Remembering Edward Kennedy, Virginian

The University of Virginia witnessed the passing of another great Virginian—a Virginian in the sense of his association with the University—just shy of two centuries, or 183 years to be precise, after the passing of the founder of the University. Ted Kennedy’s ties to Virginia, of course, do not compare to those of Mr. Jefferson. Yet they are, in a sense, two bookends on the long and growing bookshelf that is the University, with the architect at the beginning and a man emblematic of an important moment in the University’s history further down the shelf.

The two men were alike in ways that are profoundly revealing about our country. Both were aristocrats in a country that shunned aristocracy. Both were dominant figures in the Democratic Party. Both stood for the common man in spite of their great privilege, something reflective of the egalitarian aspirations of the country they loved. Both led large and complex families, in Kennedy’s case, a legacy of three older brothers who died violent deaths while serving their country. Jefferson and Kennedy were patricians, patriots, and patriarchs.

Yet in spite of their privilege they were also “levelers,” dedicating themselves to providing opportunities to those who lacked their inheritance. Jefferson was a slaveholder, of course, from a different era in our history; Kennedy was born to great wealth in a house full of servants, yet he was at the forefront of the civil rights movements that finally brought equality under the law to former slaves a century after the Civil War. And as both men grew older, they grew bolder, more outraged by inequality, yet with gravitas and dignity. They became more human, and humanized, at the end of their lives.

They were also alike in being bundles of contradictions. Jefferson had a long relationship with Sally Hemings, a beautiful black woman who was a half sister-in-law and, of course, a slave. Ted Kennedy long had a reputation as a womanizer. It took an appalling tragedy at Chappaquiddick for him to become the most important champion of women’s rights in the Senate. He also became, like Jefferson, a workaholic who was responsible for a myriad of legislation. (In the vast commentary after his death, his work on civil rights, voting rights, health care, immigration, the environment and many other endeavors were mentioned, but hardly anyone noted his long and sterling record as a champion for the rights of women.)

Ted Kennedy and the founder of our University were, in short, complicated men who lived and wrestled with their contradictions, both privately and in the public arena, always willing to fight the good fight, never downcast, and in the end better men for having confronted and tried to overcome their human-all-too-human frailties—even as their lives ended with battles still to be won.

When people say the United States is “the last, best hope of mankind” I often pause, because so many countries around the world have high standards of democracy and human rights. But there is something intangible about the United States, with its extraordinary complexity and diversity, part of a great continent anchored at the beginning by states as different as Massachusetts and Virginia, states that so embody that diversity—one, a former member of the Confederacy; the other, the most liberal state in our time; both, sites of the country’s creation at Plymouth colony and Jamestown, and both producing great politicians who gave their all to overcome the worst legacies of our national heritage. And two great universities distinguish those states, Harvard, as one of the greatest private schools, and Virginia, as one of the greatest public schools, both overflowing with a diversity that would warm the capacious hearts of two great men, one the son of the Commonwealth of Virginia; the other, son of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. One attended William and Mary and then went on to found the University of Virginia. The other attended Harvard and then had the good sense to come to Charlottesville to study the law. He would go on to become one of the great American lawmakers of the twentieth century.

At the University of Virginia we mourn the passing of an era, and of a formidable alumnus: we will miss Ted Kennedy.

29 Responses to “Remembering Edward Kennedy, Virginian”

  1. Gerald Cooper CLAS 1958 says:

    I have just read your full blog entry on Kennedy and Jefferson—it contains insights that only a citizen of the world–you–could see. I believe Kennedy and Jefferson would be pleased, for you have placed them both in excellent context for the University which they both loved.

  2. Lindsey Crabill says:


  3. Bruce Brandfon, College 1965 says:

    A wonderful tribute to Senator Kennedy, a true champion of the people. His story of redemption, leadership and
    selflessness should be an inspiration to all.

  4. Peter Alpert says:

    The drawing of analogies between the two men is interesting, and to some extent persuasive. But one of them (Jefferson) was hostile to a strong central government, and the other (Kennedy) felt that a strong central government could accomplish great things, even if those great things were not universally popular in the states. In this sense, Jefferson presaged Virginia’s modern status as a “red” state, and certainly Senator Kennedy embodied — and in my ways established — Massachusetts’ “blue-ness.”

    Ted Kennedy had many progressive ideas that reflected the general consensus of those of us in Massachusetts, but which were antithetical to general opinion in Virginia. The best part of the Dean’s analysis is the recognition that, in the end, Ted was more of Massachusetts than of Virginia, that the two places are so different politically even though separated by only 400 miles, and yet in a way strongly aligned in their historical and contemporary importance to the nation.

  5. JS McClinton III 1974 says:

    I am apalled at any comparison one might draw between Kennedy and Jefferson. It was not a proud day in the University’s history when Kennedy was admitted to the School of Law. Kennedy’s relationship with honor and truth was nonexistent. His personal behavior , while in Charlottesville, was undesireable as well. So, please, stop the nonsense!

  6. Brawner Cates says:

    Excellent UVA perspective on Senator Ted Kennedy from modern times.Loved the comparison to TJ.Ted Kennedy The New England Sailor Jefferson The Virginian Horseman.Ted Kennedy served the country through his great Love The Senate and as we know Jefferson served his young country from many different venues.Ted’s brother Bobby the most passionate of the Kennedy brothers also attended UVA Law during the 1950s.I was fortunate enough to grow up in Charlottesville during that era.A truely Idyllic place to be.

  7. Charles L. Nesbit, College 1977 says:

    The DNA evidence pertaining to the alleged affair and relationship with Sally Hemings is inconclusive. It suggests only that Eston Hemings was fathered by one of approximately 25 males carrying the Jefferson family Y chromosome and living in Virginia at the time of his conception. It also indicates a number of Hemings descendants who have claimed descent from Thomas Jefferson do not carry the Jefferson family Y chromosome. There is as much or more evidence in the historical record that Randolph Jefferson fathered some of the Hemings children as there is that Thomas Jefferson fathered those children. In fact the comments in the historical record of people close to Jefferson suggest he was not involved in a intimate relationship with Miss Hemings.

    The evidence that Ted Kennedy left the scene of an automobile accident in which a young woman drowned is well documented and conclusive. His failure to report the accident and the use of his political and social influence to evade punishment and accountability for his actions with respect to the Chappaquiddick incident is also well documented.

    “It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong.” — Thomas Jefferson.

  8. Peter Verdirame, C of A&S 1976 says:

    I cannot improve on the words of Charles Nesbit, college 1977. Jefferson was one of our greatest leaders, and stood for liberty. Kennedy stood for nothing except his own political power. Kennedy was thrown out of another college because he cheated, and should never have been accepted into Virginia. While at Virginia, he broke the law repeatedly.

  9. Brien Ward says:

    It’s delicate business to lodge an objection to a eulogy (a rhetorical form that more often than not captures what the person could have been or what the living wanted the deceased to be rather than what he or she was), but it seems necessary here. To put Edward Kennedy in the same category (pick any category) with the towering figure of Thomas Jefferson is to confuse excellence and brilliance with mediocrity and obfuscation and ultimately to conflate fact and fiction. The known facts of Mr. Jefferson’s life establish that he was in essence a philosopher/writer/scientist/architect/builder/creator/intellectual. He was a reluctant and accidental politician with no penchant for legislation or oratory and a very limited ability to successfully sway the demos. Surely, these facts stand in stark contrast and are irreconcilable to the known facts of Mr. Kennedy’s life. Mr. Kennedy was neither philosopher, writer, scientist, architect, builder, creator or intellectual. (He didn’t even bother to write his own books.) He was, however, a legislator and a politician. He was a bellowing orator and a persuader of the masses but he possessed a mediocre mind and was all too comfortable with patent hypocrisy. The eulogy mentions that Mr. Kennedy attended Harvard but it does not mentioned that he was dismissed from Harvard for cheating and that his admission to the Law School was only accomplished though the right connections. We don’t have answers to the question of why Jefferson maintained slaves in spite of his having authored “The Declaration,” but we do know that other imminent figures of the time professed and sacrificed greatly for equality, liberty and democracy only to practice slavery themselves (George Washington). If this is hypocrisy, it is of an entirely different ilk than the hypocrisy of Mr. Kennedy. Although it may not be clear, I don’t reject Mr. Kennedy’s life or wish to detract from his honest efforts but I do resist the notion that Thomas Jefferson and Ted Kennedy are one and the same for fear of mortally wounding the concept of greatness. I recommend the following article written by Andrew Ferguson who has an interesting take on Mr. Kennedy’s life.
    Brien D. Ward
    Graduate School of Arts and Sciences ’83

  10. Fred B. Raines says:

    I am left without adequate words to express my dismay that the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at The University of Virginia would author such an empty headed piece. You have demeaned yourself and the office you hold. Using your position to byline this kind of unfounded, inaccurate, and undeserved article marks a departure from profesional and academic discipline. Your words of praise and comparison are certainly not worthy of a respected educator.
    A few thousand people may read your remarks and many, who do not know better, will accept them as factual. If, as I suspect, your sentiments and unfounded comparisons are strictly personal, from your heart not mind, you would have better served those readers and our University, to have kept them to yourself. If you intended a professional, well researched essay, you should be ashamed.
    For your own edification I suggest that you review your sources of information, check your research material and perhaps talk to some of Teddy’s contemporaries, avoiding the Kennedy family sycophants and revisionists that have unduly inundated the popular history of the United States.
    Matching Ted Kennedy with Thomas Jefferson in is ludicrous and you, Dean, should know it.

  11. Stuart White CLAS 87 says:

    I shutter at the lengths the University will go to to curry favor amongst politicians. I always believed the University stood for certain things foremost amongst them honor. While Ted Kennedy accomplished many admirable things in his long life, he had little sense of honor. The late Sen Kennedy should never have been admitted to UVA Law School after being dismissed from Harvard for cheating. But even then political pull was enough to gain him admission. Further, his time at UVA and his later behaviour including Chappaquiddick are clear signs of a man who beleived his wealth and power made him above the law. Conversely Mr Jefferson beleived that having wealth and power heightened the standards to which one should be held. To make the comparison between Jefferson and Kennedy is an insult to Mr Jefferson and the Founding Fathers. Please refrain from pandering and continue the high standards for which I believed the University stood.

  12. Ben V. Pearman III CLAS 2000 says:

    Finding words to describe my diametric opposition to your thoughts on Ted Kennedy has been difficult to say the least. It seems that historical revisionism is alive and well at my alma mater. Granted, Kennedy was born retired and had the option of whiling away his days on the sofa eating Cheeto’s, however labeling a career politician a success by the amount of legislation he passed is akin to admiring Bernie Madoff for how many people he scammed. Chappaquiddick, military service, drinking habits, womanizing and all the rest aside, Kennedy took away or restricted at least as many rights and liberties as Jefferson championed. I am ashamed that scores of people will read this blog and connect the author with the University and State that I love so much. Dean Woo, I am ashamed of you and your revisionist views. I am unable to comprehend what thoughts were in your head as you formed the idea for a comparision of Jefferson and Kennedy.

  13. Gayl Whipple says:

    I suppose I could write a page or two about Merrideth Woo’s silly eulogy of Teddy Kennedy, but several others have expressed my view. “Bookends” ? Equating Kennedy with Mr. Jefferson ? Daring ? or better yet, how dare you. Ms. Woo, you haven’t been at The University long enough to know or understand either one of them.

    Apparently when they were searching to fill the position you now hold, they didn’t search long enough or hard enough. With the Administration begging for donations, we’ll have to think long and hard about it.

  14. G. Robert Jones says:

    I find a comparison between Kennedy and Jefferson to be as absurd as one between Obama and Christ.

  15. It is amazing to me how death blunts the truth of one’s life!

  16. Michael Shortridge says:

    You have made a disgraceful comparison between Thomas Jefferson and Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy was kicked out of Harvard for cheating. Then, in violation of the principles of the UVA Honor System and everything it stood for, and solely because of who he was, UVA Law School admitted him.

    Kennedy symbolizes the rule of men over the rule of law. He stands for a dark time in our country’s history when the rich were not subject to our laws and were protected by a sycophantic press He was a disgrace and he brought disgrace on the University. The sooner he is forgotten, the better.

  17. Kimberly Johnson says:

    What a well-written article!

  18. Mrs. J. C. Vaughan says:

    Dean Woo, My great-grandfather graduated from the University of Virgina in the mid-19th century. My father and brother were alumni. My two sons are graduates, also. All of them have been expecially proud to have an academic link, however so distant in time, with its founder, Thomas Jefferson. Ms. Woo, reading your comparison of that enlightened, intelligent man with the dishonorable Ted Kennedy made me feel sick to my stomach. One of our sons must have predicted that reaction, as he forwarded your “essay” to me with the subject line reading: “Be prepared to vomit.”

  19. Fred Opert says:

    I was shocked when I heard that President Casteen had passed over all of the fine faculty in the College of Arts & Science and chose a new dean of the college that had neither taught at or attended the University. I think of men like Dean Kelly and Dean Woody who were steeped in the tradition of the University and the College and what magnificent leaders they were for the College of Arts & Science.

    However, I said to myself, let’s give her a chance for I am sure that she must be a fantastic educator with a great track record or she would have never been given the job.

    After reading her Letter to the Parents of Incoming Students all of my early fears were realized. She is obviously free to state her opinion, no mater what it is, on epistles to alumni and faculty; but sending this letter to the students parents makes it looks like it is the opinion of the University. She obviously knows very little about Senator Kennedy’s early history, a little less about Mr. Jefferson, and nothing about the American Constitution and legal system which assumes a man is innocent unless proven guilty. THERE IS STILL NO PROOF BEYOND A DOUBT THAT MR. JEFFERSON WAS THE FATHER OF SALLY HEMMING’S CHILDREN.

    It was a huge mistake for the Law School to admit Edward Kennedy when they were aware that he had cheating problems at Harvard. I am sure he was admitted on the strength of his brother Robert’s brilliant 3 years at the Law School. I guess Dean Woo is not aware that the Honor System is the most important tradition at the University.

    I do not think that a man of honor would have cheated at Harvard or left a young woman for 8 hours in the water at Chappaquiddick while he was figuring out how he was going to save HIS hide.

  20. Charles R Joseph, MD says:

    Whoa, what were you smoking when you wrote this fantasy. Jefferson, who believed that a government powerful enough to give you everything was also able to take away everything you had has nothing in common with a man who was willing to build one to do just that.

  21. Charles Leys, College '48 says:

    After reading the appalling comparison between Mr. Jefferson and Ted Kennedy by the current Dean of the College of Arts And Sciences at UVA, all I can suggest is- pitch Woo. She should have no place at the University of Virginia.

  22. Bernard Morton, Esq. says:

    I’m amazed at the passionate responses to demonize Kennedy while bearly whispering about Jefferson’s complicity in holding a race of people in bondage.

  23. Eric Peterson CLAS '83 says:

    I realize I am a latecomer to this discussion, but I would still like to contribute. I have read each previous entry, and while many display great passion on the part of the author, in many of those same posts there is also a significant degree of unintended irony and misinformed rhetoric. First, I applaud Dean Woo’s bravery in including a comparison to Thomas Jefferson in her essay. That is some first-rate thought-provoking rabble rousing of which Thomas Jefferson would be proud. If we are to carry into posterity one important fact about Jefferson’s thinking, it would be his belief in the importance of individual liberties, with first among those being freedom from interference in speech and religion. Any attempt to squelch Dean Woo’s voice by implying threats to her position is opposed to that belief.

    Another aspect of Jefferson that emerges from the many volumes written on his life and thought is his outward humility and disdain for affectation. Clearly he would be uncomfortable with the iconic status he has been granted on the grounds of the university he founded, and would likely be the first to suggest as inappropriate any attempt to elevate him to demigod status. Some have attempted to portray him as a slave to political doctrine, while in fact he was a pragmatist. One need only to study the purchase of Louisiana to arrive at that conclusion. Some are irate that the Jefferson-Hemings connection has been mentioned. History is dynamic and will always be subject to changes in evidence and interpretation. The simple fact is the Hemings story is a part of the historical debate, and any one of us is free to accept, or challenge, the latest findings. There are only two people who know the absolute truth, and both are long dead.

    The most ironic statements present in this debate are the ones that attack Dean Woo on the basis of her background as an “outsider.” Jefferson was a firm believer in meritocracy, and spent his life rejecting a world in which power and opportunity were reserved to those with the proper pedigree. He would be the first to applaud Dean Woo’s hiring based upon her qualifications as an educator, rather than having been born in the right state and attended the right university.

    To excoriate Senator Kennedy for his admission to UVA’s law school during the 1950s based upon the influence of his family is again ironic, especially when it comes from those who attended UVA during those years. To suggest that UVA during the majority of the 20th Century was anything but a bastion of well-connected white male scions of privileged families is a bit disingenous. There may have been an element of the less-fortunate but academically-gifted population in residence, but they were relatively invisible, and certainly not prominent along Rugby Road. That is the era in which Mr. Jefferson’s university arguably strayed the furthest from his ideals for an institution of higher learning, ideals which envisioned a university suited for turning out independent thinkers ready to tackle the hard work required from the citizens of a republic. Today’s university has made significant strides toward those ideals, and Dean Woo’s appointment is further evidence of that progress.

    As far as Dean Woo’s use of comparison is concerned, I have read it twice and can find no fault with its logic or statement of facts. I suggest those who find it so offensive read it again for what it is, rather than for what they think it might be. Dean Woo is not suggesting that Ted Kennedy should reside in the pantheon of Founding Fathers. She merely used the occasion of his passing to point out similarities in two lives lived centuries apart, tied together by a university that spanned those centuries and played a part in both lives. Thomas Jefferson would be proud to be associated with Edward Kennedy, another American who used his place in government to advance the cause most dear to his heart–the increase of liberty and democracy.

  24. David Nolan says:

    I read all the comments with interest, and they remind me that Jefferson’s contemporaries endorsed slavery, and their successors endorsed segregation, and to associate either with a worthwhile concept of “honor” is to miss the true point of it.

  25. Gerry A. Zimmerman, College '59 says:

    This article is a JOKE. That Ted Kennedy, a know cheater would be allowed into the Law School at UVA was appalling to begin with, but his cowardly actions at Chappaquiddick would have been enough to land most less politcally connected people in jail for a very long time. I was an undergraduate while he was in Law School and it was my understanding that he graduated either at or near the bottom of his class. He lived in a large rented mansion outside of Charlottesville and it gave him a perfect place to party while in school. The fact that the people of Massachusetts would elect him as their Senator is a sad reflection on their intelligence and other than his name and the fact he was John and Bobby’s brother, he had very little else to commend him. Thomas Jefferson, while not in stature, was a giant of a man in many other respects and to try and equate the two individuals is a dishonor to Mr. Jefferson’s memory. I would suggest that Dean Wo’s obvious Liberal political persuasion has colored her objectivity.

  26. L. M. Johnson says:

    Here is an interesting bit of trivia, and another thing that ties Virginia and Massachusetts — Did you know that Edward Moore Kennedy was born (2/22/32) on the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth?

  27. Edward A. Leake, Jr. UVA BA '51 says:

    Kudos to you.

    I am a current Board Member of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society. Please visit our website

  28. William K. Harrison, Jr. Law '59 says:

    This alleged favorable comparison between Mr. Jefferson and Ted Kennedy is rubbish !!!

  29. Gary Calvert says:

    I’m sure that the publishing of this essay has caused Thomas Jefferson to do somersaults in his grave. This article is truly an injustice to one of the most brilliant minds amongst those of our founding fathers.