My Visit to Washington & Lee University

(January 20, 2020) A month prior to my Saturday presentation in Lexington, Virginia about Defending Confederate Monuments at the Lee-Jackson Day Annual Memorial, I asked Washington & Lee and the Virginia Military Academy (VMI) if I could also address their students. Notwithstanding the aid of an alumnus at each school, both turned me down although W&L allowed me to meet with one of their Civil War and Reconstruction Era history professors.

The day before the meeting I went to the W&L bookstore in order to examine the materials used in various classes, especially those chosen by the professor I would visit. Some choices were encouraging and thought provoking. A journalism class, for example, included William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (one of my favorite guides) and a history course of the Gilded Age included an Horatio Alger novel.

But the salient impression was my freedom to walk among the textbooks while carrying a briefcase. In order to minimize theft, most campuses do not permit anyone to enter the textbook stacks with a backpack or briefcase. In contrast, W&L has an honor system that is presently credited to Robert E. Lee. Alumnus and former TV news anchor, Roger Mudd, recalls that students were allowed to take exams in their own residences, unsupervised as long as they affixed an honor-pledge that they had neither given nor received aid on the exam. “The professors loved it because they could pass out their final exams and then leave,” Mudd said. “They didn’t have to monitor what was going on in the classroom as the students wrote their finals.”

While meeting with the professor the next day he confirmed that the honor system remains intact. When I later toured the Lee Chapel, I spent most of my time talking with a black security officer who also endorsed the code. He added that  the students themselves were often more strict than the professors and administrators might have been. He also remarked that family wealth and status did not enable a guilty student to evade penalties. Prior to joining W&L he had worked thirty years as a security officer at a Virginia correctional institution for adolescents. His remarks suggested that some of the inmates might have ended up with better lives if they had been given a prior opportunity to experience a protracted honor code environment.

Unfortunately, W&L’s current administration seeks to reduce Lee’s memory in the school’s history as his critics misleadingly revise that history and assassinate his character. Presently, W&L’s website includes a vague claim that “the earliest evidence of an academic Honor System dates back to the 1840s,” which was about twenty years before Lee arrived. (No doubt many colleges have a no cheating rule, but still won’t let shoppers into the textbook area with a briefcase or backpack.) Nonetheless, Freshmen still sign the Honor Code (White) Book in a ceremony traditionally held in Lee Chapel. His legacy is undoubtedly what made the code an enduring and nonnegotiable standard. Unfortunately, the cherished code may not survive. Instead students may copy the examples of Lee critics within W&L who compromise honesty in order to create a corrupted narrative that conforms to a politically correct zeitgeist.


Sample my books at my My Amazon Author Page:

The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh

5 thoughts on “My Visit to Washington & Lee University

  1. Pingback: Understanding Burnham’s First Law | Civil War Chat

  2. Christopher K Coleman

    A son in law attended there and the university is still an esteemed and honorable institution. I find it not only sad but truly bizarre that there are those within the institution trying to erase Lee from the University that bears his name and whose presence there most influenced it. Lee was not perfect, by any means, but he tried to do what his conscience bid him to do, which was not always an easy thing. He was not a Secessionist and the fact that he divested himself and his family of all slaves BEFORE the war (unlike General Grant) speaks to his personal distaste for the institution. After the war he was not an outspoken advocate of reconciliation, but in his own quiet way he led by example, as is well known. Chattel slavery in the South was fundamentally an economic institution, one which not only benefitted the Southern ruling class, but northern industrialists and merchants, as well as Great Britain & France; racism was the ideology which grew to justify that highly profitable economic system and until historians tell the whole truth about that, the public will continue to be fed Identity Politics instead of the truth.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Unfortunately, I feel the disrespect for Lee is already weakening the Honor Code. Two W&L journalism students interviewed me after my speech. When I asked their opinions of the Honor Code the girl implied it was not taken as seriously as I supposed.

  3. Tommy Curtis

    Revealing impressions and excellent points made from those impressions. Thank you for revealing them to us.


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