Sometime around the year 1800, student Nicholas Biddle (class of 1801) composed an essay on the abolition of slavery. Scion of a prominent Philadelphia family, Biddle was an ambitious and self-confident scholar, and he took his assignment seriously. He began with a general attack on abolitionists. “Addressing themselves to the passions rather than the judgement,” he argued, “they excite our pity towards the slaves rather than convince us of the propriety of their manumission.” Biddle did not support the slave trade, which he blamed on Europeans. At the same time, he felt that its African victims should be grateful, “as no nation is more lenient towards its slaves than America.” If emancipated, he continued, former slaves would starve to death or turn to crime. “To deprive thousands of their bread and reduce them to a state of misery such as this, in order to give them liberty, is a most palpable absurdity,” he reasoned. Even worse, emancipation would destroy the livelihood of slaveholders. “Would it then be just,” he mused, “would it be reasonable to impoverish thousands, in order to liberate men whom I doubt not would be equally happy when under their masters.”
Biddle also considered the geopolitical context. The nation’s economy depended upon enslaved labor, he argued, and abolition would render the United States helpless against its European rivals. If freed, moreover, former slaves would become an enemy army. “Need we wonder to see them attack us in open day and infest our streets by night?” he asked. Embittered and impoverished, black Americans would be eager to aid foreign invaders and would be “a much more formidable enemy even than the Indians.” The student author did not pause to consider why, if they were so well treated, former slaves would be so quick to slit the throats of their masters.
Reaching the end of his paper, Biddle concluded that abolition would be impractical and unconstitutional, and he offered some parting thoughts on the folly of radical change:
It is indeed beautiful to contemplate man living as freely as if in a state of nature & enjoying all the blessings of creation. These are but the visionary dreams of the philanthropist or the wishes of the philosopher, but they will be far distant from the ideas of the politician; for however beautiful in theory they will be impossible in practice.
Biddle graduated from Princeton in 1801, as valedictorian, and embarked on a career in the United States diplomatic corps in England and France. Returning home, he entered politics in Pennsylvania and became the most powerful financial official in the country. As the President of the Second Bank of the United States between 1822 and 1836, he invested heavily in southern cotton plantations.
Student essay by Nicholas Biddle (class of 1801) arguing against the abolition of slavery.
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Throughout his meteoric ascent, Biddle’s commitment to Princeton and his views on slavery remained consistent. Forty years after his graduation, he paid close attention when his friend, Congressman Charles Ingersoll (class of 1799), gave a speech on abolitionism in the United States Capitol. In a familiar refrain, perhaps honed in his own student essays, Ingersoll labeled abolitionists hysterical. “Denunciation, declamation, passionate, unmerciful and unmerited abuse of Southern institutions, reviling slavery as a sin, and the slave trade as piracy, are neither arguments nor reasons,” he announced. Abolitionists were a grave threat to national security, “a vast conspiracy, with branches on both sides of the Atlantic.” Emancipation, if attempted, would devolve into violence and “expose several millions of unoffending whites to the reckless butchery of some millions of infuriated blacks.” Biddle wrote to Ingersoll that he read the speech “with great pleasure.”
Biddle’s lifelong hostility toward abolition mirrored the dominant attitude at his alma mater. To be fair, some Princeton affiliates were critical of slavery. Especially during the 18th century, as revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality spread across the Atlantic, students and alumni debated plans for gradual emancipation. British abolitionist Granville Sharp donated his antislavery polemics to the college library, and the faculty established a prize for the best dissertation on the subject. But with the increasing significance of slavery to the nation’s economy and politics, and the arrival of record numbers of southern students at Princeton during the first half of the 19th century, the college became increasingly conservative. It was no coincidence that young Biddle’s roommate and closest friends were from Maryland and Virginia.
When a new abolitionist movement emerged in the 1830s, calling for both immediate emancipation and racial equality, southern slaveholders and their northern supporters attempted to shut it down, and Princeton helped to lead the charge. Faculty and students encouraged a climate of fear and intimidation on the subject. College affiliates published learned treatises arguing that slaveholding was not sinful and implying that abolitionism was more dangerous than slavery, and students violently assaulted visiting abolitionists on at least two occasions. As historian Sean Wilentz points out, Princeton was not exactly “a proslavery town.” Yet the school’s dogged commitment to the status quo effectively prolonged the institution of slavery and ensured that the college would continue to reap the benefits of systemic racial oppression. It was a catastrophic failure of leadership on the greatest moral question of the age.
Early Antislavery Action
The first and most important group to oppose slavery in Princeton were the men and women held in bondage by local residents. In 1767, in the farming community at Hopewell, an enslaved laborer named Cuff used a knife and axe to murder his owner and escaped into the woods. Chased by an armed posse, he opted to end his own life and died as a free man. The story of this heroic act of defiance endured across generations, and Princeton slaveholders took note. When Nassau Hall burned in 1802, causing thousands of dollars in damage, a witness report suggested that a rebellious slave lit the blaze. Other protests were more covert and persistent. Between 1774 and 1818, Princeton residents published at least twenty-eight newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves. In the thick of the American Revolution, Michael Hoy escaped enslavement near what is now the center of campus. He appropriated a horse and carried intelligence to the British Army. Twenty-year-old Hannah ran away from her owner in Princeton in 1805. Prior to this, she expressed her feelings by developing “a habit of rolling her eyes when spoken to.” Untold others escaped without being advertised. Their individual and collective acts of resistance were a drumbeat for abolition.
Between 1747 and 1854, all of the presidents of the College of New Jersey were active or former slaveholders. Although they sometimes expressed doubts about the institution, their opinions on abolition were lukewarm at best. Most of the early faculty viewed slavery as a flawed but ultimately necessary system that could be improved over time. For some, Christianization was the key to a kinder, gentler form of slavery. Before assuming the presidency at Princeton in 1759, the Reverend Samuel Davies distributed religious texts among enslaved Africans in Virginia. “Their natural genius is not at all discouraging,” he observed, “and when they set about learning in earnest, it is astonishing what Progress some of them make, though with little leisure or assistance.” At the same time, Davies remained committed to slaveholding. Religious instruction, he argued, was a means of social control—it encouraged submission to the master class and prevented violent insurrection.
John Witherspoon, Princeton's most influential early president, argued against abolition on practical grounds. “I do not think there lies any necessity on those who found men in a state of slavery, to make them free, to their own ruin,” he noted in his Lectures on Moral Philosophy. Witherspoon's disciple, Samuel Stanhope Smith, who served as president from 1795 to 1812, challenged racism and lectured to his students on abolition. “It is of high public concern that slavery should be gradually corrected,” he wrote, “and, at length, if possible, entirely extinguished.” But immediate emancipation was unthinkable. Slaves represented a tremendous investment of capital, Smith argued, and to abolish all of that wealth would be unfair to slaveholders. Freedom, if it ever came, would be at some vaguely defined future date.
In the wake of the American Revolution, the growing movement for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade left an impact on Princeton. In 1784, British abolitionist Granville Sharp donated a collection of antislavery books for the library at the College of New Jersey. The collection included his plans for “the gradual enfranchisement of slaves in America” and examples of “God’s temporal vengeance against tyrants, slave-holders, and oppressors.” In 1787, the editor of the Princeton Packet noted the publication of Thomas Clarkson’s Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, a translation of a Latin dissertation, which won first prize at the University of Cambridge. Siding with Clarkson, the editor blamed the slave trade on the superior “power of avarice to every sense of liberty, and every tender feeling of humanity.” In 1791, the trustees of the college awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree to the Anglican priest John Newton. A veteran slave ship captain and the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” Newton was a recent convert to abolitionism. Yet the former slave trader refused his degree from Princeton. “The dreary coast of Africa was the University to which the Lord was pleased to send me,” he replied, “and I dare not acknowledge a relation to any other.”
A letter from British abolitionist Granville Sharp to Princeton President John Witherspoon, discussing “Tracts against Slavery.” Sharp donated books to rebuild the college library after its destruction during the American Revolution.
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The annual college commencement sometimes featured a discussion of slavery and abolition. In 1788, Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy Walter Minto donated five pounds from his salary to establish a medal for the best commencement dissertation on one of two topics. The first was “the unlawfulness & impolicy of capital punishments.” The second was “the unlawfulness & impolicy of African slavery, & the best means of abolishing it in the United States, & of promoting the happiness of free negroes.” The prize was not popular among students, and how many entered the competition remains unclear. Minto died a slaveholder eight years later. At the commencement of 1792, the faculty posed a loaded question: “Is not the emancipation of slaves, without preparing them by a proper education to be good citizens consistent with humanity and sound policy?” Students from New Jersey and New York took opposing sides of the debate. John Bradford Wallace delivered a commencement address in 1794 congratulating French revolutionaries for abolishing slavery and calling for Americans to follow suit. As late as 1809, graduating students participated in a debate on “universal emancipation.”
A few early Princeton alumni engaged in antislavery activities. Although usually mild and conservative, some of their ideas were progressive by the standards of their day. Benjamin Rush (‘1760) was a devoted student of Samuel Davies and an early critic of slavery. His Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping, published in 1773, connected the cause of abolition to the simmering conflict over American independence. Rush opposed ideas of African racial inferiority and envisioned a gradual but unimpeded process of emancipation. “Providence I hope is at work in bringing about some great revolution in behalf of our oppressed Negro brethren,” he wrote to Granville Sharp. When his dream of an antislavery revolution failed to materialize, Rush turned to the idea of settling black Americans in segregated colonies. He joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1787 and served as its secretary and later president, but remained a slaveholder into the next decade. His friend, the historian David Ramsay (‘1765), followed a similar path. An ardent opponent of both racism and slavery during the American Revolution, Ramsay tempered his criticism after a long residence in South Carolina. Like his instructors at Princeton, he came to view the institution as a regrettable, but necessary, instrument of social order.
Portrait of Benjamin Rush (class of 1760), secretary and president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
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Jonathan Edwards Jr. (‘1765), Ramsay’s classmate and the son of Princeton’s third president, developed a powerful antislavery argument. Unlike his slaveholding father, Edwards denied that the Bible justified slavery, and he became a key figure in the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom and the Relief of Persons Unlawfully Holden in Bondage. Like Rush, Edwards drew on the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty against tyranny to support his position. “Great-Britain in her late attempt to enslave America, committed a very small crime indeed in comparison with the crime of those who enslave the Africans,” he argued in a 1791 sermon. Edwards also called for financial reparations for slaves and their descendants in compensation “for the injury which [slaveholders] have done them.” His nephew, Aaron Burr Jr. (‘1772), the son of Princeton's second president, flirted with an equally radical idea. Although a slaveholder, Burr fought for the rights of black citizens and proposed the immediate abolition of slavery in the state of New York.
In addition to Rush and Edwards, a number of Princeton affiliates participated in local abolition societies. Rhode Island politician David Howell (‘1766) served as the first president of the Providence Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and James Madison Broom (‘1794) worked as an attorney for a similar group in Delaware. Princeton trustee Joseph Bloomfield served as the president of the New Jersey Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery at its foundation in 1793. Franklin Davenport (‘1773) chaired a satellite organization, the Gloucester County Association for the Abolition of Slavery, established the same year. Analogous to the Connecticut and Pennsylvania societies, these groups adopted a conservative and piecemeal strategy, with a focus on legislation and litigation. As Governor of New Jersey, Bloomfield helped to pass the state’s first gradual emancipation law in 1804.
Direct experience with slavery prompted some Princeton alumni to take a stand against the institution. Philip Freneau (‘1771) moved to the Caribbean after graduation and wrote the fiery antislavery poem “To Sir Toby” based on his observations. First published in 1792, the poem recounted Freneau’s visceral encounter with plantation labor: “Here whips on whips excite perpetual fears / And mingled howlings vibrate on my ears.” But his friendship with his Princeton classmate James Madison (‘1771) and work for Thomas Jefferson muted his critique of slavery in the United States. The Reverend David Rice (‘1761), a disciple of Samuel Davies, reviled the activities of southern slaveholders and attempted to block the legalization of slavery in Kentucky. “There is an honest SOMETHING in our breasts, that bears testimony against this, as unreasonable and wicked,” he stated plainly. Presbyterian clergymen Hezekiah Balch (‘1766) and Samuel Doak (‘1775) established churches and schools in what is now eastern Tennessee. Although longtime slaveholders, they expressed doubts about the institution, and both eventually freed their families’ slaves. Doak’s pupils included David Nelson, John Rankin, and other early abolitionists and Underground Railroad operatives stationed along the southern border states.
In July 1836, an advertisement appeared in a Georgia newspaper for “a certain abolitionist by the name of Aaron W. Kitchell.” He was “a small spare made man, thin visage, dark complexion, with short hair, and about 25 years of age, a graduate of Princeton College.” When last seen, he wore a white coat, blue trousers, and a black hat, and carried “a pale blue umbrella.” Kitchell, a New Jersey native and a member of the class of 1829, operated a school in Hillsborough, Georgia, but ran afoul of local residents who accused him of “holding communication with the black population.” Tried and sentenced to be tarred and feathered, he denied the charges and managed to escape the state. Later reports alleged that Kitchell was not an agitator and that the accusations were a pretext for a financial dispute. Whatever the case, the incident revealed the escalating tensions over southern slavery in the first half of the 19th century.
Newspaper advertisement for the capture of Aaron W. Kitchell (class of 1829), a suspected abolitionist.
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During the 1830s, a “second wave” of abolitionism developed in the northern United States. In contrast to earlier forms of antislavery action, with their focus on gradual emancipation or colonizing freed people in distant locations, the new movement insisted on immediate emancipation and equal rights for black citizens. Abolitionists argued that American slavery could not be reformed; it could only be overthrown. Grounded in hundreds of state and local antislavery societies, the movement drew inspiration from slave rebellions and free black activism across North America and the Caribbean. It forged connections with the nascent movements for women’s rights, Native American rights, and refugee and immigrant rights, as well as the labor and antiwar movements. International in scope, it encouraged criticism of capitalism and imperialism and embraced a range of tactics, from books, newspapers, and lectures to petition campaigns, political parties, and direct action. In a country where slaveholders dominated all three branches of government and the slave economy drove prosperity in both North and South, it was nothing short of revolutionary.
A small number of Princeton alumni played a prominent role in the new abolitionist movement. Elias Ellmaker, who graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1801, composed one of the earliest arguments in favor of immediate and universal emancipation. “It is true, that it would operate hard on the slaveholder, if there were a general abolition of slavery in the United States,” he wrote. At the same time, he asked:
Which is the harder case, that one man should be obliged to labor and live by his own industry, or that ten, a hundred, or five hundred persons should be compelled to labor for him, and be deprived of all their natural rights and christian privileges? Which is the more praiseworthy – the more godlike, to emancipate thousands from the galling chains of slavery, or to retain them in bondage for the ease and gratification of the pampered few?
Citing the work of his teacher, Samuel Stanhope Smith, Ellmaker opposed racism and supported equal rights. Employed as a lawyer in Pennsylvania, he died in 1812, and his manuscript remained unpublished for several decades. James G. Birney (‘1810), another student of Samuel Stanhope Smith, became a wealthy planter in Alabama, but eventually freed his slaves and moved to Ohio, where he published an abolitionist newspaper. He helped to establish the Liberty Party, the nation’s first antislavery political party, and served as its presidential candidate in 1840 and 1844. Titus Hutchinson (‘1794), who argued that slavery was unconstitutional, ran as a Liberty Party candidate in Vermont between 1841 and 1846. More typical, perhaps, was Sidney P. Clay (‘1821), older brother of abolitionist Cassius Clay. Although “an emancipationist,” he oversaw slave sales on his family’s estate in Kentucky.
The Princeton Theological Seminary, whose faculty and students often overlapped with the College of New Jersey, hosted a few early abolitionists. Theodore S. Wright, who attended the seminary between 1825 and 1828, became the first black American to attain a degree in theology. While on campus, he worked as an agent for Freedom’s Journal, the black-owned newspaper that laid the intellectual groundwork for abolitionism. Although the faculty led a boycott of the newspaper, Wright persevered and became a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. He chaired the New York Vigilance Committee, a militant organization that supported the Underground Railroad, and joined the executive committee of the American Missionary Association, which sponsored dozens of abolitionist missions at home and abroad. Elijah Lovejoy, who attended the seminary between 1832 and 1833, gained notoriety as an abolitionist newspaper editor and was assassinated while defending his printing press in 1837. Lovejoy’s classmate, Lewis Gunn, was forced to pursue his antislavery work in secret because of the hostility in town and on campus. After leaving Princeton, he organized a national movement to boycott slave produce and founded a publishing company that specialized in abolitionist literature. Black abolitionist Henry M. Wilson graduated from the seminary in 1848 and became a community activist in New York City, where he helped to organize the American League of Colored Laborers and the African Civilization Society.
Lithograph portrait of the Rev. Theodore Sedgwick Wright (PTS class of 1828). A founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Wright was one of the most important abolitionists in the country.
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Princeton’s free black community, centered around Witherspoon Street, was politically active and helped to advance the cause of abolition locally, nationally, and internationally. John Anthony Simmons, a community leader who owned a lucrative catering business, donated to the American Anti-Slavery Society and sheltered fugitive slaves in his home. He also served as an agent for abolitionist publications. In 1840, Simmons organized a meeting in support of the New York-based Colored American, which generated “a few subscribers to the paper, with the cash, and many hearty wishes for its success.” Many in the audience were friends of Theodore Wright, revealing the depth and significance of his influence more than a decade after his graduation. In 1844, Elymas P. Rogers took charge of the community’s Witherspoon Street Church. Trained by abolitionist Gerrit Smith, Rogers was an effective organizer, famous for his antislavery political poems. He later traveled to West Africa on a journey sponsored jointly by the American Missionary Association and the African Civilization Society. Beginning in 1880, William Drew Robeson, a self-emancipated slave from North Carolina, continued the activist tradition of Wright, Simmons, and Rogers as leader of the Witherspoon Street Church. His son, actor and anti-colonial icon Paul Robeson, carried this radical legacy into the next century.
The activities of Princeton’s black community stood in stark contrast to the academic community located on the opposite side of Nassau Street. As the sons of wealthy southerners continued to flock to the College of New Jersey during the first half of the 19th century, the school became increasingly conservative. In August 1831, abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison received the following letter from Princeton, authored, he surmised, by “the son of a slaveholder”:
Mr William Lloyd Garrison—
You d—d rascal—
I have misfortune to fall in with your hellish paper called the Liberator, and must say that I have never been so much disgusted with bad grammar, silly expression. in short sir, I have seen many silly papers, but never has it been my lot to be bored with one of the same stamp as this now before me—You seem to hope to rouse the slave to some act of desperation, but let me assure you that no writing of yours will ever accomplish it—It would require a man of more sense and mettle than yourself—O! you pitiful scoundrel! you toad eater! you d—d son of a ——! hell is gaping for you! the devil is feasting in anticipation! O you wooden ass—You blackguard—You traitor—God — your soul for ever and ever amen—You devil incarnate go to h—l you black ——, h—l is hissing and you will soon be burning—
Your most inveterate foe—
and one who despises you—
The letter foreshadowed a violent turn among opponents of the abolitionist movement. Indeed, in the decades prior to the Civil War, many faculty and students viewed abolition as a greater threat to the nation than the institution of slavery.
In March 1835, seminary student Lewis Gunn invited an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society to visit Princeton. It was a dangerous proposition. “There are many very wild students in the college from the South, who would like no better frolic than to mob an antislavery man,” he explained. Despite overwhelming opposition, Gunn arranged for a clandestine, invitation-only meeting. Four months later, a small group of students announced the establishment of “the Princeton, New Jersey, Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society.” Their goal was “the immediate abolition of Slavery throughout these United States.” Significantly, the names of the young men do not correspond with anyone known to be enrolled at the college or the seminary. The fate of the group is uncertain, but it appears to have been short-lived. Although abolitionists formed a New Jersey Anti-Slavery Society in 1839, the movement remained weak and unpopular. Situated in the heart of a conservative slaveholding state, populated by restless southern students, Princeton was an especially hostile environment.
A letter from seminary student Lewis C. Gunn to abolitionist Amos A. Phelps. Gunn noted that any organizing in Princeton needed to be done in secret.
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In September 1835, a group of undergraduates spotted a white abolitionist holding a meeting in the home of a black family on Witherspoon Street. A mob of about sixty students—almost one third of the college population—gathered on campus and marched into the heart of the town’s black community, where they burst into the house, apprehended the abolitionist, and burned his subscription papers. Joined by local Princeton residents, the mob shouted suggestions: “‘Lynch him’, ‘kick him out of town’, ‘kick him to death’, ‘hang him’, tar and feather him.” Ultimately, the students decided to parade their terrified captive to the edge of town. Stopping at the seminary along the way, they “called to the Seminarians that here was one Abolitionist & they might look out to be served in the same manner if they caught any of them.” Their message pointed to the widening disparity between the seminary and the college, and it was a transparent attempt to intimidate the friends and associates of Wright, Lovejoy, and Gunn. When they reached the end of their journey, the students chased their victim into the woods. His identity, and his subsequent fate, remain unclear.
The response of the college leadership was shameful. Surviving documents indicate no effort to investigate the lynch mob, identify the offenders, or take any kind of legal or disciplinary action. Unlike their zealous campaigns to prosecute and suspend student drunks, pranksters, and gallivanters, the faculty showed little interest in anti-abolitionist violence, and their inaction contributed to the atmosphere of fear and intimidation on the subject. The following month, when abolitionist David Leavitt offered a $1,000 donation to the college, officials doubled down on their position. An affluent banker and vice president of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society, Leavitt was active in Presbyterian circles. There is no doubt that he followed events closely, and he donated the funds “on condition that students be admitted irrespective of color, that all be entitled to the like privileges, and that official notice be published in the New York Evangelist and Observer.” There is no evidence that the faculty or trustees took his request seriously.
A note describing David Leavitt's $1,000 subscription offer. An abolitionist, Leavitt donated the funds “on condition that students be admitted irrespective of color.”
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One year later, in September 1836, undergraduate Thomas Ancrum (‘1838) physically assaulted Theodore Wright during the annual college commencement ceremony. One of the leaders of the 1835 lynch mob, Ancrum hailed from Camden, South Carolina, where his family enslaved hundreds of African Americans. Noticing Wright in the crowd, Ancrum grabbed him by the collar and kicked him several times while shouting racial epithets. Wright, who was in town visiting friends, remained true to his nonviolent principles and offered no resistance. News of the incident spread quickly and became a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement. It is uncertain if Ancrum knew his victim’s antislavery reputation or was responding out of a general racist animus. In reality, it was probably some combination of the two. College President James Carnahan, himself a former slaveholder, attempted to downplay the incident and denied responsibility for the violence. But the school’s position was clear. By refusing to take action against any of the participants in the previous year’s lynch mob, faculty and administrators gave tacit endorsement to student vigilantes, and their silence on the first assault directly enabled the second.
Some members of the faculty attempted to maintain a disinterested neutrality, or to locate what they thought was an appropriate middle ground. James Waddel Alexander (‘1820), who served as Professor of Belles Letters and Latin, genuinely disliked slavery and wished for “an eventual and speedy” emancipation. “I open my mind to the full, legitimate impressions of all the anti-slavery arguments,” he wrote in a private letter in the summer of 1835. At the same time, he felt that abolitionists were “hot-headed, arrogant, and imprudent in excess.” Alexander’s intellectual openness ended after a family sabbatical in Virginia several years later. “I am more and more convinced of the injustice we do the slaveholders,” he wrote, after employing slaves to wait on his wife and children.
Beginning in April 1836, as Princeton students launched physical attacks against abolitionists in town, seminary professor Charles Hodge mounted an intellectual assault against the movement. Hodge, who graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1815, was one of the nation’s leading theologians and edited the influential Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review. In a series of articles, he denounced abolitionists as “moral maniacs” and accused them of hysterical overreaction and “gross exaggerations of the moral and physical conditions of the slaves.” Singling out James Birney, among others, Hodge implied that abolitionists were a greater threat than slavery itself. “They have produced a state of alarming exasperation at the south,” he wrote, “injurious to the slave and dangerous to the country.” Although opposed to slavery in principle, Hodge marshaled biblical evidence to argue that slaveholding was not a sin in practice and, therefore, immediate emancipation was not necessary. An active slaveholder himself, he purchased individuals to serve in his home in Princeton during the 1830s.
An essay on abolitionism by Charles Hodge (class of 1815), an instructor at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Hodge argued that slaveholding was not sinful and denigrated abolitionists as “moral maniacs.”
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According to Hodge, enslaved laborers were “incompetent,” similar in status to women and children, and did not deserve equal rights. The only path to emancipation, he argued, was “the gradual elevation of the slaves in knowledge, virtue and property to the point at which it is no longer desirable or possible to keep them in bondage.” Even so, they could not remain within the United States. Like his colleagues at the college, Hodge promoted African colonization. Sneering at what he termed the “mongrel inhabitants of Mexico and South America,” he warned against racial mixing and called for the physical removal of former slaves. Hodge continued to peddle the same toxic delusions for years. Both proslavery southerners and conservative northerners cited his arguments, and his articles were anthologized and republished in multiple editions. In January 1845, the Princeton Whig, the town’s only major newspaper, printed a special issue containing the full text of his latest anti-abolition screed. In 1850, in recognition of his achievements, Hodge was appointed a trustee of the College of New Jersey and played an influential role in shaping the undergraduate curriculum at his alma mater.
Toward Civil War
In many ways, James Kendall Lee (‘1849) was a typical Princeton student. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he enjoyed spending time with his fellow southerners. In fact, more than half of his graduating class (about 53%) came from the slaveholding South. He studied Astronomy, Botany, Latin, Mathematics, and Philosophy, and he listened to sermons by James Carnahan and Charles Hodge. He also paid close attention to political topics. He followed election returns while on campus and read John C. Calhoun’s “Address to the People of the Southern States,” an article on socialism, and the feminist novel Jane Eyre. When news arrived of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, Lee felt that he was living at a special moment in history, and he celebrated the global progress of liberty and democracy. “Bonds and oppressions may for a while subdue the body,” he wrote in his diary, “but so long as man contains within him a soul, the likeness of his creator, that soul will teach him that it is his right to be free.” If Lee extended these progressive ideals to the abolition of slavery, he did not record it. Twelve years later, he died fighting for the Confederacy at the First Battle of Bull Run.
As more southern students continued to flood into Princeton in the years before the Civil War, an uneasy truce developed around the issue of slavery. James Buchanan Henry and Christian Henry Scharff, both members of the class of 1853, explained the situation from their perspective:
The Northerner and Southerner, the Abolitionist and free-soiler, the Secessionist and States-rights man, lived in perfect harmony, none endeavoring to intrude their peculiar opinions on the others; a man who did so made himself unpopular with one party, and censured by the sensible of the other.
While some students may have suppressed their opinions in the interest of sectional harmony, the anti-abolitionist atmosphere on campus could be stifling. “Politics is the engrossing topic here now,” Henry Kirke White Muse (‘1859) wrote to his father in June 1856. “The Black Republicans and Abolitionists, however, are very few, and have sense enough to keep their principles to themselves.” Others hinted at tensions buried just below the surface. “Got into a discussion of slavery. Had an exciting time,” reported Telfair Hodgson (‘1859) in January 1857. “Nothing desperate happened.”
The façade of friendly disagreement, never more than a convenient fiction, obscured a campus culture that was overwhelmingly hostile toward abolition. Although some students were critical of slavery, they made it clear that immediate emancipation and racial equality were out of the question. In 1843, as rumors spread of British intervention in Texas, the student-run Nassau Monthly published an article attacking abolitionism as a foreign plot. Another article suggested that abolitionists were clinically insane. “Even were the abolition of slavery a thing desirable,” the author wrote, “they most assuredly are not pursuing the proper method to effect it.” In a fictionalized memoir of his experience at Princeton, Mississippian William Mumford Baker (‘1846) accurately captured the attitude of the faculty and students. The name abolitionist, he explained, was synonymous with “Yankee swindler, thief, free-lover, infidel, incendiary, assassin, the inciter to the outraging of helpless women, a something, half madman, half monster, and wholly dedicated to the devil.”
Following the violent outbursts of the 1830s, the question of the abolition of slavery recurred at regular intervals. The American Whig and Cliosophic societies debated the subject throughout the first half of the 19th century and consistently voted against immediate emancipation. In 1850, Texas Congressman David S. Kaufman (‘1833) returned to Princeton to deliver the annual commencement address. Known for his ardent defense of slavery during the Mexican-American War, Kaufman viewed the institution as a positive good. In a rambling harangue, “frequently interrupted by bursts of applause,” he compared abolitionism to communism and atheism and argued that southern slaves were “well fed, well clad, and not overworked.” Former New Jersey Governor William Pennington (‘1813) and future United States President James Buchanan were present for the event, and no doubt added to the gravity of the occasion. Four years later, the satirical Nassau Rake described an incident in which proslavery student Thomas H. Stanton (‘1855) punched antislavery classmate George W. Stuckey (‘1855) in the face.
As the crisis over slavery intensified and partisan rancor reached new heights at the end of the 1850s, the pretense of campus harmony continued to erode. Between 1856 and 1860, the Nassau Rake published at least three short plays poking fun at student abolitionists, suggesting their increasing visibility on campus. In one farce, “Founded on Facts,” New Jersey student Charles Haight (‘1857) pretends to be proslavery until he encounters Mississippi student John M. Parker (‘1857), who challenges his position, and the two march off triumphantly “to wage unceasing war with slavery.” In another play, New Yorker Walter S. Brown (‘1860) gives a speech in support of antislavery settlers in Kansas territory. At the time, the latter group was involved in a bloody conflict with proslavery “Border Ruffians” from Missouri. Incensed by his classmate's militant rhetoric, Missourian James W. Cannon (‘1860) challenges Brown to a duel, which is resolved amicably. In yet another play, tutor Daniel Gregory (‘1857) and student William Morrison (‘1861) ridicule an abolitionist essay composed by William Honeyman (‘1861).
“Pro-Slavery versus Abolitionism,” a short play featuring two members of the class of 1857.
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In October 1859, abolitionist guerilla and Kansas veteran John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Two months later, northern and southern students at Princeton joined together to send a public message. On a Friday evening, “a large procession” gathered in front of the college to celebrate Brown's execution and to denounce antislavery minister Henry Ward Beecher and Republican Senator William Seward. Although chased by the faculty, the group managed to burn Beecher and Seward in effigy. By the start of the Civil War, sectional battle lines were drawn, and anyone from the North was suspect. Student autographs books produced during this period offer a glimpse of the political climate on campus. Using a racial slur for abolitionists, Georgian Edward Neufville (‘1862) bid farewell to Pennsylvanian Thomson McGowan (‘1861). “Although you live in a ‘Bobolitionist’ Country,” Neufville wrote, “still I hope that your life will be passed pleasantly.” The following year, Benjamin Morehouse (‘1862) wrote cryptically about “doctoring” Augustus Armagnac (‘1861), a Haitian immigrant who was suffering from “abolition fever.”
The mounting factionalism was not confined to the undergraduate community. In 1858, Princeton trustee Isaac Van Arsdale Brown (‘1802) published a blistering, book-length critique of fellow trustee Charles Hodge. Contrary to Hodge, Brown argued that slaveholding was a sin, and he offered proof that it was not sanctioned by the Bible. Although Brown remained a forceful proponent of colonization and rejected abolitionism, his intervention marked an unprecedented public dispute between two leaders of the college. Brown published an expanded second edition of his book two years later, but Hodge refused to budge. “Slaveholding is not a crime,” the latter stubbornly insisted in January 1861. As war loomed on the horizon, Hodge accused abolitionists of “tampering with the slaves” and blamed them for causing the secession crisis.
Events at the national level soon rendered the discussion moot. With the conclusion of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, old disputes and antagonisms began to subside. In July 1865, an elated Charles Hodge called the final abolition of slavery “one of the most momentous events in the history of the world.” It was a revolutionary transformation in the nation's economic, political, and social life that many Princetonians had done everything in their power to prevent.
Nick Biddle, essay on slavery, box 124, Nicholas Biddle Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (Washington, DC); Thomas P. Govan, “Nicholas Biddle at Princeton, 1799-1801,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 9 (February 1948): 49-63.
Biddle, essay on slavery, Biddle Papers.
Ibid.; Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 364-365.
“Speech of Mr. Ingersoll,” in The Congressional Globe, containing Sketches of the Debates and Proceedings of the First Session of the Twenty-Seventh Congress, ed. Francis P. Blair and John C. Rives (Washington, DC: Printed at the Globe Office, 1841), appendix, 69-75; Nicholas Biddle to Charles J. Ingersoll, 28 June 1841, folder 2, box 1, Charles Jared Ingersoll Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA). Thanks to Allen Kim for helping me track down this letter.
Govan, “Nicholas Biddle at Princeton,” 52, 54.
For student attacks on black abolitionist minister Theodore Wright in 1836 and an unnamed white abolitionist in 1835, see Joseph Yannielli, “Princeton Students Attempt to Lynch an Abolitionist,” Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed 18 October 2017, slavery.princeton.edu/stories/attempted-lynching; Yannielli, “White Supremacy at the Commencement of 1836,” slavery-dev.princeton.edu/stories/white-supremacy-at-commencement. Sean Wilentz, “Princeton and the Controversies over Slavery,” Journal of Presbyterian History 85 (Fall/Winter 2007): 105.
Advertisement for Cuff, Pennsylvania Chronicle, 12 October to 19 October 1767; letter from Princeton, 28 October 1767, in ibid., 26 October to 2 November 1767; Ralph Ege, Pioneers of Old Hopewell, with Sketches of Her Revolutionary Heroes (Hopewell, NJ: Race & Savidge, 1908), 128-131, 177-178; Joseph Olden to Mary Middleton, 7 March 1802, in the Princeton Press, 28 February 1914; George Morgan, advertisement for Michael Hoy, Pennsylvania Packet, 30 May 1780; Elijah Blackwell, advertisement for Hannah, Trenton Federalist, 8 April 1805.
Samuel Davies, Letters from the Rev. Samuel Davies, &c. (London: R. Pardon, 1757), 28.
John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon, D.D., vol. 7 (Edinburgh: Ogle & Aikman, 1805), 82; Samuel Stanhope Smith, The Lectures, Corrected and Improved, Which Have Been Delivered for a Series of Years, in the College of New Jersey; on the Subjects of Moral and Political Philosophy, vol. 2 (Trenton, NJ: Daniel Fenton, 1812), 177.
Granville Sharp to John Witherspoon, 27 March 1784, Granville Sharp Collection, New-York Historical Society (New York, NY); Granville Sharp, The Just Limitation of Slavery in the Laws of God, Compared with the Unbounded Claims of the African Traders and British American Slaveholders (London: B. White, 1776); Granville Sharp, The Law of Retribution: Or, a Serious Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies, Founded on Unquestionable Examples of God's Temporal Vengeance against Tyrants, Slave-holders, and Oppressors (London: W. Richardson, 1776); Thomas Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African (London: J. Phillips, 1786); Princeton Packet, 11 January 1787; minutes, 27 September 1791, pp. 291-292, vol. 1, Board of Trustees Records (AC120), Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library (Princeton, NJ); John Newton and David Williamson, Political Debate on Christian Principles (Edinburgh: John Ogle, 1793), 4.
Minutes, 23 September 1788, pp. 275-276, vol. 1, Board of Trustees Records (AC120), Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library (Princeton, NJ); Faculty Meetings and Minutes, 13 July 1792, vol. 1, Office of Dean of the Faculty Records (AC118), ibid.; “Bond of John Duryie and Toney to Minto for 200 pounds,” 4 May 1796, folder 8, box 3, Minto-Skelton Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI); John Maclean, History of the College of New Jersey: From Its Origin in 1746 to the Commencement of 1854, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1877), 334; John Bradford Wallace, Valedictory Oration Pronounced at the College of New Jersey on the Graduation of the Class of 1794 (Albany: Munsell, 1874), 10-11; “Commencement,” New York Republican Watch-Tower, 10 October 1809.
Benjamin Rush, An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping (Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1773); Benjamin Rush to Granville Sharp, 29 October 1773, in “The Correspondence of Benjamin Rush and Granville Sharp 1773-1809,” ed. John A. Woods, Journal of American Studies 1 (April 1967): 3; Ronald Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 16-35; Peter C. Messer, “‘A Blessing or a Curse, Depending on How it is Used’: David Ramsay's Presbyterian Antislavery Journey,” in Faith and Slavery in the Presbyterian Diaspora, ed. William Harrison Taylor and Peter C. Messer (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2016), 95-124.
Jonathan Edwards, Jr., The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade, and of the Slavery of the Africans (n.p.: Thomas and Samuel Green, 1791), 24, 36; James McLachlan, Princetonians, 1748-1768: A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 492-496; Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (New York: Viking, 2007), 90-91.
"An ACT to incorporate certain Persons by the Name of The Providence Society for promoting the Abolition of Slavery," June 1790, Moses Brown Papers (MS 930), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries (Amherst, MA); J. Jefferson Looney and Ruth L. Woodward, Princetonians, 1791-1794: A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 333-340; Frank H. Stewart, "Gloucester County Abolition Society," in Stewart's Genealogical and Historical Miscellany, No. 1 (Philadelphia: n.p., 1918), 26-32; James J. Gigantino II, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 77-82.
Fred Lewis Pattee, ed., The Poems of Philip Freneau: Poet of the American Revolution, vol. 2 (Princeton: University Library, 1903), 258-260; David Rice, Slavery Inconsistent with Justice and Good Policy, Proved by a Speech Delivered in the Convention, Held at Danville, Kentucky (Philadelphia: Parry Hall, 1792), 32; Thomas Willing Balch, Balch Genealogica (Philadelphia: Allen, Lane and Scott, 1907), 375-402; Andrew E. Murray, Presbyterians and the Negro – A History (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1966), 15-18, 89-95; Richard B. Drake, A History of Appalachia (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 87.
“Case of Aaron W. Kitchell,” Emancipator, 8 September 1836; Fourth Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society (New York: William S. Dorr, 1837), 88-89.
Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016); Edward B. Rugemer, “Slave Rebels and Abolitionists: The Black Atlantic and the Coming of the Civil War,” Journal of the Civil War Era 2 (June 2012): 179-202; Herbert Aptheker, Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989).
Elias E. Ellmaker, The Revelation of Rights (Columbus, OH: Wright & Legg, 1841), 130, 137-138; W. U. Hensel, “Notes on Amos and Elias E. Ellmaker,” Historical Papers and Addresses of the Lancaster County Historical Society 12 (1908): 175-183; Betty Fladeland, James Gillespie Birney: Slaveholder to Abolitionist (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1955); Reinhard O. Johnson, The Liberty Party, 1840-1848: Antislavery Third-Party Politics in the United States (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009); Cassius M. Clay, The Life of Cassius Marcellus Clay, vol. 1 (Cincinnati, OH: J. Fletcher Brennan & Co., 1886), 26.
Bella Gross, “Life and Times of Theodore S. Wright, 1797-1847,” Negro History Bulletin 3 (June 1940): 133-138, 144; David E. Swift, Black Prophets of Justice: Activist Clergy before the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 47-76; Paul Simon, Freedom’s Champion: Elijah Lovejoy (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994); Lewis C. Gunn to Amos A. Phelps, 16 March 1835, MS A.21 v.5, p.20, Amos A. Phelps Correspondence, Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library (Boston, MA); Anna Lee Marston, ed., Records of a California Family: Journals and Letters of Lewis C. Gunn and Elizabeth Le Breton Gunn (San Diego: n.p., 1928), 4-5; C. Peter Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, vol. 1 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 504n1.
“Letter from Mr. Johnson,” Colored American, 30 January 1841; Obituary for Anthony Simmons, San Francisco Elevator, 20 March 1868; Joseph M. Wilson, The Presbyterian Historical Almanac, and Annual Remembrancer of the Church, for 1862 (Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson, 1862), 191-195; Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Knopf, 1989), 4-8; Gerald Horne, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary (London: Pluto Press, 2016).
“Threats to Assassinate,” Liberator, 10 September 1831.
Lewis C. Gunn to Amos A. Phelps, 16 March 1835, MS A.21 v.5, p.20, Amos A. Phelps Correspondence, Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library (Boston, MA); William H. Hilliard, David Jones, and Paul Blount to William Lloyd Garrison, 30 July 1835, in the Liberator, 8 August 1835; “Anti-Slavery Convention,” Emancipator, 5 September 1839; Gigantino, Ragged Road to Abolition, 225-238.
Gilbert R. McCoy to Gilbert R. Fox,  September 1835, in the Princeton University Library Chronicle 25 (Spring 1964): 231-235; John W. Woods to Marianne Woods, 14 September 1835, folder 10, box 7, John Witherspoon Woods Letters, Student Correspondence and Writings Collection (AC334), Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library (Princeton, NJ); Trenton Emporium & True American, 12 September, 1835.
“Subscription $1000,” folder 5, box 23, Office of the President Records (AC #117), Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library (Princeton, NJ); Proceedings of the New York Anti-Slavery Convention, Held at Utica, October 21, and New York Anti-Slavery State Society, Held at Peterboro’, October 22, 1835 (Utica, NY: Standard & Democrat Office, 1835), 14.
“Shameful Outrage at Princeton, N.J.,” Emancipator, 27 October 1836.
James W. Alexander to John Hall, 3 June 1835 and 10 March 1842, in Forty Years' Familiar Letters of James W. Alexander, vol. 1, ed. John Hall (New York: Charles Scribner, 1860), 228, 352.
Charles Hodge, “Slavery,” Biblical Repertory and Theological Review 8 (April 1836): 270, 271; Hodge, “Abolitionism,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 16 (October 1844): 549; David Torbett, Theology and Slavery: Charles Hodge and Horace Bushnell (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006), 55-114; Paul C. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 156-158, 168-175; James H. Moorhead, “Slavery, Race, and Gender at Princeton Seminary: The Pre-Civil War Era,” Theology Today 69 (October 2012): 274-288.
Charles Hodge, “Emancipation,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 21 (October 1849): 591, 594; Hodge, “Slavery,” 300; Hodge, Essays and Reviews (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857), 473-538; Ebenezer Newton Elliott, Cotton is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments: Comprising the Writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright, on this Important Subject (Augusta, GA: Pritchard, Abbott & Loomis, 1860), 841-877; Supplement to the Princeton Whig, 31 January 1845; Gutjahr, Charles Hodge, 263-266.
James Kendall Lee, Diary, 1848 January 1-1849 June 29, p.97, Mss5:1 L513:1, Virginia Historical Society (Richmond, VA); Edmund Jennings Lee, Lee of Virginia, 1642-1892: Biographical and Genealogical Sketches of the Descendants of Colonel Richard Lee (Philadelphia: Franklin Printing Company, 1895), 553-557.
James Buchanan Henry and Christian Henry Scharff, College as It Is, or the Collegian’s Manual in 1853, ed. J. Jefferson Looney (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Library, 2009), 246; James H. Muse, Correspondence with My Son, Henry Kirk White Muse (New York: John A. Gray, 1858), 134; Telfair Hodgson, “A Notebook of Facts and Gems, 1856,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 8 (February 1947), 82.
Jonathan Townley Crane, “English Strictures on American Slavery,” Nassau Monthly 2 (June 1843): 209-213; “Fanaticism,” Nassau Literary Magazine 16 (December 1855): 127; William Mumford Baker, His Majesty, Myself (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1880), 94.
David S. Kaufman, Address Delivered before the American Whig and Cliosophic Societies of the College of New Jersey (Princeton, NJ: John T. Robinson, 1850), 18; “Commencement of the College of New Jersey,” Trenton State Gazette, 26 June 1850; “Scene from Real Life,” Nassau Rake, 28 June 1854, p.3; Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Princeton, 1746-1896 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 206.
“Pro-Slavery versus Abolitionism,” Nassau Rake, June 1856, pp.59-60; “The Duel,” ibid., 1859, pp.46-49; “The Early Bootlick Gets the Grade!!!,” ibid., June 1860, pp.26-28.
“Effigy-Burning among the Princeton Students,” Richmond Whig, 9 December 1859; McGowan, Thomson, 1861, box 20, Autograph Book Collection (AC040), Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library (Princeton, NJ); Munn, Joseph L., 1862, box 21, ibid.; Wertenbaker, Princeton, 266.
Isaac V. Brown, Slavery Irreconcilable with Christianity and Sound Reason: Or, an Anti-Slavery Argument (Trenton: Charles Scott and Company, 1858); Brown, White Diamonds Better Than “Black Diamonds”: Slave States Impoverished by Slave Labor (Trenton: Murphy & Bechtel, 1860); Charles Hodge, “The State of the Country,” Princeton Review 33 (January 1861): 11, 15.
Charles Hodge, “President Lincoln,” Princeton Review 37 (July 1865): 439; James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperPerennial, 2014).