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The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind

Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University
Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy

BUY Cloth · 368 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813946481 · $34.95 · Sep 2021
BUY Ebook · 368 pp. · ISBN 9780813946498 · $34.95 · Sep 2021

Already renowned as a statesman, Thomas Jefferson in his retirement from government turned his attention to the founding of an institution of higher learning. Never merely a patron, the former president oversaw every aspect of the creation of what would become the University of Virginia. Along with the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, he regarded it as one of the three greatest achievements in his life. Nonetheless, historians often treat this period as an epilogue to Jefferson’s career.

In The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind, Andrew O’Shaughnessy offers a twin biography of Jefferson in retirement and of the University of Virginia in its earliest years. He reveals how Jefferson’s vision anticipated the modern university and profoundly influenced the development of American higher education. The University of Virginia was the most visible apex of what was a much broader educational vision that distinguishes Jefferson as one of the earliest advocates of a public education system.

Just as Jefferson’s proclamation that "all men are created equal" was tainted by the ongoing institution of slavery, however, so was his university. O’Shaughnessy addresses this tragic conflict in Jefferson’s conception of the university and society, showing how Jefferson’s loftier aspirations for the university were not fully realized. Nevertheless, his remarkable vision in founding the university remains vital to any consideration of the role of education in the success of the democratic experiment.


A great contribution to the literature both on Jefferson and on the University of Virginia. O’Shaughnessy challenges recent scholarship on Jefferson and the history of the university’s founding and explicates Jefferson’s thinking and plans for the university, the commonwealth of Virginia, and the nation.

Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University · The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

As a living monument to the efficacy of reason and to the pursuit of justice in a fallen world, Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia is an essential American institution. In this landmark and illuminating work, Andrew O'Shaughnessy is a wonderful guide into the world of Jefferson's thoughts and deeds on the question of education—an undertaking the author of the Declaration of Independence knew to be vital for the creation and the preservation of democracy itself.

Jon Meacham · Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

In this well-researched and skillfully crafted history of the University of Virginia, O’Shaughnessy explores the origins of Jefferson’s ideals for the university and gives us a fresh and important way of understanding them. Jefferson, a visionary man of the Enlightenment and lover of books, created the library and chose the curriculum for his university. Jefferson the architect designed and supervised the construction of the physical foundations for his Academical Village. Both of these were crucial to the fulfillment of his life-long commitment to an illimitable freedom of the mind.

Barbara Oberg, Princeton University · Women in the American Revolution: Gender, Politics, and the Domestic World

It falls to very few individuals personally to conceive and craft a leading university from scratch, from lofty ideals down to the last brick and book. The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University vividly describes Thomas Jefferson’s obsessional project for a University of Virginia, and also provides a fresh understanding of the American Enlightenment, its soaring strengths and its ugly flaws.  Jefferson himself emerges not just as a benign, twinkling-eyed patriarch, but also as a ruthless and effective political operator.  Linking the man, the educational content, the state, the nation and the University in a way never before done, O’Shaughnessy has given us an essential text for understanding post-revolutionary America.

Miles Young, Warden of New College, Oxford

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