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Blair, Jamesfree

( May 1656?–18 April 1743)
  • Parke Rouse

Blair, James ( May 1656?–18 April 1743), founder and first president of the College of William and Mary, was born in Banffshire, Scotland, the son of Robert Blair, a Church of Scotland cleric. He was educated at Marischal College (now the University of Aberdeen) and in 1669 entered the University of Edinburgh, where he received an M.A. in 1673. Ordained in 1679 by a bishop of the Church of Scotland, Blair ministered to Cranston Parish until 1682, when he was displaced for refusing the Test Oath required of Scottish clergy under Catholic James II. He then went to London and served three years as clerk to the Master of the Rolls before accepting appointment by Henry Compton, bishop of London, as missionary to Henrico Parish, Virginia.

Two years after his arrival in Virginia in 1685, Blair married seventeen-year-old Sarah Harrison, daughter of Benjamin Harrison II, a councilor and powerful planter. Marriage hastened his political rise. Appointed by Bishop Compton in 1689 as his commissary (deputy) in Virginia, Blair supervised the Anglican clergy sent to Virginia. His appointment as a councilor in 1694 further improved his status.

But Blair’s chief achievement was the founding of the College of William and Mary, Virginia’s first college (second in the colonies only to Harvard), chartered in 1693. Its liberal arts were designed to lead Virginians into theological studies and holy orders. Beginning his efforts in 1691, Blair spent two years in England, aided by Compton and other prelates, lobbying King William III and Queen Mary II to authorize and endow the college, which opened circa 1695.

Appointed college president for life, Blair moved in 1695 from Jamestown to Middle Plantation, which he and Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson in 1699 persuaded the General Assembly to rename Williamsburg and to designate it as Virginia’s capital, succeeding Jamestown. In 1710 he also became rector of Bruton Parish in Williamsburg. Thereafter he was second in influence in Virginia only to the royal governor.

A red-faced, handsome, and combative churchman, Blair forced the recall to England of Francis Nicholson, Sir Edmund Andros, and Alexander Spotswood, governors whose autocracy angered him. Though sometimes vitriolic, he was admired for resisting tyranny. Reared with Scottish distaste for English imperialism, he voiced a whiggish concern for colonists’ rights that anticipated the revolutionary spirit of Virginia.

A latitudinarian, Blair helped implant the low church Protestantism of Virginia’s established church. He welcomed Wesleyan reformer George Whitefield to preach from Bruton’s pulpit in 1739. As a doctrinarian, he was known chiefly for his five volumes of sermons, Our Saviour’s Divine Sermon on the Mount (1722), republished in 1740 and translated into Danish in 1761. He was coauthor in 1697 of the highly critical The Present State of Virginia, and the College, published in 1727.

Childless, Blair died in Williamsburg and left his estate to the college and to his nephew, John Blair (1687–1771), who followed him as a councilor and as acting governor. James Blair’s grandnephew, also named John Blair (1732–1800), was appointed by President George Washington in 1789 as associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Bibliography

Few of Blair’s personal letters survive, but letters and reports are in the Fulham Palace Papers, and other correspondence is in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Papers; both collections are at Rhodes House, Oxford. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge archives in London also contain Blair material. See also Parke Rouse, Jr., James Blair of Virginia (1971), and J. E. Morpurgo, Their Majesties’ Royall Colledge of William and Mary in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1976).