The Washington College Building, Lexington, Virginia


Even before the treaty of peace with Great Britain was signed, George Washington was making plans for the development of the West. He was especially impressed with the possibilities of the Potomac and James rivers, if improved by canals, as a means of communication with the Ohio. Companies were organized to the work. In both enterprises he was a stockholder. On August 13, 1755, he wrote to Edmund Randolph :

” The great object for the accomplishment of which I wish to see the inland navigation of the River Potomack and James improved and extended is to connect the western territory with the Atlantic states. . . I have already subscribed five shares to the Potomack navigation ; and enclosed I give you a power to put my name down for five shares to that of James River.”

In 1785 Patrick Henry, Governor of Virginia, wrote to Washington that the General Assembly of the State had voted to give him one hundred shares in the James River Company, ” it being their wish, in particular, that those great works of improvement, which, both as springing from the liberty which he has been so instrumental in establishing, and as encouraged by his patron-age, will be durable monuments of his glory, may be made monuments also of the gratitude of his country.”

Washington replied that he could not accept money for his services to his country. Then he added : ” But if it should please the General Assembly to permit me to turn the destination of the fund vested in me, from my private emolument, to objects of a public nature, it will be my study in selecting these to prove the sincerity of my gratitude for the honor conferred on me, by preferring such as may appear most subservient to the en-lightened and patriotic views of the legislature.”

Of course the legislature granted the desired permission, indicating that the gifts might be made either during Washington’s life, or by bequest.

Some years passed before Washington fixed on a proper recipient for the canal shares. In 1798, how-ever, he gave them to the trustees of Liberty Academy, at Lexington, Virginia, which had been incorporated in 1782. In recognition of the gift the trustees asked the legislature to change the name of the school to Washington Academy. In 1813 the name was once more changed to Washington College.

This, the first large gift received by the institution, is still yielding an income of three thousand dollars. During many times of crisis the income provided in this way has been of signal use to the institution, notably in 1824, when the Washington College building was begun. This structure is two hundred and fifty feet long, is built of brick, and each of its three porticoes is supported by white colonial columns.

For more than seventy-five years after Washington turned over the canal shares, the institution’s sole endowment amounted to only about one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. The seventy thousand dollars added to the canal shares came from sources that were influenced by Washington’s confidence in the institution.

The beginning of the larger life of the college was the election of General Robert E. Lee as president. The keynote of his five years of service was sounded in the letter which he wrote to the trustees on receiving notification of his election. He feared that, in view of his military history, he might cause harm to the college. He was never greater than when he said :

” I think it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony, and in no way to oppose the policy of the State or General Government directed to that object. It is particularly incumbent upon those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority, and I would not consent to be the cause of animadversion on the College.”

Following the death of General Lee, which came after five years of remarkable development under his leadership, the name of Washington College was changed to Washington and Lee University, that it might continue forever a memorial to its two greatest benefactors.