Thomas Jefferson first came to Williamsburg to attend William & Mary in March 1760. Until April 1762, Jefferson lodged and boarded in the building known today as the Sir Christopher Wren Building. He remained in Williamsburg to read law for the next five years under George Wythe, the distinguished jurist who was to become the first professor of law at William & Mary in 1779.
The Legacy of Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was and remains a complex figure in American history. He is simultaneously known for his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and for owning 607 enslaved men, women, and children while operating Monticello as a plantation. More information can be found on Monticello's webpages.
On William & Mary's campus, the complexities surrounding Jefferson have arguably manifested most actively on a statue depicting him, donated by the University of Virginia in 1993 to repay a prior debt and located between Washington Hall and McGlothlin-Street Hall. In 2015, the Thomas Jefferson Statue was "covered in sticky notes" challenging Jefferson's legacy.
This quote was formerly in Swem Library on the lobby wall: "This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." --Thomas Jefferson to William Roscoe, December 27, 1820 (The 'institution' Jefferson is referring to is the University of Virginia.)
From his 1821 Autobiography: "went to Wm & Mary college to wit in the spring of 1760 where I continued 2. years. it was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr Wm Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communicn correct & gentlemanly manners, & an enlarged & liberal mind. he, most happily for me, became soon attached to me & made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science & of the system of things in which we are placed. fortunately the Philosophical chair became vacant soon after my arrival at College, and he was appointed to fill it per interim: and he was the first who ever gave in that college regular lectures in Ethics, Rehtoric & Belles lettres. he returned to Europe in 1762. having previously filled up the measure of his goodness to me, by procuring for me, from his most intimate friend G. Wythe, a reception as a student of law, under his direction, and introduced me to the acquaintance and familiar table of Governor Fauquier, the ablest man who had ever filled that office. with him, and at his table, Dr Small & mr Wythe, his amici omnium horarum, & myself, formed a parti quarr, & to the habitual conversations on these occasions I owed much instruction. mr Wythe continued to be my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life. in 1767." Thomas Jefferson Papers Library of Congress
"It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life, that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then professor of mathematics [at the College of William & Mary], a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communications, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind." --Thomas Jefferson, William & Mary Class of 1762
Jefferson however did not always have such positive things to say about the College. You will find that information in great detail in a number of books including Jefferson biographies and histories of the University of Virginia, of which he is known as the "father."
Jefferson Project at Swem Library
The Jefferson Project was funded by the Papers of Thomas Jefferson and the Delmas Foundation to enable Swem Library to scan its approximately 700 Jefferson items (documents by and to Jefferson). There is a record for each item with a link to the scan of it in Swem Library's online catalog.
Materials in the Special Collections Research Center
- Search "Thomas Jefferson" in SCRC Database.
- Thomas Jefferson Project in SCRC Digital Archive.
- Jefferson goes to school in Williamsburg by Dumas Malone in SCRC Archives. Available at Wolf Library (KF292.M375 Z59, (no.19)) and Swem stacks and Special Collections Rare Book Collection (E332 .M28 1957)
- Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 6 Jan.-29 July 1821, 6 January 1821. National Archives
- Suggested Reading List from the Monticello website