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Rot, Riot, and Rebellion

Mr. Jefferson's Struggle to Save the University That Changed America
Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos

BUY Ebook · 200 pp. · ISBN 9780813934716 · $14.95 · Aug 2013
BUY Paper · 200 pp. · 5.5 × 8.5 · ISBN 9780813937632 · $14.95 · Feb 2015

Thomas Jefferson had a radical dream for higher education. Designed to become the first modern public university, the University of Virginia was envisioned as a liberal campus with no religious affiliation, with elective courses and student self-government. Nearly two centuries after the university’s creation, its success now seems preordained—its founder, after all, was a great American genius. Yet what many don’t know is that Jefferson’s university almost failed.

In Rot, Riot, and Rebellion, award-winning journalists Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos offer a dramatic re-creation of the university’s early struggles. Political enemies, powerful religious leaders, and fundamentalist Christians fought Jefferson and worked to thwart his dream. Rich students, many from southern plantations, held a sense of honor and entitlement that compelled them to resist even minor rules and regulations. They fought professors, townsfolk, and each other with guns, knives, and fists. In response, professors armed themselves—often with good reason: one was horsewhipped, others were attacked in their classrooms, and one was twice the target of a bomb. The university was often broke, and Jefferson’s enemies, crouched and ready to pounce, looked constantly for reasons to close its doors.

Yet from its tumultuous, early days, Jefferson’s university—a cauldron of unrest and educational daring—blossomed into the first real American university. Here, Bowman and Santos bring us into the life of the University of Virginia at its founding to reveal how this once shaky institution grew into a novel, American-style university on which myriad other U.S. universities were modeled.


A lively, very well-told account of the university's early, ugly years. The chronicle of drunken, loutish behavior is artfully handled.

Peter S. Onuf, Senior Research Fellow, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor Emeritus, University of Virginia

[An] often gripping chronicle of 'Mr. Jefferson’s university.'... [T]he school grew into what Jefferson had imagined: a secular place of learning where students could forge their own academic paths, and where they could govern themselves—innovations that have come to largely define the modern American university.

Publishers Weekly

Tales of intrigue, political infighting, rebellion on all sides—well, it's good to know nothing's changed at the University of Virginia! Carlos Santos and Rex Bowman paint a colorful portrait of the University of Virginia in its early years. They've enriched my knowledge of the Academical Village, and deepened my appreciation for what Thomas Jefferson and his supporters endured to create today's world-class institution.

Larry J. Sabato, Director, Center for Politics, University of Virginia

[A] gripping, chronicle of 'Mr. Jefferson’s university,'... Bowman and Santos bring to life the university’s growing pains through a roughly year-by-year account of the unruly and out-of-control students who 'randomly [shot] at passersby' and dogs, 'whip[ped] professors,' disrupted classes in various ways, and settled disputes with knives.... [T]he school grew into what Jefferson had imagined: a secular place of learning where students could forge their own academic paths, and where they could govern themselves--innovations that have come to largely define the modern American university.

Publishers Weekly

[A] robust story with vivid prose... [a] cracking good book.

Richmond Times-Dispatch

[E]xcellent....It certainly makes for fun reading. More important, it shows how higher education as we know it almost didn’t happen.

The Washington Post

The story of the first two decades of The University as told by Bowman and Santos is an important contribution to Virginia history. It is an illustrative tale of how one person’s vision can lead to the creation of something valuable, especially after the vision is re-aligned to fit reality.

The book is written in the crisp, clear prose which has marked the writing careers of Bowman and Santos. The story of the dark side of UVa is told with the objectivity expected of seasoned journalists and adds to the rich history of one of the country’s most revered universities.

Roanoke Times

Drawing on a wealth of primary sources and distilling their findings into a book at once brief and bright, Bowman and Santos exemplify the best of reporting and lively writing. Entertaining and informative, "Rot, Riot, and Rebellion" offers a disturbing and ultimately triumphant examination of the launch of Virginia’s flagship university and of the leaders who saved it from an early demise.

Richmond Times-Dispatch

[M]eticulous[ly] research[ed]... Bowman and Santos have no trouble making a lively narrative of the school's querulous and often scandalous beginnings. There is a worthy description of an early student, Edgar Allan Poe, who 'witnessed many brawls, sometimes gruesome.'

Wall Street Journal

Thomas Jefferson's university was a bold experiment.... Here are some of the most memorable moments—some violent, some comedic, some sublime—that marked the painful birth of the University of Virginia.

UVA Alumni Magazine

About the Author: 

Former reporters for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos have been writing about Virginia for more than fifty years. Rex Bowman has written for Time, the Washington Times, and New York Times Upfront. Carlos Santos has covered stories for the New York Times and People Magazine as well as for the Associated Press.

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