General Lee and a School of Commerce
C. S. Marsh

Note: The following is taken from the October 1926 issue of The Journal of Political Economy (volume 34), pp. 657–59.


Four months after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, he was elected president of Washington College at Lexington, Virginia. He was at that time fifty-eight years of age and, including his West Point training, he had spent forty years in army life. Notwithstanding the fact that he was a product of West Point, his influence in Washington College was felt at once in favor of a liberalized curriculum. Indeed, his achievements as a college president marke him as one of our great educators. Within thirty days after his inauguration the board of trustees took action to establish five new professorships, namely, (1) practical chemistry, (2) experimental philosophy and practical mechanics, which was largely physics, (3) applied mathematics, (4) modern languages, (5) history and literature.

On April 26, 1866,1 the trustees took action abolishing the curriculum as it stood and establishing the following nine schools: (1) Latin; (2) Greek; (3) Mathematics; (4) Chemistry; (5) Moral Philosophy; (6) Natural Philosophy; (7) Applied Mathematics; (8) Practical Chemistry; (9) Modern Languages. Students were allowed to select the school which they would attend.

The fourth year of General Lee’s presidency, the academic year 1868–69, is notable for several forward-looking recommendations which he presented to the trustees, one of which was for the establishment of a school of commerce. This is probably one of the earliest proposals for such a school of collegiate grade in the history of American higher education. there was already, in the preparatory department of Washington College, a business school teaching penmanship and bookkeeping, so that President Lee clearly had in mind something much mroe advanced. In his report to the trustees he says:2

In recommending a Commercial School, it is proposed not merely to give instruction in bookkeeping and the forms and details of business, but to teach the principles of commerce, economy, trade, and mercantile law. Such a school may with great advantage be added to the schools of the college, as many students may, by its means, prepare themselves for business pursuits while obtaining such scientific and literary culture in the other schools as time and opportunity may allow.

After commenting on the needed expansion of the curriculum in this and other ways, he adds:

The great object of the whole plan is to provide the facilities required by the large class of our young men who, looking to an early entrance into the practical pursuits of life, need a more direct training to this end than the usual literary courses. The proposed departments will also derive great advantage from the literary schools of the college, whose influence in the enlárgement and cultivation of the mind is felt beyond their immediate limit.

Now when you take into consideration the fact that schools of commerce of collegiate grade are a comparatively recent development, having experienced their largest growth in the last twenty years, that the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, which is commonly regarded as the oldest of such schools, began its work in 1881, that there were hardly any others before 1900, you gain some idea of the vision that projected the School of Commerce in Washington College.

The curriculum of the school, as outlined by President Lee,3 was to consist of (a) mathematics of accounts, exhange, insurance, annuities, compound interest, etc.; (b) geometry and drawing; (c) bookkeeping and penmanship; (d) commercial correspondence and the correct use of the English language; (e) geography, applied to production and commerce; (f) commercial technology, or the production of mechanical and chemical manufacture as articles of trade; (g) the elements of commercial law, or law of bills, notes, contracts, insurance, corporations, bailments, shipping, etc.; (h) commercial economy, or the administration and financial management of commercial enterprises, banks, insurance and joint stock companies, railroads, canals, ships, steamers, telegraphs, etc.; (i) commercial history and biography; (j) modern languages. Some political economy was already being taught.

The present-day curriculum in the collegiate school of business is commonly organized around the fivce functions of business, namely, finance, production, distribution, accounting, and management. A glance at the foregoing curriculum proposed by President Lee will show that, with the exception of distribution or sales, the essence of the present-day curriculum is included so far as the literature or teaching material was then developed.

Unfortunately, President Lee was in extremely poor health during the late spring of 1869, and throughout most of the academmic year, 1869–70, he was away from the college. He died October 12, 1870. The school of commerce as he outlined it was apparently not put into operation in what is now Washington and Lee Unviersity until recent years. The interesting fact remains that General Lee, as president of Washington College, outlined a plan for a collegiate school of commerce in January, 1869.




1 Minutes of the Trustees of Washington College, April 26, 1866.

2 R. E. Lee, Report to the Trustees of Washington College, January 8, 1869, MS.

3 Ibid.