Introduction

John Maclean Jr. (1800-1886) lived in Princeton for the entirety of his long life, during which time he became renowned nationally as a scholar, educator, theologian, and moral reformer. But the College of New Jersey was Maclean’s true passion. As one newspaper put it, “his interest was the same in any thing [sic] pertaining to the growth, prosperity…and exemplary character of the college.”[1]

Indeed, Maclean worked tirelessly to promote the college’s interests and principles, including its unstated (though obvious) commitment to making slaveholding southerners feel at home in Princeton. That was not always easy. At times, Maclean’s dedication to encouraging harmony between North and South fell out-of-step with the politics of the broader Princeton community, “where for more than eighty years [his familiar figure] appeared almost daily.”[2]

Portrait Of John Maclean

Portrait of John Maclean Jr., Princeton's tenth president.

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Face of the College

It would be difficult to conjure a figure more embedded or influential in the Princeton college community than John Maclean Jr. His father, John Maclean Sr., had been the college’s first professor of chemistry. Maclean Jr. was, then, born and raised in the shadow of Nassau Hall. Maclean matriculated at the college as a young teenager in 1813 and graduated in 1816. In 1818, he became a college tutor (a cross between an adjunct faculty member and a dormitory supervisor), while continuing his religious studies at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Maclean returned to work at the college full-time in 1822, when he joined the faculty as a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. In 1829, Maclean became the Chair of Ancient Languages, as well as the college’s vice president. He remained on this administrative track, becoming Princeton’s president in 1854. Maclean served as president until his retirement in 1868. But he stayed deeply involved at the college long after his official departure. In 1877, Maclean even published a two-volume history of the college.

Given his near continual presence at Princeton for 87 years, it should come as no surprise that Maclean left behind many sources of information pertaining to his personal involvement in the college’s affairs. For instance, numerous alumni wrote about their interactions with “dear old Johnnie,” as they often referred to him.[3] Most regarded Maclean as a dedicated educator, fair disciplinarian, and effective administrator. “Aside from the routine duties of office,” one former student recalled:

His life, in so far as we knew anything of it, seemed to savor of monasticism. Apparently he was a stranger to what, in general, we call the joy of life, and one would have looked in vain for a smile from him.

“It has occurred to me at times that he was never young, and hence ill qualified to cope with original sin as embodied in an average lot of students,” this alumnus added.[4] But other students were more generous in their characterizations. One remembered Maclean as a “kind old soul” who “would inquire after the welfare of the shivering students and expostulate with the janitor for the supply of more heat.”[5] “The truest and noblest thing that can be said of him,” this alumnus continued, “is, that he was universally beloved and respected.”[6] Others praised Maclean for his affability and willingness to engage with students.[7] As one summed up: “Dr. Maclean I remember as always approachable and lovable.”[8]

Maclean, Slavery, and the South

Maclean, however, left few sources to indicate his personal views on slavery, and the silence is deafening. Though Maclean did not own slaves during his adult life, he was personally familiar with the “peculiar institution,” as his father had owned at least three slaves while teaching at Princeton. Maclean Jr. was himself a leading member of New Jersey’s state chapter of the American Colonization Society, which encouraged former slaves and free black people to emigrate to Africa rather than stay in the United States.[9]

Most notably, though, Maclean was deeply committed to preserving the college’s longstanding ties to the slaveholding South. For example, Maclean took at least one fundraising voyage to South Carolina during the late antebellum period.[10] Such outreach did not go unnoticed. In 1851, a student from Georgia remarked to his parents that “Dr. Maclean reminds me more of one of our regular hospitable Southern gentlemen than almost any other person with whom I have met.”[11] Not surprisingly, southerners seemed especially pleased with Maclean’s promotion to the presidency in December 1853. A newspaper in rural South Carolina, the Southern Rights Advocate, published a letter from an anonymous (though presumably southern) student attesting to Maclean’s excellent character. As an addendum, the editor of the Advocate—evidently a Princeton alumnus as well—claimed that there does not “live a better disciplinarian in the world than Dr. Maclean. A large number of young men from the South emerge annually from the walls of ‘old Nassau.’” This former student then exclaimed:

Long live Princeton College, and with it long live he who was once to us more than a father—its present energetic and efficient President—Dr. John Maclean![12]

Having gained such favor with the South, Maclean was justifiably worried about the future of the college when the Union began to collapse in 1860. He publicly rebuked the editors of the Central Presbyterian in Virginia for reprinting excerpts from inflammatory articles in northern newspapers. Maclean assured them that most people in the North were not hoping for war. “I say this the more freely,” he wrote, “as I took no part in the late election for a president of the U.S.” Despite his professed impartiality, Maclean went on to note:

My preference was for a Southern man: but I know many influential men among the Republicans who would give no countenance to any persons or party engaged in assailing the people of the South either by word or deed.[13]

Maclean continued with his efforts to bridge the gulf between the North and South even after the Civil War began in earnest. In April 1861—some 10 days after Confederate forces had battered Fort Sumter’s Union garrison into submission—northern students at Princeton unfurled the American flag from the belfry of Nassau Hall, “producing intense enthusiasm among the students.” As president, Maclean was concerned that such displays of “enthusiasm” for the Union cause would alienate the southern students still residing in Princeton. He therefore ordered the Stars and Stripes be taken down. According to newspaper reports, Maclean then assembled the students in the college’s chapel and made an address “exhorting them to abstain from injuring the feelings of those who were from the South.”[14]

Student Exodus Of 1861

A list of Southern students honorably dismissed from the college after to the outbreak of the Civil War.

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Maclean’s determination to preserve “the feelings” of secessionists, even at the expense of flying the American flag in wartime, did not go over well with students from the North—not to mention his neighbors in Princeton. Nor did he diffuse the sectional tension. On the contrary, in the coming months Maclean had to contend with an increasingly belligerent student body, which, in turn, led to several other public confrontations.

Perhaps it would be easy, then, to label Maclean as a “dough face”—a northerner who harbored southern sympathies and proslavery ideologies. But Maclean was likely personally conflicted about slavery and race. In 1845, he gave the charge at the ordination of a black reverend named Elymas Rogers—something that few ministers in the South would have condoned.[15] And although it is not certain why exactly Maclean devoted so much of his time, energy, and money to the American Colonization Society, he doubtlessly believed—like others in his circle of reformers—that the colonization movement would encourage slaveholders to manumit their slaves, aid in the suppression of the African slave trade, and provide free black Americans with an opportunity to live in an environment free from white prejudice. Indeed, unlike other reformers, Maclean remained a steadfast member of the Colonization Society even after the United States abolished slavery in 1865. At that point, Maclean’s “darling interest” became the Republic of Liberia, perhaps reflecting his belief that black people were fully capable of self-governance (a notion that was hardly mainstream among other whites).[16]

Princeton Press Maclean Colonization Nov 14 1874

A fundraising notice placed by John Maclean Jr. in 1874, in support of the New Jersey branch of the American Colonization Society.

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In all likelihood, Maclean did not strive to make southerners feel welcome on Princeton’s campus because he shared their proslavery ideology. Rather, he probably thought that currying favor with southerners was the only way to ensure the success of his beloved college. Maclean was not solely responsible for Princeton’s popularity in the South, after all. The college had planted its southern roots long before he was born. As a lifelong Princetonian, however, Maclean had certainly come to believe that southerners were essential to the viability of the college. He therefore embraced slaveholders while simultaneously working against slavery through the colonization movement.

It was a subtle method of reform, if one at all. And perhaps his tactics did make Maclean the dough face of the college, especially after the South seceded from the Union. At the very least, he was far more willing to take a stand for Princeton than to stand up to slaveholders.

About the AuthorPanel Toggle

Craig Hollander is an assistant professor of American history at The College of New Jersey. Before joining the TCNJ faculty, Professor Hollander was the Behrman Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Princeton University. His dissertation, titled "Against a Sea of Troubles: Slave Trade Suppressionism During the Early Republic," won both the 2014 C. Vann Woodward Prize from the Southern Historical Association and the 2014 SHEAR Dissertation Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Professor Hollander’s manuscript is under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press for publication in the Early American Studies Series.

View all stories by Craig Hollander »

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[1]

“Rev. Dr. John Maclean,” The Sun (Baltimore, MD), 16 August 1886, 1.

[2]

“College Discipline,” The Clarion (Jackson, MS), 15 December 1886, 1.

[3]

Clay MacCauley, “Personal Recollections of Princeton Undergraduate Life: The College During the Civil War,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, 22 November 1916, 182.

[4]

Author Unknown, “Princeton in the Sixties,” Princeton University Historical Subject Files, AC #109, 1746-Present; Series 1, General, 1746 – 1899; Box 2, Folder 15 (1860-1869); Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library; P. 1-2.

[5]

Fuller P. Dalrymple, June 1931, “Supplement to Reminiscences of Princeton College Life,” Princeton University Historical Subject Files, AC #109, 1746-Present; Series 1, General, 1746 – 1899; Box 2, Folder 15 (1860-1869); Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library; P. 2.

[6]

Fuller P. Dalrymple, June 1931, “Supplement to Reminiscences of Princeton College Life,” Princeton University Historical Subject Files, AC #109, 1746-Present; Series 1, General, 1746 – 1899; Box 2, Folder 15 (1860-1869); Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library; P. 3.

[7]

For example, in 1850, Charles C. Jones, Jr. wrote to his parents that he was “struck with the freedom of intercourse here between students and professors; and I think in the case of Professor Maclean this is perhaps carried a little beyond the bounds of propriety, for the students often joke him to his face about [how he should get] married, etc.” Charles C. Jones, Jr. to Mrs. and Rev. C. C. Jones, 9 August 1850, Robert Manson Myers, A Georgian at Princeton (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 69. Maclean never did get married. Even years after his death, a former student recalled that Maclean was “a confirmed bachelor all his life, living quietly with a bachelor brother, the only other occupants of the home being a housekeeper and a small colony of the feline species.” Fuller P. Dalrymple, June 1931, “Supplement to Reminiscences of Princeton College Life,” Princeton University Historical Subject Files, AC #109, 1746-Present; Series 1, General, 1746 – 1899; Box 2, Folder 15 (1860-1869); Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library; P. 3.

[8]

Clay MacCauley, “Personal Recollections of Princeton Undergraduate Life: The College During the Civil War,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, 22 November 1916, 182.

[9]

By 1875, Maclean was regarded as the “grand old chief” of the New Jersey Colonization Society. The African Repository, Vol. LII, No. 1 (January 1877), 19.

[10]

No Headline, Charleston Courier (Charleston, SC), 19 May 1852, 2.

[11]

Charles C. Jones, Jr. to Mrs. and Rev. C. C. Jones, 9 October 1851 in Robert Manson Myers, A Georgian at Princeton (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 232.

[12]

“The Presidency at Princeton College,” Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, NJ), 13 February 1854, 2.

[13]

John Maclean, Jr. to the Editors of the Central Presbyterian, 20 November 1860, Office of the President Records, Box 17, Folder 3, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[14]

“The College of New Jersey,” Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, NJ), 22 April 1861, 2.

[15]

No headline, Centinel of Freedom (Newark, NJ), 25 March 1845, 1.

[16]

The African Repository, Vol. LII, No. 1 (January 1877), 19.

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