Washington and Lee University

  • Education
  • 1796

George Washington was not only “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” He was also first in philanthropic support for higher education in the young Republic, providing the largest gift the nation had ever seen for such purposes. This benefaction was typical of Washington, who had been a generous giver, and most often an anonymous giver, throughout his life. Even when departing his considerable estate to lead the Continental Army against the world’s most powerful military, he left strict, detailed instructions of all the ways he expected his managers to continue the estate’s assistance to the needy.

Washington’s most consequential gift came in 1796 with a donation of one hundred shares of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company, valued at about $20,000, to Liberty Hall Academy located in Lexington, Virginia. The contribution, at the time the largest in American history, prompted the trustees to rename their school Washington Academy. It prospers today as Washington and Lee University.

Washington’s early gift would be worth at least $20 million today, and it continues to underwrite a portion of each student’s tuition. Like the other founders who encouraged higher education (Jefferson and Madison at the University of Virginia, Hamilton at Hamilton College, Franklin at today’s University of Pennsylvania, etc.), Washington hoped education would deepen the attachment of Americans to the principles on which their young nation was founded. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” declared Jefferson, “it expects what never was and never will be.”