Just months before his death, University of Virginia founder Thomas Jefferson wrote to each member of the board of visitors with exciting news: The University had hired its first law professor and the Law School was slated to open.

One of those letters now has a new home at UVA Law.

The General Assembly charted UVA and a “department” of law in 1819, and Jefferson served as the first rector, alongside visitors such as James Madison and James Monroe. John Tayloe Lomax was the first law professor and taught his first classes in Pavilion III in 1826.

According to Special Collections Librarian Randi Flaherty, the letter, which will be put on display Thursday at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library, demonstrated Jefferson’s unique attention to creating the Law School.

“Unsurprisingly, Thomas Jefferson wanted law taught a certain way at the University of Virginia — with an emphasis on legal philosophy as much as procedure, as part of the University’s liberal arts curriculum, so that law students could take classes in other schools,” Flaherty said. He also wanted the department’s first teacher to depend largely on the writings and thinking of Sir Edward Coke, rather than William Blackstone.

“Jefferson sought someone with sound Republican politics, so that Federalist or consolidationist thinking would not infiltrate the law curriculum and the young legal minds he expected would go on to become the nation’s leading statesmen and jurists.”

Seven prior candidates for law professor either declined or died before assuming office. Lomax, a Virginia native practicing law in Fredericksburg, was chosen by Jefferson and Madison for his political principles as well as his pedagogical skills, according to “Reading Law in the Early Republic Legal: Education in the Age of Jefferson,” a chapter Flaherty co-authored in the book “The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University.” Lomax served until 1830, when he resigned to become a state judge.

Most lawyers in Jefferson’s time trained as apprentices in private law offices, Flaherty said, so the opening of the Law School at UVA was an important moment in Virginia’s shift to teaching law in an academic setting.

“Jefferson and Madison also selected a required reading list for the law curriculum, which they did not do for the other University schools,” she said.

Two centuries later, UVA Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation.

The Law Library bought the letter, dated April 21, 1826, at auction this summer at Sotheby’s from The James F. Scott Collection, through the Charles J. Sheppe Memorial Fund. The Jefferson letter will now be part of the Law Library’s Special Collections and Archives. Interested researchers should contact @email.

To celebrate the letter's acquisition, the library will host a reception for the Law School community Thursday, from 5-7 p.m., on the library’s second floor.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

Media Contact