History and Traditions

W&L History

Where did Washington and Lee get its name?

Founded in 1749, Washington and Lee University is named for two influential men in American history: George Washington, whose generous endowment gift of $20,000 in 1796 helped the fledgling school (then known as Liberty Hall Academy) survive, and Robert E. Lee, whose presidency and innovative leadership brought the University into the national limelight.

Under Lee's leadership, then-Washington College instituted curricula in commerce, engineering, and journalism, distinguishing itself from other liberal arts institutions of the time because of its remarkable curricular breadth. This is a distinction Washington and Lee University still enjoys today.

What are the Liberty Hall Ruins?

The Ruins, as they're called by W&L folks, connect us with our past. They are the remains of the oldest building of the original Liberty Hall Academy. Dating from 1793, the Ruins are on W&L's back campus, overlooking our athletic fields. The view of the mountains from here is outstanding, and the area around the Ruins is popular for concerts, receptions, or just hanging out with friends playing Frisbee golf. Our anthropology students have done some extensive archaeological excavations of the Liberty Hall Ruins to learn about our past.

The Honor System

What is the Honor System? 

Imagine being able to choose when and where to take a test. Finding your forgotten wallet right there in the library where you left it. Or letting yourself into the science lab with the key your professor gave you at the beginning of the term. W&L's most revered tradition, the Honor System, allows these freedoms and many more. Unlike many colleges with Honor Systems and Codes, ours is totally student-run.

How is this Honor System different than Honor Codes at other schools?

Our Honor System is not a cumbersome book of rules, but is instead a common understanding that all students uphold: the community's trust is the foundation of Washington and Lee University. Violations of that trust will not be tolerated and result in dismissal from the University. Behaviors such as lying, cheating, and stealing are commonly understood as violations of W&L's Honor System.

Campus Traditions

What is the Speaking Tradition?

It's really pretty simple. W&L tradition suggests you should say something to people you pass around campus. Of course, between classes and at other busy times you don't have to say "hi" 150 times on your way from one place to another. But at other times, participating in the Speaking Tradition is one of the little things that makes W&L your home away from home.

What is Mock Convention?

Since 1908, W&L students have gathered every four years and conducted a mock political nominating convention -- just like the Republican or Democratic National Conventions you've seen on TV -- with the goal of predicting who the non-incumbent political party will choose as its nominee for President of the United States.

The pundits can only marvel at W&L students' record of accuracy -- they've only missed twice since 1948! Many news outlets -- such as the Washington Post and CSPAN -- tune into to hear what W&L thinks.

In all, over 95% of the W&L student body gets involved in planning and conducting Mock Con. Not interested in politics? That's okay. At your Mock Con, you can help raise or manage the funds needed to pay for the convention. Or how about playing host to the the powerful and famous guest speakers? Over the years, luminaries such as Jimmy Carter, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, James Carville and Jesse Jackson have spoken at Mock Con. Maybe you'd rather be in charge of the Presidential Gala (black tie ball) or the Mock Con parade. There's something for everyone to do to ensure the convention's success! 

What is the Fancy Dress Ball?

The biggest social event of the year is the Fancy Dress Ball. The tradition of Fancy Dress dates back to 1907. The Warner Athletic Center and Doremus Gymnasium are transformed with elaborate props and decorations into a setting appropriate to the theme for the year. Entertainment often includes a dance orchestra, contemporary musical entertainment, and other entertainers and performers who provide moments of surprise. Guests dress formally for the event, and a few participate in costumes derived from the theme.

Are there any superstitions at W&L?

Plenty. For instance, when going to or from Graham-Lees residence hall on the Washington Street side, students know not to pass through the center of the portico. Legend has it that to do so means certain failure on your next exam. Instead, walk between the columns with the worn down stone step, in the literal footsteps of generations of superstitious W&L students.

When Robert E. Lee was president of Washington College, he had the stable for his trusty horse Traveler built right next to his house. Lee was known to leave the doors of the stable open all the time so Traveler could come and go as he pleased. Today, residents of the Lee House (always W&L's current president and family) continue leaving the door open so that Traveler's ghost will have free reign about campus. Traveler's remains are buried beside Lee Chapel, where he rests faithfully beside his master.

And then there are the ghosts of W&L. Disembodied footsteps in Robinson Hall. Cape-wearing specters in Payne Hall and in the old Troubadour Theater. Our buildings are nearing two centuries old -- plenty of time to acquire a few restless spirits!

Spooked yet? Don't worry. All of our dorms have been recently renovated. No ghosts there!