Joseph Clark's Mission
When a fire destroyed Nassau Hall in March of 1802, the College of New Jersey’s trustees sprang into action, commissioning five separate fundraising missions throughout the country. College president Samuel Stanhope Smith traveled to Washington, D.C.; Robert Finley, Princeton alumnus and future leader of the American Colonization Society, solicited donations in New Jersey; others headed to New England, Maryland, and Delaware. And Joseph Clark—Presbyterian minister and graduate of the class of 1781—journeyed to a region of the country whose wealthiest men would increasingly send their sons to Princeton in the following decades: the slaveholding South.
The college trustees originally intended for Clark to canvass South Carolina and Georgia, but some time between the fire in March and Clark’s departure in November 1802 the plan changed, and the minister chose to travel to Virginia instead. Clark’s decision was likely influenced by his traveling companion John P. Bryan, a Virginia native then serving as a justice of the Somerset County Court in New Jersey. The two men may have hoped they would receive a warmer welcome (and consequently more generous donations) in Virginia, where Bryan had friends, than in states where both would have been completely unknown.
Their instincts proved correct. Between November 1802 and April 1803, Clark and Bryan traveled to southern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, covering over 937 miles in approximately six months, with Clark spending 115 out of 159 days in Virginia. In total, they raised nearly $4,000 for Nassau Hall—owing much of their success to the assistance of Princeton alumni and their connections in the region, many of whom counted themselves among Virginia’s planter elite.
"The Business of College"
“Left home on the business of College,” Joseph Clark wrote in his diary, beginning a brief account of the towns he and Bryan passed through, the homes and taverns where they lodged, and the people who contributed money during their travels. In each new town or city, Clark—the minister—introduced himself to the community by preaching on Sundays, attempting to make a favorable impression before he went door to door “with much hard begging.” Meanwhile, Bryan rode on horseback out of town to solicit funds from planters in the surrounding area. Clark’s lack of familiarity with Virginia’s plantation complex may have determined his and Bryan’s division of labor. As the men ventured farther south, into areas with greater numbers of enslaved people, Clark encountered a landscape and way of life foreign to what he had known in New Jersey.
At the time of the fundraising mission, New Jersey hadn’t yet abolished slavery (the state legislature wouldn’t pass a gradual emancipation law until 1804, the last of any northern state), so Clark would have been familiar with the sight of enslaved people laboring on farms or in shops, taverns, and private households. He may even have brought an enslaved man with him on the trip. In his journal Clark makes reference to a “servant” who accompanied him and Bryan, a young man named Dick. Clark never describes Dick’s race or legal status, so it’s impossible to know who exactly he was. The term “servant” doesn’t provide much of a clue either; slave-owners often used the word when describing bondspeople. After the trip, however, Dick was paid $48 in wages, an indication that he was free (though not whether he was a white man or a free black man). And while Clark’s use of Dick’s first name without a surname demonstrates that the white minister considered himself to be of a much higher social class than his “servant,” he may have made that distinction between himself and a poor white man as well as a free person of color.
But while Joseph Clark was accustomed to small-scale slavery in New Jersey, slavery in Virginia formed the foundation of the state's social and economic system. The 1800 federal census recorded an enslaved population of more than three hundred thousand people in eastern Virginia—nearly half of the total population. In New Jersey, enslaved people made up less than six percent of the population. Nor did New Jersey have plantations along the lines of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or George Washington’s Mount Vernon, grand estates maintained by the forced labor of hundreds of enslaved and men women. Perhaps—when Clark met and lodged with members of planter elite in the course of his journey—he was reminded of the Latin salutatory address he’d given at his commencement: the topic had been “luxury.”
At times, Joseph Clark found his “hard begging” hard going. Bad weather and worse roads caused delays, and he faced the indifference or, worse, hostility of the communities he and Bryan entered. In December 1802, when Clark arranged to meet with members of the Virginia state legislature in Richmond, he was astonished by their negative reaction to his fundraising efforts:
I began to present my subscription paper; but so general, & so strong were their prejudices against the College on political accounts; & so numerous their pretenses for refusing to subscribe, that tho I continued my applications with unwearied diligence till the 25th, I obtained subscriptions of the members & a few citizens to the amount only of 285 Dollars.
(Meanwhile Bryan, who had spent the month calling on planters between the York and James rivers, raised more than seven hundred dollars in the same time.)
In 1802 and 1803, the College of New Jersey had not yet gained the reputation among Southerners that it would have at mid-century—as the most conservative school in the north, where Southern students at times comprised more than half of the student body. Clark’s appeal to Virginia’s legislators, however, helped bolster Princeton’s standing among Southern elites. As he wrote when he left Richmond:
Little, however, as was my success in the money way it was judged by the citizens of Richmond that my time here was well spent, as it gave me an opportunity to, & as they supposed, must have had the effect in a great degree in, removing the existing prejudices in this quarter against the College, & strengthening its reputation.
During their travels, Clark and Bryan relied on the assistance and support of Princeton alumni. Joseph Flavius Lane (class of 1776) agreed to forward subscriptions that had been pledged in Loudoun County, Virginia; if he was the father of Noah Lane (class of 1803), he would have had a son at Princeton when Joseph Clark met with him. Planter and member of the Virginia senate Landon Carter of Cleve—who donated money as well as hosted Clark and Dick for more than a month when Clark fell ill with a fever and Dick contracted measles—had a brother-in-law who graduated from Princeton in 1760. Later, Carter’s two sons, St. Leger Landon Carter and Thomas Otway Carter, would graduate with the classes of 1805 and 1809. Clark’s visit may have convinced Carter to send his sons to New Jersey for their education. (Even when ill, the minister must have made a good impression.) And though Clark himself found little support for his cause in Richmond, he did find that Richmond’s John Grattan Gamble, who had received an honorary science degree from Princeton just the year before, had collected more than $1,200 for Nassau Hall on his own initiative.
Virginia’s Princeton families (such as the Lanes, Carters, and Gambles) were almost uniformly large slave-owners. Joseph Flavius Lane was the master of a plantation he called “Farmer’s Delight” and a member of the Virginia state assembly. Landon Carter’s sobriquet “of Cleve” derived from the name of his plantation, to distinguish him from the less notable Carters in the area. And in the late 1820s, John Gamble and his brother Robert would move to Florida Territory to speculate in land, cotton, and sugarcane. In Richmond in 1820, John Gamble owned nine slaves, but by the 1840s he would own more than one hundred in Florida—along with, at one point, 18,000 acres of land—though his slaves regularly ran away to return to the families and friends they’d been forced to leave behind when sold ever farther south.
These wealthy and well-placed alumni introduced Clark to men without pre-existing Princeton connections—members of the elevated social circle that would come to be called the “First Families of Virginia”—who often provided accommodations for Clark, Bryan, and Dick during their travels. Landon Carter, for instance, was undoubtedly the link between Clark and John Taliaferro. After spending thirty-three days recovering from their illnesses at Carter’s Cleve estate, Clark and Dick lodged at Taliaferro’s nearby plantation when caught in a downpour one night. A planter with dozens of slaves and a member of one of the oldest families in the state, Taliaferro was a relative of Landon Carter’s third wife, Lucy Taliaferro. And near the end of his trip, in February 1803, Clark spent a night at the home of George Fitzhugh Sr.—father of the more infamous George Fitzhugh Jr., a pro-slavery intellectual who argued, among other things, that Americans had not only a right but a “duty to enslave the weak.”
While Clark and Bryan at times had little choice but to lodge at small taverns and inns during their journey, they were also welcomed into the homes of some of Virginia’s largest slaveholders. In December 1802, John Bryan stayed at the home of George Divers, who owned thirty-seven enslaved men and women on his “Farmington” plantation in 1800 (by 1820, the number would rise to one hundred and twelve). At the time of Bryan’s arrival, Divers had recently added a new east wing to the house—designed by his personal friend Thomas Jefferson. Unknown to Clark, who was bedridden at Cleve at the time, Bryan had also fallen ill; unlike the minister, however, the judge would not recover. After four days suffering from “a violent bilious collic,” Bryan died at the plantation designed in part by the third president of the United States.
According to oral tradition, Bryan’s nephew traveled to Farmington to collect his uncle’s personal effects, with a special concern for Bryan’s clothes. Supposedly, George Divers had distributed Bryan’s clothes among the enslaved men on his plantation—except for Bryan’s vests, which, according to one account, “negroes were never permitted to wear.” Bryan’s nephew allegedly retrieved the vests, cut open the linings, and removed several thousand dollars, money Bryan had collected as part of his fundraising mission for Nassau Hall.
George Divers's "Farmington" plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia, where John Bryan died in 1802.
View Primary Sources
Joseph Clark also lodged at a plantation linked to an American president: Mount Vernon. With both George and Martha Washington having died by 1802, Mount Vernon’s new master was the former president’s nephew Bushrod Washington, who brought his own slaves to staff the plantation. Clark stayed at Mount Vernon for at least two days, during which time he may have met the estate manager—an enslaved, mixed-race man named West Ford. Ford’s descendants assert that West Ford’s father was George Washington himself, based on oral histories passed down independently through two branches of the family. Most historians, however, argue that Ford’s father was Bushrod Washington, who freed Ford and bequeathed one hundred and sixty acres of land to him in his will.
All told, Joseph Clark’s interactions with Virginia’s plantation masters—and bondspeople like West Ford—revealed the origins of the wealth that made Clark’s 1802-1803 fundraising trip so successful: the exploitation of enslaved people.
W. Frank Craven, “Joseph Clark and the Rebuilding of Nassau Hall,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle Vol. XLI (Autumn 1971), 54-68.
Ibid., 59. College trustee Elias Boudinot reported a combined total of $42,000 raised by the five fundraising missions. Clark and Bryan’s contribution may have been larger than $4,000, as the trustees later requested him to collect unpaid pledges.
Joseph Clark, Diary of Joseph Clark, 1802-1803. Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
Craven, “Joseph Clark and the Rebuilding of Nassau Hall,” 58.
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