Liberty Hall Academy, the ninth-oldest institution of higher education in America, gave out its first degrees in 1785, but by 1796, it faced financial insolvency. George Washington gave the school $20,000 (then the largest sum ever given to a U.S. college) to stay afloat, and, in gratitude, the school re-titled itself Washington Academy (later Washington College). The all-male school stuck to a classical liberal arts curriculum and, despite its Southern locale, claims to be the first U.S. college to admit an African-American student—-John Chavis, who enrolled in 1795 and went on to become a Presbyterian minister.
The first building of the modern-day college was built in 1820 and funded by an uneducated local merchant. Legend has it that the merchant, John Robinson, donated a barrel of whiskey for the 1824 dedication, but a mob rushing the cask forced school officials to destroy the barrel with an ax (for the 1976 dedication of the new law school, alumnus Christian Compton imported several barrels of Scotch to recreate the affair, minus the mob and the ax).
After the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee assumed the presidency at Washington College. He was instrumental in bringing professional education in journalism, law, and business into the liberal arts curriculum, as well as in introducing the “speaking tradition” that holds that students always say “hi” to fellow students on campus, whether they recognize them or not. He also introduced the strict, student-enforced Honor Code, both of which are part of student culture to this day. To recognize his contributions to the school, Washington College became Washington and Lee University after Lee died in 1870, having served just five years as college president. His horse, Traveller, is buried just outside campus near the Chapel walls, and Lee and his family are buried in a crypt inside the chapel.
Washington and Lee University has built its reputation as a small liberal arts school over the years, strengthening both its core curriculum and professional offerings. Women were a late addition to campus, with the first co-ed classes beginning in 1985. Washington and Lee celebrated its 250th anniversary in the 1998-1999 school year.
Washington and Lee’s primary campus, or “Front Campus,” is a row of red-brick colonial-style buildings with white fronts and pillars. The line of academic buildings is known as the Washington and Lee University Historic District and has been designated a national landmark. W&L’s compact campus doesn’t deviate much from the grassy acreage that Front Campus buildings line up along, with a group of administrative and residential buildings to the south and athletic fields and facilities in the northwest corner. Past the furthest fields are a grove of pine trees where students can hike, party, or just enjoy some nature. The small, self-contained nature of the campus—-combined with its manicured lawns, stately trees, and grand old buildings—-gives visitors the impression of being at a country club rather than on a college campus.
Students report small-town Lexington, Virginia, the nearest town to campus, is a little lean on college-friendly activities. Some go as far as to call it “rural,” but there is a downtown district providing some limited off-campus support for the Washington and Lee community. Students can count the number of bars in town on three fingers, and most of the restaurants, retail stores, and shops seem to shutter by early evening, with the exception of the Stop-In gas station, which serves hot dogs to the hungry 24/7. While the Lexington PD is there to step on too much student fun, Lexington residents are generally fairly friendly to the college crowd populating their town.
But most students prefer the semi-isolation of W&L’s location, and a majority of parties take place in off-campus houses or open fields, away from the watchful eyes of school or police. Should they crave the city, Roanoke and Charlottesville are 45 minutes away and offer malls, airports, and bar scenes missing from little Lexington.
Tradition is one of Washington and Lee’s defining characteristics, and many of its most prominent and well-observed ones trace their roots back to the days of namesake General Robert E. Lee’s W&L presidency. The school prides itself on teaching students “civility,” and an important part of that is the “speaking tradition,” which dictates that members of the W&L community, from students to maintenance staff, must speak to each other when they pass on campus—even if it’s just to say “hi,” and even if it’s someone they don’t know or don’t care for.
Another keystone to W&L’s student experience is the Honor Code. Unlike other schools’, which require signing on a dotted line somewhere, the W&L code rules aren’t officially written down but still manage to impact almost every aspect of “honor” on campus, from classroom ethics to lying and stealing, and its reach extends from exams to frat parties. If a student is caught violating the code, justice is swift, student-distributed, and usually harsh (expulsion ranging from a term to forever). Students give the code a formal review every three years to keep it fresh.
Like a number of Southern schools, W&L students look forward to any excuse to bring out their formal wear and get wasted. The biggest bash of that variety at W&L is the Fancy Dress Ball, which was first held in 1907. Students descend upon a well-decorated gym dressed to the nines, usually according to some theme that can easily be adapted to black-tie attire. But between Greek formals and other on-campus affairs, W&L men suggest investing in a tuxedo before showing up, because by your senior year, you’ll definitely have gotten your money’s worth.
Tom Wolfe (1951) spearheaded “New Journalism” and authored several nonfiction and fiction books.
Pat Robertson (1950) was a televangelist and founder of several Christian television networks.
Roger Mudd (1950) was a CBS and PBS correspondent and anchor and now hosts for the History Channel.
Alex Jones (1968)is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly of The New York Times.
Meriwether Lewis (1790s) was Thomas Jefferson’s private secretary and, with William Clark, an intrepid explorer who charted and chronicled the Louisiana Purchase.
Lewis Franklin Powell (1929) served as a Supreme Court justice.
John W. Davis (1892) was the 1924 Democratic nominee for President and former Solicitor General. He holds the distinction of having argued more cases before the Supreme Court than anyone else during the 20th century.
While “Go Generals!” is a popular phrase on campus, students are generally more fair-weather than hell-or-high-water fans of W&L athletics. Approximately one-quarter of students compete in Division III play on one of 23 varsity teams, and the program enjoys overall success in the 13-team Old Dominion Athletic Conference, having claimed the top stop overall at least 12 times in the last 14 years. Men’s and women’s cross country, tennis, golf, swimming, lacrosse, and volleyball are usually top contenders in conference competition.
Overall, students don’t get whipped up in the same kind of sporting frenzy associated with bigger schools, and games aren’t especially well-attended. Since W&L is a Division III school, it doesn’t offer athletic scholarships to attract big-name high school players. But the lack of rah-rah Generals spirit doesn’t seem to affect students’ desire to get out there and play for themselves—-75 percent of W&L students take part in club or intramural teams that range from fencing to rugby.
General Robert E. Lee used the university to help reconcile the country (and himself) after the Civil War by actively recruiting from both North and South states. He was offered several prominent posts after the war ended but chose W&L because of his family ties to Martha Washington, George Washington’s wife.
Lee and his family are buried in a vault on the lower level of Lee Chapel.
Because the Honor Code does a better job of regulating students than officials, the library stays open 24 hours a day and doesn’t have any kind of electronic monitoring systems to keep students from sneaking books out, because they won’t. Bicycles, laptops, and other easily-stolen property are typically left unattended without any fear.
W&L’s Mock Convention is held to simulate party convention proceedings for whichever political party doesn’t currently hold the presidency every time there’s a general presidential election. Students have correctly picked the eventual nominee 12 out of 13 times since 1952, and past Mock Convention speakers include Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter.
Freshman living is as basic as it gets. Located near the Front Campus row and built in the same red-brick colonial model, freshmen are divided up into small, spare single and double rooms from four first-year only halls: Baker, Davis, Gilliam, and Graham-Lees Hall. A lucky few score bigger rooms in Gaines Hall, but the apartment-style suites there are primarily reserved for upperclassmen. Older students also have the option to move into Woods Creek Apartments in a quiet central location, as well as any of the limited spaces in W&L’s International House, John Chavis House, Outing Club House, or Spanish House. After surviving the barracks-like accommodations of their first year, students have to live on-campus as sophomores but then are allowed to move to off-campus Lexington housing (popular for parties because of the distance from administrators) or a frat or sorority house.