Washington and Lee's history has been shaped by key figures and moments in American history. Founded as Augusta Academy in 1749, it became Liberty Hall Academy in 1776. In 1796, George Washington gave the school an endowment gift — $20,000 of canal stock — believed to be the largest to that date in American higher education. The institution's trustees expressed their gratitude to and respect for Washington by changing the school's name, first to Washington Academy and later to Washington College.

In 1865, Robert E. Lee declined more lucrative offers to accept the trustees' invitation to become president of Washington College. He believed that he should devote his post-war energies to reconstruction of the divided nation through educational leadership. Under Lee, the college made a series of bold moves, expanding the existing classical curriculum to include the subjects of law (by annexing the Lexington Law School), business, journalism, modern languages, science and engineering.

Lee is also credited with helping to establish the campus culture of civility and integrity that exists today. After Lee's death in 1870, the trustees paid tribute to his educational accomplishments by changing the name from Washington College to Washington and Lee University.

Two successful capital campaigns in the last quarter-century have reshaped the campus with expanded facilities and important curricular innovations, including the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability, a novel curriculum for the law school's third year, a reinvigorated Spring Term, the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics and the J. Lawrence Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship. In 2007, the Johnson Scholarship Program in Leadership and Integrity was launched with a landmark $100 million gift from an alumnus, providing scholarships and research opportunities for students along with professorships, lectureships and programs focused on ethical leadership.