University History

Our Name

Our University’s name recognizes the pivotal roles of George Washington and Robert E. Lee in the institution’s history — Washington for his gift that rescued the struggling school in the 18th century and Lee for his transformative presidency of Washington College from 1865 to 1870.

The University’s name was changed on several occasions during its early history. Founded in 1749, the tiny school was initially known as Augusta Academy and was located in Augusta County, Virginia. After relocating a number of times during the ensuing decades, Augusta Academy was operating in Timber Ridge, about 10 miles from Lexington, when it was renamed Liberty Hall Academy in 1776, in response to the patriotic fervor then sweeping the Colonies. In 1782 the academy moved into a small frame building on the edge of what is now the W&L campus.

Liberty Hall Academy was in dire financial straits in 1796 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 one of the largest donations to any educational institution at the time. It remains part of the institution’s endowment to this day, contributing to the University's operating budget.

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.” Education, Washington further asserted, 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 changed the school’s name to Washington Academy, prompting Washington to respond: "To promote Literature in this rising Empire, and to encourage the Arts, have ever been among the warmest wishes of my heart."

Seventeen years later, in 1813, the name was again changed, this time from Washington Academy to Washington College.

Washington College was one of the few southern colleges to remain open throughout the Civil War. Fewer than 50 students were enrolled in 1865, when the college awarded only one degree.

On Aug. 4, 1865, four months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, the Washington College board of trustees invited Lee to become president of the college. The trustees believed that his dedication to principle and duty would inspire students and faculty. In addition, they hoped his reputation as the 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 situation.

For his part, Lee described his motivation for accepting the presidency in an 1865 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."

Prior to the Civil War, Lee had been superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. During his five years at Washington College, he proved to be a creative educator whose curricular innovations transformed the classical college into a modern university. He incorporated the local law school; instituted undergraduate courses in business and journalism; introduced modern languages and applied mathematics; and expanded offerings in the natural sciences.

Lee also endorsed a lasting tradition of student self-governance, putting the students 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 honor, integrity, and civility.

When Lee died on Oct. 12, 1870, the college had regained its financial footing and enrollment had grown to more than 400 students. Upon his death, the faculty requested that the trustees rename the college in Lee’s honor. The trustees agreed, changing the name to Washington and Lee University. 

Once an all-male institution, Washington and Lee first admitted women to its law school in 1972. The first undergraduate women matriculated in 1985. Today, Washington and Lee is nationally recognized as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States.

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Decisions to honor historic figures through naming conventions are understandably subject to debate. Our values are reflected in whom we choose to honor and for which reasons.

Both George Washington and Robert E. Lee are historical figures of considerable complexity. They are recognized for their pivotal roles in the history of our country and in the history of our institution. Yet they were also slaveholders. The University does not regard them as beyond critique. They deserve and require careful, critical examination of their lives, their words, and their deeds.

Lee, in particular, has become the subject of increasing scrutiny for his central role as the military leader of the Confederacy. We unequivocally denounce the motivations behind the Confederate cause that Lee chose to defend as well as the views of individuals and groups who employ Confederate imagery to promote an agenda of white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia.

We are committed to educating our community and the public about our namesakes and their role in shaping the history of this institution, our country, and the values that continue to inform our world today. That includes acknowledging that Robert E. Lee chose to fight on the side that sought to preserve the institution of slavery.

As an educational institution we take seriously our responsibility to teach that history fully and honestly, and to understand both the contributions and the failings of those for whom our institution is named. In 2018, W&L appointed a director of institutional history to develop a museum to explore our history and its many connections to American history, and to create dynamic educational programming for the campus community and the public. That important work continues.

University Chronology

See how our institution has evolved over 250 years.