In 1800, Bishop James Madison, noting the gloomy prospects of the College of William and Mary, lobbied his cousin, the politician James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson to found a new university. Until such an institution was established, Madison declared, “Virginia will never acquire the Preeminence which may & ought to distinguish her.”

Twenty-five years later, the University of Virginia welcomed its first class, 123 students, most of them the sons of Southern gentlemen. The Charlottesville institution, Jefferson had hoped, would make his “utopian dream” a reality: by reforming plantation culture; equipping Southerners to adopt a more democratic state constitution while defending states’ rights against increasingly powerful northern interests; and both freeing and deporting slaves.

In “Thomas Jefferson’s Education,” Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, provides a richly detailed account of the origins of UVA. Taylor highlights the contradictions in Jefferson’s goals. Trained to defend states’ rights, he points out, graduates of the university opposed a more democratic state constitution and celebrated slaveholders as “benevolent protectors of inferior beings.”

The organization of “Thomas Jefferson’s Education” is, well, idiosyncratic. Taylor moves back and forth in time. He digresses. And he does not compare riotous student conduct, faculty oversight, and the curriculum at William and Mary or the University of Virginia with institutions of higher education in the North.

That said, Taylor presents a lively and informative analysis of the lived experience of undergraduates and professors in late 18th- and early 19th-century Virginia. He attributes students’ drinking, gambling, cavorting, dueling, defiance, dissipation and lack of discipline to an “honor” culture that trained them to be sovereign authorities over their slaves — and turned genteel boys into petty tyrants. “Premature ideas of independence, too little repressed by parents,” Jefferson proclaimed, “beget a spirit of insubordination, which is the great obstacle to science with us, and a principal cause of its decay since the revolution.”

Along with his growing skepticism about the “educability” of the post-revolutionary generation of white Virginians, Taylor demonstrates, the author of the Declaration of Independence concluded that African-Americans were too ignorant for freedom and too dangerous to teach to read and write.

The establishment of the University of Virginia, Taylor concludes, abounds in ironies. Because Jefferson lavished state funds on architecture, tuition was so high it prevented any but sons of the wealthy from attending. Enslaved people built the institution, making and laying bricks, cutting and hauling stones. Eventually, enrollments grew, students practiced temperance and self-discipline and dialed down the violence and aggressive individualism by adopting the Christian faith that Jefferson distrusted. And graduates of the University of Virginia defended the Confederacy they loved.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

Thomas Jefferson's Education
By: Alan Taylor.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 426 pages, $29.95.