William Addison Caldwell and the Jeffersonian Ideal

Author's Preface - There are a number of things I am thinkful for each year, but one that I hold most dear is my degree from VPI&SU. In the spirit of the day, enjoy some history. Happy Thanksgiving y'all.

On 1 October 1872, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College opened its doors. William Addison Caldwell and his brother Milton were the first two students to register for classes at the Commonwealth’s new land grant institution. Tradition holds that Addison and Mic walked twenty-three miles through the Blue Ridge from Sinking Creek to Blacksburg, a revolutionary backcountry town less than a century old still rife with the memory of Indian warfare. As the first student to enroll, Caldwell received a state scholarship that covered at least $40.[1] Within a month, almost sixty young men had joined the Caldwells at V.A.M.C. Taking a predominantly liberal arts curriculum that also included (of course) "Military Tactics," Addison graduated in 1876 on 9 August. By 1880, Addison had returned to Craig County and worked as one of the county’s twenty-six teachers.

Let us consider Mr. Caldwell for a moment. Before his four-year stay in Blacksburg, he was a farmer, and apparently a good one. The highest grade he received during his intermediate year of study at V.A.M.C. was in his "Farm work" course. We should therefore not be surprised at how Addison excelled in that course. What does strike us, though, is the fact that we was a fairly exceptional student in a number of courses we may not have expected: the highest grade Addison received outside of "Farm work" was in composition, and he received similarly highest assessments in Natural History, French, and Composition and Rhetoric.[2] A farmer who could read French and was well versed in rhetoric and writing? Addison’s report card would seem better fit in Charlottesville. In fact, we may argue that Addison Caldwell’s story is representative of the Jeffersonian ideal.

What is meant by the Jeffersonian ideal? During the seminal stages of the early Republic, there were two dominant viewpoints on how government should be run: the Federalist agenda, of which Alexander Hamilton was its most famous proponent, was based in belief that power consolidated amongst the "natural aristocracy" whereas the Anti-Federalist ranks were filled mostly by farmers that opposed strong central government. Anti-Federalists became known as "Jeffersonians" during the election of 1800, because Thomas Jefferson espoused the same values of democracy as most agrarians.[3] Later in life, Jefferson explained why he believed power should reside in the people:

"No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man's farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best."[4]

In other words, Jefferson’s ideal was epitomized by democratic participation of agrarians (meaning, in this case, everyone), to the exclusion of the aristocracy. Jefferson was convinced that the only way to have an informed populace was through education, and while serving as Vice President under John Adams, Jefferson began planning for the foundation of a new scholarly institution in Virginia.[5] The school, established on lands that were purchased by James Monroe, would become the University of Virginia. The "Academical Village" in Charlottesville was to "be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind," a place where the early Republic’s informed citizenry would be molded.[6]

Two centuries later, it would appear as if the agrarian Jeffersonian ideal has been lost in the halls of the Rotunda. In one of the Commonwealth’s great ironies, the Federalist principle of the cultural and intellectual superiority of the "natural aristocracy" that Jefferson detested has become a fixture – if not the defining characteristic – of "the University." It is unfortunate that the bourgeois attitudes of students and recent alumni seemingly have forgotten the principles of their school’s founder and first rector, one of the truly great men in American history.[7]

In between Major Williams and Brodie Hall, there stands a statue of William Addison Caldwell donated by the Class of 1956. The young farmer is depicted in mid-stride, with steely determination in his face. In his right hand he holds a sturdy, plain walking stick; ornamentation typical of aristocratic canes would not help him traverse the rugged foot trails of the Blue Ridge. The hat resting on his head is typical of nineteenth century field workers. His right hand holds a book, while a satchel clings to his right hip. William Addison Caldwell, farmer, is going to school.

William Addison Caldwell represents the Jeffersonian ideal. In a way, all students of Virginia Tech have. Maybe, just maybe, Thomas Jefferson’s legacy resides in Blacksburg more than in Charlottesville.

[1] The scholarship was also to include his monthly rent of $5 if Addison boarded in the Preston and Olin building; records are inconclusive regarding his living arrangements.
[2] Information about Addison Caldwell’s enrollment has been collected by Special Collections at Virginia Tech and can be found at http://spec.lib.vt.edu/archives/125th/students/add.htm.
[3] For those interested in a more detailed discussion regarding the Federalist debates, see Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: The History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
[4] Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph C. Cabell, 2 February 1816 in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 20 vol., Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Bergh, eds. (Washington: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905), 14: 421-3.
[5] The College of William and Mary, founded in 1693, was the first college established in Virginia (indeed, the school is the oldest Southern institution of higher education). Jefferson graduated from William and Mary in 1762.
[6] Dumas Malone, Jefferson and his Time: The Sage of Monticello (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006): 417-418.
[7] This may come across as a controversial statement, especially when we consider the recent scholarship about Jefferson’s slaves. To keep things in perspective, George Washington did not free his slaves until his death. The argument for the exceptionalism of the founding fathers has shifted away from the people themselves (indeed, everyone has flaws) toward the character of their political beliefs. Jefferson’s most lauded biography remains Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Vintage, 1998). On the slave controversy, see Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: Norton, 2009).

Photo© SparachNSniff, March 2007.


William Caldwell is my dad.

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I promise to go back and read this on Monday when I'm back at work. It looks interesting

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wow, historical scholarship on my favorite sports site.

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This kinda stuff blows me away....just another reason this is the best fan site anywhere! Where else are you going to get a great dose of history and football, not to mention tailgating recipes and #LOLUVA stuff?

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Strange twists of history. Would TJ be a Hokies fan today?

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First to arrive, but didn't graduate, I still give him props for walking over though.

Caldwell was actually the first person to flunk out of Tech, though he returned the next year, and did in fact graduate.