James Blair (1656-1743)

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James Blair (1656-1743) was a graduate of Edinburgh University who founded the College of William and Mary, the second-oldest university in the USA.

Beginnings

The son of Peter Blair (d. 1673), minister of St Cuthbert's, Edinburgh, he matriculated at Edinburgh University in 1669 and graduated MA on 21 July 1673. After completing his theological studies, he was ordained in 1679 and appointed to the parish of Cranston in the Presbytery of Dalkeith. In December 1681 he was deprived of the post when, like many Scottish clergymen, he refused to swear the test oath which would mean acknowledging the Catholic James, Duke of York and Albany (the future King James VII and II) as head of the Church of Scotland on his succession to the throne. With assistance from Laurence Charteris (c1625-1700), his former Professor of Divinity (who had resigned his chair rather than submit to the oath), Blair sought refuge in London, where he became an under-clerk of the master of the rolls.

Emigration

In 1685, Henry Compton, Bishop of London, appointed Blair to Henrico parish in Virginia. Four years after emigrating, Blair was appointed the Bishop's commissary in the colony. In 1694 he was transferred to James City parish, then in 1710 to Bruton parish, a post he held for the rest of his life. His marriage to Sarah Harrison (1670-1713), daughter of a prominent planter, brought Blair powerful political connections. He increased his personal fortune by acquiring land and partnering his brother Archibald who opened a trading store in Williamsburg.

College of William and Mary

At a convention of the clergy of Virginia in 1690, Blair proposed establishing a college to educate candidates for the ministry, noting that since the establishment of the colony in 1607, there had been a serious shortage of ministers. The plan was approved, and Blair successfully sought financial support from key political contacts, including Francis Nicholson, Governor of Virginia. In view of Blair's influential London contacts, he was then sent to England in 1691 to obtain a royal charter and endowment for the institution. A charter for the College of William and Mary was granted on 8 February 1693, with Henry Compton designated Chancellor and Blair President. On his return to Virginia, Blair was rewarded for his success by being appointed to the colonial council, a position he would hold for nearly half-a-century.

The college based at Middle Plantation (later renamed Williamsburg under Blair's initiative) opened in 1695. Initially, however, its financial situation was weak, and it had difficulty attracting tutors. The college was practically destroyed by fire in 1705 and only rebuilt in 1716. In 1726, Blair returned to England for a year to raise funds for the college with the assistance of Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London. By 1729, the college was finally on a secure enough footing to permit Blair to enter formally into his duties as President.

Related Pages

Sources

  • James B. Bell, 'Blair, James (1655/6–1743)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • Parke Rouse, Jr., James Blair of Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971)

Blair is sometimes recorded as the son of Robert Blair, Church of Scotland minister of Alvah, Banffshire (for example in Park Rouse's biography above), but this is almost certainly an error.