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Welcome Remarks for The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s conversation with Andrew O’Shaughnessy about his new book, The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind, which looks at Thomas Jefferson in retirement and his role as founder of the University of Virginia.

Before we begin, I’d like to tell you about two programs you can view next month on our YouTube channel.

On Wednesday, October 6, at 1 p.m., Jonathan White will discuss a compelling collection of more than 120 letters from African Americans to Abraham Lincoln, which he has published in his new book, To Address My Friend.

And on Thursday, October 14, at 1 p.m., Woody Holton will discuss his book Liberty Is Sweet, a reassessment of the American Revolution that looks at how the Founders were influenced by women, Native Americans, African Americans, and religious dissenters.

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Nearly two decades before the official founding of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote to artist Charles Willson Peale in January 1802: “I have for a considerable time been meditating a plan of a general university for the state of Virginia, on the most extensive & liberal scale that our circumstances would call for.”

Jefferson considered the university to be one of his three greatest achievements—with the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. In his post-Presidential years, he was able to devote himself to fulfilling the dream of an “academical village.”

Today we’ll hear from Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy about Jefferson’s aspirations for his university. His book is a twin biography of Jefferson in retirement and of the University of Virginia’s first years.

In seeking to understand figures from the past, the ability to read their own recorded thoughts is immensely valuable. Today’s author Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy used Founders Online in researching this book. Founders Online, a website hosted by the National Archives through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, has transcriptions of thousands of documents written by and to the nation’s founders.

Jefferson’s letter to Peale is easily accessible on Founders Online, and that portal also gives us the context for the title of today’s book.

In an 1826 letter, at the end of a proud description of the new university, Jefferson told his correspondent: “this institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. [F]or here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

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Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy, is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. His previous books include An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean and The Men Who Lost America.

Joining him in conversation is Holly Brewer, Burke Professor of American History and associate professor at the University of Maryland.

Now let’s hear from Andrew O’Shaughnessy and Holly Brewer. Thank you for joining us today.