Blair was probably born in Edinburgh, Scotland, around 1655, the eldest of three sons and four daughters of Peter Blair, a clergyman, and Mary Hamilton Blair. After beginning his formal education at Marischal College, Aberdeen, Blair studied at the University of Edinburgh from 1669 to 1673, when he received the degree of master of arts. He remained at Edinburgh for several additional years studying theology. In the summer of 1679 he was ordained by John Paterson, bishop of Edinburgh.
That same summer Blair was appointed minister at Cranstoun Parish, a few miles outside Edinburgh. He remained two and a half years, serving, according to the bishop, “with exemplary diligence, care and gravity,” although a dispute with parish landowners over his reimbursement for repairs to the manse suggests that the combative nature that he later exhibited in Virginia was already well developed. In December 1681 Blair was removed from his parish after he refused to subscribe to a test oath that the Scottish Parliament imposed because it would have required him to accept the Roman Catholic duke of York as head of the Scottish church when he became king. Blair left for England, where he gained the support of Gilbert Burnet, a fellow Scottish cleric who later became bishop of Salisbury. Burnet secured Blair a clerkship in the Rolls Office and provided him an opportunity to meet other influential Anglican clerics, including Henry Compton, who as bishop of London had jurisdiction over the Anglican church in the American colonies. Compton persuaded Blair to accept an appointment in Virginia as rector of Henrico Parish (then frequently referred to as Varina Parish).
Blair’s career advanced rapidly after his arrival in Virginia late in 1685. Preaching at other parish churches as well as at his own, he came to know and be known to members of the colony’s most important families. Within two years he made the first of many land purchases, and on June 2, 1687, he married seventeen-year-old Sarah Harrison, of Surry County. The marriage was unhappy. At the wedding she adamantly refused to assent to the portion of the ceremony obliging her to obey her husband. They apparently had no children, and she may have become an alcoholic. Sarah Harrison Blair died on May 5, 1713, and James Blair lived another thirty years as a widower.
Blair’s marriage brought him into the inner circle of the colony’s leading families, and his relatives often dominated the influential governor’s Council. His ecclesiastical career prospered. In mid-May 1690 a new lieutenant governor, Francis Nicholson, arrived in Virginia, bringing a commission of December 15, 1689, from Bishop Compton naming Blair commissary, or the bishop’s representative with authority to preside over the Anglican clergy of the colony in administrative matters. Often thought to have been the first to hold that office in Virginia, Blair had in fact been preceded in the post by.
Blair moved without delay to establish his authority by calling a convocation of the clergy for July 23, 1690. Neither his Scottish origins nor his tendency to side with the Virginia laity in religious affairs endeared him to the larger number of his fellow clerics, who often opposed him vigorously, especially in the infrequent convocations that he called. The convocations held in August 1705 and April 1719 proved particularly rancorous. In the latter meeting his fellow clergymen unsuccessfully challenged the validity of his ordination in Scotland, a move that could have lost him his influential positions as rector and commissary. Blair’s initial convocation was more auspicious, however, for he there first advanced “Several Propositions” for the founding of a college in the colony and won enthusiastic support. In cooperation with Nicholson, who deserves to rank with Blair as a cofounder, he cultivated the support of Virginia’s political leaders. By June 1691 Blair left for England to seek the backing of King William, Queen Mary, and others. His mission required almost two years and resulted in the grant of a royal charter for the College of William and Mary on February 8, 1693, as well as substantial public and private financial support.
Education and Politics
Blair returned to Virginia in triumph. Named president for life in the charter, he launched the new college on land acquired at the crossroads settlement of Middle Plantation a few miles from the capital at. His task was not easy. In his absence enthusiasm for the project had declined, and Sir Edmund Andros, the new governor, was openly hostile. Blair nonetheless managed to inaugurate one branch of the institution, its grammar school, and to commence construction of a building. Over Andros’s objections Blair also secured a place on the Council, taking his seat for the first time on July 18, 1694. The next year he consolidated his position when he became rector of James City Parish, close to the seat of government as well as the new college. Blair’s relations with the governor soon worsened, and following his public criticism of Andros and the other councillors, they suspended him on April 26, 1695. He was reinstated on September 25, 1696, but suspended again on April 20, 1697.
The infighting between Blair and Andros culminated in the summer of 1697 when, with financial and political backing from Francis Nicholson, Blair returned to England to present his grievances to ecclesiastical and political authorities. A key hearing before the archbishop of Canterbury and bishop of London was a one-sided affair with Blair able to speak in person to the sympathetic panel. The absent Andros was primarily represented by the young(1674–1744), who was never allowed to deliver the lengthy brief he had prepared. On May 31, 1698, Andros was granted permission to resign and return to England on personal business.
During his English sojourn Blair collaborated with two other men experienced in the government of Virginia, Henry Hartwell and, in preparing a long report for the newly created on the state of affairs of the colony and how to improve it. Published nearly thirty years later as The Present State of Virginia, and the College (1727), it quickly became one of the more influential contemporary books about the condition of Virginia and the lives of Virginians at the end of the seventeenth century.
Nicholson succeeded Andros as governor in December 1698 shortly after Blair’s return to Virginia. Blair was eventually reappointed to the Council, taking his seat on June 9, 1701, and serving for the remainder of his life. Although he cooperated with Nicholson in 1699 in a successful effort to move the capital from Jamestown to Middle Plantation, which was renamed Williamsburg, the two equally imperious men came into conflict during the next few years. The ill will culminated in Blair’s second trip to England to lobby for the removal of a governor. He left in 1703, bearing a petition that he and five other Council members had signed. Nicholson was at a distinct disadvantage due to his inability to appear in person, the death early in the hearings of his principal defender, and the capture by the French of the vessel carrying his supporting documentation. On April 5, 1705, the Board of Trade removed Nicholson as governor of Virginia.
Blair’s success was, however, hardly complete. Nicholson remained a trustee of the college and continued with the support of most of Virginia’s Anglican clergy to oppose Blair’s direction of the college and his attempts to govern the colonial church. Then on October 29, 1705, the main college building caught fire and burned to its exterior walls. The resultant inquiry stirred further animosity between Blair and his opponents. In 1710 the death of one of his most outspoken clerical opponents, Solomon Whateley, afforded Blair the opportunity to become rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, and for more than a decade he had no serious difficulty with Governor Edward Nott or his successor, Lieutenant Governor. Blair used the time to solidify his position with Virginia political leaders. By that time, too, his brother Archibald Blair (by 1665–1733), a physician who had also immigrated to Virginia, had established himself as a successful Williamsburg merchant in a firm in which James Blair, to his considerable profit, became a silent partner.
Rebuilding the college was a more serious challenge, but Blair made the first of two rescues of William and Mary from the brink of failure. With the help of Spotswood and others, he found new money in England and America, began reconstruction of the college building that was first occupied by 1716 and largely completed by 1721, and for the first time expanded instruction beyond the grammar school by appointing a master of the Indian School and the first professor of natural philosophy and mathematics, Hugh Jones. As early as 1718 or 1719, however, Blair became embroiled in a controversy with Spotswood. The issues at stake had more to do with religious and political matters than with the college, and they again brought Blair into conflict with his fellow clerics, including the faculty. In 1721 he set off for England again. On this occasion, however, Spotswood was already in difficulty with his superiors on other grounds, and thus the commissary’s role in his dismissal has often been overemphasized, adding to Blair’s not entirely deserved reputation as a breaker of governors.
The trip afforded Blair an opportunity to arrange for publication in London of Our Saviour’s Divine Sermon on the Mount (1722), a five-volume collection of 117 sermons he had delivered between 1707 and 1721. True to character, Blair was dissatisfied with sales, but the sermons were reprinted in four volumes in 1740 and in Danish in 1761. The sermons dealt more with matters of morality and personal conduct than with doctrine, a reminder that, despite his other concerns and interests, Blair was an active parish minister throughout his long career.
The Bodleian Plate
An original mid-eighteenth-century engraved copperplate depicts Virginia flora, fauna, and Indian life, as well as the College of William and Mary and government buildings in colonial-era Williamsburg. Part of the vast collection at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the plate lay unlisted and forgotten for about 150 years. Once discovered, the plate was recognized as including the most important visual record of early Williamsburg. The so-called Bodleian Plate emerged as the "cornerstone of the restoration" of Colonial Williamsburg that began in 1929, according to Margaret Pritchard, the foundation's curator of prints, maps, and wallpapers. The librarians at Bodleian, aware of the importance of the plate in restoring the original capital, presented the artifact to John D. Rockefeller in 1938.
Pritchard believes that the Bodleian Plate was one of a series of copperplates created to illustrate The History of the Dividing Line, an account by Virginia planter William Byrd II of the expedition he led in 1728–1729 to establish the boundary between Carolina and Virginia. Byrd's interest in architecture, his unabashed boosterism, and his concern about the widespread notion of the capital being a backwater, probably led him to have the artist include these impressive Williamsburg structures. Shown on the top row are three buildings at the College of William and Mary—the Bafferton, the Wren Building, and the President's House; shown on the row beneath it are the Capitol as it appeared before the fire of 1747, another view of the Wren Building, and the Governor's Palace.
A modern print made from a mid-eighteenth-century copperplate known as the Bodleian Plate depicts Virginia flora, fauna, and Indian life, as well as the College of William and Mary and government buildings in colonial-era Williamsburg. Margaret Pritchard, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's curator of prints, maps, and wallpapers, believes that the Bodleian Plate was one of a series of copperplates created to illustrate The History of the Dividing Line, an account by Virginia planter William Byrd II of the expedition he led in 1728–1729 to establish the boundary between Carolina and Virginia. Byrd's interest in architecture, his unabashed boosterism, and his concern about the widespread notion of the capital being a backwater, probably led him to have the artist include these impressive Williamsburg structures. Shown on the top row are three buildings at the College of William and Mary—the Bafferton, the Wren Building, and the President's House; shown on the row beneath it are the Capitol as it appeared before the fire of 1747, another view of the Wren Building, and the Governor's Palace.
Blair was able to use his secure position in the social and political elite of Virginia to contribute significantly to the evolution of autonomous institutions in the colony. Rather than an outpost of imperial culture controlled by a largely English clerical faculty, under Blair’s guidance William and Mary became a college governed primarily by prominent colonists who sat on its board of visitors and shaped it to serve their educational goals. Likewise, Blair’s actions as commissary aided the development of an established Anglican church dominated by laymen who ran its parish vestries, a model that more closely resembled the operations of the church in Scotland during Blair’s youth and ministry in that country than it did the functioning of the parent Church of England during the eighteenth century.
Blair’s relations with Lieutenant Governor, the last chief executive on whose Council he served, were amicable. Gooch’s private opinion of Blair was negative, but he resolved to “kill him with kindness.” By then Blair was declining in health and vigor. In his last years he retained all of his official positions as president of the college, commissary, parish rector, and councillor, although he was not always able to perform all of his duties. The senior member of the Council, Blair served as president (in effect, acting governor) from October 15, 1740, to July 1741 while Gooch was away on a military expedition to the West Indies.
The childless Blair had a sizable estate to dispose of when he composed his will in 1743. He made several charitable bequests, including £100 for teaching poor children and £500 for the education of a clergyman. He left his books to the library of the College of William and Mary and the remainder of his estate, estimated at £10,000, to his favorite nephew(ca. 1687–1771), whose education he had overseen. James Blair died in Williamsburg of a gangrenous rupture on April 18, 1743. He was buried beside his wife in the Jamestown churchyard.
- Our Saviour’s Divine Sermon on the Mount (5 volumes; 1722)
- The Present State of Virginia, and the College (with Henry Hartwell and Edward Chilton; 1727)