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The College of William and Mary

Did you know that the College of William and Mary was founded before Williamsburg was even a town? The town developed around the college in the early eighteenth century once the General Assembly moved the seat of the government in Jamestown to Middle Plantation. The area was renamed “Williamsburg” in honor of King William III. The assembly resolved to build a new capitol at Williamsburg in 1699. 

 

Medal, second half of the eighteenth century; awarded by the College of William and Mary in 1775 to John Camm White of King William County. (1918.1.A-B)

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In 1693, King William III and Queen Mary II signed a charter for a “perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences” to be established in the Virginia colony. The College of William and Mary is the second oldest college in the United States, second only to Harvard College. In fact, the original plans for a college in Virginia date back to 1618 at Henrico, decades before Harvard was established, although these plans were abandoned because of the Powhatan Uprising. Construction of the Sir Christopher Wren Building, the oldest American college building in continual use, began in 1695, when Jamestown was still the colony’s capital. In 1699, the General Assembly resolved to move the colony’s government from the Statehouse at Jamestown to Middle Plantation, which was renamed Williamsburg. The Wren Building first housed the legislature during the construction of the new Capitol. The legislature met for the first time in Williamsburg on April 21, 1704, and the Capitol was finished in 1705. The College of William and Mary was the first college to have a full faculty, a fraternity, an honor system, and a law school. Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall were among the students of the first law professor, George Wythe. Other students of the College included James Monroe and John Tyler. George Washington received his surveyor’s license there. 

The College was also the first institution to award gold medals for academic achievement.  Throughout the eighteenth century, many sons of the wealthiest colonists were educated in England. To encourage attendance of elites and strengthen the college’s reputation, the royal governor, Norborne Berkeley, Lord Botetourt, began the practice of awarding “annually, two gold medals for the honour and encouragement of literary merit in that Seminary.” The first medals were awarded in 1772. This medal is one of three to survive. It was presented to John Camm White of King William County for “his superior skill in mathematics and natural philosophy.” The front of the medal depicts King William and Queen Mary delivering the charter to the college’s first president, the Reverend Dr. James Blair, who is kneeling before the monarchs and wearing scholastic robes. On the reverse is a profile of King George III with an inscription in Latin, “George the Third, a friend to the Muses, reigning.” The medal was awarded on August 15, 1775.

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