The mission of Hampden-Sydney College has been, since stated by its Founders in 1775, “to form good men and good citizens.” In continuous operation since the first classes were held on November 10, 1775, the College is one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the United States and holds the oldest (1783) private charter in the South.
The first president, Samuel Stanhope Smith (1775 – 1779), chose the name Hampden-Sydney to symbolize devotion to the principles of representative government and full civil and religious freedom, which the Englishmen John Hampden (1594 – 1643) and Algernon Sydney (1622 – 1683) had supported and for which they had given their lives. They were widely invoked as hero-martyrs by American colonial patriots, and their names immediately associated the College with the cause of independence championed by Patrick Henry, James Madison, and the other less well-known but equally vigorous patriots who comprised the College’s first Board of Trustees.
The first students committed themselves to the revolutionary effort, organized a militia-company, drilled regularly, and went off to the defense of Williamsburg in 1777 and Petersburg in 1778. Their uniform was a hunting-shirt, dyed purple with the juice of pokeberries, and gray trousers. Garnet and gray were adopted as the College’s colors when sports teams were introduced in the 19th century.
The College, first proposed in 1771, was formally organized in February 1775, when the Presbytery of Hanover, meeting at Nathaniel Venable’s Slate Hill plantation, accepted a gift of one hundred acres for the College, elected Trustees and named as President the Rev. Samuel Stanhope Smith, College of New Jersey (Princeton) Class of 1769. Within only ten months, Smith secured an adequate subscription of funds and an enrollment of 110 students. Intending to model the new college after his alma mater, he journeyed to Princeton to secure the first faculty and visited Philadelphia to enlist support and to purchase a library and scientific apparatus. Students and faculty gathered for the opening of the first winter term on November 10, 1775.
The College matured physically and academically through the first half of the nineteenth century. Jonathan P. Cushing (1821 – 1835) oversaw the move from the College’s original buildings to “New College,” now Cushing Hall. Union Theological Seminary (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) was founded at Hampden-Sydney in 1822 and occupied the current Venable Hall and the south end of the present campus until its relocation to Richmond in 1898. The Medical College of Virginia (now the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine) was opened in Richmond in 1838 as the medical department of Hampden-Sydney College.
The Civil War and its aftermath were difficult years for Hampden-Sydney. The longest-tenured of its presidents, J. M. P. Atkinson, served from before the war through Reconstruction (1857 – 1883). He performed the remarkable feat of keeping the College open and solvent, while upholding academic standards.
Once again, at the outset of war the student body organized a company. These men, officially mustered as Company G, 20th Virginia Regiment, “The Hampden-Sidney Boys,” saw action in Rich Mountain in West Virginia (July 9–11, 1861), were captured, and were paroled by General George B. McClellan on the condition that they return to their studies. The College did not close during the Civil War.
During the presidencies of Dr. Atkinson and his successor, Dr. Richard McIlwaine, many features of current student life were introduced—social fraternities, sports teams, and student government. After the Seminary moved to Richmond, Major Richard M. Venable, Class of 1857, bought its buildings and gave them to the College, doubling the physical plant.
Hampden-Sydney was led through the Depression and World War Ⅱ and their aftermath by Presidents Joseph D. Eggleston (1919 – 1939) and Edgar G. Gammon (1939 – 1955). In the years following World War Ⅱ, the College increased in enrollment, financial strength, and academic stature. In the late 1950s academic majors were established.
Under President W. Taylor Reveley Ⅱ (1963 – 1977), the core curriculum was revised, the size of the student body and faculty increased, the physical plant was expanded, and required weekly chapel services and collegewide assemblies were abolished. The first African-American student was admitted in 1968.
Under President Josiah Bunting Ⅲ (1977 – 1987), the Rhetoric Program was instituted (1978) and the current Honors Program was established. Under President Samuel V. Wilson (1992 – 2000), fine arts became a full department with programs for majors. The Center for Leadership in the Public Interest was established and was named for President Wilson upon his retirement.
The administration of President Walter M. Bortz Ⅲ (2000 – 2009) was a period of the greatest expansion of college facilities since the 1960s and ’70s. The academic program was revised to include minors, and a concentration in environmental studies was added. The current president, Dr. Christopher B. Howard, began his term as the 24th president of Hampden-Sydney in 2009. Under his leadership, the College has embarked on a new strategic plan to guide future development of the College as a model liberal arts college recognized for excellence in educating men for the twenty-first century.