Jefferson's College Life

This statue of Thomas Jefferson was given to William & Mary by the University of Virginia on Nov. 11, 1992. It stands on the lawn between Washington and McGlothlin-Street Halls.Thomas Jefferson enrolled in William & Mary on March 25, 1760, at the age of 16. He had received his early education from tutors at home and, later, as a boarder in schools taught by Anglican clergymen. By the time he came to Williamsburg, the young scholar was proficient in the classics and able to read Greek and Latin authors in the original, a practice he continued throughout his life.

In addition to the philosophy school—the collegiate course in which Jefferson enrolled—William & Mary included a grammar school for boys about 12 to 15 years of age; the divinity school, where young men who had completed their studies in the philosophy school would be prepared for ordination in the Church of England; and the Indian School, founded for the education and Christianizing of Indian boys.

Jefferson lodged and boarded at the university in the building known today as the Sir Christopher Wren Building, attending communal meals in the Great Hall and morning and evening prayers in the Chapel. He was instructed in natural philosophy (physics, metaphysics and mathematics) and moral philosophy (rhetoric, logic and ethics). A keen and diligent student, he displayed an avid curiosity in all fields and, according to family tradition, he frequently studied 15 hours a day. His closest college friend, John Page of Rosewell, reported that Jefferson "could tear himself away from his dearest friends, to fly to his studies."

At William & Mary, Jefferson was taught by William Small. A Scotsman who had been educated at Marischal College, Aberdeen, Small had been appointed professor of natural philosophy in 1758. Soon after Jefferson's arrival, Small also assumed the duties of teaching moral philosophy when that chair was left vacant by the departure of Jacob Rowe. Small introduced Jefferson to the writings of Locke, Bacon, and Newton, and awakened an interest in science in the enthusiastic young student.

It was a turbulent time in the history of W&M, a period characterized by political turmoil, declining discipline and tension between the faculty and the Board of Visitors. Nevertheless, Jefferson thrived under the tutelage of Small. He later wrote: "It was my great fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then professor of mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners and an enlarged and liberal mind."

Jefferson's course of study at W&M lasted for two years, and he then went on to read law for the next five years under George Wythe, the distinguished jurist who was to become the first professor of law at William & Mary in 1779. Jefferson referred to Wythe as "my earliest and best friend," adding that "to him I am indebted for first impressions which have had the most salutary influence on the course of my life." Through Wythe and Small, Jefferson met Governor Francis Fauquier, and he frequently joined the three older men as they dined together at the Governor's Palace. Jefferson—who said that music was "the favorite passion of my soul"—was also invited to take part in Palace musicales, playing the violin or cello.

Dumas Malone, Jefferson's 20th-century biographer, wrote that the story of Jefferson's student days in Williamsburg "is the story of the...first flowering of an extraordinary mind." As a student at William & Mary, young Jefferson had an ideal vantage point from which to observe and be taught by the leaders of the colony as he prepared to take his place among them.