James Blair

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James Blair

The British educator James Blair (1655-1743) was commissary of Virginia for the bishop of London and founder and first president of the College of William and Mary.

Born to a Presbyterian minister and his wife in Scotland, James Blair attended Marischal College, Aberdeen, for 2 years. He received a master of arts degree from the University of Edinburgh, where he remained to study divinity. In 1679 he settled as a minister of the Scottish Episcopal Church near Edinburgh. Two years later, because he scrupled to sign the Scottish Test Act, he was deprived of a living anywhere in Scotland. He went to London, where he became acquainted with Henry Compton, the bishop of London, who persuaded him to go to Virginia as a missionary.

After 5 years in Virginia, Blair was appointed commissary (deputy) to the bishop of London, with authority to supervise the discipline of the Anglican clergy, though without the power to confirm baptisms or ordain American-born ministers. In one of his first acts he convened the clergy to urge them to found a college. They readily complied with a plan for a grammar school, a philosophical college, and a divinity school, which soon won the approval of Governor Francis Nicholson and the General Assembly.

In 1691 Blair went to England to obtain a charter and funds for the college. When he returned to Virginia 2 years later, he was the first president and rector of the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary, founded "to the End that the Church of Virginia may be furnished with a Seminary of Ministers of the Gospel, and that the Youth may be piously educated in good Letters and Manners, and that the Christian Faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the Glory of Almighty God."

For its first 36 years the college was no more than a grammar school, without enough funds to hire the six professors contemplated in the charter. Some of the blame must be laid to Blair; he did no teaching yet demanded his annual salary of £150, which cut deeply into the college's funds. And although Blair could have done much for the college from the seat on the governor's council he assumed in 1694, his feuds with a succession of governors eroded his influence and alienated both the clergy and the gentry.

Blair brought a measure of English religion and culture to colonial Virginia through his control of the Anglican Church and promotion of education. When he died on April 18, 1743, he left an estate of £10,000 to a nephew and only his library and £500 to the college.

Further Reading

The introduction by Hunter Dickinson Farish in the 1940 reprint of Henry Hartwell, James Blair, and Edward Chilton, The Present State of Virginia, and The College (1727), contains useful information on Blair. A short study of Blair's life is Daniel E. Motley, Life of Commissary James Blair, Founder of William and Mary College, series 19, no. 10, of the Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science (1901). For background see Philip Alexander Bruce, Institutional History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century (2 vols., 1910; repr. 1964); Richard L. Morton, Colonial Virginia (2 vols., 1960); and Clifford Dowdey, The Virginia Dynasties (1969). □

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