An Early Proposal for a University President (1826)
    by Catherine A. Creighton, Undergraduate Research Assistant (History Degree)

The Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia met on April 3, 1826, to discuss a proposed resolution calling for the establishment of “the office of the President of the University.” The meeting was attended by five of the seven members of the Board:  the Rector, Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Carrington Cabell, John Hartwell Cocke, Chapman Johnson, and James Madison.
 
The resolution began by establishing the salary, title, and responsibilities of the proposed University President. The Visitors also discussed how the establishment of this office would alter the existing leadership structure of the University. The proposed salary for the position was “1500 Dollars per annum” which was “to be paid out of the annuity of the University.” In addition, the resolution stipulated at the President would be considered “the chief executive officer of the University” whose responsibilities included, but were not limited to, “general superintendance of the execution of all laws” which governed the University. The resolution thus created a leadership structure for the University in which the University President occupied the highest position of power, and the Proctor and faculty of the University functioned as “subordinate agents” to him. This subordinate status meant that the faculty and Proctor were “subject to his controul and direction in the execution of their respective duties.”
 
Next, the resolution discussed several powers that would be granted to the University President. These powers included the right to convene the Faculty at will “and whenever else any two Professors shall request it.” The President would also be granted a vote in Faculty decision-making equal to that of a Professor and could cast the decisive vote in the event of a tie between “pro and con.” In the event of the President’s absence from a faculty meeting “a chairman pro tempore” would be appointed to perform his duties. Similarly, should the President become disabled “by sickness or otherwise” the Faculty would be empowered to act as President as a group.
 
With respect to disciplinary infractions and student behavior, the President would be authorized to suspend any student he believed “committed any offence requiring trial before the Faculty” and to “forbid him access within the precincts” until the date of his trial. The only caveat to this power was a requirement that the period between the issuance of the suspension and the date of the student’s trial not exceed two weeks.  Should any student violate an order of suspension or any other order from the University President, he “shall be deemed guilty of contumacy and punished accordingly.”
 
After outlining these proposed powers, the Board of Visitors’ shifted the topic of their discussion to identifying a suitable candidate to hold the office. Consensus of the Board supported the nomination of estimable Virginia attorney, William Wirt.
 
Wirt was in many ways a likely choice for the position. He was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and had attained widespread fame after serving as prosecutor in Aaron Burr’s treason trial nineteen years earlier. More recently, Wirt had been appointed by James Monroe to serve as Attorney General of the United States, a position he continued to hold at the time of this meeting. It is a testament to the Visitors’ singularly high regard for Wirt that they vowed that if he declined the appointment, no second choice candidate would be offered the position. Instead, the entire resolution establishing the office of the President would be rendered “null and void.” Alternatively, should Wirt accept the offer he was expected to begin his new position as soon “as his convenience will allow” and “not later than the commencement of the next session.”
 
At this point in the meeting, individual Visitors were permitted to dissent from the resolution presented by the Board at large. On this particular resolution, the Rector of the Board, Thomas Jefferson, entered his dissent. Jefferson instructed the Secretary to enter the text of his dissent in the Journal of the meeting’s proceedings.
 
There were four parts to Jefferson’s dissent. First, Jefferson argued that the law that established the University had “enumerated with great precision” the powers of the Board of Visitors. These powers included neither the ability to “[create] a President, [make] him a member of the Faculty of Professors” nor to bestow upon him “a controuling powers over that Faculty.” Jefferson noted that such powers would not have been accidentally omitted. Thus to allow the Board these additional powers after the fact would “confer on the board powers unrestrained within any limits.”
 
Next, Jefferson challenged the necessity of appointing a President of the University by arguing that every function that the proposed Enactment would ascribe to the President could, and currently was, performed by the Faculty as well as by any individual in the new position.
 
Third, Jefferson objected to the creation of the office of University President on financial grounds. Jefferson noted that given the University’s existing debt of $11,000.00, the additional expense of $1500.00 would place a significant strain on University resources, which could not conceivably be paid off “in any definite period of time.”
 
Jefferson’s final objection argued that the establishment of a University President was “so fundamental a change” that the day’s gathered Visitors, only five of the seven total members of the Board, constituted too “thin” a Board to make such a monumental decision.
 
Nothing is recorded in the Board of Visitors Minutes to suggest that members of the Board immediately responded to Jefferson’s dissent or argued with the substance of his objections. However, the Board did stipulate that in the event that Wirt declined the appointment, John Tayloe Lomax would be appointed as Professor of Law to the University.
 
Two days later, on April 6, 1826, Jefferson wrote to William Wirt from Monticello informing him of the Board’s decision to appoint him Professor of Law and offering him the newly created office of President of the University. On April 8, 1826, Wirt responded to Jefferson’s entreaty from Washington. Wirt wrote that he had been both “pained and gratified” by Jefferson’s offer, and considered it an “honor…so flattering in all its circumstances.” However, Wirt ultimately felt that his “situation” compelled him “to decline it, and to resign myself, perhaps for life, to the more profitable labor of my profession.” Wirt additionally promised not to publicize that he had been offered the positions on behalf of “the interests of the University.”
 
As promised by the Board, Wirt’s declination rendered the proposal for a University President null and void, and John Tayloe Lomax was appointed Professor of Law at the University, a position he held until 1830. The University of Virginia continued to be led without a president until the appointment of Edwin Anderson Alderman to the position in 1904. 
 
 
References
University of Virginia. Board of Visitor Minutes. 4, 6 April 1826: n.p.
 
Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and William Wirt. University of Virginia Alumni Bulletin 7.1 (January 1907): 54-6.
 
 
 
Cite This Entry
 
Creighton, Catherine A. "An Early Proposal for a University President (1826)." JUEL, June 18, 2015. http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/188.
 
 
  First published: June 18, 2015 | Last modified:  

References: 

"Board of Visitors Minutes April 4, 1826." UVa Board of Visitors Minutes, 1817-2002. University of Virginia Library. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.
Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and William Wirt. University of Virginia Alumni Bulletin 7.1 (January 1907): 54-6.