- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 1999

As the nation pays tribute to George Washington on the 200th anniversary of his death, he will be remembered as the “Father of His Country,” a great military leader, a gentleman farmer and successful engineer. But he should also be remembered for one of his most important and lasting legacies education.

As president of the newly created United States, Washington understood the importance of educated citizens. A strong government, he argued, would be best served by “teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights.” Washington hoped to establish a national university, and in his first annual message to Congress he stated: “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than a promotion of science and literature. To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways.” But Congress, busy with foreign and domestic affairs, took no immediate action.

Education, however, remained at the forefront of Washington’s mind, and he was soon able to contribute to its cause.

In 1794, the Commonwealth of Virginia offered President Washington 100 shares of James River Co. stock to help bolster the canal project which would connect the Ohio and Kentucky country with the Atlantic. Already one of the wealthiest Americans, Washington was opposed to “the principles of gratuities,” but feared his rejection of the shares, worth approximately $20,000 at the time, would undermine the project. He agreed to accept the gift under the strict condition that it would used for a public purpose, such as education.

Washington let it be known that he would prefer to endow a school “in the upper country” of Virginia, and he was besieged by lobbying academics in that region. His old friend, “Light Horse Harry” Lee was one of several people who wrote to Washington on behalf of Liberty Hall Academy in Lexington, and that academy now Washington and Lee University was the recipient of the gift.

“To promote literature in this rising empire, and to encourage the arts, have ever been among the warmest wishes of my heart,” he wrote the trustees of the college in 1797. Washington’s gift helped save the school from financial ruin and spurred its growth into the early 19th century.

As well his financial support, in a rare instance Washington also personally lent his name. Liberty Hall Academy was renamed Washington Academy and became Washington College in 1813. After Robert E. Lee served as president of the school from 1865-1870, it was renamed Washington and Lee University in 1871.

Washington’s continued interest in education ultimately led to the United States Military Academy, Washington College in Maryland and Alexandria Academy in Virginia. As he stated in his farewell address to Congress: “Promote then, as a subject of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.”

Washington and Lee University is grateful for Washington’s support in the school’s early years. It is precisely for that kind of foresight that Light Horse Harry Lee declared him, “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

John W. Elrod is president of Washington and Lee University.

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