About 20. years ago, I drew a bill for our legislature, which proposed to lay off every county into hundreds or townships of 5. or 6. miles square, in the centre of each of which was to be a free English school; the whole state was further laid off into 10. districts, in each of which was to be a college for teaching the languages, geography, surveying, and other useful things of that grade; and then a single University for the sciences. It was received with enthusiasm …
To Doctor Joseph Priestly, January 27, 1800
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Self-limiting leaders want well-educated constituents.
Jefferson believed an educated citizenry was essential for self-government and to maintain the republican (small r) principles on which the United States was established.
This was his “Bill for the General Diffusion of Knowledge,” radical for two reasons. First, it provided for education at PUBLIC expense, and second, it included both boys AND girls. This was in a time when the ones who received any kind of formal education were those born white, male and to parents of means, because all education was privately funded. (Though not spelled out in Jefferson’s legislation, the offer of universal, publicly-funded education did not extend to children of slaves.)
Education in the “English school” was for three years. Each school was to be located within walking distance of all the children in the county.
Ten grammar schools, referred to here as “a college,” were funded by private tuition, with one exception. The top male graduate of each “English school” whose parents lacked the means for further education would be given a scholarship to the grammar school. Each school was to be located within one day’s travel of the students’ homes.
The “University” was to have been the College of William and Mary. That education was also privately funded, but the need-based scholarship program continued even to this level.
The “enthusiasm” for Jefferson’s plan didn’t last. It was never adopted. Parts of it were later made optional on a county-by-county basis.
Politics (and religion) interfered with expanding William and Mary. Eventually, he would lead the University of Virginia into existence, fulfilling only the top tier of his plan.
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