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::The Revolutionary College Project

The Revoluntionary College Project
Washington's Honorary Degree

ABOVE - (click on image to enlarge) Honorary Degree given to Washington

Red Swirl George Washington’s College Diploma 

On June 24, 1789, Washington College bestowed upon President George Washington the first honorary degree awarded to a sitting president of the United States. This degree of Doctor of Laws reflects the deep respect and gratitude that the College held – and still holds – for its namesake and founding benefactor. In a 1782 letter to Washington, Dr. William Smith, the College’s founder, described the newly chartered institution as "a seminary of universal learning expressly dedicated to your name, with a view of instructing and animating the youth of many future generations to admire and to imitate these public virtues and patriot-labours, which have created a private monument to you in the heart of every good citizen." Washington gave 50 guineas to the College, served on its Board of Visitors and Governors, and paid a visit to the campus in 1784.

The original diploma is now in the Library of Congress. Dr. Smith, along with two of members of the Board – U.S. Senator John Henry and Congressman Joshua Seney – presented it to President Washington at his office in New York City. Written in Latin, the document extols Washington as the "Champion of Liberty" and "most beloved Father of His Country." It is signed by Smith and the other four members of the Washington College faculty. It also bears the red wax seal of the College, with a design (based on Washington’s personal coat of arms) that had been created by Elizabeth Peale, an early faculty member and scion of the famous family of painters.

In a letter of thanks to the Board for the honorary degree, President Washington wrote: "I sincerely pray that the Great Author of the Universe may smile upon the institution and make it an extensive blessing."

George Washington (who had never received a college education) was the first of several U.S. presidents to receive an honorary degree here; Washington College’s other presidential "alumni" include Herbert Hoover (1927), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933), Harry Truman (1946), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1954), and George H.W. Bush (1999). Through more than two centuries, Washington College has also kept faith with its mission of imparting the values and virtues of its namesake to "the youth of many future generations."

Translation of Diploma - Note: This translation was made by Jacob Spencer and Adam Goodheart.  They point out that William Smith appears to have adopted some of the phraseology from the conventional formulae of Oxford and Cambridge diplomas, slightly altered to suit Washington College. 

We, the President and Faculty of Professors of Washington College, in the Republic of Maryland in America, to all those to whom these presents may come, bid Eternal Greeting under God:

Whereas, Academic Ranks have been wisely instituted by our Ancestors, for this end: so that public Honors may be awarded to Men who have distinguished themselves for their Piety, Learning, and Service to the Nation;

and Whereas, it must be clear, to us and the entire world, that

George Washington, President of the United States of America, not only has distinguished himself for his Piety, Learning, and Service to his Nation (as well as to all Mankind); but also has proven himself—in both War and Peace, being ever zealous for the common Welfare of all, throughout the gravest Tribulations—to be a most illustrious Citizen, a most able Champion of Liberty, a most beloved Father of his Country;              

We, therefore, moved by all these considerations, and by virtue of the honorable Decree of the Visitors and Governors of this College, in public Council assembled, on this twenty-fourth day in the Month of June, 1789, have granted and resolved (by unanimous Consent), that this extraordinary and celebrated Man be made Doctor of Laws;

And we entreat Him to use and enjoy, by virtue of this Diploma, all the Rights, Privileges, and Honors appertaining unto the aforementioned Rank among his fellow graduates of Washington College—

In witness whereof, we, the undersigned, have set our hands to this document, affixed with the Official Seal of the College, in the Year and on the date aforesaid.

William Smith, S.T.P., President of the College

Colin Ferguson, D.D., Professor of Language and Mathematics

Peregrine Letherbury, Professor of Laws

Samuel Armor, Professor of Logic and Moral Philosophy

Samuel Keene, Professor of English and Oratory




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