Washington and Lee University

William Graham Biographical Sketch
Henry Alexander White

Note: The following biographical sketch of William Graham, founder of Liberty Hall Academy, is taken from Henry Alexander White’s Southern Presbyterian Leaders (New York, 1911; chapter 20, pp. 124–39). White was professor of New Testament Literature at Columbia Theological Seminary, at that time in Columbia, South Carolina. He was the author of several books, including Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy (New York, 1897), a biography of Stonewall Jackson, and several histories of the United States written for schools. Graham served as White’s inspiration to go into the ministry, and White chose an image of Graham for the frontispiece of his Southern Presbyterian Leaders.

William Graham
Frontispiece from Henry Alexander White’s Southern Presbyterian Leaders


As early as October, 1771, The Hanover Presbytery expressed its sense of “the great expediency of erecting a seminary of learning somewhere within the bounds of this presbytery.” In October, 1774, the presbytery resumed “the consideration of a school for the liberal education of youth, judged to be of great and immediate importance. We do, therefore, agree to establish and patronize a publick school, which shall be confined to the County of Augusta. At present it shall be managed by Mr. William Graham, a gentleman properly recommended to this Presbytery—and under the inspection of the Rev. Mr. John Brown.” William Graham was recommended to the presbytery by the Rev. Samuel Stanhope Smith, of Princeton College. In this manner, the presbytery assumed control of the school which had been hitherto organized as a church school under the control of Rev. John Brown.

At the same meeting, the presbytery appointed the Rev. John Brown, the Rev. David Rice, the Rev. Samuel Cummings, the Rev. William Irwin and the Rev. Caleb Wallace to take subscriptions for the school in the congregations of Providence, North Mountain, Pastures, Botetourt, Fincastle, Tinkling Spring, Stone Church, Brown’s Settlement and Fork of James River.

At the same meeting, also, the presbytery recommended it to the congregations of Cumberland, Prince Edward and Briery to take subscriptions for the erection of a public school for the liberal education of youth, in the region south of the Blue Ridge. On February 2, 1775, the presbytery decided to establish this school in Prince Edward County. The presbytery appointed trustees for the Prince Edward Academy and chose Samuel Stanhope Smith as rector. With reference to this academy the presbytery, in February, 1775, declared that “every necessary branch of human literature will be taught to good advantage, on the most catholic plan, and whereas, some gentlemen who are unacquainted with our sentiments, may encourage this seminary with reluctance because it is to be under the guardianship of this presbytery, we take this opportunity to assure the publick, that though the strictest regard shall be paid to the morals of the youth, and worship carried on, evening and morning, in the Presbyterian way; yet on the other hand, all possible care shall be taken that no undue influence be used by any member of this presbytery, the rector, or any assistant, to bias the judgment of any; but that all, of every denomination, shall fully enjoy his own religious sentiments.”

Two months later, April 12th, 1775, the presbytery met in the Timber Ridge Church, and made the following statement with reference to Augusta Academy: “The presbytery as guardians and directors, take this opportunity to declare their resolution to do their best endeavor to establish it [Augusta Academy] on the most catholic plan that circumstances will permit.”

“The most catholic plan” of administration, thus announced, is evidently the same that was set forth by the presbytery two months before with reference to Prince Edward Academy, that “the strictest regard shall be paid to the morals of the youth, and worship carried on, evening and morning, in the Presbyterian way,” and, yet, at the same time each member of any other denomination “shall fully enjoy his own religious sentiments.”

With reference to this declaration of the presbytery, Dr. Henry Ruffner, in his history of Washington College, makes the following statement: “As no seminary above the rank of common school had yet been established in the Valley, the presbytery saw fit on this occasion to declare that they meant not to confine the benefits of the Academy to their own denomination of Christianity, but to manage it on such liberal principles that all the country might enjoy the benefits of the institution. They meant, no doubt, as in duty they were bound, to give a religious and moral education to the pupils of this academy; but not to manage it with the sectarian view of making Presbyterians of all who might resort to it” (Historical Papers—I., p. 14.)

At this same meeting, April, 1775, “Presbytery finding that they cannot, of themselves, forward subscriptions in a particular manner, do, for the encouragement of the Academy to be established in Augusta, recommend it to the following gentlemen to take in subscriptions in their behalf, viz., the Rev. Mr. Cummings, Col. Wm. Preston, Col. Wm. Christian [Fincastle], Col. Lewis, Col. Fleming and Mr. Stockheart [Botetourt], Capt. John Bowyer, Capt. Wm. McKee, Capt. Adlai Paul, Capt John Maxwell and Mr. James Trimble [Fork of James River], Mr. Saml. Lyle and Capt. Samuel McDowell [Timber Ridge], Rev. John Brown, James Wilson and Charles Campbell [Providence], Wm. McPheeters, Wm. Ledgerwood, and John Trimble [North Mountain and Brown’s Settlement], Moses Stewart and Walter Davis [Tinkling Spring], Sampson Mathews [Staunton], Capt. George Mathews, Capt. George Moffitt and James Allen [Augusta Church].[”] These men were Presbyterians and were appointed to take subscriptions within the bounds of Presbyterian congregations for the support of Augusta Academy.

It is further recorded concerning the Presbytery at Timber Ridge, April, 1775, that the Presbytery went in a body to pay an official visit to William Graham’s Academy at Mt. Pleasant near Fairfield and “attended a specimen of the proficiency of the students, in the Latin and Greek languages, and pronouncing orations, with which they were well pleased.”

William Graham was a man of twenty-eight years when he began to teach Greek and Latin at Mount Pleasant on the ridge near Fairfield in the present Rockbridge County, Virginia. He was slightly above medium height, his eyes were dark and he had a slender, delicate frame. Graham was born in Pennsylvania of Scotch-Irish parentage and until he reached the age of twenty-two, worked on his father’s farm. He then went to the home of his pastor and gave all of his time to the study of books; for just a year before, at the age of twenty-one years, he had given his heart to Christ. Five years were spent by Graham at Princeton under the guardianship and instruction of the great John Witherspoon, then president of the College. Henry Lee, of Virginia, afterwards known as “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, and father of General Robert E. Lee, was one of Graham’s fellow-students at Princeton. The latter completed the course of study there in 1773 and for a year afterwards gave himself to the study of theology. Then he answered the call of Hanover Presbytery, and began his work as teacher in the fall of 1774. At its October meeting, in 1775, the presbytery gave him license to enter the pulpit.

At the close of Graham’s first year as teacher in the academy, that is, in the spring of 1775, as we have just seen, the presbytery held one of its daily sessions in the school house and there listened to recitations, by Graham’s students, in the Latin and Greek languages. They also heard orations delivered by some of the students.

The method of teaching pursued by Graham has been described for us by Dr. Samuel Campbell who, after Graham’s death, was principal of the same school. “I happened at Mount Pleasant during Mr. Graham’s superintendence,” says Dr. Campbell. “It was near the hour of recitation. Here was seen a large assemblage of fine, cheerful, vigorous looking youth, apparently from ten to twenty years of age. They were mostly engaged in feats of strength, speed, or agility; each emulous to surpass his fellows in those exercises, for which youth of their age generally possess a strong predilection. Presently the sound of a horn summoned all to the business of the afternoon. The sports were dropped as by magic. Now you may see them seated singly or in pairs, or in small groups, with book in hand, conning over their afternoon’s lesson. One portion resorted immediately to the hall, and ranging themselves before the preceptor in semi-circular order, handed him a book containing their recitations. He seemed not to look into the book and presently closed it; thinking, I supposed, he knew as well as the book.

“Of the recitation I understood not a syllable, yet it was highly agreeable to the ear, sonorous and musical; and, although more than sixty winters have rolled away since that time, the impressions then made have not been entirely effaced from my memory. I have since discovered that the recitation was a portion of thnt beautiful Greek verb, tuptö, in which the sound of the consonants, pi, tau, mu, theta, predominate. It was observable that during the recitation the preceptor gave no instructions, corrected no errors, made no remarks of any kind. He seemed to sit merely as a silent witness of the performance. The class itself resembled one of those self regulating machines of which I have heard. Each member stood ready, by trapping and turning down, to correct the mishaps and mistakes of his fellows; and as much emulation was discovered here as had been an hour before on the theatre of their sports in their athletic exercises.

“During this recitation an incipient smile of approbation was more than once observed on the countenance of the preceptor, maugre [in spite of] his native gravity and reserve. This happened when small boys, by their superior scholarship, raised themselves above those who were full grown. This class having gone through, several others, in regular order, presented themselves before the teacher and passed the ordeal. The business of the afternoon was closed by a devotional exercise * * * The systematic order of the place struck my attention. A signal called the whole school together; a signal announced the hour of recitation; each class was summoned by a signal. These signals were obeyed without delay—and without noise. The students might pursue their studies in the hall or the open air, as pleased them best. Talking or reading aloud was not permitted in the hall. The dignity of the preceptor and his well known fitness for the station gave him respectability, and he was respected. * * *”

On May 1, 1776, the presbytery met again at Timber Ridge Church. Two days later (May 3), it went in a body to Mt. Pleasant, and again held its session in the academy building and proceeded to examine Graham’s school. Again the presbytery listened to recitations in Greek and Latin, heard some orations delivered and gave formal approval to teacher and students. There is, probably, no other case like this on record, wherein a presbytery emphasized its absolute ownership of the school by formally organizing itself in the schoolroom and for a time assuming complete control of the work and exercises of the students.

Mr. Graham reported that in accordance with the order of the presbytery he had purchased books and apparatus for the use of the Academy to the amount of about 160 pounds and that the gentlemen appointed by the presbytery had collected and paid into his hands about 128 pounds, in Virginia money.

On the 6th of May, 1776, Presbytery decided to remove the Augusta Academy from Mt. Pleasant to Timber Ridge Church for the following reasons:—

(1) Timber Ridge Church is a convenient place;
(2) The Timber Ridge Church has secured as pastor, Rev. William Graham, Rector of the Academy;
(3) Capt Alexander Stewart and Mr. Samuel Houston have each offered to give forty acres of land as a site for the school;
(4) The congregation of Timber Ridge Church offers to erect a building for the Academy.

On the same day. May 6th, Presbytery appointed a board of trustees consisting of twenty-four members, five of them Presbyterian ministers, namely William Graham, John Brown, James Waddell, Charles Cumnings and William Irwin, with nineteen elders and laymen from the Presbyterian Church. The presbytery reserved to itself, however, “The right of visitation forever, as often as they shall judge it necessary; and of choosing the Rector and his assistant.” John Montgomery, afterwards a Presbyterian minister, was at that time Mr. Graham’s assistant.

The executive committee of this board was also named by the presbytery. This committee met on May 13, 1776. It consisted of one minister and five elders of the Presbyterian Church, viz: Rev. William Graham and Alexander Stewart, Samuel Lyle, Charles Campbell, John Houston and William McKee. These men gave to the school, in its new location, the name of Liberty Hall Academy, most probably for the reason that Liberty Hall was the name of the country home of the family of Rev. John Brown in county Limerick, Ireland. (See Report of U.S. Bureau of Education, No. 2: p. 306.) The committee also secured the erection of the school building. As it stood ready for William Graham in 1777, The Liberty Hall Academy possessed 80 acres of land, two houses, a library of 300 volumes and some apparatus, all of the value of about 400
pounds, or nearly two thousand dollars.

“This Academy,” says Dr. Henry Ruffncr (Hist. Papers I., 25), “owed its foundation, first, to the enlightened policy and pious zeal of the Presbyterian clergy of the land; secondly, to the contributions of the Presbyterian people of the Valley; thirdly, to the energy and talents of the rector [Rev. Wm. Graham]; and, lastly, to the attention given to its affairs by a few of the neighboring trustees, and the gratuitous aid in land, labor and materials, given by some members of the Timber Ridge congregation.”

In 1777 the region in which Liberty Hall Academy was located was laid off as Rockbridge County. A call for soldiers to fight in the Revolutionary army was sent out by the Virginia legislature. When the people of Rockbridge met together to consider this call, they were addressed by William Graham. He urged the men to offer themselves for the battle, but only a few stepped forward. Then Graham walked out from the crowd and offered himself as a soldier. A large number of men followed him; the company of soldiers was made up at once and William Graham was chosen Captain. In a later chapter of this book we shall see him leading his men to meet Tarleton’s British horsemen on the Blue Ridge near Charlottesville.

In 1778 the Trustees appointed by the presbytery in 1776 prepared a petition and sent it to the Virginia legislature, asking for the incorporation of the school. Since the Hanover Presbytery was then engaged in the struggle before the legislature to secure complete separation of church and state affairs, the charter of incorporation was not granted. In 1779, the Liberty Hall Academy was removed to Graham’s farm near the town of Lexington, the county seat of Rockbridge. On the 24th of October, 1782, the Presbytery of Hanover appointed eight ministers and seven Presbyterian laymen and elders as additional trustees to fill vacancies in the board of trustees of Liberty Hall Academy. Within less time than one month after the appointment of these members, the Rector, William Graham, in the name of the board appointed by the presbytery sent the following petition to the legislature:—

To the honourable, the Speaker and gentlemen of the House of Delegates, the petition of the Trustees of Liberty Hall Academy most humbly showeth,

That your petitioners, very sensible of the great utility arising from the regular education of youth, have for some time been associated for that purpose; and finding our efforts attended with good success, are induced, from the experiment made, to believe that a seminary may here be conducted to very general advantage. And we are the rather inclined to be more fully of this opinion, when we consider the extensive fertile country around the place, the fine air and pure water with which it is blessed, contributing so powerfully to health of body; having also procured one hundred and twenty acres of land in the neighborhood of Lexington for the use of the Academy, a valuable library of well chosen books and a considerable mathemathical and philosophical apparatus. Under these advantages and many more that might be named, we doubt not, should we be so happy as to obtain the approbation and patronage of the honourable house, of being instruments under the smiles of Heaven, of conveying down to posterity, the most valuable blessing and the purest pledge of true patriotism we are capable of.

We, therefore, pray the honourable Assembly to take the matter under consideration and grant us an act of incorporation with such powers and privileges as will enable us and our successors more effectually to carry on the laudable design and give all possible encouragement to a polite and solid education.

We hope also that a patriot Assembly will see the reasonableness of, and grant an exemption from militia draughts, to the professors and masters of the said seminary and to all students thereto belonging, under the age of twenty-one years. And your petitioners as in duty bound shall pray.

Signed in behalf of the Trustees.

In response to this request, the legislature on December 13, 1782, passed a law forming the trustees appointed by the Hanover Presbytery into a body called a corporation.[note 1] This body, in 1782, consisted of twenty members; four of these were minister, William Graham, Caleb Wallace, John Montgomery and William Wilson, and sixteen were elders and members of the churches of the presbytery. Seven members of the incorporated board were members of the board of 1776.

It was not the desire nor the purpose of the Presbytery in permitting its trustees to secure incorporation, to surrender control of the Academy. The incorporation of the presbytery’s trustees was the only way then open under the laws of Virginia whereby the presbytery could own or manage its property. A few months later (May, 1784) in a memorial address to the legislature of Virginia, the presbytery used these words:—“The Episcopal Church is actually incorporated and known in law as a body, so that it can receive and possess property for ecclesiastical purposes without trouble or risk in securing it, while other Christian communities are obliged to trust to the precarious fidelity of trustees chosen for the purpose.“

Since the presbytery was thus compelled to resort, in October, 1782, to “the precarious fidelity of trustees” they were careful in the choice of the members of the Board which was to perpetuate itself.

Eleven members of the incorporated Board came together, January 30, 1783, to organize the new administration of the academy. They were the following:

Rev. William Graham, Rector.
John Bowyer, of Botetourt County, member of Presbytery’s Board of 1776.
Andrew Moore, of Lexington.
William Alexander, of Timber Ridge Church, father of Dr. Archibald Alexander.
Joseph Walker, of Falling Spring Church.
Alexander Campbell, of Timber Ridge Church.
John Wilson, of Augusta County.
John Trimble, of Rockbridge County.
John Hayes, Oif Hayes’ Creek.
William McKee, Timber Ridge Church, member of the Board of 1776.
Samuel Lyle, Timber Ridge Church, member of the Board of 1776.

These eleven members were all Presbyterians. Four of the eleven were members of the board of 1776. Nine of them were from the churches of Rockbridge County, one was from Botetourt and one from Augusta.

The transfer of the school from the control of the presbytery to that of a self-perpetuating board was thus merely nominal. Every member of the new board was part and parcel of the presbytery itself. There was no purpose on the part of the presbytery to surrender the school which it had established. The self-perpetuating board was placed in charge, to guard the interests of the presbytery, simply because a charter could not be obtained in any other way. In the following year, 1783, Hampden Sidney College secured a charter in exactly the same way, and was likewise placed under the control of a self-perpetuating board.

William Graham, Founder of Liberty Hall Academy, was a great and successful teacher of Greek and Latin literature. He was also an inspiring teacher of the philosophy of the mind. Through the reading of books and through long years of meditation, Graham formulated a system of mental philosophy which was peculiarly his own and of which one of his students, Dr. Archibald Alexander, afterwards said that it was, “in clearness and fulness, superior” to any other system set forth up to that time. After 1789 he was pastor of the New Monmouth and Lexington churches. Dr. Alexander tells us that Graham’s manner of delivery was usually “rather feeble and embarrassed, and his dark-colored eyes had rather a dull appearance.” Sometimes, however, says Alexander, he became excited, his eyes took on a piercing look and his whole manner was full of expression. On rare occasions he spoke to the people with the same zeal, no doubt, that he showed on a certain occasion, when he made a visit to the Briery congregation in Prince Edward County, Virginia. On that particular Sunday morning John Blair Smith preached the first sermon. The sacrament was then administered and afterwards William Graham preached from Isaiah 40:1, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God.” Strong and tender feeling were shown in his voice and manner and “he poured forth gospel truth like floods of milk and wine,” wrote one who heard him; “while the melting eyes and glowing countenances of a large assembly showed that many were eating as friends and drinking abundantly of the consolations provided for them of their God. He brought some of his young people with him [from the Valley of Virginia], hoping that in the midst of the outpouring of the Spirit they might receive the grace of God. His hopes were not in vain. Archibald Alexander was one of that young company.”

Graham’s sermon at Briery made a deep Impression and was remembered for years. A young member of the Briery congregation asked Mr. Graham how long it had taken him to compose the sermon. “About twenty years,” replied Graham.

From 1789 onwards for several years, Graham gave regular instruction in the Academy at Lexington to a class of theological students. Seven or eight young men were in regular attendance upon his courses of study in preparation for the ministry.

In 1791, the Synod of Virginia proposed to institute some “plan calculated to educate persons designed for the Gospel Ministry.” Synod recommended that there be two general “seminaries” for “religious instruction,” under the patronage of that body, one in Rockbridge, Virginia, under Rev. Wm. Graham, the other in Washington County, Pennsylvania, under Rev. John McMillan. In 1792 at Winchester, Synod requested the Board of Liberty Hall Academy to fill vacancies out of the Presbyteries of Hanover and Lexington, that the Academy might become one of the seminaries of the synod.

In 1793, the trustees of the academy agreed to Synod’s conditions, and stated that they had contracted for new buildings to the amount of 900 pounds, and asked Synod’s aid. Synod enjoined it upon the two presbyteries to raise money for the Academy. This work was done at once by the presbyteries, and on the 1st of January, 1794, the new stone building was occupied by Rector Graham. He now held the twofold position of Professor of Theology under the synod, and Principal of the Academy under the chartered board.

Thus the stone ruins of Liberty Hall Academy, still standing on the hill near Lexington, represent the Academy building erected, in yart, hy the two presbyteries as the first Theological Seminary in Virginia.

Dr. Archibald Alexander, in his address before the alumni of Washington College, 1843, states that prior to this coalition between the Academy and the synod, Rector Graham was a teacher of theology and that “most of those who entered the holy ministry in this Valley” were prepared for the ministerial work by Graham. After the coalition with the synod, “Mr. Graham had a theological class of seven or eight members,” says Dr. Alexander, “which was kept up for several years.” The seminary was continued until the resignation of the offices of rector and theologian by Mr. Graham in 1796.

Early in the year 1796, the trustees of Liberty Hall Academy heard of the purpose of General George Washington to devote certain shares of canal stock to some school located on the waters of the James River. These shares had been offered to Washington as an expression of esteem by the legislature of Virginia. He refused to accept the money for himself, but announced his readiness to bestow it upon some institution of learning in the mountain region of the state. The trustees of Liberty Hall came together and asked Graham to prepare a statement to be sent to General Washington. In the name of the trustees, Graham wrote, in part, as follows:—

“* * * As early as the year 1776 a seminary before conducted in these parts under the form of a grammar school received the nominal title of an academy and money was collected to purchase the beginnings of a library and some of the most essential parts of a mathematical and philosophical apparatus.

“The question then was, where should the seminary be fixed? Staunton was proposed by some.” Graham spoke of the headwaters of the James River as more convenient within the upper country than Staunton.

“We therefore concluded,” he writes, “that some spot in the tract of country now known as Rockbridge would be the proper place. We, therefore, organized the seminary and set it in motion. * * * Through the calamities of a long and dangerous war * * * we were enabled to preserve the Academy in a state of considerable reputation and usefulness until the year 1782, when we were aided by an act of incorporation from the legislature of Virginia, which was the first granted after the Revolution.” “There is one fact more,” continued Graham, “which we would beg leave to state. In 1793 by voluntary contribution and some sacrifice of private property, we were enabled to erect and finish plain but neat buildings, sufficiently capacious to accommodate between forty and fifty students, and the business of education is now in full train and the seminary is in as high reputation as could be expected without funds. * * * The buildings and other furniture of the Academy could not be estimated at much less than two thousand pounds.”

This sum of two thousand pounds, that is about ten thousand dollars, constituted the original endowment of Liberty Hall Academy. For that day and time it was no small amount and was made up from the gifts of the Presbyterian people of Virginia.

Graham wrote to Washington as if speaking for the Hanover Presbytery and as referring to the debates in that body over the location of the school. The board of trustees, in whose behalf he sent the petition, claimed an origin prior to the war of the Revolution. In the minds of the members of this board, they evidently regarded themselves as constituting the same official body that was created by the act of Hanover Presbytery in 1776. As such they asked General Washington for the shares of stock, and to this board as representing and continuing the board of 1776 Washington gave the money. During the darkest period of the Revolution, Washington had said that if he should be driven from every other position he would make a final stand in Augusta County, Virginia. He was now merely turning over some of Virginia’s money to the people who had done more than any other Virginians to defend the commonwealth against the British. The trustees recognized his generosity by naming the school Washington Academy. Afterwards it was called Washington College and later still, the Washington and Lee University.

The income received by Graham for his work as teacher and preacher was not large enough to furnish bread to his family. In the latter part of the year 1796, therefore, he gave up his position as Rector of the Academy and moved westward into the Ohio Valley. It was his purpose to establish a Scotch-Irish colony upon a large tract of land near the Ohio River. A journey to Richmond became necessary in order to secure the title to the land. The long horseback ride through the wilderness fatigued him. The chilling effects of the rains that fell upon his slender frame during the journey brought on serious sickness and Mr. Graham suddenly died in Richmond in June, 1788. His body was laid to rest in that city near the south door of St, John’s Church. Thus passed away the principal founder of Washington College. We shall look upon his work again, in this volume, in connection with the final battle in behalf of religious freedom.