Both Then and Now, a Celebration with “Great Éclat”

Yesterday the University celebrated founder Thomas Jefferson’s 268th birthday. Among the events were a tree planting on The Lawn and the annual awarding of three Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals. The presentation of the Medal in Law has been a Founder’s Day tradition since 1977, the year the current honoree, Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser, graduated from the Law School.  

Founder’s Day has always been celebrated in style at the University. An entry from the diaries of Law School Dean William Minor Lile reveals how the event was observed 87 years ago, an interesting time in the history of our nation and in that of our neighbor up the street, Monticello:

“April 12, 1924

“Tomorrow being Sunday, Jefferson’s birthday was celebrated today with great éclat, with Governor Trinkle present. Dr. [John Holladay] Latané of Johns Hopkins delivered the address on the great Democrat. It was a very thoughtful study, including an interesting comparison between Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson; and pointing out in a striking way what Jefferson meant by ‘entangling alliances’, by extracts from his letter indicating that at one time he was heartily in favor of an alliance with Great Britain. 

“In addition to our own University celebration, the Jefferson Memorial Association which has recently purchased Monticello @ $500.000.00, $100.000.00 only paid thus far, is here in full force, including 50 boys and girls from the schools of New York City, prize winners in a contest for the best 50 essays on Jefferson. Tomorrow there will be a pilgrimage to Monticello with all sorts of stunts to be performed on the Monticello lawn, including an oration by the Governor, orations by sundry other notables from different sections of the country, all in the line of propaganda for raising money for the purchase and endowment. A hard surfaced road has just been completed to the top of the mountain, but the road from the gate to the mansion, and particularly the return road on the eastern side, is in bad shape and scarcely manageable for cars. Seaplanes would come in well for the return trip back to the gate. I hope that by the time my grandchildren are ready to make a trip to the shrine of Democracy, the place will be paid for, a sufficient endowment provided, and the place will be put in a condition worthy of the great man who from that center evolved and disseminated a political philosophy that has influenced the whole world for the world’s good, probably more than any man that ever lived on the planet we call earth, excluding of course Jesus of Nazareth.” 

We take the absence of recent seaplane sightings over Charlottesville as solid evidence that Dean Lile’s hopes for Monticello have been realized.

– Amy Wharton, with Kristin Jensen

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Amy Wharton

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