Students and student life at the University of Virginia, 1825 to 1861

Wall, Charles Coleman, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Kett, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia
Williams, D. Alan, Department of History, University of Virginia

Filling out the history of collegiate education can only be accomplished through understanding the individual and collective experiences of its students. The University of Virginia is an unexcelled American college in which to study ante-bellum students and their student experience. By several standards, the ante-bellum University of Virginia was important nationally and the premier college in the South. In the 1850's enrollment at the University of Virginia equaled and exceeded that of Harvard and Yale. It enrolled students from across the South, with a solid majority coming from Virginia's and the South's upper class. A leader and pioneer in all aspects of higher education, the University of Virginia can claim a distinctive and unique character through its founder, Thomas Jefferson, and its course of studies, degrees, elective system, methods of instruction and examination, professors, secularism, and provisions for the government of students. Students had unusual freedom for the times in deciding their course of studies and length of stay. Jefferson's plan for the discipline of students through granting them a share in their own governance and leaving much of their discipline to their own self-control--within the context of a minimum of rules and compulsions--was a radical departure from contemporary standards of collegiate discipline.

Jefferson's plans for the students and the actual nature of the students who attended, however, were at variance from the very first session. The students' highly developed sense of themselves as young gentlemen of Southern plantation society compromised Jefferson's basic assumptions and expectations of their behavior and studiousness. Serious student disorder was prevalent at the University of Virginia throughout the ante-bellum period. Students' highly-honed concept of personal honor precipitated numerous honor fights and clashes among individual students and between individual students and professors. A considerable amount of disorder, particularly property destruction, also eminated from the volatile amusements engaged in by ante-bellum University students. In contrast to the continual violence of honor clashes and rowdy amusements, students themselves did create regulated, peer-based purpose and order through their literary societies and publications. Student disorder of a different nature emerged because of the adversarial disciplinary regime of the University which was instituted after Jefferson's experiment was discarded in October, 1825. This disorder took the form of numerous violations of University regulations and, on several occasions, collective rebellion against University policies and the exercise of Faculty authority. After the post-Jefferson disciplinary regime had proved unworkable by 1842, the Faculty instituted a series of disciplinary reforms which removed the sting of compulsion and personal confrontation and molded disciplinary policies and practice to the identity of the students. The students responded to this new discipline based on honor, which drew positive elements from Jefferson's original model, by demonstrating a good deal of moderation and by internalizing their own behavior as part of their individual and group honor. The romantic spirit is a final important perspective to consider in understanding students and student life at the University of Virginia in the ante-bellum period. The romantic spirit's influence shaped students' friendships with one another, their conception of their youth and student days, their relationship with women, the development of Greek-letter fraternities, and the eagerness with which they involved themselves in the Civil War.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
University of Virginia -- Students, University of Virginia -- History

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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