The University is named in honor of the pivotal roles that George Washington and Robert E. Lee played in its own history — Washington for his gift that saved the institution from financial ruin in the 18th century, and Lee for his innovative educational leadership as president of Washington College from 1865 to 1870.
In 1796, Liberty Hall Academy, which had been founded in 1749 as Augusta Academy, was struggling to stay afloat when U.S. President George Washington chose the school as the beneficiary of 150 shares of James River and Potomac Canal Company stock. He had received the stock as a gift from the Virginia General Assembly in recognition of his service to the commonwealth and his support of canal-building. The stock was valued at $20,000, which would be worth millions today.
The story of that gift, told by historian Gordon S. Wood in his 2010 Founders' Day address at W&L, offers insight into Washington's character. As Wood relates, Washington had a cash-flow problem of his own and could have used the stock. But he also felt that he could not accept the shares without jeopardizing his reputation for virtue and selflessness.
Indeed, few decisions in his life caused Washington such agony. Should he accept the stock or not? Explaining the dilemma, he said, "I do not want to show disrespect to the Assembly or to appear ostentatiously disinterested by refusing this gift." According to Wood, Washington wrote to almost everyone he knew to seek their guidance and apparently found the answer in a response from Thomas Jefferson who, Wood said, "told him that declining to accept the shares would only add to his reputation of disinterestedness."
Consequently, he chose to accept the shares, thereby not insulting the assembly, and gave them to Liberty Hall Academy. It was one of the largest gifts to any educational institution at the time and contributes to the University's operating budget even today.
To express their gratitude, the trustees of the academy voted to change its name to Washington Academy. In response, Washington wrote to the trustees: "To promote the Literature in this rising Empire, and to encourage the Arts, have ever been among the warmest wishes of my heart."
In 1813, the academy's name was changed to Washington College, and the campus was moved to its current location. In 1844, a statue of Washington (known as "Old George"), carved by Matthew Kahle from a log found floating in the nearby Maury River, was placed on the pinnacle of the Center Building, now known as Washington Hall.
Washington College remained open through the Civil War, one of the few southern institutions of higher learning to do so. When the college completed its 1864-65 academic year in June 1864, it had only 30 to 45 students enrolled in the preparatory department and awarded just one A.B. degree. Hunter's Raid on Lexington a year earlier had left the campus in physical disarray as well.
On Aug. 4, 1865, 117 days after Appomattox, the Washington College board of trustees voted to elect Robert E. Lee as president of the college. The trustees hoped and expected that Lee's charisma, combined with his dedication to principle and duty, would inspire students and faculty alike and would help the college return to the "elevated character it has so long borne." (General Lee's College, Ollinger Crenshaw)
As Washington had done in 1796 when pondering what to do with the canal stock, Lee sought the advice and counsel of many people before agreeing to accept the position. His decision, no less than Washington's, forever altered the prospects of the institution for the better.
As the trustees had hoped, Lee's presence brought mostly positive attention to the institution. Far more than serving as a figurehead, Lee proved a creative educator whose innovations laid the groundwork for both a curriculum and a sense of honor that remain distinctive to this day.
Under Lee's leadership, the college made a series of bold moves: annexing the Lexington Law School; instituting programs in business instruction that resulted in the founding of the School of Commerce; inaugurating courses in journalism, which developed into the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications; expanding offerings in the sciences; and recommending the introduction of applied mathematics, natural and experimental philosophy, and modern languages.
According to Crenshaw's history of the university, the innovations of Lee's presidency drew praise from observers in both the North and South. "The New York Herald hailed the practical education program as likely to jolt 'old fogy schools just as General Lee did old fogy generals,' " wrote Crenshaw.
Not all of Lee's ideas came to fruition. For instance, he wanted to establish a school of agriculture, but was unsuccessful.
As much as the curricular reform changed the institution, Lee's personal character was equally important in setting the tone for the future. One story of his presidency underscores the important role that honor has always played at the institution. When a student asked Lee for the college's rules, the president is said to have replied: "We have but one rule here, and it is that every student be a gentleman." That principle is part of the foundation for a campus culture built on civility, duty, and integrity for the men and women of the student body.
Lee's tenure as president lasted only five years. After he died in 1870, the trustees almost immediately added his name to the institution — Washington and Lee University.
For additional information, please see the essay, "Judging Patron Saints," by Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio.