Jefferson letter

Mary Wood/University of Virginia School of Law

The University of Virginia recently paid $9,375 for a letter written by Thomas Jefferson about the school’s first law professor. The letter is on display at the UVa law library’s Special Collections and Archives through Friday.

In 1826, Thomas Jefferson was struggling to hire a professor who would teach law at his new university.

He already had considered 12 candidates who were either skeptical of his vision to teach law in a professional manner or did not want to move to the small town of Charlottesville. In April 1826, however, he wrote to the Board of Visitors to inform its members that he had found the right man and that the law school soon would open.

The University of Virginia School of Law recently acquired that letter and has placed it on display in its library.

”Mr. Wirt declined the offices proposed to him,” Jefferson wrote. “Mr. [John Tayloe] Lomax has accepted the Professorship of Law, and will open his school on the 1st day of July. He has paid us a visit, and his appointment appears to have given the highest degree of satisfaction to every body, professors, students, neighbors & to none more than to myself. We have now 166 students, and on opening the Law school, we expect to have all our Dormitories filled. Order and industry nearly complete & sensibly improving every day.”

UVa paid $9,375 for the letter, which was sold by the James F. Scott Collection, through the Charles J. Sheppe Memorial Fund, at a Sotheby’s auction this summer, according to Randi Flaherty, special-collections librarian. The money came from donations earmarked for the purchase of rare materials.

”We decided it was an important piece of our institutional history, and we decided to go for it,” Flaherty said.

The law library already possesses a 1793 circular that Jefferson wrote to the then-governor of Rhode Island about the registration of ships, but the 1826 letter offers a glimpse into Jefferson’s tireless quest to perfect every aspect of UVa and staff it with native-born Virginians who were legal scholars and devoted patriots.

”Part of the reason the law search took so long is because Jefferson and Madison really scrutinized how to fill the roles,” Flaherty said. The law school didn’t open until a year after the rest of the university.

The law school has placed Jefferson’s letter on display, along with other contextual artifacts and information, Flaherty said, as part of an ongoing effort to explore the university’s early history. Archive material gives insight into Lomax’s life, as well as his scholarship and prominence among slave-holding families in Virginia who constructed a state and society dependent on racial injustice.

Lomax was an expert on real estate. He was apparently not a very good teacher, according to the law school website, and after a few years, he left his post. He was replaced by A.G. Davis, who was shot and killed in 1840, leading to the eventual adoption of UVa’s Honor Code.

Lomax’s approach to teaching law and legal skills to future lawyers, however, did become the dominant practice at UVa and law schools across the country as the old method of apprenticeship wore out.

He lived and taught in Pavilion III on the Lawn. The pavilion, like the rest of the university, was built by enslaved workers. While Lomax came from a prominent slave-holding family, it is unclear whether he himself owned slaves or ever brought an enslaved person to the university.

During his stint at UVa, he taught prominent secessionists R.M.T. Hunter, Alexander H.H. Stuart and Robert Toombs. In 1861, he gave an impassioned speech in favor of secession from the courthouse steps in Fredericksburg, according to archive materials.

After his departure from the university, Lomax became a respected judge in Fredericksburg. He died in 1862.

The letter, now part of the law library’s Special Collections and Archives, will be on display from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. through Friday.

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