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College History

Archive photo of Washington College building.As the Revolutionary War came to a close, Washington College was just getting started. Its founder, William Smith, had a revolutionary idea: to educate responsible citizen-leaders who could make the new democracy work.

We think this idea is still incredibly important. The College’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience evolved from our close ties to the Founding era, and our personal relationship with the nation’s First President.

A Presidential Beginning

At William Smith’s urging, General Washington gave the “College at Chester” a founding gift of 50 guineas, agreed to serve on the Board, and gave us his permission to use his name. His gift, the largest made toward the founding of the College in 1782, was used to purchase scientific equipment. Washington served on the Board of Visitors and Governors for five years until 1789, when he became President of the United States. He accepted an honorary degree from Washington College that same year and became a leading alumnus. His vision of a better future achieved through education, his respect for scholarship, and his ideals of leadership, character, and service to others form the foundation of the institution.

The College’s first president, the Rev. William Smith, was a prominent figure in colonial affairs of letters and church, and had a wide acquaintance among the great men of colonial days. Joining General Washington on the Board of Visitors and Governors of the new college were such distinguished leaders as John Page, Robert Goldsborough, Joshua Seney, and His Excellency William Paca, Governor of Maryland. The Maryland legislature confirmed its first college charter upon Washington College on October 15, 1782. The following spring, on May 14, 1783, the first commencement was held.

The College Charter

Washington College had evolved from the Kent County School, an institution of more than sixty years’ standing in “Chester Town,” which by 1782 had reached considerable strength and importance as a port city.

The driving force behind this evolution was the Rev. Dr. Smith, a Scotsman who came to America in 1751 and served the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) as its first provost from 1759 until its charter was revoked. Smith came to Chestertown in 1780 as rector of the Anglican Church. A man of great enthusiasm and energy, he was placed in charge of the Kent County School six months later. Under his leadership the School grew to 140 students and the Board of Visitors and Governors petitioned that a college charter be granted. The state agreed, with the provision that Dr. Smith raise 5,000 pounds within five years to support the College.

Traveling the countryside on horseback, he raised more than double the required amount in five months, as citizens throughout the state responded with gifts totaling 6% of the currency then circulating in Maryland. The leaders of the day understood the importance of having an educated citizenry to participate in government, to launch new enterprises, and to advance society.

During his nine-year tenure, Dr. William Smith set the highest academic standards for Washington College and saw to the construction of a massive college building that may have been the largest in Maryland at that time. That building was destroyed by fire on January 11, 1827. Its successor, the forerunner to William Smith Hall, also burned. The College suffered various economic hardships over the years, and progress came slowly. Middle Hall was erected in 1845, and was later flanked by East and West Halls.

The Revolutionary College Project offers much more about the history of the tenth oldest college in America, and the first college chartered in the new nation.