Robert E. Lee, President of Washington College


Robert E. Lee, Confederate General used his command experience in the revival of the Washington College, the future Washington and Lee University.

Robert E. Lee is arguably one of the finest military leaders in American History, a man respected throughout the United States, almost 140 years after his death. Less known is Lee’s role as educator. Under his innovative leadership, the first college of Journalism in the United States was created.

Lee’s command experience as the Superintendent of West Point Military Academy and later, the leader of an army poorly supplied and numerically inferior to the Union prepared him for his last mission in life. Lee restored the poorly managed Washington College to peak proficiency. Today that school is known as Washington and Lee University.

Lee as President of Washington College

Lee accepted the position as President of Washington College in August 1865. He had turned down more lucrative business offers. Lee accepted the position primarily because it gave him a significant role in rebuilding the South.

Lee appreciated the traditional studies of the classics, of Latin and Philosophy but knew that the devastated South was in need of competently trained professionals. Lee stated: “The importance of a more practical course of instruction in our schools and colleges… will tend to develop resources and promote the interests of the country.”

Washington College Revival

Lee’s first three years of administration carried Washington College through a time of prosperous change. When he arrived in 1865, the college had four faculty members, 50 students and was fiscally close to bankruptcy. By 1868, the faculty number had tripled, the student body boasted 400 members and Lee’s fundraising efforts had secured a $225,000 endowment needed to maintain operations. The school curriculum hosted traditional subjects and added more practical forms of education in science and engineering.

Printing and Journalism at Washington College

Washington College’s Board of Trustees, pleased with Lee’s progress, authorized the faculty in 1863, to expand the college’s “scientific and practical departments.” Under Lee’s supervision, the faculty began a plan of curriculum growth. To this end, Lee endorsed Professor Preston Johnston’s report and made journalism education history. Johnston called for scholarships for students who proposed “to make journalism and printing their profession.” Collaboration between faculty and Major John J. Lafferty publisher of the Virginia Gazette, began on June 23, 1869. Lafferty was tasked as “hands-on” trainer for students engaged in practical printing and journalism work beyond the bounds of classroom instruction.

Lee’s innovative program was the first in the nation to combine liberal studies with practical printing and journalism applications. The program was met with angst by those who apprenticed as printers and later editors. Other people were pleased with the college training. John Plaxton of the Tennessee Typographic Union #20 praised the Washington College program as an “important step toward raising American Journalism from the slough of venality, corruption, and party subserviency into… to the high position it should occupy.”

Washington College Renamed Washington and Lee University

Within five years, Lee and his faculty brought Washington College to new levels of prosperity and prestige. While ardent about helping the South to rebuild, Lee opened the doors on education that attracted sons from North and South. Lee had achieved his final life victory here in Lexington, Virginia. He died on October 12, 1870, and was buried at Lee Chapel. Immediately thereafter the institution was renamed Washington and Lee University.