A long serving faculty member, John Camm served as interim president of William & Mary on June 21, 1771 upon the departure, and subsequent death, of James Horrocks. While a professor, Camm openly disagreed with the Board of Visitors on several controversial topics (particularly regulations requiring faculty to reside on campus and resign appointments as parish clergy, neither of which Camm followed). Ultimately, Camm's seniority and tenure at the College aided his election by the Board of Visitors to become William & Mary's seventh president in July 30, 1772. For the duration of his term, President Camm remained relatively uninvolved in public debate, however pressures of the Revolutionary War would define his tenure as president.
In the early years of Rev. Camm's presidency, the College benefited in enrollment and finances from momentum built during the previous decades. The College hired new faculty, including Rev. James Madison, and construction plans moved forward for expanding the original quadrangle. While public crisis heightened, the internal affairs of the College proceeded with relative tranquility until the Boston Tea Party. By mid 1774, reawakened resistance to British imperial authority throughout the colonies threatened to divide the college, where the faculty (apart from James Madison) were largely Loyalist and the majority of students and Visitors partisans of the American cause. Royal Governor Lord Dunmore increasingly realized his failing popularity as non-importation associations grew in protest to British trade policies. By April 3, 1775, alarmed at the weakness of his position, Lord Dunmore resigned as rector of the Board of Visitors. While initially the faculty expressed deep thanks and requested "that he will continue to act as a Visitor & Governor of the College," Dunmore's attempt to seize the public magazine at Williamsburg aroused anger within the community. Governor Dunmore, for safety, moved onto the HMS Fowey stationed with the British fleet at Yorktown. With his departure - along with his three sons who had been enrolled at William & Mary - loyalist faculty members no longer enjoyed royal protection.
By 1776, the political crisis began seriously effecting college enrollment, while those students in attendance increasingly embraced the Revolutionary movement. The departure of two key faculty members only worsened a feeling of chaos at the school. In the wake of Dunmore's depature, student disorder, and fears of muskets at the College, the faculty ordered a search which produced a solitary sword and gun, while passing stricter rules about leaving campus. Paralleling a colonial push for greater legislative autonomy, a significant debate between the faculty, Board of Visitors, and various newspaper writers over academic standards and curriculum emerged. As the colonies progressed towards outright assertions of independence, President Camm remained the last Loyalist on faculty.
From 1774 - 5, leaders of the provisional Revolutionary government made no effort to remove Camm or exert greater control over William & Mary (even exempting faculty from military service). The Virginia convention again asserted the independence of the College when, in 1776, Charles Lee, the Commander of an American force stationed in Williamsburg attempted to commandeer the College building for use as a hospital. While summer approached, the Virginia Convention moved towards a more formal declaration of independence, ultimately followed by the Declaration of Independence (written by alumnus Thomas Jefferson, and signed by three alumni of William & Mary). Within the college, faculty member James Madison proposed removing the king's name from college commissions. President Camm objected, insisting that he was duty bound under the royal charter, and that Madison's resolution was subversive to the founding principles of the College.
Ultimately, President Camm's unyielding belief that William & Mary was indissolubly linked to the authority of the Anglican church and the British empire, led to his removal by the Board of Visitors in Spring of 1777. The Visitors acted on ground of "neglect and misconduct" rather than directly citing political differences. Camm died in England in 1778.
Material in SCRC
- John Camm material, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, William & Mary.