The Columns

Discovery Takes Historic Document from Ordinary to Extraordinary This seemingly ordinary subscription list from 1776, which has long been a part of W&L Special Collections, has a fascinating connection with American independence.

— by on February 24th, 2017

In preparing for a social media post regarding the document several weeks ago, I noticed a special significance to five of the signatures on the subscription list.

— Tom Camden, Special Collections

By Tom Camden, director of Special Collections at Washington and Lee

Tucked among the hundreds of official early Washington and Lee University (formerly called Liberty Hall Academy) records housed in the Special Collections vault is one seemingly ordinary subscription list that, upon close inspection, proves to have an extraordinary association with American independence.

In May 1776, the Board of Trustees of the Timber Ridge Academy formally voted to rename the school Liberty Hall Academy in response to the patriotic fervor then sweeping the Colonies. During the school’s first months of operation as Liberty Hall Academy, the board embarked on a fundraising campaign that enjoyed considerable success, particularly in the Shenandoah Valley. The most successful effort, however, was a subscription list (in more modern terms, a pledge sheet) that was circulated in Williamsburg by Thomas Lewis and Samuel McDowell. Lewis and McDowell, trustees of the academy, were representatives from Augusta County to the Virginia General Assembly.

During the same legislative session when they circulated the subscription for Liberty Hall Academy, a related advertisement appeared in the Virginia Gazette (November 8, 1776). The advertisement announced to the public that “all the most important branches of literature necessary to prepare young gentlemen for the study of law, physick [sic] and theology, may be taught to good advantage, upon the most approved plan.” Potential patrons were advised that the school owned a “considerable library of books and the most essential parts of a mathematical apparatus.” Tuition was set at four pounds; board was to cost six pounds, 10 shillings. Firewood was available, but students were expected to provide their own candles, beds and washing. The healthful climate of the location was mentioned. In order to reassure Anglicans who might have had qualms about supporting a Presbyterian school, the advertisement declared: “the education and morals of youth being the great objects in view, those peculiarities which form the complexion of any party shall have no place in the scheme.”

Pledges were secured from 107 persons, all of whom signed the original subscription list. The list includes the distinctive signature of Thomas Jefferson, who pledged (and paid) three pounds. In all, the successful campaign raised 215 pounds, nine shillings.

The original subscription list has been well-known to university historians and scholars for some years, and I have used it often in special presentations. However, it was only recently that I made a startling discovery that takes one of Washington and Lee’s earliest documents to an extraordinary new level.

In preparing for a social media post regarding the document several weeks ago, I noticed a special significance to five of the signatures on the subscription list. In addition to Thomas Jefferson, other noted signatories included Benjamin Harrison, George Wythe, Carter Braxton and Thomas Nelson Jr. (Nelson pledged the largest amount of the more than 100 subscribers at nine pounds, 12 shillings).

What sets these individuals apart from the other 102 signatories? All five individuals who strongly supported an early investment in Liberty Hall Academy were also signers of the Declaration of Independence, arguably one of the most important documents created in the course of America’s history.

The same patriotic fervor that spawned such an extraordinary document clearly is reflected in the somewhat ordinary, routine subscription list generated for the new school on Virginia’s frontier. The early days of the institutions that evolved into Washington Academy and Washington and Lee University were often precarious ones, but simple, ordinary records like the Liberty Hall subscription list show how strong-minded trustees overcame the economic problems that continued to overshadow the institution until George Washington’s gift of 1796.

To read more about the objects in Special Collections and University Collections of Art and History, click here.

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