Alan Ryan

July 7, 2006

On Thomas Jefferson's gravestone, just three of his achievements are mentioned: that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom , and that he was "father of the University of Virginia". That he was also the third president of the US is not mentioned; that he undertook the Lousiana Purchase, which created most of the Midwest - more than a fifth of the area of the present-day US - is also ignored.

To be fair, it is true that the epitaph also ignores James Madison's role in getting Jefferson's longed-for statute on religious freedom on the books. But it is an epitaph, not a short history of the early American republic, and Jefferson wrote it to remind spectators what he thought his life had been about.

It is a good moment to celebrate all three achievements: the 230th birthday of the declaration, the 220th of the Virginia statute and the 178th of the University of Virginia - whose first buildings were designed by Jefferson, who was by then in his seventies. They are achievements that hang together in ways that are easily overlooked if we think July 4 is only an excuse for fireworks, barbecues and beer, that universities are justified entirely in economic terms and that religion is a matter of blind belief rather than rational inquiry. Whether Jefferson was right to believe that they can always hang together is another matter; I'm sure he was, but it is a minority view.

The University of Virginia is still a pretty astonishing achievement - setting aside the continued surprise of Jefferson's original buildings and their lawns and gardens. It was a state university at a time when what eventually became the Ivy League were small, private colleges, firmly in the grip of one or another Protestant establishment. It was always meant to close the gap between the practical and the purely academic, Jefferson's genius not being of the sort to confine itself to one or other side of that line. And it still does. Year after year it comes second only to Berkeley among American public universities in the US News and World Report 's ranking.

Contrary to the usual British view that US universities thrive only because they have colossal endowments, Virginia's is only some $3.5 billion (£1.9 billion). That is a substantial amount, but smaller than that of Oxford University, which is about £2.2 billion for the colleges and another £600 million for the university. Virginia doesn't charge the earth for an undergraduate education either; tuition fees are about $7,500 - unless you come from out of state, in which case they are $25,000.

You see the difference between a so-called public Ivy and the Ivy League when you dig deeper. Virginia's student-to-faculty ratio is about 15:1, Princeton University's is only 7:1. And even $25,000 tuition fees for out-of-state students are still $6,500 a year less than those at an Ivy League institution.

Things are rather different in the various professional schools, of course. Virginia's law, business and medical schools charge the same eye-watering fees that their British counterparts charge overseas students and pay faculty much the same salaries the Ivy League professional schools pay theirs - the price of being a top ten school is high. But then, your alumni stand to make a lot more money than your faculty and will donate generously to the school in due course.

What Jefferson would have made of all that it is fruitless to ask. But what he was after is still an ideal worth pursuing. It is not just the Declaration of Independence 's great assertion that we all have the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that we do well to remember. It is the faith in argument, in the pursuit of inquiry wherever it might lead and in the possibility of a community being united by discussion rather than dangerously divided.

The Statute for Religious Freedom begins even more memorably than the declaration: "Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either." It carries on in the same vein. And having admitted that no sovereign body can bind its successors irrevocably, it ends by bidding those successors to remember that whatever restrictions they may want to impose, freedom of the mind is one of the rights of nature.

Whether any of this will change Richard Dawkins's mind about religion, or David Cameron's or John Reid's about human rights, is another matter entirely. But the colonists' cause must have looked pretty hopeless in July 1776, too.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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