The Blessing and Burden of Choice: George Washington and W&L
By Catherine Ahmad "To promote literature in this rising empire and to encourage the arts have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart, and if the donation which the generosity of the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia has enabled me to bestow on Liberty Hall-now by your politeness called Washington Academy-is likely to prove a means to accomplishing these ends, it will contribute to the gratification of my desires."
When discussing George Washington’s relationship to Washington and Lee, this quotation from his letter to the Board of the Trustees is often cited. Washington’s everlasting influence on our university does not go without notice. In 1796, Washington gave Washington and Lee University, which was called Liberty Hall Academy at the time, $20,000 worth of James River Canal stock. This gift saved the struggling university and the school was renamed in Washington’s honor.
However, Washington’s struggle over what to do with the stocks is less well-known. According to historian Gordon S. Wood, Washington possessed a significant cash-flow problem at that point in time and could have utilized the stock, which would have been worth millions today. However, he was concerned that such a choice would tarnish his reputation for virtue and selflessness. Accordingly, Washington wrote to several associates looking for advice. In the end, he accepted the shares and gave them to this institution, which was one of the most significant gifts to any educational institution at the time and one that still contributes to the school’s budget today.
Living a life of virtue and honor has to do with choice. Each day, students at W&L make a conscious choice whether or not to maintain their reputation as a person of honor. Our commitment to these values extends beyond this campus and our years here. It is also important to note that these choices do not come without sacrifice but they result in the improvement of society. Washington made the conscious choice to stand by principle rather than price. As a result, his personal impact has enabled students to continue receiving a stellar Liberal Arts education over 250 years later.
It was Washington’s greatest wish to support the Liberal Arts, and it is our duty as students of this University to be well-versed in many aspects of academia. But in this same vein, we make the crucial choice to attend a Liberal Arts institution and take courses that challenge us. At the undergraduate level, we have the ability to take courses that ignite our passion rather than just fulfill requisites for degrees. Mark Twain eloquently stated, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.” We have each been gifted four years at this institution to question the world and more importantly, ourselves. The impact of Washington’s choice has spanned generations, wars, and political upheavals. Choose wisely.