Thomas Jefferson is one of America's most important historical figures, a leading influence in the nation's early years. Most notably Jefferson is credited with authoring the Declaration of Independence and serving as the third President of the United States, where he was responsible for nearly doubling the country's size through the Louisiana Purchase.
A man of many talents, Jefferson dedicated his entire professional life to meeting the challenges of his age: political freedom, religious freedom, and educational opportunity. After leaving public office, Jefferson returned to his Virginia plantation, and helped form the nucleus of the Library of Congress by selling his collection of books (almost 7,000 volumes) to the government. But instead of retiring peacefully in the countryside, the seventy-six-year-old statesman embarked on his last great public service: building what would later become one of the most beautiful and prestigious universities in the world.
The University of Virginia, at the time, was considered a "bold vision" by its founder and architect. Unlike other schools, UVA was going to be free from the influence of religion and allow students an elective curriculum. In addition, UVA became the first university in the country to eschew large, single buildings on campus. Instead, Jefferson created the "academic village" style which implemented a series of smaller pavilions stacked in parallel lines, thus forever changing the design of American universities. Until his final days, Jefferson was still intimately involved in the university, hosting Sunday dinners at his private residence for faculty and students.
Today Jefferson's presence is hard to escape on the Charlottesville campus. Each year there are numerous awards, recognitions, and celebrations held in his name. In particular, on April 13, Jefferson's birthday, the university celebrates "Founder's Day." A tree is planted in acknowledgment of a university community member who made a lasting contribution. There is also a formal dinner for recipients of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals, awards that are considered to be the highest external honors bestowed by the University. Other similar namesake programs include the Jefferson Scholarship Program and the Jefferson Book Award, two initiatives that seek to honor people who embody the spirit of the school's founder.
Even more tangibly, UVA maintains a large Thomas Jefferson Monument centrally located on the sprawling historic grounds. Beneath the bronze likeness reads a quotation by Jefferson himself: "I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man."
So much of what is unique and different at the University of Virginia came directly from Jefferson. Before his death, the ex-President included the creation of UVA as one of three accomplishments for which he most wished to be remembered.