Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Breckenridge, April 21, 1826

Library Acquires Jefferson Letter on Law School’s Founding

Just months before he died, Thomas Jefferson completed one of his last tasks in the project to establish the University of Virginia: the selection of the University’s first law professor. In an April 1826 letter recently acquired by the UVA Law Library, Jefferson wrote to members of the University’s Board of Visitors that John Tayloe Lomax had accepted the professorship of law and would commence law classes in July 1826.

Early this summer, the Law Library was alerted to the letter’s upcoming auction at Sotheby’s. Prior to its sale at Sotheby’s, the letter had once been part of the James S. Copley Library, a large private collection of American manuscripts, books, pamphlets, broadsides, and maps. As a circular letter to the Board of Visitors, Jefferson wrote, signed, and sent copies to every member of the Board. The New York Public Library holds James Madison’s copy in its collections; the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at UVA holds the copy sent to Joseph Carrington Cabell. Based on markings on the UVA Law Library’s newly acquired letter, we believe that this is the copy sent to James Breckenridge.

The Law School Opens

Jefferson’s letter is an important institutional record in its own right, but its significance becomes more apparent in the context of other sources from the same time period. Based on further research, we know that the letter marked the end of a prolonged search for the University’s first law professor, during which Jefferson and Madison had scrutinized the credentials, elocution, and politics of numerous candidates. Their stringent criteria—must be a devoted patriot, a native Virginian, a legal philosopher more than a “common-place” lawyer, and an effective public speaker—coupled with the difficulty of convincing established jurists to move to central Virginia, resulted in the law chair remaining unfilled when University classes began in 1825.[1] Finally, in this April 1826 circular letter to members of the Board of Visitors, Jefferson announced Lomax’s hiring and the much-anticipated opening of the new Law School.

As with other aspects of UVA’s founding, the University’s historical relationship with slavery underlies the newly acquired letter and gives perspective to our understanding of the document. The opening of the Law School depended on the labor of enslaved people. Lomax’s own undergraduate education had been funded by his uncle, John Tayloe III, one of the largest slaveholders in Virginia at the time. Twenty-six male students, most from slaveholding families, formed Lomax’s first law class. Law lectures were held in Pavilion III, which had been built in large measure by enslaved laborers.[2] As the letter joins other primary sources in UVA archives, it offers the opportunity, in line with ongoing initiatives at the University of Virginia, to investigate and tell a full story of the University’s founding, particularly the founding’s deep connections to slavery.

Thomas Jefferson's architectural plans for Pavilion III
Thomas Jefferson’s elevation and floor plan for Pavilion III, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

Teaching the Law

After assuming his professorship, Lomax implemented the law school’s early curriculum, which comprised two year-long sessions: legal procedures in the first, for those entering practice after one year’s preparation, and principles of law in the second. Eschewing Jefferson’s preference for Sir Edward Coke, Lomax taught Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries to first years for its “general map of the law,” followed by additional assigned texts. In the classroom, he “rigidly and critically” examined the students upon their readings “every other day.”[3]

During annual examinations, students submitted written answers to a committee of University faculty for review. Below are actual Law School questions from 1829.

  Public Examination, School of Law, 1829[4]

1.  What are the ages at which male and females are competent to different legal purposes? Viz.

Males. To take oath of allegiance? When at years of discretion to marry? To choose a guardian? To make a testament of personal estate (by the common law? By Act of Assembly)? To be an executor? To aliene land?

Females. To be betrothed? To be entitled to dower? When at years of discretion to consent or disagree to marriage? To bequeath personal estate? To choose a guardian? To be an executrix? To dispose of herself and land?

2. What four requisites are necessary to make a tenancy by curtesy?

3.  Of what two sorts is the remedy for false imprisonment? What are the four means which may be employed (at common law) for removing the injury? And which of them is now the most usual and effectual means in all manner of illegal confinement? What is the remedy by way of satisfaction of the injury?

The Jefferson letter will now be part of the Law Library’s Special Collections and Archives. Interested researchers should contact archives@law.virginia.edu.

 

[1] For examples of Jefferson’s and Madison’s correspondence regarding the law professorship search, see Jefferson to Breckenridge (“the appointment should not be given to a mere common-place lawyer”), 22 December 1824; Madison to Jefferson, 31 December 1824, 1 February 1825, and 4 August 1825. See also James Ambuske and Randall Flaherty, “Reading Law in the Early Republic: Legal Education in the Age of Jefferson,” in The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University, eds. John A. Ragosta, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019).

[2] For a biography of Lomax and the financial support he received from his uncle to attend St. John’s College in Annapolis, see E. Lee Shepard, “John Tayloe Lomax,” in Legal Education in Virginia 1779-1979: A Biographical Approach, ed. W. Hamilton Bryson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1982), 359; For John Tayloe III as one of the largest Virginia slaveholders in this time, see Richard S. Dunn, “Winney Grimshaw, a Virginia Slave, and Her Family,” in Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9, no. 3 (2011): 495; For a list of the first law students, see A catalogue of the officers and students of the University of Virginia Second session, commencing February 1st, 1826 (Charlottesville: Chronicle Steam Book Printing House, 1880); For the role of enslaved laborers in the construction of the UVA lawn buildings, the African American community at the University, and the University’s connection to slavery more generally, see The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, Report to President Teresa A. Sullivan, 2018.

[3] See Lomax’s 1829 outline of the Law School curriculum in “University Intelligence,” The Virginia Literary Museum and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts & Sciences &c., August 5, 1829.

[4]University Intelligence: Public Examination,” in The Virginia Literary Museum and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts & Sciences &c., September 9, 1829.

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Randi Flaherty

Randi Flaherty is the Special Collections Librarian at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library. She is also an early American historian with a focus on foreign maritime commerce in the early American republic.

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