College commencement ceremonies hold a distinctive significance in American culture. More than simply bringing closure to a college education, commencements symbolically shepherd new graduates into “the real world.” At the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) commencement speakers sought to inspire graduates to take up roles as public figures, responsible for leading their country into the future.
Princeton’s 19th-century orators emphasized the moral and social duties of educated white men in the United States, imbuing Princeton students with a sense of civic responsibility. Samuel Southard exemplified this tone in his 1832 commencement address, in which he presented the American man of letters as “a responsible actor” in a fraught age, declaring:
The influence of educated men in the United States is more potent for good or evil, than similar influence ever before has been…every one of us, within his sphere, can do something to guide popular opinion — to enlighten popular sentiment — to promote general intelligence and happiness.
Graduates of the College of New Jersey had a responsibility to go out into the world and create a society based on the values their studies had instilled in them.
The rhetoric and rituals of the college’s commencement ceremonies — connecting past and present, classroom and real world, thought and action — expressed and legitimated particular moral, social, and political philosophies intended to guide new graduates in their endeavors beyond campus. From the turn of the 19th century through the years of sectional crisis leading up to the Civil War, Princeton’s commencement speakers repeatedly drew their audience’s attention to the pressing issue of American chattel slavery. As the college’s faculty and students grappled with the possibility of emancipation and the perceived threat it posed to national unity, commencement speeches became increasingly pro-slavery in tone.
This issue bore special significance for Princeton, whose student body had a higher proportion of Southerners than other Northern colleges, averaging 40% between 1746 and 1865, and exceeding 50% or 60% multiple times during the antebellum period. Indeed, the problem of slavery made its way into Princeton’s commencement ceremony as early as 1800. Between graduation speeches concerning the establishment of a permanent United States Navy and “the duties of a free state to its citizens,” a young Princetonian named James Crawford delivered an oration titled “On the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade.” Commencement activities in 1809 included a debate on slavery, with new graduates Nicholas Rhea of New Jersey and John G. Sims of Pennsylvania tackling the question: “Would the universal emancipation of the slaves in the United States, at present, be consistent with either justice or good policy?” And in 1821, George A. Smith offered the commencement address “On Slavery in the United States.”
Echoing the bitter debates over slavery that would unfold in churches, assembly halls, legislative chambers, courts, and learned academies across the nation during the course of the 19th century, these early addresses and debates on Princeton’s campus ushered in a wave of slavery-focused commencement commentary that grew increasingly dramatic in the decades preceding the Civil War.
Preserving National Unity
James McDowell, a slaveholder from the class of 1817, addressed graduating seniors in 1831 and 1838, demanding that the nation leave the problem of slavery “to the interest and the wisdom and the conscience of those [slaveholders] upon whom the providence of God and the constitution of the country have cast it.” He added, emphatically: “Leave it to them now and forever.” In McDowell’s view, any attempts to remove slavery from Southern society would in time “render it a maelstrom to engulph the Union.”
Surprisingly, McDowell had been a prominent anti-slavery voice in the Virginia legislature in the debates following Nat Turner’s 1832 rebellion. By 1838, however, his concerns about the possible fracture between the North and South led him to argue that the continued existence of Southern slavery was essential to the nation’s political and economic security. McDowell’s changing position on the issue reflected the complexities of the times, signaling slavery’s deep political and economic significance in the United States. Antebellum Americans realized that tensions over slavery and emancipation might throw the nation into sectional crisis: the year after McDowell’s second address, commencement speaker George H.B. Matthews explicitly argued that preserving national unity required preserving “Southern Commerce.”
Legal scholar Alfred Brophy notes that McDowell’s commencement orations reflected a transitional period in public discourse on slavery. Beginning in the 1830s and continuing until the brink of the Civil War, moderate Whig politicians from the South attempted to develop a middle position between zealous pro-slavery advocates and the growing number of radical Northern abolitionists. Much like McDowell, William H. Gaston — a Princeton alumnus and justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court — delivered commencement remarks that belied his earlier anti-slavery leanings. Gaston had once argued that “slavery...more than any other cause, keeps us back in the career of improvement,” but at Princeton’s 1835 commencement he spoke instead about the importance of law and order. As Brophy notes, Gaston gave his address in the context of recent episodes of racially and religiously-motivated violence in the South. But though he may have intended to draw attention to the immediate dangers of mob action, he ignored the systematic violence inherent in chattel slavery. Indeed, the violence visited on enslaved people seemed far from Gaston’s mind when he proclaimed:
The light of American freedom now shines as a beacon to many afar off; a star of hope to the affrightened, of gladness to the benevolent, and of encouragement to the oppressed of the earth.
A pro-slavery address delivered by James McDowell (class of 1817) at the Princeton commencement for the class of 1838.
View Primary Sources
The anti-abolitionist tone of Princeton’s commencement speakers reached its peak with David Kaufman’s 1850 commencement address. Kaufman, a United States Representative from Texas and a member of the class of 1833, began by thanking Princeton for instilling in him “stern principles of life and morality so necessary to sustain a man in life” — principles that led Kaufman to resist the anti-slavery movement and preserve the nation talis qualis. Kaufman warned new graduates against the “temptations” that would “assail” them beyond campus, instructing them to thwart “demagogues in the guise of Abolitionists.” Slavery, he maintained, was “not a spot upon the sun of our union,” but rather an institution sanctioned by “an all just and overruling providence.” In the face of growing “discord” between North and South, he urged Princeton graduates to resist the “murderers and disunionists” who supported the abolitionist cause. In doing so, he said, Princetonians would fulfill their “faithful” and “patriotic” duty to the nation and avoid the “catastrophe” of the “destruction of this mighty governmental fabric.”
Indeed, the end of slavery threatened to end everything that undergirded the society men like Kaufman sought to lead. “Slavery is not the only thing at which the agitators are striking,” he continued:
"The Bible is to be pronounced a cheat, Christ to be proclaimed an imposter...the sabbath is to be abolished; marriage to be despised; the present framework of society will be totally disorganized” as the ownership of “property [is] declared theft."
A consummate mid-19th-century culture warrior, Kaufman maintained that the American nation built around slavery was unimpeachable; in fact, the nation was “the great college of liberty for the whole world.” The end of slavery, he claimed, would bring first “Communism” and “Socialism,” then ultimately “anarchy, and bloodshed [to] close the bloody picture!” American “liberty” and “freedom,” Kaufman made clear, depended on the enslavement of the 3.2 million African Americans counted in the 1850 United States census. With such twisted logic, anti-abolitionists used opportunities like commencement addresses to forward the notion that American freedom and democracy were not only reconcilable with but indeed reliant on human slavery.
A pro-slavery address delivered by David S. Kaufman (class of 1833) at the Princeton commencement for the class of 1850.
View Primary Sources
With the United States on the brink of Civil War — a war in which Princeton men would die fighting on each side — racial and sectional tensions ran high on the campus of a college committed to preserving the status quo. As John P. Jackson explained in his 1859 Master’s Address:
It has not been the destiny of Princeton College to prove a nursery for the ultraists, the agitators and the fanatics of the day […] but when the maintenance of great social institutions is concerned, when a conception of the grand foundations of national polity is demanded to prepare the world for safe and steady advancement, and advance it when prepared, has been the proud mission of our college.
The ascendance of anti-abolitionist rhetoric at at commencement ceremonies rendered the meaning of this statement unmistakable. Throughout the antebellum period, Princeton’s commencement speakers used this final chance to shape undergraduate minds as an opportunity to articulate the college’s stake in slavery and inculcate a pro-slavery worldview.
From Words to Actions
The ugly reality of racism and slavery evident in Princeton’s commencement speeches could make its presence felt in more than words. In 1836, African American abolitionist and Presbyterian minister Theodore S. Wright was brutally attacked and ejected from the chapel of the Princeton Theological Seminary while attending commencement. Just seven years previously, he had become the seminary’s first African American graduate. After receiving his degree, Wright became a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and Pastor of the First Colored Presbyterian Church in New York City. When he returned to Princeton in 1836 to celebrate commencement, Wright took a seat while many white men stood in the crowded chapel. The abolitionist newspaper The Emancipator reported that following the address, the son of a Southern slaveholder and member of Princeton’s junior class followed Wright from the chapel, shouting “Out with the nigger! Out with the nigger!” before grabbing Reverend Wright by the collar and kicking him “in the most ruthless manner.”
Addressing the incident, Princeton President James Carnahan absolved the college of any responsibility, claiming that the man who beat Wright was not a student nor even a resident of the town. Describing Wright only as a “respectable colored man of New-York,” President Carnahan did not note in his letter that Wright had a connection to the neighboring school, or that, like himself, Wright was an ordained Presbyterian minister. The response from college officials echoed the conservative, pro-slavery tone evident in so many Princeton commencement addresses, and the editors of The Emancipator mused:
We are at a loss to know which is the greater insult, the outery and kicks of the southern youngster or the letter of Dr. Carnahan.
With President Carnahan quick to deny any connection between the college and the attacker, Wright too had to grapple with the fact that the attack had taken place in the town where he was once a student. Wright concluded his own account of the attack by noting his regret that “the affair should be so construed to attach blame to some individual connected with the Theological Seminary,” and expressing his “profound respect and affection for [his] ‘Alma Mater.’”
Only a few weeks earlier, an article in the Princeton Whig, a local newspaper, had described commencement as a “world in miniature”:
A day when old and young, white and black, male and female, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, good and bad, all the extremities of character and condition meet and spend a day together at Princeton, hearing seeing and doing a little of every thing but nothing of any importance.
If the Whig was correct in its assessment of the various social interchanges that occurred in the midst of commencement celebrations, the paper’s harmonious description completely ignored the real possibility of conflict and violence that troubled the College of New Jersey’s cloistered world. But that dissonance also provided a reason to hope. Despite decades of pro-slavery rhetoric and deeply-held conservatism on the part of the college’s administration and commencement speakers, the presence of leaders like Wright — who would go on to play a key role in the abolitionist movement — suggested that perhaps Princeton’s orators inspired at least some individuals in their audience to fight for a different vision of their nation’s future.
The annual commencement festivities marking graduation at the College of New Jersey brought the college and the broader community together for several days of speeches and ceremonies. In 1748, commencement was held in November. From 1749 until 1843, the event was held in September. From 1844 until the present, commencement activities have taken place in June.
Samuel L. Southard, An Address delivered before the Alumni Association of Nassau-Hall, on the Day of the Annual Commencement of the College, September 26, 1832 (Princeton, NJ: D’Hart and Connoley, 1832).
James McDowell, Address delivered before the Alumni association of the college of New Jersey: September 26, 1838 (Princeton, NJ: John Bogard, 1838), 46. Emphasis in original.
“Commencement of the College of New-Jersey, September 25th 1839: Order of Exercises.,” Box 1, Folder 35, Princeton University Commencement Records; Princeton University Archives; Department of Rare Books and Special Collections; Princeton University Library.
Alfred Brophy, University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 206.
William H. Gaston, Address Delivered Before the American Whig and Cliosophic Societies, 1835 (Princeton, NJ: R.E. Hornor, 1835), 31.
David S. Kaufman, Address Delivered before the American Whig and Cliosophic Societies of the College of New Jersey (Princeton, NJ: John T. Robinson, 1850), 17.
“Commencement Exercises: The 112th Anniversary of the College of New Jersey, June 29th, 1859,” and “Princeton College Commencement [Unidentified Newspaper Clipping],” both in Box 1, Folder 55, Princeton University Commencement Records; Princeton University Archives; Department of Rare Books and Special Collections; Princeton University Library.
“Shameful Outrage at Princeton, N.J.,” The Emancipator, 27 October 1836, 102.
“Commencement Day,” Princeton Whig Standard, 23 September 1836, 2.