Offences, Punishment, and Early Student Self-Governance at the University (1824)
    by Catherine A. Creighton, Undergraduate Research Assistant (History Degree)

The Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia convened at the University for a regular meeting on Monday, October 4, 1824. Thomas Jefferson, then serving as Rector of the Board, presided at this meeting. Also in attendance were five additional members of the Board: James Madison, James Breckenridge, John Hartwell Cocke, George Loyall, and Joseph Carrington Cabell. In anticipation of the upcoming enrollment of students at the University, much of the meeting was spent outlining and discussing how infractions of the University’s laws, known as the Enactments, would be defined, enforced, adjudicated, and punished.


When they crafted the Enactments of the University, the Visitors essentially recognized two classes of “offences”: those that were deemed “major” and would therefore be punished more severely, and those deemed “minor” which received more lenient punishments. Four aspects of this categorization are worth noting in greater detail. First, the distinction was convenient and common but not absolute, and was largely left to the discretion of the Faculty. Second, there was a classification of offense below that of minor offenses. This class of offense tended to include damage done to University property by students, and was typically punished by fining the student “not in excess of ten dollars.” Interestingly enough, property whose damage was restituted in this manner included: books, buildings, and instruments owned by the University as well as causing “any tree, shrub, or other plant within the precincts.” Third, a student’s “insubordination” to any of the major or minor punishments was deemed to be an instance of “contumacy” which was itself punishable by “any of the minor punishments.” Finally, any student who made a habit of committing any minor offence could receive a minor punishment as a result.


Minor offenses against the Enactments included such transgressions as “inattendance on school, inattention to the exercises prescribed, and misbehavior or indecorum in school.” If these offenses were committed in the presence of a Professor, among the wealth of punishments available to the Professor to enforce, were to “singly reprove” the offender, to “impose a task” upon him, or to dismiss him from the lecture room for the remainder of the day. Other minor offenses included making “festive entertainment”[1] within University precincts, attending a “festive entertainment” beyond the University precincts "without permission,” being “absent from the precincts after night, without the leave of the Chairman, or of some Professor,” and keeping or using tobacco,  “spirituous or vinous liquors…weapons or arms of any kind, or gunpowder.”  Students also committed minor offenses if they kept a servant, horse, or dog within the precincts of the University, or if they appeared within the University precincts brandishing or possessing a “stick or weapon” or wearing a mask or other form of “cover” without the permission of a Professor. In addition, a student’s refusal to open the door to his room when a Professor knocked and announced himself was also considered a minor offense.


In broad strokes, “major offences” tended to be habitually committed, or of a more serious or more violent nature than "minor offences." For example, although simply “admitting disturbing noises” in one’s room was a “minor offence,” if these noises became “riotous, disorderly, intemperate or indecent” they could be deemed “major.” In addition, “fighting with weapons which may inflict death” or issuing “a challenge to such fight, given or accepted” constituted “major offences.” Similarly, “habits of expence, of dissoluteness, or of playing at games of chance” were considered “major offences” because they were “obstructive to the acquisition of science by the student himself and injurious by example to others.”


Although major and minor offences both constituted violations of the University Enactments, they were punished differently. Typically, a student’s first, minor offence was usually first punished by “admonition and reproof to the offender” accompanied by written “communication & warning to the parent or guardian” by the acting Chairman of the Faculty. In some minor cases, students were able to dissuade more lenient Chairmen from following through with the letter to their parents or guardian, but in instances of more serious violations, this element of the punishment was non-negotiable. If these preliminary punishments proved insufficient more serious action was pursued, usually in the form of referring the case to the Board of Censors at the University.


In contrast to the adult leadership of the Faculty or Board of Visitors, the Board of Censors was composed of University students. As a result, one’s peers handed down most punishments for minor offenses. Appointment to the Board occurred by Faculty selection. At the commencement of each session of the University, the faculty selected six of the “most discreet” students at the University to serve as a Board of Censors. This Board was charged with ascertaining the facts of the situation through inquiry of the accused student and any student witnesses. Any testimony provided by the accused student or any student witness during this process was “voluntary and not on oath.” Moreover, a student’s obligation to provide testimony was not enforceable by the Faculty but rather “left to his own sense of right.” After the facts of the offence were ascertained, the Censors were expected to propose a minor punishment “proportioned to the offence” and to make a report to the Professors “for their approbation.” Alternatively, if inquiry revealed that the offence in question was significantly less serious than initially reported, the Censors were also permitted to commute the penalty if they deemed it to be “beyond the grade of the offence.”


Likely due to the severity of the offences in question, punishments for major offences were handled directly by Professors of the University. Among the major punishments available to University officials were: “expulsion from the University, temporary suspension of attendance,” or the “interdiction” of a student’s residence, or right to appear within the precincts[2] of the University. Often the punishment was tailored to the crime. For example, if a student engaged in “riotous” conduct within the precincts, his preliminary punishment was the interdiction of his residency within the precincts, followed by expulsion if his behavior did not improve. In other instances, however, the punishment was absolute regardless of the particularities of the crime. For example, students who fought with “weapons which may inflict death” or issued “challenge[s] to such fight[s]” were “punished by instant expulsion from the University, not remissible[3] by the Faculty.”


The Minutes of this meeting and text of the Enactments reveal that duels and challenges of this type were of particular concern to the Visitors. A sense of the unique level of seriousness with which they viewed these offenses can be gleaned from their discussion on punishments related to duels. For instance, students were punished the same regardless of whether they were the acceptors or initiators of a duel. Moreover, students engaged in these fights were liable to punishment both within the University and by the courts in Charlottesville. If he learned of a “challenge” of this kind issued between students, the University Proctor was required by the Visitors to give “information thereof” to the Civil Magistrate so that legal proceedings might also be taken against the student.[4]


After discussing these offenses and the punishments thereof, the Visitors shifted the focus of their meeting to discuss procedures for noting and enforcing attendance in the classes of the University. It was agreed that roll would be called by the Professor of each course “at the hour appointed for the meeting of every school.” At that time, Professors were required to note both absent and tardy students. If those students failed to sufficiently explain the cause of their absence or tardiness to the Professor by the conclusion of the lecture, the notation was committed to each Professor’s attendance book. The Visitors decreed that each Professor would be required to hand in these attendance books to the Faculty Chairman, who in turn, would have until May 15, August 15, and December 15, to “mail a list of these notations to the parent or guardian of each delinquent” student. Once this discussion was concluded, the meeting was adjourned.





[1] A somewhat nebulous term which seems to have been used to refer to a small gathering of students, potentially with the presence of alcohol or “games of chance,” maybe as large as a private party. Faculty usually learned of these “entertainments” because they grew too boisterous and noisy and could be overheard from the Pavilions.

[2] The Visitors made special note during this meeting to define the “precincts of the University” as “co-extensive with the lot or parcel of it’s own grounds on which it [The University of Virginia] is situated.”

[3] In many instances even seemingly terminal punishments like expulsion or dismissal could be remissible by Faculty vote, student petition, or a visit from an especially influential parent, guardian, or relation of the expelled student. In other instances, the offense was deemed serious or habitual enough to prevent the student from being eligible for re-enrollment in a subsequent session. Many of these instances and the rationale for the Faculty Chairman’s decision to admit or deny admission to previously expelled or dismissed students can be found in the Faculty Chairman’s Journals, which are linked to this site.

[4] It is worth noting that in the instance of reporting duels to the Civil Magistrate, it is not so much extraordinary that the University involved civil officials to handle crimes committed by students, but, rather that the Proctor was required to involve the magistrate so that the student could be doubly punished. In general, the University worked in tandem with local law enforcement officials when students committed crimes “cognisable by the laws of the land.” The typical procedure for these cases was for the Proctor to offer prosecution of the offense to the civil magistrate. If the magistrate claimed the offense, the University allowed him to see to the proper punishment of the student. If the magistrate chose not to pursue the case, judgment was left to the Faculty of the University. 



University of Virginia. Board of Visitor Minutes. 4 October 1824: n.p.




Cite This Entry

Creighton, Catherine A. "Offences, Punishment, and Early Student Self-Governance at the University (1824)." JUEL, June 18, 2015.


First published: June 18, 2015 | Last modified:  July 1, 2018


Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia from October 1824