THE ALMA MATER OF THOMAS JEFFERSON, JAMES MONROE, AND JOHN TYLER
Three years before John Harvard left a legacy for the founding of the college that bears his name, the first bequest for public education made by a resident of Virginia was recorded, though this was used for a secondary school, rather than for a college.
The project of a college, proposed in 1617 and 1618 by the London Company, and in 1619 at the first session of the General Assembly, languished until 1685, when Rev. James Blair came to the Colony as a missionary and settled in Henrico County, where it had been proposed to found the college sixty-eight years earlier. For five years he brooded over the need of a college and in 1690 he made to a convention at Jamestown ” Severall Propositions for a free school and college, to be humbly presented to the consideration of the next general assembly.” Later, by authority of the Assembly, Dr. Blair appealed to the Merchants of London, ” especially such as traffick with Virginia,” and three thousand pounds were pledged.
On the occasion of Dr. Blair’s visit to England in 1691, he had an audience with King William, at which he presented the petition for ” a charter to erect a free school and college.” The king replied, ” Sir, I am glad that the Colony is upon so good a design, and will promote it to the best of my power.” Queen Mary also showed her interest in the college.
To the endowment in lands and taxes provided by royal order, Dr. Blair secured an appreciable addition in an ingenious manner. Learning that, some time before his arrival, the authorities had promised forgiveness to pirates who, before a set day, should confess their crimes and give up a portion of their booty, and that three famous pirates had come in after the appointed day, so that they were arrested, he visited them in jail and offered to use his influence in their behalf, if they would consent to give to the college a portion of their booty. They gladly agreed; Dr. Blair’s efforts were successful, and they were given their liberty together with their treasure, minus the promised gift to the Virginia College. Another much larger gift was secured from the ‘executor of an estate which held money devised in-definitely for ” pious and charitable uses.” The income from this portion of the endowment was to be used ” to keep as many Indian children in meat, drink, washing, clothes, medicine, books and education, from the first beginning of letters till they should be ready to receive orders and be sent abroad to convert the Indians.”
In connection with the charter for ” the College of William and Mary,” which was dated February 8, 1693, authority was given to use the seal described as follows : ” On a green field a college building of silver, with a golden sun, showing half its orb, rising above it.” This is said to be the sole instance of a college, either English or American, which has a seal of such high origin.
Sir Christopher Wren, the designer of St. Paul’s Cathedral, made the plan for the original building, which was to be two stories and a half high, one hundred and thirty-six feet long, and forty feet wide, and with two wings sixty feet long and twenty-five feet wide. In 1697 it was reported to the governor of the province that the front and north side of the proposed rectangle had been completed at Williamsburg, and that funds were exhausted. The walls were more than three feet thick at the base, and contained 840,000 bricks, the product of a brickyard nearby.
For some years subscriptions were paid slowly, and interest in the college languished, but conditions improved when King William sent to Governor Nicholson a proclamation urging him ” Y you call upon ye per-sons y have promised to contribute towards ye maintenance of ye s college, to pay in full the severall Contributions.”
The first of the disasters that have visited the main building came in 1705, when the interior was burned. The college was rebuilt on the old walls, as was the case after the fire of 1859. Thus, after much more than two hundred years, the venerable building looks almost as it did when the first students entered its doors. A number of other structures have been erected since, including the Brafferton building in 1723, the house now occupied by the president, which dates from 1732, and the chapel, begun in 1729. Interest must always centre about the central structure, however.
During the Revolution the president was James Madison, second cousin of the future President of the United States. The president’s house was occupied by Cornwallis in 1781. After his surrender French officers lived there. During their occupancy the house was badly damaged by fire, but it was repaired at the expense of the French Army.
Three events of the years of the war are of special moment in the history of higher education in America. On December 5, 1776, the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the first intercollegiate fraternity in the United States, was organized. On December 4, 1779, the college was made a university, the first in the country, and the same year marked the beginning of the. Honor System of college government which worked such a revolution in other colleges more than a century later. When Thomas Jefferson, who was a student at William and Mary in 1760-62, founded the University of Virginia, the Honor System was successfully inaugurated in the new institution.
Other famous men who have been connected with William and Mary included George Washington, who was chancellor in 1794; Chief Justice John Marshall, student in 1779; Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, student in 1766; James Monroe, student in 1775. John Tyler was also educated there. It is a remarkable fact that the presidents who are responsible for adding to the original territory of the country Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and most of the western territory, were products of William and Mary.