Review of “Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America” by Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos

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Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos are experienced writers and their book, Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America, is evidence of that. They tell an entertaining story of a university which promised to be quite unlike any other institution ever devised, but in regard to miscreant student behavior, turned out to be quite like other institutions.

There is little in the book that will surprise readers who have studied to any extent the history of the University of Virginia. Riot and rebellion were customary at most upper-level institutions at the time, and Jefferson’s university was one such institution. Yet Jefferson’s institution promised more than did others, and so there was much, so to speak, on the line. The university was undergirded, as it were, by Jefferson’s expectation that the liberties enjoyed at his institution—elective classes, minimal supervision, partnerships with professors, professors lecturing instead of reading from texts, written tests given instead of oral exams, and self-governance (miscreants to go before a jury of their peers)—in conjunction with his fundamental human goodness would prove sufficient to make his university different. His university would churn out responsible republican citizens—the scientists and political leaders in the generations to come. The University of Virginia would be a liberal, progressive model for other American institutions to follow.

The book, in keeping with its title, gives numerous episodes of riot and rebellion at Jefferson’s institution throughout its formative years, and even beyond. I give two. First, there is the early episode (3 Oct. 1825) in which Jefferson attempted to address the student body in the Rotunda to discuss students’ dissention apropos of a certain miscreant’s behavior—a bottle of urine, thrown through the opened window of Prof. Long’s room—on Sept 30. Violence escalated the next day, when there was a student disturbance on the lawn, which Professors Emmet and Tucker aimed to quell. Bricks and sticks were tossed at the professors. On October 2, seven angry professors demanded justice, which led to Jefferson’s attempt to address the student body on the third of October in the Rotunda. Choked with emotion on seeing both his institution in such disarray and that one of the main miscreants, Wilson Miles Cary, was his grandnephew, Jefferson began to weep and could not speak. In the end, three students were expelled; eight, admonished. Second, there is an entertaining episode in chapter 11, concerning a student-run military company—the “University Volunteers”—that could subsist and drill so long as they behaved in accordance with university rules, one of which is no drilling without faculty approbation. The story begins somewhat innocuously in 1832. Yet by late 1836, students start military drills without the permission of the faculty. The Volunteers, as volunteers, claimed that they did not need the sanction of the faculty to drill. The faculty were firm in their insistence that the Volunteers did need faculty sanction to drill. Rioting ensued. Two members of the Board of Visitors, one being the grandson of Jefferson, tried to mediate the dispute—a move that eventually led to resolution between students and faculty.

There are numerous other illustrations strewn throughout the book of the University of Virginia’s riot and rebellion—descriptive detail of such episodes being a product of available information on them as well as their potential interest to the reading audience.

That leads me to the problem of “rot.”

Throughout the book, the riot and rebellion are readily grasped. Each is the title of a chapter: Chapter 9 is titled “Riot”; chapter 11, “Rebellion Rebellion!” What however is the meaning of “rot”? Since the word “rot” has the principal meaning of decomposition or decay, and it can signify moral decay, which is likely the intended meaning in the title, it seems badly used, since rioting and rebellion, as the authors show, were staples of students’ misbehavior throughout the early years of the University of Virginia. As students consistently rioted and rebelled, their behavior cannot be said to have betrayed moral decay or decomposition over time. So, why “rot”? “Rot” can also mean “nonsense.” Perhaps “rot” is a metaphor to capture the insobriety of students’ life at the university. In any event, the meaning of rot is never fully spelled out to readers, and it should be. Here a brief preface, where the motivation for the book would have been given, would have been helpful.

Overall, the text is mostly faithful to chronology, and the prose is easy to read, and for the most part enjoyable, if taken in small doses. Why small doses? This is not an I-just-can’t-it-put-down book, but it is an enjoyable read, and enjoyment will be enhanced by taking it leisurely—one or two chapters at a time. Yet the writing is fluent and accessible, and the story, overall, though not sufficiently gripping—it has been told many times before—is sufficiently entertaining to make a reader, who has put down the book, pick up it soon enough, and take in another chapter or two. Moreover, the authors are sensible enough to know that the themes of rot, riot, and rebellion can be explicated and explicated well in a relatively short book. That is a plus. They do not beat the themes to death, and beat them after death.

The chapters, anecdotal, read like vignettes. Readers are given many vivid snapshots of the University of Virginia over time through the scrofulous misbehavior of its more raucous students. One conversant with Jefferson’s views on education and politics might be surprised to see that his university was in many respects a failed experiment in the liberal principles of good governing—minimal government, demassification, government by the people, etc.—applied to an academic institution—no president and a rotating Faculty Chairman, elective education, student governance, etc. Yet Bowman and Santos say nothing of the good behavior of students, and little is said to give readers an indication of what life would be like at the University of Virginia for an average student. In the language of experimental science, we have an experimental group, but no control group.

Yet this is the story of an experimental group, not of an experiment, so the authors are only entitled to write about the institution’s miscreants. Nonetheless, chapter 10, the diary of student Charles Ellis, Jr., of Richmond gives a glimpse of what a control group might be like. That chapter “provides perhaps the only complete snapshot of daily student life—its tedium, its joy, its dangers, its burdens, and the perennial yearnings of youth for love and an adventurous life.” The “snapshot” concerns Ellis’s second year at UVA—a period from March 10, 1835, to June 25, 1835. One entry from the diary also shows Ellis to be one of the students with some appreciation for the benefits of university-level education, especially at University of Virginia. It is a shame that there is so much scholarship on the degradation that accompanied early university-level education in America and too little on its benefits, and its joys.

While the rot, riot, and rebellion of the title are illustrated throughout the book, one bother however is the subtitle: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America. That promises a book exclusively devoted to the agency of Thomas Jefferson in response to problems, I presume, both in establishing the university and in keeping it afloat, once established, apropos of rot, riot, and rebellion. The rub? Jefferson died one year after the university was opened, so there can be very little to say concerning his actions to keep it afloat, once opened. The one relevant episode in 1825, Jefferson’s weeping in the Rotunda, they cover fully.

Yet of the 16 chapters, only chapters 2 and 3 wholly concern Jefferson. Chapter 2is about Jefferson’s early activities vis-à-vis educational reform that set the stage for his university. Chapter 3 concerns the albatrosses Jefferson confronted as they relate both to his actions on educational reform and to birthing his university. Thus, only chapter 3—one of 16 chapters—addresses the content of the subtitle, certainly poorly chosen. “Jefferson’s Struggle…” should have been supplanted with “The Struggle….” The book is not about Jefferson.

Given the anecdotal structure of the book—and discursiveness works for the book (violence is itself often, if not customarily, spontaneous and unplanned, so would not a loosely structured book on violence work better than one tightly structured?)—it is astonishing that nothing is said of the architecture and layout of the institution. The layout and architecture were intended to promote health, encourage study, and engender bonds between professors and students, not to engender violence. Such things noted, it makes it all the more disastrous that rioting and rebellion should characterize so much of the behavior of students in the university’s formative years.

The university, Jefferson said, was to be an “academical village”—large houses are always ugly, inconvenient, exposed to the accident of fire, and bad in case of infection,” Jefferson writes to L.W. Tazewell (5 Jan. 1805)—whose layout featured several small buildings nestled around a large, open lawn, and whose architecture was to offer visual lectures on architectural design and inspire grand and beautiful thoughts. The university would comprise 10 pavilions—five on each side of the front lawn—to house professors and to be used as lecture halls, numerous student dorms, and six hotels where students’ meals were served, and all in a rural setting to facilitate health. Richard Guy Wilson, in Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village, says that the “village” was to be a “mixture of farm and books, of healthy rusticity and intellectual urbanity, of trees and plantings in a controlled architectural setting.”

The pavilions, each an extraordinary architectural achievement, were to be of varied architectural designs. Writes architectural historian Lewis Mumford in The South in Architecture: “Jefferson designed each of the professors’ pavilions to be a replica, as far as possible, of some noble classic temple; in order that the students of architecture might have a model of the best taste of the past always before their eyes.” In his essay “Thomas Jefferson’s Classical Architecture,” Wilson adds to Mumford’s sentiment concerning the pavilions. “A dialog takes place on the lawn between the ancients and moderns,” with students being privy to it.

Overall, Rot, Riot, and Rebellion has little to do with Jefferson’s struggle to save “the university that saved America.” In that regard, it disappoints. Yet the authors do explain just how the University of Virginia “changed America.” Public institutions would became secular. Other institutions would turn to lecturing to students instead of reading from a book, encourage professors to interact much with students, turn to elective education to conform to utility and students’ interests, and emulate the University of Virginia’s code of honor. Here the authors deliver on their promise.

I end with a particularly thorny issue: the problem of motivation.

Why was the book written? There is no preface, and I found nothing in the introduction that answered the question of the void that the book is supposed to fill in the secondary literature on the formative years at the University of Virginia. Have the notions of rot, riot, and rebellion gone unnoticed by other scholars? That certainly is not the case, as there is an abundance of books and papers which have chronicled in varying degrees the “indecorum” of students’ behavior at the University of Virginia throughout its years—e.g., Jennings L. Wagoner’s excellent paper “Honor and Dishonor at Mr. Jefferson’s University,” which I was astonished to find is not listed in the bibliography.

In sum, the authors, collecting and arranging material of the decadency of the early years of the University of Virginia, give a vivid picture in fluid prose of the difficulties in birthing a viable institution—difficulties made more arduous given Jefferson’s grand expectations at his university. What they fail to give, however, is sufficient warrant for constructing the book in the first place. What are the authors offering for consideration that others have not said?

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