemed.” By the narrowest of margins, “the university had survived several riots, years of student stupidity and violence, the enmity of the religious establishment, the animosity of Jefferson’s political opponents, disease, bad publicity, and the vacillating governance of its own Board of Visitors.”

Unfortunately, Bowman and Santos don’t stay with the story long enough to show just how the new Honor Code, aided by, among other things, the national temperance movement, made campus life more civilized. They do even less to show how the University of Virginia “changed America.” (I’ll forego the rant about such grandiose subtitles that I put in my previous review, but…here we go again.) But they do tell a good story, as far as it goes, one that should dispel any lingering, romantic illusions about the gentility of the Old South and about how readily Mr. Jefferson’s Enlightenment ideals penetrated thick aristocratic skulls.

Luther Spoehr, an HNN book reviewer and senior lecturer at Brown University, teaches courses on the history of American higher education.


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