The University is named in honor of the pivotal and personal 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 transformative 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 100 shares of James River Canal Company stock. He had received the stock as a gift from the Virginia General Assembly in recognition of his service to the commonwealth. The stock was valued at $20,000, which would be worth millions today. It was one of the largest donations to any educational institution at the time and contributes to the University's operating budget even today.
Explaining the purpose of his gift, Washington wrote that the time had come "when a plan of universal education ought to be adopted in the United States. Not only do the exigencies of public and private life demand it, but, if it should ever be apprehended that prejudice would be entertained in one part of the Union against another, an efficacious remedy will be, to assemble the youth of every part under such circumstances as will, by the freedom of intercourse and collision of sentiment, give to their minds the direction of truth, philanthropy, and mutual conciliation." Education, Washington emphasized, not only prepares us for personal success and public service, but also unifies diverse communities of students and teaches them to live in harmony.
To express their gratitude, the trustees voted to change the name of the school to Washington Academy. In response, Washington wrote to the trustees: "To promote Literature in this rising Empire, and to encourage the Arts, have ever been among the warmest wishes of my heart." (See Washington's letter here.)
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. But the Union raid on Lexington in 1864 left the campus in shambles, and the following year the college had fewer than 50 students and awarded just one degree.
On Aug. 4, 1865, only 117 days after Appomattox, the Washington College board of trustees voted to invite Robert E. Lee to become president of the college. The trustees believed that Lee's dedication to principle and duty would inspire students and faculty and hoped that his reputation as leader of the Confederate army could help attract students and funding from both the north and the south, thereby allowing the school to recover from its perilous financial position.
Shortly after arriving in Lexington in the fall of 1865, Lee clarified his motivation for accepting the position in a letter to his wife: "Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honour of God." He elaborated in another letter the following spring: "So greatly have [educational] interests been disturbed [in] the South, and so much does its future condition depend upon the rising generation, that I consider the proper education of its youth one of the most important objects now to be attained, and one from which the greatest benefits may be expected."
Lee proved to be a creative educator whose curricular innovations transformed the classical college into a modern university. He added the law school; instituted undergraduate courses in business and journalism; introduced modern languages and applied mathematics; and expanded offerings in the natural sciences.
Lee also established a lasting tradition of student self-governance, putting the students themselves in charge of the honor system that the faculty had previously overseen. "As a general principle you should not force young men to do their duty," Lee said, "but let them do it voluntarily and thereby develop their characters." That principle remains part of the foundation for a campus culture that fosters civility, integrity, and trust.
Robert E. Lee died on Oct. 12, 1870, after only five years in office. Under his leadership, the college regained its financial footing and enrollment grew to more than 400 students, making it one of largest schools in the South. Upon immediate request of the faculty, the trustees resolved to change the name to Washington and Lee University: "The most munificent patron of our College was George Washington; he who reanimated and infused into it new and vigorous life, after its prostration by war, was Robert Edward Lee. How fit it is that two of the most renowned names of their respective centuries as Washington and Lee be forever hereafter associated indisputably, as Founder and Restorer of our beloved College!" (See Trustee minutes here.)