A Scholarship for State Students (1818)
    by Meghan Ellwood


Thomas Jefferson was always passionate about education. In 1779, he proposed the first state system of public education with his bill entitled, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” Jefferson planned a public school system reflective of truly democratic ideals, in which leadership and opportunity were given to whole communities through education. [1] Jefferson advocated for a system that would benefit intellectually curious people of all classes, not just the aristocracy who could afford an education. Although it was decades later that Jefferson finally founded the University of Virginia, the ideals he proposed in 1779 were undeniably present in the University’s first system of scholarship for State Students.


As the University of Virginia was coming to fruition, the state of Virginia was creating a public education system. Between the establishment of Central College in 1817 and its transition to becoming the University of Virginia in 1819, the General Assembly passed a bill in 1818 “for establishing a public system of education.”[2] The Assembly’s plan extended beyond primary education to the university level, including an outline for a scholarship similar to the one Jefferson proposed in his 1779 bill. The extensive selection process began with a gathering of all young men whose families could not afford a higher education at the county courthouse. The visitors of the local ward school evaluated the merit, promise and intelligence of each candidate, finally selecting two from each of the 32 senatorial districts for a five-year collegiate education at the state’s expense. Once the two students completed the preliminary five-year education, they were evaluated again. Only the brightest, most impressive of the two students was granted a two-year, all expenses paid education at the university. [3] The General Assembly effectively established the first merit-based scholarship in Virginia, and Jefferson’s University would be one of the first institutions to participate.


With the terms of the scholarship laid out in Virginia legislation, the next task was instituting the scholarship. Securing funding quickly became a major obstacle. The state was either unable or unwilling to allocate funding for the scholarship. Any suggestion of an education tax was met with skepticism and resistance.[4] Additionally, the young University simply did not have the finances to educate 32 students free of all charges, especially considering that the first class of matriculates only had 123 students, 108 of which were from Virginia.[5] So, the scholarship was put on hold until a budget could be secured in 1845.


The Board of Visitors at the University did not believe the state had allocated sufficient funds for educating such a large number of boys. After a visit by members of the General Assembly to the University, the Board addressed these concerns during their Janurary 20, 1846 meeting. [6] According to the Board, the cost of educating 32 boys in 1846 would be $3,136, “thus educating free of charge ¼ of the whole number of Students” then enrolled.[7]  This would have been too great a financial burden for the University to bear without increasing the Literary Fund from the state. On February 3, 1845, the Senate of Virginia granted the Literary Fund for the University five thousand dollars plus ten thousand additional dollars annually, a portion of which was explicitly for “the education of the indigent children of this Commonwealth.”[8]


The budget issues were resolved and practical matters of implementing the scholarship took center stage. The Board expanded upon the regulations provided by the state. One boy from each district was allowed to study without paying professor fees, University dues, fines, or penalties. Special care was taken by the University to ensure “that the applicant[,] his parent[,] or guardian [was] not in a situation to incur the expenses of his education.”[9] Two boys were housed per dormitory room and each state student would pay no more than $60 per session for board. The land adjoining the Proctor’s house known as Monroe Hill was designated for housing the scholarship students. State students were accepted for a two-year term, subject to the Enactments and all other rules and expectations that paying students were bound by. Vacancies for a given district’s position were advertised in the newspapers of the respective counties. Above all, strong academic and moral character was required of the recipients of the scholarship.


The first class of State Students arrived at the University in 1846 and had 28 members.[10] Although extensive guidelines for the selection of the students had been outlined, many logistic challenges quickly came to light. Distributing the State Students among the different academic schools was one such challenge. Originally, the Scholars assigned their classes. The Faculty was instructed to “regard the preferences [students] may indicate,” but the State Students did not have full autonomy over their courses in the way paying students did.[11] Eventually a committee with Dr. Harrison, Dr. McGuffey, and Mr. Courtenay was established for the sole purpose of distributing the State Students among the schools.[12] State Students were permitted to enroll in up to three schools, preferably the academic schools.[13] Additionally, State Students who received a degree from the University pledged to teach in any public or private Virginia school for two years.[14] This was likely an effort to make the new Virginia public education system self-sustaining. Another challenge was keeping the spots for each district filled and informing districts of vacancies. The Chairman was charged with preparing “an advertisement embodying full information” of the scholarship and distributing it to various Virginia newspapers.[15] Periodically State Students would decline the appointment, withdraw, or were asked not to return to the University, leaving vacancies in their district. In these cases an advertisement would be posted in local newspapers of the district that contained the vacancy.


Occasionally, information about a State Student’s financial situation would surface that put his scholarship in jeopardy. This was the case with James Wyatt Mills of Greene County in 1854. A fellow student informed Dr. Harrison that Mr. Mills’ father “owned land and negroes sufficient to enable him to afford the expenses of his son at the university, if he chose.” The Faculty received a letter with evidence of Mr. Mills’ wealth from Mr. F. D. Cunningham. Mr. Mills allegedly had 18 slaves: “two valuable women, two almost worthless, and the remaining six under 12 years of age some of them infants,” The remaining eight were inherited from the mother of Mrs. Mills, two of which were “valuable hands and the remainder, young negroes under 12 years of age." The total value of Mr. Mills’ estate was estimated to be over $3,000.[16] After consideration of the circumstances, the Chairman of the Faculty decided that, despite his apparent wealth, Mr. Mills’ large family prevented him from affording an education at the University. James Mills was allowed to continue attending the University as a State Student.


In the decade since the scholarship was established enrollment for both the University and the State’s public education system increased. With more students wanting an education, the State passed a law in March of 1856 to increase the number of State Students at the University of Virginia from thirty-two to fifty. The general rules and guidelines of the scholarship remained unchanged. One State Student was still selected from each senatorial district, and a student was selected from the state at large if no recipient was chosen from a specific district.[17] The University had no objection to this increase; however, space became an issue. The State Students were originally housed separately from other students, in dormitories near the Proctor’s house.[18] These arrangements would not be sufficient to house twenty-eight additional students. The University needed new dormitories but did not have the budget. The Board of Visitors did what most people in need of money quickly do—they sold something.


The land known as Dawson’s Farm was gifted to the University from Martin Dawson in 1835 as a source of firewood. The land was given to the University for use strictly as a source of wood, so legally the University could not use that land for any other purpose. When the scholarship started in 1846, Dawson’s Farm was leased along with the Proctor’s House to a hotelkeeper of sorts for housing State Students. The Board of Visitors hoped that giving the tenant permission to harvest wood on Dawson’s Farm would keep the cost of housing the State Students below $60, while still complying with the legally mandated use. Over the years the state of the Farm had declined, and in 1856 the Board saw an opportunity to secure much-needed funds by selling the land.  The Virginia General Assembly granted the University permission to sell Dawson’s Farm on March 15, 1858.[19] One year later Mr. S. W. Ficklin bought the land for just over $19,000.[20] The profits were used to construct six new dorms on the southwestern side of Grounds. These dormitories, known as Dawson’s Row, provided forty-eight additional rooms to help accommodate the larger class of State Students.[21]


In the years following the Civil War, Virginia’s public education system as a whole saw many changes, including the scholarship for State Students at the University. [22] The original guidelines for selecting the State Students faded away, and the Board of Visitors was given full discrescion in making the selections in 1872.[23]  Yet Jefferson’s vision for public education was never lost. The terms of the scholarship were eventually expanded in 1876 to give all eligible boys from the state of Virginia the opportunity to receive a free education at the University of Virginia.[24]



[1] Maddox, William Arthur. "Jefferson and Education in a Democracy." The Free School Idea in Virginia before the Civil War. New York: Teachers College, Columbia U, 1918. 19.

[2] Jefferson, Thomas, and Samuel Taylor. A Bill for Establishing a System of Public Education. [Richmond: State of Virginia, 1818. 8. 

[3] Jefferson, Thomas, and Samuel Taylor. A Bill for Establishing a System of Public Education. [Richmond: State of Virginia, 1818. 8. 

[4] Maddox, W. (1918). The Creation of the Virginia Literary Fund 1810. In The Free School Idea in Virginia Before the Civil War: A Phase of Political and Social Evolution (pp. 42-62). New York City: Teachers College, Columbia University.

[5]  Catalogue of the officers and students of the University of Virginia. First session, March 7th, 1825-December 15th, 1825.

[6] Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia: Passed at the Session Commencing December 2, 1844, and Ending February 22, 1845, in the Sixty-Ninth Year of the Commonwealth. Richmond: Samuel Shepherd, Printer to Commonwealth, 1845. Print.

[7] University of Virginia Board of Visitors Minutes January 20, 1846

[8] Journal of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Virginia: Begun and Held in the City of Richmond. Richmond [Va.: Printed by John Warrock, 1844. Internet resource.

[9] University of Virginia Board of Visitors minutes. June 26, 1846.

[10] Catalogue of the officers and students of the University of Virginia. Session of 1846-47.

[11] University of Virginia Board of Visitors minutes. June 26, 1846.

[12] University of Virginia Board of Visitors minutes. September 30, 1846.

[13] University of Virginia Board of Visitors minutes. June, 1856.

[14] University of Virginia Board of Visitors minutes. June, 1847.

[15] University of Virginia Board of Visitors minutes. June 26, 1846.

[16] University of Virginia Board of Visitors minutes. September 4, 1854.

[17] Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia: Passed in 1855-6, in the Eightieth Year of the Commonwealth. Richmond: William F. Ritchie, public printer, 1856. Print.

[18] University of Virginia Board of Visitors minutes. June 26, 1846.

[19] Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia: Passed in 1857-8, in the Eighty-Second Year of the Commonwealth. Richmond: William F. Ritchie, public printer, 1858. Print.

[20] University of Virginia Board of Visitors minutes. March 18, 1859.

[21] Graves, Charles A. "Martin Dawson: A Friend of Education and of the University of Virginia." Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia Third 11 (1918): 15-28. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

[22] Virginia General Assembly, "Virginia Constitution, 1870," in Virginia Civics, Item #516, http://vagovernmentmatters.org/primary-sources/516 (accessed December 4, 2015).

[23] University of Virginia Board of Visitors minutes. September 28, 1872.

[24] Virginia. Acts and joint resolutions, amending the Constitution, of the General Assembly of the State of Virginia. Richmond: D. Bottom [etc.].