There’s a lot invested in a name. Say “Washington,” for example, and the formal figure, decked in pearly wig and white stockings, immediately comes to mind. The name alone is synonymous with freedom and fresh starts, with integrity and America. Or take the name “Lee.” We Southerners quickly conjure images of successful battles, cunning plans, and unerring principle. Say the two names together, and you bind two of the most iconic history makers of our country’s youth. You also voice the name of one of the finest schools in the South, Washington and Lee University.
The university’s namesake is no coincidence. As the eighth oldest school in the country, Washington and Lee has been called many things, but none as vested in history—both its own and our nation’s—as its current and longest-running epithet.
Founded in 1749 by Scots-Irish pioneers some twenty miles north of its current location in Lexington, Virginia, the now-university began as a small classical school for local settlers called the Augusta Academy. But the name was destined for change—or, more accurately, changes. In 1776, in a symbolic gesture of patriotism, the trustees moved to change the name of the school to Liberty Hall. And just a few years later, in 1780, the school relocated to the heart of Lexington, leaving the outskirts for city life.
Though the school was technically rebranded as Liberty Hall Academy in 1782, when they were chartered to distribute degrees, it wasn’t until 1796 that Washington so strongly influenced the outcome of the school that its name reflected his largesse.
That year, Washington was faced with a surprisingly difficult decision. In a generous token of gratitude, the Virginia General Assembly offered George Washington a package of stocks, invested in the James River Canal, worth an astounding $20,000. The decision of whether or not to accept the magnanimous gift weighed heavily on Washington. The truth was, his finances were far from stable, and the sizable donation had the potential to not just alleviate his discomforts but to banish them entirely. But Washington also knew that to accept the shares outright—to pocket them for himself—would not just banish his problems but perhaps his excellent reputation for purity and selflessness, too.
Washington was morally paralyzed. He wrote to friends, acquaintances, and confidantes with requests for advice on the situation. Unsurprisingly, it was Thomas Jefferson, that wizened ally, who gave the definitive verdict. According to Jefferson, Washington’s refusal of the shares would only add to his “reputation of disinterestedness.” With that in mind, Washington accepted the shares, and immediately regifted them to the floundering Liberty Hall Academy.
The gift was unprecedented. Washington’s donation was equivalent to millions of dollars in today’s monetary value. The flabbergasted trustees immediately moved to rename the school in his honor, and Washington Academy was christened.
But even Washington’s tortured gift couldn’t set the name in stone. In 1813, the name shifted slightly, to Washington College, but again, it took another monumental figure of history to novelize the nomenclature.
Following the Civil War, the university was again on unstable grounds. Although Washington College was one of the few institutions in the South to remain open through the war, its student body was waning; only thirty to forty-five students remained at the end of its 1864 school year. But even more worrisome than its tremulous attendance was the somber timbre that pervaded the campus. The school needed a new leader—someone with charisma and energy—to guide them into a new era. That someone? Robert E. Lee.
Like Washington before him, Lee was hesitant to accept the honor bestowed upon him. As a respected, noble, and magnetic general, Lee seemed an excellent choice—except for, of course, his position on the losing side of the conflict. Lee worried that his association with the Confederacy would bring hostility, rather than respect, upon the college. And again, like Washington, Lee consulted his acquaintances, asking their opinion of the offer. When he finally made his decision—an affirmative answer—Lee said, “I think it 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.”
Lee did everything in his power to change the course of the college—and the South. He inspired students and faculty alike with his energy and enthusiasm for education. He established a modern curriculum that still influences the courses of study at the college today, like the journalism program. And he also instituted the foundation of honor for which the college is still known today. When a student asked President Lee about the rules of the college, his reply was simple: “We have but one rule here, and it is that every student be a gentleman.”
Lee’s presidency brought praise to the school from both the North and the South. Following his death in 1870, the trustees gathered once again to propose a rechristening of the school. In honor of its two finest mentors, the school would henceforth be known as Washington and Lee. And this time, it really was set in stone.
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