Quote of the moment: Jefferson, public education as the protector of freedom

South Elevation of the Rotunda, University of Virginia -- Thomas Jefferson design for the university he founded and shepherded - UVA image

Thomas Jefferson. South Elevation of the Rotunda, begun 1818, completed March 29, 1819. Ink and pencil drawing. Courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Architectural Drawings, University Archives, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library

By far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people.  No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.

Jefferson in a letter to his mentor George Wythe, from Paris, August 13, 1786; referring to his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, proposed in 1779

Excerpted from The Quotable Jefferson, collected and edited by John Kaminski, Princeton University Press, 2006

6 Responses to Quote of the moment: Jefferson, public education as the protector of freedom

  1. James Hanley says:


    I think Jefferson was conflicted. Being in France, I’m not sure he was fully aware of all the currents of conflict going on in and among the states in the mid 1780s, and seemed to be naturally dubious about a stronger central government. But he had great respect for his mentee Madison, and seems to have been persuaded by him that the Constitution was necessary. But given his natural suspicion, it didn’t take much over-exercise of that central authority to make him step back again. More interesting is that Madison, who proposed an even stronger government than was actually created, ended up opposed to the Federalists, too.


  2. Nick K says:

    Lower, you might want to consider, also, that the situation back then is quite a bit different then what exists now.

    Then education could be taken care of purely on the local level. That’s not the case now. The world is both far too big and far too small, education is way more important then it used to be, and the United States holds way too important a position to let education go on in this country without some central basis/standard.


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Jefferson was very much thinking locally with his education plan. But I think it’s important that we not push Jefferson into an Antifederalist position he did not hold to. Patrick Henry led the Virginia antifederalists, and Jefferson opposed them. So did James Madison. When Jefferson and Madison broke with what was called the Federalist Party, they founded the Democratic Republican Party, the forerunner to today’s Democratic Party.

    I don’t think Jefferson had much difficulty with a strong federalist system. He had great difficulties with the abuses of that system he claimed he saw in John Adams’ term of office.

    I don’t think there’s much doubt where Jefferson would come down today, in terms of education. He’d oppose most current state standards as too wimpy, too shallow, and too narrow. And if the alternative to wimpy education were a national curriculum with rigor and breadth, he’d support the national curriculum.

    Would that make him a Federalist? I don’t think so. But neither is that an anti-federalist stance.


  4. James Hanley says:

    I would assume also that Jefferson was focused on state-level public education, which would still fit very well within an anti-federalist world view.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    How does support for education figure into Jefferson’s fight with Hamilton (which really came about a decade later)?

    In 1786 there were no Federalists; this letter was written more than a year before the Philadelphia convention completed its work, and about nine months before the convention opened. In August of 1786, there were 13 little nations loosely bound together in a badly-working federation.

    In September of 1787, Jefferson was counted among the federalists.

    Jefferson always favored education of the most people as the chief pillar of the structure of good government.

    In Notes on the State of Virginia and in his 150 proposed laws, Jefferson laid out a plan for public education. He favored amending the Constitution to provide a right to education to the people and a duty to educate to the government. You might want to take a look at the plan Jefferson actually proposed; it was directed almost wholly at provided leaders to make good government, and to make government good. Joe, you may find amusing Jefferson’s little jab, when he proposes to provide textbooks, in order to get the Bible out of the classroom. The Bible is a terrible reader, Jefferson explains, and young minds are not well developed in reasoning to handle many of the stories in it. Once the Bible is out of the classroom, Jefferson said, there would be time to instruct children in good morals instead. (See Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14, roughly pages 272 through 275.)


  6. lowerleavell says:

    I find this really surprising since Jefferson was adamately opposed to the Federalists.


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