The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Riots and Religion at Mr. Jefferson’s University

College students today might have a reputation for wild parties and late-night carousing. But, as most college professors will tell you, in class, apart from the odd student checking Facebook or Twitter, today’s college students tend to be a fairly well-behaved bunch.

Things were a wee bit different during the early years of the University of Virginia, according to Carlos Santos, a journalist who’s written about this era in the university’s history:

An artistic rendering of a University student by Porte Crayon, 1853 Credit: UVA Special Collections Library.

An artistic rendering of a University student by Porte Crayon, 1853.
Credit: UVA Special Collections Library.


“The slightest insult– a mean look– that was enough to set them off. They had hair trigger tempers, and they would bite each other, they’d fight, they’d hit each other with fists, rocks, sticks. They would use knives, they would shoot at each other. Luckily, weapons were so primitive they rarely hit each other.”

They weren’t primitive enough to prevent tragedy, though, says Santos. “The violence actually culminated in the murder in 1840 of John Davis, who was a professor of law.”
It was hardly the kind of intellectual paradise Thomas Jefferson envisioned when he founded the school in 1819. Jefferson pictured an ideal “academical village;” a place where pursuits of the mind were paramount. To be fair, collegiate violence wasn’t by any means unique to his new academic endeavor: even Harvard had to endure the antics of unruly students, including the 1807 “Rotten Cabbage Rebellion” over the quality of dining hall food. But the students’ behavior posed a real threat to the existence of Mr. Jefferson’s university.* The school, which Jefferson had created to be an academic haven outside the influence of organized religion, already had many detractors, and its reputation for violence only intensified criticism. Santos again:

“This was in an era when the law had just been pushed off the books where it was a crime to not believe in the holy trinity. And so for Jefferson to start a school that had no religious affiliation was anathema to many people, especially in Virginia. So they began to criticize the school when they saw all this violence, a murder of a professor. They wanted it shuttered.”

Jefferson at one point was brought to tears by the violence; he knew full well that it was something that could threaten the future of the university. So, Jefferson, other administrators, and the universities’ professors tried everything they could to control the problem. They instituted an “early morning rising law” to try to keep students from staying out all night, and a strict dress code to make the students at least look more orderly, or if not that, make them easily identifiable when they were causing trouble in town.

Nothing worked. Nothing, that is, until the effects of the Second Great Awakening made it to the campus. This revival of serious Christianity, which swept across America in the early 19th century, changed the atmosphere at UVA and beyond, tempering the culture of honor and violence with piety and lawfulness.

Jefferson’s university had finally gotten the kinds of students it needed to fulfill Jefferson’s dream for an academical village, but with them came the one thing Jefferson had been determined to keep out: the church.

Listen to our segment on UVA’s violent early history, or to our entire episode on higher education in America. And you can read Carlos Santos’ article on early UVA students here.

*Note: For those readers not blessed by fortune to live in Charlottesville or attend the University of Virginia, you’ll now know that as a sign of respect and affection, the founder of the school is often referred to locally as “Mr. Jefferson.”

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