Thomas Jefferson Papers

Honorary Degree Conferred on Jefferson by the College of William and Mary, 20 January 1783

Honorary Degree Conferred on Jefferson by the College of William and Mary

The president and professors of the university or College of William and Mary to all to whom these present letters shall come, greetings.

Since academic degrees have been instituted in order that men deserving most highly of learning and the state may be honored by such distinctions, know ye that we by the sole means in our power—the conferring gladly and eagerly of the degree of doctor in the civil law—bear witness to the high opinion we hold of Thomas Jefferson, Virginian, who, having been educated in the bosom of our alma mater, exhibits wonderful good will to this seat of the Muses and bears hence good will not inferior; most skilled both in private and public law; of exceptional love for his country; illustrious not only in other matters but especially in championing American liberty; and so imbued with letters, whether popular or recondite and abstruse, that all the fine arts seem to foregather in one man; these arts are adorned by the greatness of his mind which proposes nothing with regard to ostentation, everything with regard to conscience, and for a deed well done he seeks his reward not from popular acclaim but from the deed itself. Therefore, in a solemn convocation held on the twentieth day of the month of January in the year of the Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-three, by the unanimous votes of all, we have elected and appointed this honorable and illustrious man, Thomas Jefferson, doctor in the civil law, and him, by virtue of the present diploma, we have ordered to enjoy and rejoice in, for the sake of the honor, the several rights, privileges, and honors pertaining in any way to this degree. In testimony of this fact we have caused to be affixed to the present document the common seal of the University which we employ in this capacity. Granted in the home of our convocation on the aforesaid year, day, and month.

J: Madison, Pr.

G. Wythe, p.l.p.

R. Andrews, m.p.p.

C. Bellini, m.l.p.

MS (MHi); engrossed on parchment, in Latin, with ribbon and seal at foot of page; signed by the Rev. James Madison, president; George Wythe, professor of law and police; Robert Andrews, professor of mathematics and philosophy; and Charles Bellini, professor of modern languages. There can be little doubt that this document, with its high tribute to TJ’s sense of public duty, was drafted by his former teacher and legislative colleague, George Wythe. More than any others on the faculty of the College of William and Mary, Wythe had cause to know not only how indefatigably TJ had labored in the “holy cause of liberty” to which they both were so deeply devoted, but also how much his sensitive nature had suffered from the impugning of his conduct as Governor. It may well have been that this tribute from his own college was inspired by the sense of injustice—though belatedly rectified—done him by the legislature in June, 1781, in calling for an investigation. The conjecture that Wythe was the author of the diploma is perhaps supported also by the nature of the Latin text as well as by the thoughts expressed. Professors Allen C. Johnson (emeritus) and John V. A. Fine of the Department of Classics, Princeton University, to whom the editors are indebted for the translation above, are of opinion that the author of the text was not, to say the least, a carefully trained classical scholar. According to tradition, Wythe was largely self-taught in the classics, having been given some instruction in “Latin … and the fundamentals of Greek” by his mother (DAB description begins Dictionary of American Biography description ends ).

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