James Blair (Virginia)

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James Blair (Virginia) : biography

1656 – 18 April 1743

James Blair

Youth and education

James Blair was born in Banffshire, Scotland as one of five children. His father, Robert Blair, was a clergyman. James Blair was educated at Marischal College, University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh.

After completing his education, in 1679 he was ordained in the national Church of Scotland (known officially at this time as the Kirk of Scotland, see kirk). During the entire seventeenth century the Kirk had been experiencing passionate internal conflicts between Presbyterians and Episcopalians (see, for example, the Bishops’ Wars). The Episcopalians were in the ascendancy during this period and the Church of Scotland was briefly aligned with the Church of England during the reign of Charles II of Scotland. Charles was a strong opponent of Presbyterianism and throughout his lifetime worked to reassert the strength of the Anglican Church.

In 1681, Blair, aligned with the Episcopalians, was deprived of his parish in Edinburgh due to the conflict within the Episcopal movement between those supporting the Roman Catholic Church and those advocating a continued independent Episcopal national church. Discouraged, Blair relocated to London later that year.

Death, burial at Jamestown

James Blair died on April 18, 1743 at the age of 87, after a long career. Dr. Blair was buried next to his wife Sarah (née Harrison) Blair (who had died earlier in 1713) at Jamestown Island, where Preservation Virginia (formerly known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities), owns the original site of Jamestown, including the church and cemetery.


"probably no other man in the colonial time did so much for the intellectual life of Virginia."

Moses Coit Tyler, professor of American history, Cornell University

During the Colonial period, Dr. Blair was instrumental in reviving and reforming the Church of England in Virginia.

Dr. Blair’s contributions to education in Virginia are recognized not only at the College of William and Mary, where Blair Hall is named for him, but also in the naming of various schools, including James Blair Middle School in James City County, Virginia, (formerly James Blair High School) and James Blair Middle School in Norfolk, Virginia.

On the William and Mary campus in the city of Williamsburg, a large portrait of Dr. Blair is displayed in the Great Hall. Nearby, there is a statue of him prominently displayed.

In 1943, the United States commissioned a victory ship James Blair in his honor.

In 2005, the Cypher Society of the College announced it was taking responsibility for a site restoration and beautification of the Blair graves at Jamestown Island in anticipation of Jamestown 2007, which celebrated the settlement’s 400th anniversary.

College of William and Mary

The trip to London proved successful. Blair was supported in his efforts by John Tillotson, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1693, a charter was granted for The College of William and Mary in Virginia, named to honor King William and Queen Mary, the reigning joint monarchs of Great Britain, Blair was made president of the new school for life. He served for fifty years, from 1693-1743, and remains the longest serving president of the college and the second longest serving college president in U.S. history.

After Blair returned to Virginia, the trustees of the new college bought a parcel of from Thomas Ballard for the new school. The location chosen was at Middle Plantation, a high point on the Virginia Peninsula so named because its was equidistant from the James and York Rivers. Middle Plantation had served as a fortress during periodic conflicts with the Native Americans since its establishment in 1632. Blair established his home at nearby Rich Neck Plantation.

The College was given a seat in the House of Burgesses. Financial income was to come by taxation of a penny per pound on tobacco exported from Maryland and Virginia to countries other than England, and from other similar sources, such as an export duty on furs and animal skins. The new school opened in temporary buildings in 1694. Properly called the "College Building," the first version of the Wren Building was built at Middle Plantation beginning on August 8, 1695 and occupied by 1700. Today, the Wren Building is the oldest academic structure in continuous use in America. (Incidentally, it is called the "Wren Building" because tradition has it that the building was designed by the famed English architect Sir Christopher Wren who had designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His actual involvement with the College Building completed in 1700 is disputed by some historians).