Did the murder of Professor John Davis bring the Honour Code to the University of Virginia?
    by Sarah Thomson, Undergraduate Research Assistant (History, 3rd year)

*Originally submitted as a term paper for HIUS 3281: History of Virginia, 1600-1865, for Prof. George Gilliam* 
 
The murder of Professor John A.G. Davis at the hands of a student on November 12th 1840 irrevocably shaped the University of Virginia. The aftermath of the murder saw the creation of incident’s most lasting legacy: the UVA Honour Code.
 
            A number of factors contributed to heightened tensions between students and faculty during the early years of the university, namely Jefferson’s vision of student self-government, students’ subsequent resistance to authority, and the notion of southern ‘honour’. Several key events created animosity among students towards the faculty: the Board of Visitors’ decision to ban organised public speaking at the university, the introduction of university regulations including the ‘Uniform Law’, and the dismissal and subsequent petition to readmit Henry C Mayer during the winter of 1838. Ultimately, Davis’s murder acted as a catalyst that encouraged students to co-operate more with the faculty, which led them to embrace the honour system that stemmed from the first ‘honour pledge’ in 1842.
 
            Thomas Jefferson, founder of the university, was somewhat idealistic in his original plans for his university. He believed students and staff would be able to co-operate to ensure the smooth running of the university and that students would be responsive to the rules he put in place at the institution.[1] He did not want to evoke fear in the students order to enforce discipline at UVA, so he advised that their pride, ambition, and moral sensitivities alone should be appealed to by the faculty in order to ensure order at the university.[2] He was also opposed to corporal punishment, and firmly supported the idea of student self-governance.[3] As a result, a number of the early students at UVA opposed any form of rules being enforced by faculty, regardless of how trivial they seemed. In 1831 the faculty attempted to enforce a uniform for the students, in an bid to create unity between rich and poor scholars and to discourage frivolous spending or displays of wealth.[4] The university relied on public funds, so the Board of Visitors wanted to try and dispel illusions among the public that Jefferson’s university was an elitist establishment. Despite this sound reasoning there was significant resistance to the law among students, and it was eventually relaxed in 1834 and repealed entirely in 1842.[5] Jefferson’s vision of student self-governance contributed to the tensions that arose between students and staff as students tried to resist the introduction of new rules to the university.
 
            Additionally, the role of ‘honour’ in the antebellum South was important. Boys were educated in the importance of being ‘honourable’ from childhood, and in the words of historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown, in southern colleges “honor was an unannounced part of the curriculum”.[6] Since students tended to be younger when they attended college the role of instilling ‘honour’ in these young men fell to the staff of the universities they attended.[7] However, many rich young men used their ideas of ‘honour’ and liberty as a platform to disregard rules and regulations that the faculty attempted to enforce.[8] They saw the introduction of arbitrary rules as an infringement on their individual liberties.
 
            As a result, students frequently petitioned the faculty of the university to express concerns and grievances. One of the earliest student petitions came in 1825, when “a petition [was] received from and signed by 78 students of the University, praying for a vacation of 10 days or more, according to the discretion of the Professors, to commence on the 4th July, the pleas assigned being the unusual length of the session and the immoderate heat of the weather”.[9] The decision was deemed not to fall within the jurisdiction of the faculty, and was thus handed over to the Rector, Jefferson. These petitions continued to be a common way for students to express their grievances regarding aspects of university life after Jefferson’s death in 1826. In September 1832 the students petitioned directly against an action being taken by the faculty. The subject of their protest was the time of their meals, which the faculty was considering deferring without consulting with the students.[10] The resolution to this issue was not noted in the Faculty Minutes, indicating that the issue was not considered of any great importance to the minute-taker. However, the students were clearly willing to protest their unhappiness with faculty decisions through formal means as well as through rioting, which was also common throughout the early years of the university.
 
            Furthermore, by 1837 petitions to the faculty were becoming more ambitious, as the power of the faculty simultaneously increased. On April 1st 1837 the faculty received a petition signed by six students requesting “a recession of the resolution of the Faculty of the 8th ultimo” which had seen a student, William R Battey, receiving a two-month suspension for consuming alcohol on university grounds.[11] The petitioners promised to inform the Chairman if Battey violated the rules, and also presented a letter from Battey in which he was “promising to conform to the laws”.[12] Battey was permitted to re-join the university, demonstrating that the faculty had at least some trust in the students keeping their word.[13]  
 
            However, whilst tension between students and faculty were present from the university’s founding, they were heightened in the mid-1830s. The staff of the university were feeling increasingly threatened by student self-organisation. Students reacted angrily when the Faculty, upset by the growing membership of prominent student societies, banned the delivery of public "literary addresses" and the public celebration of anniversaries in 1837.[14] The Jefferson and Washington societies were growing to be especially noteworthy, and faculty was allegedly concerned that elections to these societies were distracting students from their studies and had the potential to damage the university’s reputation. Again, the university’s position as a public-funded institution would most likely have played a role in their concern over the reputation of the establishment. Also, it is worth noting that the university was still in its infancy at the time, so there was a very real risk that it could face closure if students became too unruly. The following is an extract from the students’ response to the ban, published in The Collegian in June 1839:
“It is indeed mortifying that a custom, venerable in time, and sanctioned by the happy experience of all other Colleges should be prohibited our use. We are forbidden to speak […] the voice of vivid eloquence must ring through our Corinthian columns no more. The effect of the present policy will be to hush up all emulation and render neglected the cultivation of elocution. Public spirit will linger in faint breathings amongst us”.[15]
There are two noteworthy aspects of this article: the students’ focus on their relation with other colleges at the time, and their interest in preserving ‘public spirit’. Student protest was not uncommon throughout the United States during this period. The American Revolution had politicised college campuses across the country to a greater extent than they had been before the revolution.[16] Young men in the 1830s had grown up hearing stories about the revolution, but lacked a real force to rally behind so instead rebelled against campus authority. One idea frequently debated by student ‘literary societies’ like the Jefferson Society was the issue of slavery, a particularly contentious one in the state of Virginia.[17] Other elite colleges including Harvard experienced significant student protest during the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, so it is important to appreciate that the presence of student unrest was not unique to the grounds of the University of Virginia. What was unique however, was the way the faculty responded to the problem. Their response reflects the history of early student-faculty negotiation, which was seen from the time of Jefferson’s days at the University.
 
            Furthermore, during this period of unrest there was a significant example of students successfully protesting the decision of the faculty. Henry C Mayer was accused of being a “ring leader in the riot” among students on 12th November 1838, and was subsequently swiftly dismissed from the university.[18] However, unhappy with his experience of the dismissal process he wrote a letter to the committee appealing their decision. He claimed that his actions were carried out as a result of “recklessness and folly, but not through any ill will towards the Faculty or any of its members, or any premeditated ill design […] the disgrace is the principal punishment which the Faculty could inflict”.[19]  He argued that the reason he had not defended himself at his disciplinary hearing was:
 “a misapprehension of the proceedings of the Faculty in these cases. I believed, that the Faculty never acted but upon direct and positive evidence of participation in particular Acts. I knew that no such evidence could be brought against me; and on this ground, I refused to answer any questions, by means of my answers to which I might possibly disclose my participation in the riot to a greater extent than was already known to the Faculty”.[20]
Mayer effectively blamed his expulsion on the unfair practice of the Faculty, which dismissed him without evidence of his involvement in the incident provoking his expulsion. He was readmitted, and whilst he was not the only student readmitted after an unfair expulsion he was the only one readmitted on the strength of his own writing (as opposed to support from a guardian).[21] It is noteworthy that one of the first cases of a student appealing such a significant faculty decision came at a time when tensions between students and faculty were especially heightened.
 
            It is important to recognise that on the night of his murder Davis was responding to student unrest when he left his room on the lawn. He was the Chairman of the University at the time of his death, and his assassination was recorded in the Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia as follows:
“[Davis] has been snatched from us by the hands of a ruthless assassin, under circumstances of peculiar atrocity […] in the vigor of health, and in the meridian of life, was shot down before his own doorsill, in the wantonness of ruffian malice, when he had no suspicion of danger, was without the means of injury or defence, and when his only provocation was an unsuccessful attempt to discover who had disturbed his domestic peace and violated the laws of the University […] In a spirit of exalted piety he died forgiving his reckless murderer”.[22]
 
What is most interesting about Davis’s shooting is that his killer was unknown at the time of his death (Davis refusing to name his killer), and students actively engaged with the faculty in order to track down the offender. This was the first time students had co-operated with staff after an act of violence had occurred at the university, rather than choosing to stand together with the offender.[23] The murder of Davis shocked the student body, as they realised their acts of violence had the potential to have deadly consequences.[24] Although student violence erupted several times in the years following Davis’s death it became less frequent. Therefore, the shooting was a turning point for the university, as it marked the point where students began to co-operate with their teachers without resistance.
 
            Finally, although emphasis is placed on the role of Davis’s murder on the introduction of the first honour pledge, it was not officially introduced until almost two years later, on July 4th 1842. The pledge was to be written when students took exams, in order to prevent cheating, and original words of the pledge were as follows:
"I do hereby certify on honor that I have derived no assistance during the time of this examination from any source whatever, whether oral written or in print in giving the above answers".[25]
There is no mention of Davis or student violence at any point in the Minutes where the introduction of the pledge was recorded.[26] As a result, one may question whether the two incidents were truly related. However, another key change occurred at UVA on that day: professors asked the Board of Visitors to repeal the Uniform Law and the Early Rising Law.[27] The professors effectively conceded on these two rules, which had been the cause of student dissatisfaction and protesting since their implementation. Subsequently, students willingly complied with the newly introduced honour pledge. All contemporaries understood the importance of one’s honour, and the pledge would therefore have appealed to the students more than any seemingly trivial rules which they felt infringed upon their rights.
 
            The status of the University of Virginia as one of the country’s leading educational establishments was far from inevitable in the decades following its foundation. Student riots, protests and rebellions jeopardised its funding, and keeping the first generations of students under control was by no means an easy task. Jefferson’s belief in a utopian system of student self-governance where faculty would have minimal involvement in maintaining order at the university was simply unfeasible. The young, wealthy, southern men who took up the first places at the university resisted any rules that could be seen as an infringement on their liberties, resulting in several decades of tension between students and their teachers. The unprovoked murder of the university Chairman brought these tensions to a climax, and forced both students and faculty to recognise that the current state of affairs could not continue. Although there would remain trials to be overcome, the introduction of the ‘honour pledge’ marked an important step in the university’s journey to become home to “the illimitable freedom of the human mind”.[28]

 _______________________________________
Endnotes:
[1] Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time: The Sage of Monticello, (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1981), 464.
[2] Philip Alexander Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, Vol. II, (New York: Macmillan, 1920), 258.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Bruce, 259.
[5] Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos, Rot, Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University That Changed America, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013) 114
[6] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 167
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 1, 1825, Charlottesville: 1825 Web. 9 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/343?doc=/juel_display/faculty-minutes....
[10] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 3, 1832, Charlottesville: 1832 Web. 9 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/343?doc=/juel_display/faculty-minutes....
[11] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 5, 1836, Charlottesville: 1836 Web. 9 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/343?doc=/juel_display/faculty-minutes....
[12] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 5, 1836, Charlottesville: 1836 Web. 9 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/343?doc=/juel_display/faculty-minutes....
[13] Ibid.
[14] “Editor’s Table”, The Collegian (magazine), UVA, June 1839, quoted in James M. Goode, “The Jefferson Society”, Charlottesville: 1965 Web. 20 Nov 2015. <http://www.jeffersonsociety.org/about/history/histories/goode.php#fn18>.
[15] Ibid.
[16] William Rudy, The Campus and a Nation in Crisis: From the American Revolution to Vietnam, (Cranbury:Associated University Press, 1996), 3.
[17] Rudy, 5.
[18] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 15, 1838, Charlottesville: 1838 Web. 20 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/exist/cocoon/juel/juel_one?doc=/db/JUEL/fa... >.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Emily Richard. "A Student Contests Judiciary Ruling of Faculty (1838)." JUEL, June 18, 2015. Web. Nov 20 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/16>.
[22] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 17, 1840, Charlottesville: 1840 Web. 20 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/343?doc=/juel_display/faculty-minutes....
[23] Bowman and Santos, 124.
[24] Ibid.
[25] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty, Vol. 17
[26] Ibid.
[27] Bowman and Santos, 138.
[28] Thomas Jefferson, quoted in Bowman and Santos, 157.

References: 

[1] Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time: The Sage of Monticello, (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1981), 464.

[2] Philip Alexander Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, Vol. II, (New York: Macmillan, 1920), 258.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bruce, 259.

[5] Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos, Rot, Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University That Changed America, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013) 114

[6] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 167

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 1, 1825, Charlottesville: 1825 Web. 9 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/343?doc=/juel_display/faculty-minutes....

[10] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 3, 1832, Charlottesville: 1832 Web. 9 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/343?doc=/juel_display/faculty-minutes....

[11] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 5, 1836, Charlottesville: 1836 Web. 9 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/343?doc=/juel_display/faculty-minutes....

[12] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 5, 1836, Charlottesville: 1836 Web. 9 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/343?doc=/juel_display/faculty-minutes....

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Editor’s Table”, The Collegian (magazine), UVA, June 1839, quoted in James M. Goode, “The Jefferson Society”, Charlottesville: 1965 Web. 20 Nov 2015. <http://www.jeffersonsociety.org/about/history/histories/goode.php#fn18>.

[15] Ibid.

[16] William Rudy, The Campus and a Nation in Crisis: From the American Revolution to Vietnam, 3

[17] Rudy, 5.

[18] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 15, 1838, Charlottesville: 1838 Web. 20 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/exist/cocoon/juel/juel_one?doc=/db/JUEL/fa... >.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Emily Richard. "A Student Contests Judiciary Ruling of Faculty (1838)." JUEL, June 18, 2015. Web. Nov 20 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/16>.

[22] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 17, 1840, Charlottesville: 1840 Web. 20 Nov 2015. <http://juel.iath.virginia.edu/node/343?doc=/juel_display/faculty-minutes....

[23] Bowman and Santos, 124.

[24] Ibid.

[25] University of Virginia, Proceedings of the Faculty, Vol. 17

[26] Ibid.

[27] Bowman and Santos, 138.

[28] Thomas Jefferson, quoted in Bowman and Santos, 157.