Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden

Off to College

The next morning Thomas Jefferson continued his journey towards Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia and seat of William and Mary College. For five days, now, he had been plodding patiently along, crossing a winding brook, or following a narrow trail under overhanging branches that sometimes reached far enough downward almost to sweep him from the saddle, or again picking his way carefully through the thick mud of the unkempt road.

At last he could make out a cluster of trees. His heart leaped as he thought he saw among them the stately spires of the town.

"Williamsburg!" he exclaimed, under his breath, urging Admiral to a gallop.

The way now led between great dark green fields of tobacco that stretched their broad acres as far away on each side as his eyes could reach. Now and then a man passed him on horseback, greeting him with the hearty politeness of country travelers unspoiled by city life. Thomas replied gravely and pleasantly, but kept to himself and rode on alone. A lumbering stage coach and a wagon laden with empty hogsheads rumbled by, the latter driven by a young negro singing a jovial tune. The winding roadway led him at last straight into the heart of Williamsburg. The lanky country boy, who had never before beheld even so small a town as this village of a couple of hundred houses and a thousand people, drew rein to admire it, his face lighted with wonder and interest.

At length, riding down the broad street, which he calculated must be all of one hundred feet wide, guiding Admiral now and then to avoid stepping into a gully, he reached the public square. Here he paused again to gaze at the public buildings with their stately trees and well-kept grounds. The capitol he had already passed, looking up at it with awe and admiration. The street, the only one the town boasted, stretched away toward the college. Catching sight of the brick building half-hidden among graceful trees, Tom touched Admiral with the whip and galloped toward it, with eyes and thoughts now for nothing else.

As he came nearer he could see, besides the main building of two stories with its inspiring belfry, several smaller structures that looked more like dwellings than halls of learning. He supposed that possibly the professors lived in those. Well-worn paths led among the trees and grass from each to the large main entrance of the principal building.

Tom reined Admiral down to a sober walk as he entered the grounds, his heart beating high with hope and excitement at having at last actually arrived at the place of his dreams—college itself! It seemed unreal, somehow, and as if he were still out hunting deer on the hillside with James Maury, the two talking of how some day" they would be college men. But here he was, and Admiral, wet and tired with his journey, was jogging along the avenue toward a white hitching place near the front steps.

Two young men were standing there, talking gayly, one of them holding his three-cornered hat in his hand and now and then tapping his companion on the shoulder with it. They paused to glance toward the newcomer, who dismounted, buckled his bridle over the railing, and strode toward the steps. He was about to pass them with a shy nod, when one stepped forward holding out his hand.

"Excuse me, sir, but I can't help thinking you are newly come to college?" he inquired in a pleasant voice.

Thomas paused, his long face lighting up as he took the hand offered.

"My name is Page," went on the speaker, turning to introduce his friend; "and this fellow here in the green coat is Burk, one of the high lights of the place."

"Now, Page, don't lose me my reputation that way! I'm glad to welcome you, Mr—a hallway, up a flight of wooden stairs, and down a narrow corridor to a room, the door of which Page threw open with a flourish.

"Behold the place where Burk, future author of the 'Annals of Williamsburg Society,' and other learned works, holds forth. Enter without fear, sir!"

It was a comfortable looking room, its furniture showing signs of wear and some ill usage. Over the mantel hung a pair of rapiers with a fencer's mask, and in one corner two long-barreled guns stood against the wall. A long-eared hunting dog jumped from a sofa and came forward, working his whole body and whining with delight. The whole atmosphere of the place was one of good fellowship, but the pile of well-thumbed books on the table beside the window showed that study had its share, too, in the life of the two inmates.

The friends made Tom feel thoroughly at ease. After he had brushed his clothing and refreshed himself, Page took him down to register and go through the necessary formalities of becoming a real college student. He insisted on bringing Tom back with him, and he and Burk gave the new student various bits of information regarding college ways and life.

"We're due for a battle with the town boys again before long. With that long arm of yours and those shoulders, you'll be a reinforcement worth having," remarked Burk, looking at Tom's strong spare frame thoughtfully. "Won't he, Page?"

"Battle? How's that?" asked Tom curiously.

"Oh, we have 'em once a year or thereabouts.

"It helps to keep things lively. Have you seen any of our educated Indians yet?"

"Hasn't had time, of course," put in Page. "Remember, Burk, you absent-minded genius, he's new-hatched—not an old bird like you.

"Give him time."

"Why no. I didn't know—" Tom looked curious.

"Oh, well, of course you didn't," agreed Burk, casually throwing a cushion at Page. "We've a few. A lot of the money the college runs on was given for the purpose of teaching Indians. Much good it does 'em, and precious little they'll take, anyhow."

"What are you going to make a specialty of, Mr, Jefferson?" asked Burk, presently, from the sofa, where he had thrown himself full length. "Theology?"

Tom shook his head.

"No. I've been digging away at Latin and Greek since I was nine, and I think I'd like a little mathematics."

Page nodded thoughtfully.

"That's good. The college has been filling up with a crowd of boys this last year or two, studying their very first Latin. I tell you, Mr. Jefferson, it's getting hard to tell whether this is a grammar school, an Indian school, or a college! We have mission teachers, school-masters, and what not. Of course we have a professor of divinity and one of moral philosophy and all that. Then the president himself gives four lectures on theology every year—"

"Who gives the mathematics?" asked Tom anxiously

Burk sat up suddenly.

"The one man in William and Mary most worth listening to," he exclaimed, "and, unless I'm getting short-sighted in my old age, he's coming up the avenue this minute. Come on down, Jefferson, and I'll introduce you."

Seizing Tom's arm, he rushed him out the door and down the stairs in time to meet a slender, scholarly-looking man who was coming very deliberately into the front hall. As the two boys came forward, the gentleman paused and, noting the shy flush on Tom's freckled cheeks, smiled a little and looked at the newcomer inquiringly. Burk bowed.

"Dr. Small," he said, respectfully, "Mr. Jefferson has just come, and I know he doesn't wish to lose any time in being introduced to you."

Tom bowed, as did the doctor.

"Welcome to William and Mary, Mr. Jefferson," said Dr. Small, in a broad Scotch accent. Then the man who, as Thomas Jefferson wrote many years afterward, was to "fix the destinies" of his life, took him by the hand.

Such was the entrance of Jefferson into one of the earliest of the American colleges, and here for the next two years the tall, sandy-haired youth attended classes. Here also he made some life-long friends, among them more than one who was to make a name for himself on the pages of Virginia's history.

But the laughing, talking group on the campus that first day little dreamed of the great work ahead of them, a few years later.