Thomas Jefferson's Bill for Universal Education at the Public Expense
Joel Bergstedt


In the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, which was written one year after the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Jefferson states that the nation, as a people, had become enlightened and was no longer ignorant of its natural rights (Jefferson, 1776). Consequently, the United States fought for independence from autocratic British rule in order to initiate a system of self-government.  Later, in a letter written by Jefferson in 1816, he states that "if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what never will be" (Jewett, 1997).   The statement declares that ignorance and self-government cancel each other and implies that an autocratic government can violate inherent liberties only if the population is ignorant.  However, self-government could only be assumed by an enlightened population. In order for the major tenet of self-government, universal suffrage, to be valid, universal education was required.  Therefore, Jefferson's prescribed a tax-supported, public educational system that would enable citizens to express their opinions in the political process (Jewett 1997).

Historical Context   

Thomas Jefferson, brought up as a classical scholar in Shadwell, Virginia, enrolled in the College of William and Mary at the age of 17.  There, he was introduced to science and inquiry.  But, as no careers in science were available, Jefferson studied law, which eventually directed him toward politics.  In 1769, he acquired a seat on the House of Burgesses at Williamsburg, where he became a leader in the controversy with Great Britain.  After producing an essay in response to Parliament's Coercive Acts, Jefferson's role as the author of the Revolution was established.  In 1775, he attended the Continental Congress in Philadelphia as a Virginia delegate.  Then, on July 2 1776, Jefferson reported the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, in which the philosophy of human rights and self-government was affirmed.  He then returned to Virginia to revolutionize the state government.  Jefferson strove for democratic suffrage and representation, but his reform measures rejected by the Legislature include a gradual emancipation of slaves and a complete plan of education.  In 1796, he was elected Vice President and in 1801, was chosen by the House of Representatives to become President after an election tie with Aaron Burr.  After serving two terms, Jefferson retired to his home at Monticello.   There, he renewed his efforts to initiate public education in Virginia.  The general plan was rejected, but the proposal for a state university was approved.  This decision to "raise the apex of the pyramid without the foundation in the schools" (Peterson, 1994), according to Jefferson, was an error of judgement.

About Thomas Jefferson

In a letter to John Adams entitled "The Natural Aristocracy"(1813), Jefferson states that in the first session of the Virginia State Legislature after the Declaration of Independence, laws were passed to undermine a "pseudo-aristocracy" based on wealth.  However, his last effort to bring about a new social stratification, the "Bill for a more general diffusion of learning" (Jefferson, 549), was rejected.  According to the bill those students with better abilities continued to higher education regardless of class, thereby allowing for the rise of qualified, natural leaders, which would accordingly nullify class rule. 

Jefferson's rejected scheme was based on the principle that universal education results in a population of good citizens.  The plan involved an educational progression that started with elementary school.  These schools would be free to all children and be established within a day's ride of every citizen; however, attendance would not be compulsory.  Subjects taught at elementary schools would include reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography.  The six objectives of primary education according to Jewett (1997) were as follows:

The students demonstrating greater academic aptitude in elementary education then enrolled in higher grades at regional institutions.  These schools provided professional preparation through instruction in sciences and languages.  From these district schools, the most promising students could enroll in the university, which represented a combination of professional schools.  The proposed university was visionary in that it included an elective system within a course of study, had no religious ties, substituted classical curriculum with practical subjects, and instituted a liberalization of disciplinary codes.  According to Jefferson elementary education was more important than university learning because it was safer to have all the population enlightened rather than a select few as in Europe (Jewett, 1997).  In Paris, as the U.S. Minister to France, Jefferson was appalled by the "ignorance, poverty, and oppression of the masses of people" (Peterson, 360). 

By 1818, Jefferson acquired partial passage of his Bill, as the Legislature approved a $45,000 expenditure for elementary education of the poor and another $15,000 to support the development of a university.  Jefferson eventually established the University of Virginia, but did not see the passage of universal education at the public expense.  However, Jefferson is recognized as the first advocate of free education in common schools supported by local taxation (Jewett, 1997).


Jefferson, T. (1776). The Declaration of Independence.  In M. P. Nichols & D. K. Nichols (Eds.), Readings in American Government (pp. 7-9).  Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.

 Jefferson, T. (1776). The Natural Aristocracy.  In M. P. Nichols & D. K. Nichols (Eds.), Readings in American Government (pp. 548-551). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt

Jewett, T. O. (1997).  Thomas Jefferson and the purposes of education. The Educational Forum, 61, 110-113. Retrieved October 10, 2001 from WilsonWeb Database.

Peterson, M. D. (1994). Thomas Jefferson: the architect of democracy.  Social Education, 58, 359-362.