In 1749, Scotch-Irish pioneers who had migrated deep into the Valley of Virginia founded a small classical school called Augusta Academy, some 20 miles north of what is now Lexington. In 1776, the trustees, fired by patriotism, changed the name of the school to Liberty Hall. Four years later the school was moved to the vicinity of Lexington, where in 1782 it was chartered as Liberty Hall Academy by the Virginia legislature and empowered to grant degrees. A limestone building, erected in 1793 on the crest of a ridge overlooking Lexington, burned in 1803, though its ruins are preserved today as a symbol of the institution's honored past.
In 1796, George Washington saved the struggling Liberty Hall Academy when he gave the school its first major endowment--$20,000 worth of James River Canal stock. The trustees promptly changed the name of the school to Washington Academy as an expression of their gratitude. In a letter to the trustees, Washington responded, "To promote the Literature in this rising Empire, and to encourage the Arts, have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart." The donation--one of the largest to any educational institution at that time--continues to contribute to the University's operating budget today.
General Robert E. Lee reluctantly accepted the position of president of the College in 1865. Because of his leadership of the Confederate army, Lee worried he "might draw upon the College a feeling of hostility," but also added that "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." During his brief presidency, Lee invited Judge John White Brockenbrough to bring to the College his Lexington Law School, which he had established in 1849, encouraged development of the sciences and instituted programs in business instruction that led to the founding of the School of Commerce in 1906. He also inaugurated courses in journalism, which developed by 1925 into The School of Journalism--now the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. These courses in business and journalism were the first offered in colleges in the United States. After Lee's death in 1870, the trustees voted to change the name from Washington College to Washington and Lee University.
Once an all-male institution, Washington and Lee first admitted women to its law school in 1972. The first undergraduate women matriculated in 1985. Since then, Washington and Lee has flourished. The University now boasts a new science building, a performing arts center and an indoor tennis facility, and it continues to climb the ranking charts of U.S. News and World Report and other rating agencies. Washington and Lee is ranked 12th among the top national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News.
Washington and Lee University observed its 250th Anniversary with a year-long, national celebration during the 1998-99 academic year.
Only Princeton and Harvard have graduated more Fortune 500 CEOs. Not too shabby for a tiny liberal arts college hidden in the Shenandoah Valley.