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Washington College had started as an academy in 1749. It was the firstclassical school opened in the Valley of Virginia. After a struggleof many years, under a succession of principals and with severalchanges of site, it at length acquired such a reputation as to attractthe attention of General Washington. He gave it a handsome endowment,and the institution changed its name from "Liberty Hall Academy" toWashington College. In the summer of 1865, the college, through thecalamities of civil war, had reached the lowest point of depressionit had ever known. Its buildings, library, and apparatus had sufferedfrom the sack and plunder of hostile soldiery. Its invested funds,owing to the general impoverishment throughout the land, were for thetime being rendered unproductive and their ultimate value was mostuncertain. Four professors still remained on duty, and there wereabout forty students, mainly from the country around Lexington. Itwas not a State institution, nor confined to any one religiousdenomination, so two objections which might have been made by my fatherwere removed. But the college in later years had only a localreputation. It was very poor, indifferently equipped with buildings,and with no means in sight to improve its condition.
"There was a general expectation that he would decline the positionas not sufficiently lucrative, if his purpose was to repair the ruinsof his private fortune resulting from the war; as not lifting himconspicuously enough in the public gaze, if he was ambitious of officeor further distinction; or as involving too great labour and anxiety,if he coveted repose after the terrible contest from which he had justemerged." [Professor E. S. Joynes]
He was very reluctant to accept this appointment, but for none ofthe above reasons, as the average man might have been. Why he wasdoubtful of undertaking the responsibilities of such a position hisletter of acceptance clearly shows. He considered the matter carefullyand then wrote the following letter to the committee:
"Powhatan County, August 24, 1865.
"Gentlemen: I have delayed for some days replying to your letter ofthe 5th inst., informing me of my election by the board of trusteesto the presidency of Washington College, from a desire to give thesubject due consideration. Fully impressed with the responsibilitiesof the office, I have feared that I should be unable to discharge itsduties to the satisfaction of the trustees or to the benefit of thecountry. The proper education of youth requires not only great ability,but I fear more strength than I now possess, for I do not feel ableto undergo the labour of conducting classes in regular courses ofinstruction. I could not, therefore, undertake more than the generaladministration and supervision of the institution. I could not,therefore, undertake more than the general administration andsupervision of the institution. There is another subject which hascaused me some serious reflection, and is, I think, worthy of theconsideration of the board. Being excluded from the terms of amnestyin the proclamation of the President of the United States, of the29th of May last, and an object of censure to a portion of the country,I have thought it probable that my occupation of the position ofpresident might draw upon the college a feeling of hostility; and Ishould, therefore, cause injury to an institution which it would bemy highest desire to advance. I think it the duty of every citizen,in the present condition of the country, to do all in his power toaid in the restoration of peace and harmony, and in no way to opposethe policy of the State or general government directed to that object.It is particularly incumbent on those charged with the instruction ofthe young to set them an example of submission to authority, and Icould not consent t be the cause of animadversion upon the college.Should you, however, take a different view, and think that my servicesin the position tendered to me by the board will be advantageous tothe college and country, I will yield to your judgement and accept it;otherwise, I must most respectfully decline the office. Begging youto express to the trustees of the college my heartfelt gratitude forthe honour conferred upon me, and requesting you to accept my cordialthanks for the kind manner in which you have communicated theirdecision, I am, gentlemen, with great respect, your most obedientservant, R. E. Lee"
To present a clearer view of some of the motives influencing my fatherin accepting this trust--for such he considered it--I give an extractfrom an address on the occasion of his death, by Bishop Wilmer, ofLouisiana, delivered at the University of the South, at Sewanee,Tennessee:
"I was seated," says Bishop Wilmer, "at the close of the day, in myVirginia home, when I beheld, through the thickening shades of evening,a horseman entering the yard, whom I soon recognised as General Lee.The next morning he placed in my hands the correspondence with theauthorities of Washington College at Lexington. He had been invitedto become president of that institution. I confess to a momentaryfeeling of chagrin at the proposed change (shall I say revulsion?) inhis history. The institution was one of local interest, andcomparatively unknown to our people. I named others more conspicuouswhich would welcome him with ardour at the presiding head. I soondiscovered that his mind towered above these earthly distinctions;that, in his judgement, the CAUSE gave dignity to the institution,and not the wealth of its endowment or the renown of its scholars;that this door and not another was opened to him by Providence, andhe only wished to be assured of his competency to fulfil his trustand this to make his few remaining years a comfort and blessing tohis suffering country. I had spoken to his human feelings; he hadnow revealed himself to me as one 'whose life was hid with Christin God.' My speech was no longer restrained. I congratulated himthat his heart was inclined to this great cause, and that he wasprepared to give to the world this august testimony to the importanceof Christian education. How he listened to my feeble words; how hebeckoned me to his side, as the fulness of heart found utterance;how his whole countenance glowed with animation as I spoke of theHoly Ghost as the great Teacher, whose presence was required to makeeducation a blessing, which otherwise might be the curse of mankind;how feelingly he responded, how ELOQUENTLY, as I never heard himspeak before--can never be effaced from memory; and nothing moresacred mingles with my reminiscences of the dead."
The board of trustees, on August 31st, adopted and sent to GeneralLee resolutions saying that, in spite of his objections, "his connectionwith the institution would greatly promote its prosperity and advancethe general interest of education, and urged him to enter upon hisduties as president at his earliest convenience."
My father had had nearly four years' experience in the charge of youngmen at West Point. The conditions at that place, to be sure, were verydifferent from those at the one to which he was now going, but the workin the main was the same--to train, improve and elevate. I think he wasinfluenced, in making up his mind to accept this position, by the greatneed of education in his State and in the South, and by the opportunitythat he saw at Washington College for starting almost from thebeginning, and for helping, by his experience and example, the youthof his country to become good and useful citizens.