Thomas Jefferson envisioned the University of Virginia as a bold testament to human reason, personal liberty, and thecapacity for self-government. He granted professors the freedom to choose their texts and design their lectures, and he allowed students to select their own course of study. His design for the university, in which students and professors lived in close proximity, reflected his desire to foster mutual respect and a sense of community. While other schools relied on strict regulations to maintain order, Jefferson established a student-run board of censors. At the beginning of each academic session, the faculty selected six students to serve on the board, which handled student misconduct in all but the most extreme cases, such as dueling. In a letter to his granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, dated August 27, 1825, Jefferson explained that he planned to treat students “as men and gentlemen, under the guidance mainly of their own discretion.”
This system of reason and respect, however, quickly brokedown. The university’s earliest students were often the sons of plantation owners and wealthy merchants, and they shared a culture of honor, entitlement, and independence. Attendance at the university became a status symbol, and many students attended not to pursue knowledge but to solidify their position among the southern elite. During the antebellum period, 55 percent of students remained at the university for only a single term. These students viewed themselves as autonomous southern gentlemen and resisted even the university’s minimal regulations. Rules prohibiting students from keeping horses on grounds or from leaving grounds at night, for example, violated students’ sense of mastery and independence. Jefferson hoped that their sense of honor would foster order and self-restraint; instead, it encouraged discord and disorder.
In the early decades of the University of Virginia’s existence, students drank, partied, gambled, smoked, and raced horses through the Lawn, which stretched several hundred yards south of the Rotunda and was flanked by pavilions and student rooms. They ignited firecrackers and homemade bombs, fired pistols, and played musical instruments late at night to torment tired professors. They vandalized property, whipped enslaved laborers, attacked professors, and fought fellow students. The board of visitors abandoned Jefferson’s vision of student self-government and gradually tightened regulations. Beginning in 1831, the board required the faculty chairman inform its members of every student offense. In 1832, the board required students to inform against each other and prohibited students from assembling in the library. In 1834, it ordered professors to continue lecturing during the Christmas season in order to prevent students from going home for the holiday.
These regulations only heightened students’ discontent. At least five times—in 1825, 1832, 1833, 1836, and 1845—student misconduct escalated into open rebellion. During these riots, students shattered windows, destroyed property, lit bonfires, and rang the Rotunda bell. They held mass meetings and passed resolutions protesting university regulations and challenging their professors’ authority.
Defiance among the University Volunteers
Jefferson planned for students to receive military instruction, and with his approval students formed a military company and began drilling on the university’s grounds. In 1831, the faculty allowed students to manage the company independently. Because university regulations banned students from “keep[ing] or us[ing] weapons or arms of any kind,” however, the professors insisted that their students could only use muskets during military exercises. The students agreed and organized the University Volunteers. At the beginning of each academic session, students asked for—and received—the faculty’s permission to organize the company for another year. In 1836, however, students began parading and drilling without securing faculty permission. By then, about 70 of the university’s 265 students had joined the company. When the faculty noticed the students drilling, the faculty chairman, John A. G. Davis, reminded them of the terms of the 1832 agreement and announced that “the Faculty reserve the right of dissolving the corps … whenever the interests of the University shall in their opinion require it.”
Thomas Morris, a Baltimore native and captain of the University Volunteers, read the faculty regulations at a company meeting on November 6, 1836. The Volunteers insisted that the faculty had no right to dictate terms to the company, and the following night Davis recorded in his journal that several students set off “six or eight very loud reports of musket fire” in protest. In response, on November 9, the faculty adopted a resolution requiring students to surrender their weapons. Davis opposed the measure, arguing that the Volunteers’ actions reflected students’ ignorance of the laws rather than “deliberate resistance to our authority.” He urged caution, fearing the faculty resolution would unite the student body and “array the whole company in opposition to the faculty, so that we should be compelled to dismiss them all.”
The following evening, a student committee met with the faculty to present their own set of resolutions. They boldly proclaimed that “the company is not disbanded” and that it would continue drilling in defiance of the faculty. Each member of the company pledged his honor to “stand by his comrades,” announcing that “action of the faculty against one shall affect every individual. “While the committee met with the faculty, the other University Volunteers began shouting and firing their muskets on the Lawn. Davis wrote that the “roar of musketry” was so deafening that it interrupted their conversation. The faculty ordered the Volunteers to disperse, but the students refused. The riot continued for another two hours until a heavy rain forced the students inside.
Fault lines, however, began to emerge within the University Volunteers. When the company drafted itsdefiant resolutions on November 10, several students proposed “more moderate measures,” but the crowd “hissed down” their suggestions. When a few students hesitated to pledge their honor to support the company, their classmates insulted them until they submitted. The following day, these moderate students pleaded with the others to rescind the resolutions—but to no avail. In this culture of southern honor, the Volunteers could not back down. Honor demanded action, and company leaders, according to Davis’s journal, were “ambitious of the honor of heading a rebellion” against faculty authority. Even moderate students refused to accept disgrace or dishonor. On November 11,several students went to Davis in tears. They told him that they recognized the “impropriety of their resolutions,” but they were now honor-bound to support them. They had given their pledge and “could not retract it.”
Davis acted cautiously, trying to avoid a larger confrontation. He planned to postpone the next faculty meeting to allow time for students’ and professors’ tempers to cool. He still believed that “nine tenths of [the Volunteers] were totally ignorant not only of the law but of the facts of the case;” if he could only explain the situation rationally, he hoped students would back down. In reality, however, student unrest was growing stronger. The Volunteers were actively recruiting, and at least eight new members had joined their ranks in the past two weeks. If Davis delayed any longer, he feared the company’s ranks could swell from 70 to more than 100. Recognizing the need for action, Davis convened a faculty meeting on November 12. The professors decided to deal with the students individually, calling each student in turn to account for his actions.
When the faculty dispatched a janitor to summon the first student, however, Captain Thomas Morris replied that the entire company was busy drilling and could not leave. The professors then sent the proctor, Willis Woodley, to identify the disobedient students. When the proctor arrived on the Lawn, Morris halted the Volunteers and defiantly called roll, demonstrating that the entire company was present and still in possession of their muskets. The company then unanimously passed another resolution: “That we have our arms and intend to keep them.” Returning to the faculty meeting, the proctor recorded the names of the students who were present at the drill, and the faculty voted unanimously to dismiss them from the university.
The announcement ignited two days of rebellion on November 12–13—what Davis described as a “scene of great disorder & violence.” The University Volunteers took possession of the Rotunda, climbing the dome and planting the company’s flag in the skylight. As other students joined the rebellion, the rioters divided into two groups. One group remained at the Rotunda, furiously ringing the bell, while the other group marched through nearby Charlottesville, destroying property. Students rioted until 2 a.m. and resumed four hours later. They shattered windows with rocks and musket fire, broke doors with sticks, andrangthe Rotunda bell throughout the day. Because Davis served as the faculty chairman, the Volunteers blamed him for their dismissal and focused much of their violence on him.On the night of November 13, Davis recorded in the Chairman’s Journal that students “made a most violent attack” on his home, Pavilion X. Students threw stones, beat at his door, and shattered his window panes. They lit a bonfire on the Lawn before dispersing for the night.
The next day, two students warned Davis that “far greater outrages would be committed by the dismissed students” unless “relief were obtained.” Professors began arming themselves, preparing to defend their families against physical violence. To restore order, Davis wrote to the Albemarle County deputy sheriff and two justices of the peace asking for help. Armed soldiers arrived on November 15, and officials summoned a jury to begin investigating the violence. Their presence ended the rebellion. According to Davis, in his journal, “some [students] concealed themselves, & many fled.” By November 19, Davis reported that “Order & quiet have been completely restored.”
That night of November 19, a large group of students held a meeting at the Rotunda to draft another set of resolutions. The students expressed confidence in the “integrity and sincerity” of the University Volunteers and asked the board of visitors to “calmly and deliberately” review the situation. They acknowledged their obligation to obey university regulations, and if the board of visitors ruled that the faculty had the authority to disband the Volunteers, the students would accept the decision. In the meantime, the students vowed not to use their muskets.
On November 22, the faculty met to discuss the rioters’ fate. The parents of two of the Volunteers urged the professors to readmit all the dismissed students, with no distinctions between thosewho had participated in the riot and those who had not. Before the riot, each member of the company had pledged his honor to “stand by his comrades” and treat the “action of the Faculty against one” as an attack on “every individual.” The students were still bound by these pledges. If the faculty only allowed students who had not taken part in the riot to re-enter the university, then “no student [could] re-enter without being disgraced in the opinion of his fellow students.”
For Davis, however, the issue was more complicated. Throughout the crisis, he had blamed the Volunteers’ leaders for deceiving their classmates and pushing the company toward rebellion. He still believed that these leaders had taken advantage of the “ignorance, youth, & weakness” of their classmates to “extort from them pledges which placed them at the mercy of those who had misled them.” If the faculty only readmitted these “good students,” they were unlikely to cause trouble again. Davis believed that the truly guilty should be “forever excluded” from the university. Ultimately, however, he supported readmitting all the dismissed students, recognizing that no students would choose to reenter the institution otherwise. Having pledged their honor to stand together, students would probably find “a sentence of expulsion against all” more acceptable than a policy that allowed some students to reenter and not others. The faculty gave permission to “all the dismissed students” to reenter the university as long as they could deny participation in the riot or make “proper atonement” for their participation. In the days ahead, at least twenty-one of the dismissed students applied for—and were granted—readmission.
In August 1837, long after the crisis had subsided, the board of visitors reaffirmed that the faculty had control over student military organizations. The faculty could abolish these companies at any time and could dictate the terms of their existence. Going forward, the board tried to extend control over student life by prohibiting students from bringing horses onto the university’s grounds, banning student orations, and limiting student access to alcohol. Despite these efforts, student misconduct continued.
In the ensuing years, November 12—the anniversary of the 1836 riot—became a day of revelry, as students celebrated the riot as a victory over faculty authority. Each year, on that night, students fired pistols, lit bonfires, and set off firecrackers. In 1840, the student Charles Eversfield described other students beating tin pans, blowing horns, firing pistols, and “making unearthly yells.” Two masked students—William Kincaid of South Carolina and Joseph Semmes of Georgia—paced up and down the Lawn “firing their pistols at professors’ doors.” Several students warned them that Professor John A. G. Davis had come out of his pavilion to identify and punish the revelers. Kincaid quickly disappeared down an alley, but Semmes pressed forward. Davis confronted him, ordering him to “stop his noise and disperse,” but Semmes responded with “derisive laughter.” When Davis attempted to remove Semmes’ mask, the young Georgian aimed his pistol and shot Davis in the stomach. He died two days later, on November 14, 1840.
In the past, students had always closed ranks and defended their disobedient classmates against faculty authority—as they had during the riot of 1836. This time, however, students sided with the faculty, acknowledging that the violence had gone too far. Students captured Semmes and brought him to the Charlottesville jail, where he remained imprisoned for months awaiting trial. He posted bail and fled, eventually committing suicide at his home in Georgia.
Tradition holds that Davis’s death prompted students and administrators to create the university’s Honor System. The reality is more complex. Early in the 1840s, students continued to drink, party, beat slaves, sleep with prostitutes, and vandalize university property. Recognizing that the university’s strict regulations did nothing to stop the disorder, the law professor Henry St. George Tucker proposed a return to Jefferson’s original vision of student self-regulation. In 1841, three students were arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct at a local tavern. Rather than expel them, however, the faculty allowed them to remain at the university after signing a written pledge to abide by the university’s rules. For each of the students, three cosigners promised to report any violations of the pledge. As the historian Jennings Wagoner has written, the “integrity of their vow now made it honorable, not dishonorable, to report on the misbehavior of those who had pledged their word.”
In 1842, the faculty institutionalized this approach by creating an honor system to prohibit cheating on examinations. They later expanded the system to encompass lying and stealing. During these same years, the board of visitors also repealed or suspended several of the university’s most onerous regulations, including the Uniform Law and Early Rising Law, which controlled what students could wear and what time they had to wake up. Professors appealed to students’ sense of honor, promising to enforce the rules fairly but expecting students to obey them. University culture began to stabilize, as the faculty redirected students’ sense of honor toward maintaining order rather than flouting it. Even so, tensions lingered, and the 1836 riot would not be the university’s last. In 1845, students rebelled once again, forcing the faculty to call in several hundred soldiers to restore order. The chaos of the 1836 riot repeated itself in 1845 and in countless smaller acts of discord and disorder throughout the University of Virginia’s early history.