In the spring of 1766, Samuel Finley, fifth President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), planted two sycamore trees in front of the President’s House, a stone’s throw from Nassau Hall, the only other building on campus. Campus lore claims the trees celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act, and more than two and a half centuries later, those aged trees still frame the old clapboard house, now home to the University’s alumni association. Tour guides point to the towering sycamores as living reminders of the College’s devotion to the Revolutionary cause.[1]

But the guides do not mention what happened at the house just a few months later, after Finley died in July 1766. His executors announced they would sell his possessions: furniture, cattle, books, and “two Negro women, a negro man, and three negro children.” “The Negro Women,” the executors explained, “understand all Kinds of House Work, and the Negro Man is well fitted for the Business of Farming in all its Branches.” The slaves not sold beforehand would be auctioned off on August 19 at the President’s House, beside those two young liberty trees.[2]

Penn Journal Advertiser July 31 1766 P 3 Ad

An advertisement announcing the estate sale of President Samuel Finley, held at the President's House in 1766.

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Princeton University, founded in 1746, exemplifies the central paradox at the heart of American history. From the very start, liberty and slavery were intertwined. The University boasts of being the site of an American victory during the Revolutionary War, and of hosting the Continental Congress in Nassau Hall in 1783. The campus literature fails to note, however, that the first nine presidents of the University, serving until 1854, held slaves at some point in their lives.[3] Early college regulations required prospective students to present themselves to the President for examination before enrolling in the school. For generations of Princeton students, then, the first person they met on campus may have been the enslaved man or woman who answered their knock on the President’s front door. Quite literally, if Nassau Hall provided the storied backdrop of Princeton University, slavery was the face of the school.

More than any other early American college, Princeton was a truly national institution, drawing its students not just from the surrounding mid-Atlantic region, but also from the South. Presbyterian ministers who trained at Princeton during the colonial period spread word of the college to the cotton frontier of the early republic. From there, money and boys flowed to the college in New Jersey. Throughout the antebellum period, even as North and South developed increasingly different views about slavery, on average, nearly 40% of Princeton’s student body came from the slave states, providing crucial financial support for the college’s operations.[4] As one mother in Georgia wrote in 1850, “Princeton of all colleges. . .has long had the preference for our dear boys.”[5] Indeed, in the class of 1851, 63% of Princeton’s students were from slave states.[6]

Student Origins Preview Iii

An interactive map of the origins of Princeton undergraduates, from the class of 1748 to the class of 1865.

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If Princeton embodied the paradoxical connections of liberty and slavery during the Revolutionary era, the institution also exemplified the central tensions of antebellum American life, seeking – in a northern state only mildly antipathetic towards slavery – to maintain a comfortable environment for slaveholders and their sons. Like the nation itself, Princeton struggled to create a center that would embrace northerners and southerners in an oft-uneasy truce. But the tenuous peace at Princeton shattered when the Confederate states seceded in 1861. The southern boys left for home, knowing they might have to take up arms against their former schoolmates from the North. “Don’t let’s shoot each other,” wrote one to a friend from Pennsylvania. “Though your deadly foe in public life I am in private life your friend.”[7]

"Contrary Both to Justice and Humanity"

The Politics of Slavery at Princeton during the Early Republic

Early Princeton students lived within a landscape of slavery. Throughout the colonial period, slaves constituted between 12 and 15 percent of the population of east New Jersey.[8] After the Revolution, the slave populations of Middlesex and Somerset counties – the two counties that bisected the town of Princeton – increased.[9] In 1794, the college formally prohibited students from bringing their own servants to campus.[10] Nevertheless, students did not have to wander far from Nassau Hall to encounter slaves.[11] Although New Jersey passed in 1804 an act for the gradual abolition of slavery, the state was painfully slow to relinquish the institution. There were 7,557 slaves in New Jersey in 1820 and still 236 slaves remaining in 1850.[12] In 1865, New Jersey became the only state in the North to vote against the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery.

Although no evidence yet suggests that Princeton students brought their own slaves to campus during the colonial or early national periods, the students regularly encountered enslaved people delivering wood to their rooms, working in town, or laboring in the fields of the privately owned farm adjacent to the campus.[13] They also crossed paths with the slaves who resided at the President’s House, even after New Jersey passed the 1804 act for the gradual abolition of slavery. For example, shortly after moving to Princeton in 1813, Ashbel Green, the college’s eighth president, purchased a 12-year-old named John and an 18-year-old named Phoebe to work as servants in the House. Although Phoebe and John’s birth years (approximately 1794 and 1801) denied them a right to freedom under the state’s 1804 gradual emancipation act, they may have made an informal arrangement with their new master. Ashbel Green wrote in his diary that he would free them each at the age of twenty-five, or twenty-four “if they served me to my entire satisfaction.”[14] In the meantime, in 1817, he manumitted another one of his slaves, Betsey Stockton, who went on to a remarkable career as a missionary in Hawaii and as a teacher in a school for Black children in Princeton.[15]

Portrait Of Betsey Stockton

Photograph of Betsey Stockton, a former slave who served as a missionary and teacher in the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii).

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Yet, within this landscape of slavery, Princeton during its first 75 years produced a staggering number of leaders of the American clergy, military, and government, many of whom were “antislavery” in the sense that they disapproved of slavery and sought to abolish the institution.[16] The venerated Dr. Benjamin Rush (Class of 1760) and the theologian Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (Class of 1765) provided crucial moral leadership during the North’s transition into the “free states.” As Edwards wrote in 1791, “You. . .to whom the present blaze of light as to this subject has reached, cannot sin at so cheap a rate as our fathers."[17] Edwards meant “our fathers” literally. His own father, Jonathan Edwards, Sr. had been a slaveholder, and Princeton’s third president.

Antislavery members of the Princeton community proved particularly active during the so-called “First Emancipation”—the period from the Revolution though the early 19th century when northern states passed laws for the gradual abolition of slavery, the United States abolished the foreign slave trade, and many slaveholders emancipated their slaves. John Witherspoon provided the intellectual underpinnings for this antislavery sentiment at Princeton. Witherspoon emigrated from Scotland in 1768 to become the college’s sixth president. During his 26-year tenure, Princeton became a primary conduit for the diffusion of Scottish moral-philosophical thought, which, in the words of Margaret Abruzzo, emphasized “both human benevolence and sympathy as the foundations of all morality.” Although Witherspoon owned slaves, his teachings gave a generation of students “a language for challenging slavery.”[18]

Peale Charles Willson John Witherspoon 1723 1794 President 1768 94

Portrait of John Witherspoon, Princeton's sixth president.

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Witherspoon became a political role model for his students. Almost from the start, he criticized the British for encroaching upon American rights, and he later signed the Declaration of Independence and served in the Continental Congress. The Princeton community followed the president’s lead. “No other college in North America,” writes the historian John Murrin, “was so nearly unanimous in support of the Patriot cause. Trustees, faculty, and nearly all alumni and students rallied to the Revolution in a colony fiercely divided by these issues.”[19] As the site of a battle in 1777 and temporary home for the Congress of the United States in 1783, Princeton emerged from the Revolution distinctly aligned with national concerns, and the institution consciously and proudly linked its own success to that of the American republic.[20]

The college’s close identification with the republic came with added responsibility. “With such a stake in the new government,” writes historian Mark Noll, “the spirits of Princeton officials rose and fell with the perceived health of the nation.”[21] Witherspoon’s successor, Samuel Stanhope Smith (Class of 1769), taught his students that slavery posed a particularly dire threat to the nation’s spiritual, moral, and political well-being. Like his six predecessors, Smith was – or had been – a slaveholder. In 1784 he advertised to sell or trade a young slave, “well acquainted with the business of a plantation, and used to taking care of horses.”[22]

Smith nonetheless became an important, if sometimes eccentric, critic of racism and slavery in the early United States. In his 1787 treatise titled an “Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species,” he posited that racial differences stemmed from nothing more than climate. Later, in 1812, he argued against the ancient Aristotelian notion that civilized nations had a natural right to wage war on barbarians to enslave prisoners, and contended instead that such forms of enslavement constituted “the most unjust title of all to the servile subjection of the human species.” He asserted that “To reduce [prisoners of war] to slavery is contrary both to justice and humanity.” He also noted that “men deceive themselves continually by false pretenses, in order to justify the slavery which is convenient for them.”[23]

However, Smith stopped well short of calling for the immediate abolition of American slavery. “No event,” he exclaimed, “can be more dangerous to a community than the sudden introduction into it of vast multitudes of persons, free in their condition, but without property, and possessing only habits and vices of slavery.” Smith also doubted that the state had the right to compel slaveholders to give up their property. “Neither justice nor humanity,” he wrote, “requires that [a] master, who has become the innocent possessor of that property, should impoverish himself for the benefit of the slave.” As an alternative, Smith floated a few ideas to both encourage voluntary manumission and diminish racial prejudice, including one plan to assign a “district out of the unappropriated lands of the United States, in which each Black freedman, or freedwoman, shall receive a certain portion.” He then proposed that “every white man who should marry a black woman, and every white woman who should marry a black man, and reside within the territory, might be entitled to a double portion of the land.” Smith hoped that such interracial marriages would “bring the two races nearer together, and, in a course of time. . .obliterate those wide distinctions which are now created by diversity of complexion.”[24]

Samuel Stanhope Smith Portrait

Portrait of Samuel Stanhope Smith, Princeton's seventh president.

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Smith’s views on race and slavery helped shape those of his students. According to William Birney, the son of James G. Birney (Class of 1810), Smith had “great influence over his pupil, an influence perceptible for many years.” The elder Birney eventually manumitted his slaves and became an important champion of the abolitionist movement. William Birney wrote that Smith had “a deep interest in all questions touching slavery and the African race” and “taught his pupils that men are of one blood, and that slavery is wrong morally and an evil politically.” Indeed, his father kept Smith’s works on his bookshelf – alongside those of the famed British abolitionists James Ramsay and Thomas Clarkson – even though Smith himself believed there could be “no remedy [to slavery] except in voluntary manumissions by masters.”[25]

During Smith’s administration (1795-1812), Princeton produced many graduates who sought a solution to the moral and political problems associated with slavery. Unlike Birney, most dismissed the thought of immediate abolition and refused to question the property rights of slaveholders. Nevertheless, they contributed to the pro-reform discourse during the early republic, which, in turn, set the stage for the rise of the abolitionist movement. For example, in 1816, Smith’s pupil Charles Fenton Mercer (Class of 1797), a slaveholder from Virginia, organized the American movement to colonize free Black people. Mercer did not invent the idea of colonization.[26] But he latched onto it because, like Smith, he worried that emancipated slaves were a drain on public resources and a threat to social order. Mercer echoed Smith’s fear that racism would prevent African Americans from assimilating into white society.[27] But while Smith proposed sending them to the western frontier, Mercer wanted to send them to Africa.

Mercer considered his time at Princeton to be his personal “Golden Age.”[28] He remained active in the college community throughout his life, and enlisted Princeton associates in his endeavor to colonize free Black people. In 1816, he asked Elias B. Caldwell (Class of 1796) to pitch the colonization idea to his brother-in-law, Rev. Robert Finley (Class of 1787), director of the Princeton Theological Seminary. Finley supported colonization because he believed that slaveholders would be more willing to manumit their slaves if they could then send them away far away. With that in mind, Mercer, Caldwell, Finley, and their friend John Randolph—a statesman from Virginia who had briefly attended Princeton—organized the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour of the United States (also known as the American Colonization Society or the ACS). Attorney General, Richard Rush (Class of 1797), attended the first meeting. Like his father, Benjamin Rush, he, too, sought a solution to the slavery problem.

In effect, Princeton was Ground Zero for the colonization movement in the United States. The college’s support for the movement drew other Princeton affiliates into the ACS’s effort to colonize free Black people and suppress the African slave trade. Members of the Princeton community helped arrange for Lt. Robert F. Stockton – the scion of Princeton’s most illustrious family – to receive command of a new cruiser that the Navy planned to use in its campaign against the African slave trade. Stockton conducted two tours of the African coast. In addition to suppressing the African slave trade, he personally negotiated on behalf of the ACS the purchase of a 130-mile long and 40-mile wide swathe of coastline. This land would form the basis of Liberia, the American colony for free Black migrants.[29]

Ultimately, Stockton became the president of New Jersey’s chapter of the ACS, unsurprisingly based in Princeton. However, the real steward of the ACS in New Jersey was a young professor at Princeton named John Maclean, Jr., who had graduated from the college in 1816. Maclean took a deep and abiding interest in colonization. As a northern clergyman, he sought a vehicle to encourage voluntary manumissions, protect society from an influx of newly-freed African Americans, spread Christianity to Africa, and suppress the African slave trade. But Maclean could also empathize with the reluctance of slaveholders to part with their property. His own father, Princeton’s first chemistry professor, had died in 1814 while in possession of two slaves: a girl named Sal and a boy named Charles.[30]

Maclean’s interest in the colonization movement dovetailed with his attachment to Princeton. He dedicated his life to the college, rising through the ranks to become its tenth president in 1854, and throughout his long career sought to promote harmony between the northern and southern members of his beloved community. Princeton’s close affiliation with the ACS seemed useful and beneficial. After all, the ACS allowed members of the college community to demonstrate their distaste for slavery, without having to call for its abolition. “Humanity and justice,” exclaimed Samuel Southard of New Jersey (Class of 1804), “exult in the belief, that the gradual emancipation of the slave, and the restoration of the free to the land of their fathers, may yet afford a remedy [to the evil of slavery].”[31]

Portrait Of John Maclean

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

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In the long-run, though, Princeton could not depend on the colonization movement to mediate the conflicting desires of slaveholders and non-slaveholders. During the 1830s, a new generation of abolitionists began to call for the immediate abolition of slavery. Consequently, the colonization movement came under pressure both from those who called for the slaves to be freed, and from the increasingly defensive slaveholders who responded that slavery was actually a positive good for society, rather than a necessary evil. Abolitionists abandoned the ACS and slaveholders became suspicious of the colonization movement, which had tacitly encouraged voluntary manumissions. This polarization sapped the popularity of the ACS, especially in conservative areas like Princeton. “The New Jersey Col. Society is at a low ebb,” wrote one ACS member to Maclean in 1842. “The gentlemen from Princeton,” he added, “appear wholly to have neglected it.”[32] Instead, the Princeton gentlemen were becoming more concerned with abolitionism, which, in their view, now constituted a greater threat than slavery to the survival of their beloved republic. Maclean, Vice President of the college during the 1830s and 40s, found himself presiding over an increasingly conservative institution.

"The College of the Union"

The Politics of Slavery at Princeton during the Late Antebellum Period

On May 9, 1848, Henry Craft sat down to write in his diary. The 25-year-old from Holly Springs, Mississippi, had come to the college just a few months earlier to study law.[33] He spent some time that day with Daniel Baker, an undergraduate from his hometown. Baker was an aspiring minister, who sought a post in New England. But he was anxious about working in a region that held “erroneous opinions & prejudices” regarding slavery.[34] As Craft confided in his diary: "We think almost all slaveholders look upon the institution as an evil, a curse to the country & would gladly blot it out could any feasible plan be devised, but in complete destitution of any such plan think that the evil is a necessary one & should be made as tolerable as possible."[35] As Southerners, Baker argued, they ought to defend slavery and “give any information in [their] power.”[36]

The increasing sectional conflict during the late antebellum period presented a special dilemma for Princeton where a significant number of students still came from the slaveholding states. In essence, the college faced the same persistent challenge as the United States itself: the challenge of preserving a community of both slaveholders and non-slaveholders. The university’s location in New Jersey magnified the problem. Some southern parents worried about exposing their sons to abolitionism. “I am anxious to know all about Princeton before I consent to give you up to the Institution for the formation of your character,” wrote one father in Louisiana to his son in 1856. “If there be. . .[a] strong. . .abolition feeling there,” he clarified, “I should not desire you to remain in it.”[37] And for many students, from both North and South, the town of Princeton’s sizeable free Black community challenged their preconceived views. In 1850, Charles C. Jones, Jr. of Georgia wrote to his parents that the Negro Sons of Temperance had paraded through town. “It was a strange sight to those of us who were from the slave states,” he noted.[38] Similarly, a student from Pennsylvania reported to his mother in 1851 that “there are more niggers here than ever I saw in one town before. They have more impudence, too.”[39]

College administrators sought to make their southern students and slaveholding patrons feel welcome. In 1835, the trustees turned down an offer of $1,000 – a tremendous sum at the time – if the college would admit students “irrespective of color.”[40] Members of the faculty, including the acclaimed theologian Charles Hodge, reassured their southern students that the Bible sanctioned slavery. Others made no secret of their sympathies for the South. Jones raved about the “truly southern” chemistry Professor Richard Sears McCulloch (Class of 1836), who would later attempt to build a chemical weapon for the Confederacy.[41] And he praised John Maclean, Jr., then the college’s vice president, for being “more of one of our regular hospitable Southern gentlemen than almost any other person with whom I have met.”[42]

During the 1830s, 40s and 50s, Princeton became increasingly conservative on the subject of slavery. “Whilst I was a student at Nassau Hall,” recalled Edward W. Smith of Alabama (Class of 1848), “the political elements that existed there seemed to be entirely conservative, and friendly to the South, and no prejudice to all external appearances, existed in the minds of educated and thoughtful men, in that locality, against our institutions.”[43] In 1851, Jones also conveyed to his parents that Princeton was “Very good for the Empire State of the South.” He noted that he and his friends had “established a Georgia table in the refectory, and enjoy a sociable meal among ourselves, served à la mode Jersey but eaten Georgia fashion, spiced with Georgia interchange of feeling.”[44] To maintain this intersectional harmony, most of the students – northerners and southerners alike – avoided discussion of slavery. “There is also one subject in particular on which your letters would be read with pleasure by parents at the South generally, and that is the subject of slavery and non-slavery being alike excluded from Princeton,” said one father in Louisiana to his son in 1856.[45]

Indeed, students focused less on the nation’s peculiar institution than on threats to the status quo. As Henry Craft wrote, “our experience is that the most fanatical on both sides are the most ignorant.”[46] Abolitionists, in particular, raised the students’ ire. In 1835, John Witherspoon Woods (Class of 1837), the grandson of President Witherspoon, wrote to his mother that 60 of his fellow students nearly lynched an abolitionist. The students “went down to a negro man’s house, where they heard this Abolitionist was holding a meeting. . .& taking the fellow by the arms asked him to come along with them.” The abolitionist “refused & told them to stand off, for he had the law on his side & that he would make use of it.” The students retorted that “they had Lynch law which was sufficient for them.” They proceeded to burn the abolitionist’s subscription paper and force him “to run for his life” out of town.[47] Southern students also attempted to impose their own notions of racial superiority on Princeton’s relatively sizable free Black community. In 1846, two southern students – Grenville Peirce and Jerry Taylor – instigated a brawl between southern and northern students when they sought retribution against a local Black man who had scuffled with them on the street two days earlier. One student recorded in his diary that the Black man was ultimately “recaptured—taken out & whipped within an inch of his Life.” And such violence, he added, elicited “the silent Satisfaction of all the arrayed Collegians from the South!”[48]

On that occasion, John Maclean, Jr. – a longtime professor and administrator of the college – tried to keep the southern students from disturbing the peace in Princeton. In general, though, Princeton’s administrators encouraged the notion that abolitionism – and not slavery – posed the most pressing threat to the preservation of peace, both at the local and the national level. In 1850, they invited U.S. Representative David Kaufman of Texas (Class of 1833) to give a commencement speech. Kaufman spent much of his hour and a half-long address warning the students to “beware of demagogues in the guise of Abolitionists.” He called them “murderers and dis-unionists,” who threatened the very existence of American life. “Abolish slavery,” he exclaimed, “and after that the same men would abolish the Bible.”[49]

Kaufman Whig And Clio Address

A pro-slavery address delivered by David S. Kaufman (Class of 1833) at commencement in 1850.

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To keep the peace during a period of mounting sectional tensions over slavery, the Princeton community agreed to disagree. As one proslavery student wrote to an antislavery friend in 1860: "Though politically we differ, and each has tried to convince the other that the Constitution does not & does recognize ‘property in men,’ yet in the broad platform of the Union I think we meet."[50] Some students even boasted of their tolerance for political pluralism. In 1856, Henry Kirk White Muse of Louisiana informed his father that “politics is the engrossing topic here now, and we have every class: Southern Fire-eaters, ultra-Democrats, Black Republicans, Abolitionists, old line Whigs, etc.” This type of tolerance had its limits, though. “The Black Republicans and abolitionists,” Muse assured, “are very few, and have sense enough to keep their principles to themselves.”[51]

Princetonians promoted their community as an example for the broader American public. In one letter to his father, Muse reported that Yale – an institution of “abolition higher lawism” – had allowed the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher to encourage students to take up arms against slaveholders. “Be sure,” Muse wrote, “that such a thing could never take place at Nassau Hall.” He then added:

Let the Southerners come here. I believe that old Princeton College is THE College, not the college of the South, nor of the North, but the college of the Union.[52]

Muse may have been right about Princeton. As the Union began to rupture in November 1860, Maclean – now the president – sent a letter to the editors of the Central Presbyterian in Virginia, scolding them for contributing irresponsibly to the “unhappy excitement existing in some of the Southern states” by reprinting inflammatory excerpts from northern newspapers. Maclean assured the editors that the people of the North were not clamoring for conflict. “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 sectional impartiality, Maclean then added: “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.”[53]

But “the college of the Union” could not remain intact without the Union itself. When the Union crumbled in 1861, the college community divided, too. Having endeavored for so long to make southerners feel at home in Princeton, President Maclean could only advise his students to follow their hearts in picking sides. “Remember Dr. McLean’s advice to us when he spoke of the present agitation in our country,” wrote one member of the class of 1861 to another. “He bid us [to] decide for ourselves which was right & then go in calmly yet manfully & support our opinion at all cost.”[54] With such advice in mind, southern students in 1861 began writing after their signatures “CSA” – the new abbreviation for the Confederate States of America.

The Politics of Memory

Princeton’s antebellum distinctiveness as a northern institution seeking a middle ground on slavery that would placate both southern and northern students did not end with the peace at Appomattox. The Civil War monument in the entry foyer of Nassau Hall preserves in marble the school’s middle path, testifying to a distinctive strain of reconciliationist memory that celebrated brotherly sacrifice over politics or moral causes, and denied the very real differences over the institution of slavery that once divided North and South, not to mention the college community.[55]

The northern universities honored their Civil War dead in different ways. In 1866, Brown University dedicated a tablet honoring its 21 Union dead. Harvard dedicated its monumental Memorial Hall, inscribed with the names of the school’s 176 Union dead, in 1874. Both memorials excluded the Confederate dead in a post-war effort to honor the political and moral meaning of the Union cause. But Civil War memory shifted over time. Yale dedicated its Civil War Memorial in 1915, a half-century after the war’s end. It included the names of both the Union and Confederate dead, with each student’s name appearing with his military affiliation and rank, as well as his place of death. The sacrifice of Confederate soldiers became the moral equivalent to the sacrifice by the men who died for the Union cause.

At Princeton University, which saw more than 600 of her sons enlist for military duty during the Civil War, the erasure of history would be even more complete. The original plans for the University’s Civil War memorial carved in 1921-22 called for the students to be grouped by their Union or Confederate affiliation. But University President John Grier Hibben rejected this plan: “No, the names shall be placed alphabetically, and no one shall know on which side these young men fought.”[56] The resulting memorial may be the only one in the nation to list the dead from both sides, without indicating the cause for which they died. Well into the 20th century, then, Princeton sought to remain a congenial home for northerners and southerners alike, emphasizing the sacrifice that drew its students together rather than the politics that pushed them apart.

Princeton Civil War Memorial

Photograph of the Civil War Memorial in Nassau Hall.

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Meanwhile, far away from campus, Princeton employed the politics of memory in order to regain its reputation as a welcoming oasis in the North for white southerners. In 1924, the University held its Biennial Convention of the Princeton Alumni Association in Atlanta, where the members promoted the University’s longstanding connections with the South. They donated $1,000 toward the construction of the Confederate monument on Stone Mountain and enjoyed a tour of the site. The Trenton Sunday Times noted that Gutzon Borglum, the famous sculptor of the monument, had received an honorary degree from the University. The newspaper also remarked that the Alumni Association’s generous “tribute” to the new Confederate monument could be considered “a memorial to the association of Princeton, from its beginning, with the South, for in antebellum days the sons of Southern families were numerously represented at the old college of New Jersey.” Many of Princeton’s southern students “gave their lives for the lost cause.” Robert E. Lee himself, the primary subject of the Stone Mountain monument, was closely connected with Princeton, too, through his father Henry Lee III (Class of 1773).[57]

Not surprisingly, the representatives from Princeton who attended the meeting also took the opportunity to assure southerners of the University’s commitment to sectional reconciliation. In a radio address broadcast from Atlanta, President Hibben stated proudly: “It might be of interest to draw attention to the fact that on the memorial tablet in Nassau Hall, our oldest college building, in memory of Princeton men who died in the Civil War, we have placed the names of men of the North and of the South in alphabetical order, indicating that they are all united without distinction in our memory.”[58] In failing, at that particular moment, to grapple as an institution with the larger meanings of the Civil War, Princeton University once again proved itself a mirror to a nation that even now has not fully reckoned with the legacy of slavery.

About the AuthorsPanel Toggle

Martha A. Sandweiss, Professor of History at Princeton University, is the founder and director of the Princeton & Slavery Project. Her work focuses on western American history, visual culture, and race. Her many publications include Print the Legend: Photography in the American West (2002) and Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (2009). She is also the editor of Photography in Nineteenth-Century America (1991) and co-editor of The Oxford History of the American West (1994). Before coming to Princeton in 2009, she taught at Amherst College, and worked as a museum curator and director.

View all stories by Martha A. Sandweiss »

Craig Hollander is an Associate 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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This essay grows out of research done for the Princeton and Slavery Project, a research effort based in an undergraduate research seminar and begun in 2012. The authors are grateful to the Princeton University Humanities Council for its generous support of the project.

ReferencesPanel Toggle


John Maclean, Jr., History of the College of New Jersey, From its Origin in 1746 to the Commencement of 1854, Vol. I (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1877), 263. The original President’s House is now known as Maclean House. Close examination of College records suggests that although the tree planting roughly coincided with the repeal of the Stamp Act, the project had been planned earlier.


“To be Sold,” Pennsylvania Journal, July 31, 1766, P. 3.


Jonathan Dickinson (president in 1747) purchased an enslaved girl named Genny in Elizabethtown in 1733. Bill of Sale reproduced in Familiar Letters to a Gentleman, Upon a Variety of Seasonable and Important Subjects in Religion (Edinburgh: William Gray, 1757), 443.

Aaron Burr Sr. (1748-57) purchased an enslaved man named Caesar in 1756, shortly before moving into the President’s House in Princeton. Bill of Sale reproduced in Milton Meltzer, Slavery: A World History (Boston: Da Capo, 1993).

Jonathan Edwards (1758) owned several slaves from the 1730s through the 1750s, including Venus (purchased in 1731), Leah (who lived in his household in 1736), Rose (who lived in the household in 1751), and Titus (listed in Edwards’s 1753 will). Full text of “Receipt for Slave Venus” reprinted in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 296-297; Kenneth P. Minkema, “Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” The Massachusetts Historical Review, Vol. 4 (2002).

Samuel Davies (1759-61) owned at least two slaves while living and working as a minister in Hanover, Virginia. The only extant evidence for his slaveholding comes from a 1755 sermon in which Davies addressed the enslaved members of his congregation and said: “you may ask my own negroes whether I treat them kindly or no.” Samuel Davies, Sermons on Important Subjects, by the Late Reverend and Pious Samuel Davies, A.M. Some Time President of the College in New Jersey (Boston: Lincoln & Edmands, 1810), 126.

Samuel Finley (1761-66) owned several slaves while living in Princeton. After Finley’s death in 1766, his executors advertised the sale six of his slaves (two women, one man, and three children) along with other property; the sale took place at the President’s House. No Headline, The New York Mercury (New York, NY), August 4, 1766, p. 3. See also:

John Witherspoon (1768-94) owned slaves at his country home of “Tusculum,” near Princeton, including a “body servant” whose duties included driving Witherspoon into town. After Witherspoon’s death in 1794, an inventory of his estate listed two slaves. The Princeton Book: A Series of Sketches Pertaining to the History, Organization, and Present Condition of the College of New Jersey (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), accessed March 28, 2017, John Witherspoon Records, 1772-1996; Biographical Information; Office of the President Records: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup; Box 2; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Samuel Stanhope Smith (1795-1812) owned at least one slave while living in Princeton, a farm hand Smith wished to sell or exchange in 1784 for “a servant accustomed to cooking and waiting in a genteel family.” “To Be Sold,” New Jersey Gazette, March 30, 1784.

Ashbel Green (1812-22) owned or hired at least three enslaved people who can be identified by name. Betsey Stockton, whom Green manumitted in 1817, had been given to his wife Elizabeth Stockton as a gift. In 1813, Green recorded in his diary that he “purchased the time” of a twelve-year-old boy named John and an eighteen-year-old girl named Phoebe. Diary; 1790 June 14-1800 February 21; Princeton University Library Collection of Ashbel Green Materials; Box 1 Folder 1; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

James Carnahan (1823-54) owned two slaves under the age of fourteen in 1820, while living in Georgetown; in each federal census from 1830 to 1850, Carnahan’s household included various “free colored persons” working as servants. 1820, 1830, and 1840 Federal Census, accessed March 21, 2017,

Philip Lindsley, acting president between Ashbel Green’s and James Carnahan’s terms as president, also owned slaves; in 1830, after moving to Tennessee, the federal census recorded three enslaved people (one man and two women) in his household. 1830 Federal Census, accessed March 28, 2017,


By comparison, Harvard averaged 8% and Yale averaged 11%. For more information, see: Margaret Abruzzo, “A Humane Master—An Obliging Neighbor—A True Philanthropist: Slavery, Cruelty, and Moral Philosophy,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 66 (Spring 2009): 493-512.


Mary Jones to Charles Colcock Jones, June 5, 1850; Robert Manson Myers, A Georgian at Princeton (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 24.


Researchers for the Princeton and Slavery Project cross-referenced three different sources – the University’s Alumni Files, the Non-Graduate Card Index, and the printed editions of the Annual Catalogues – in order to determine the number of southern students. Each of these sources contains significant gaps, as well as contradicting and otherwise incorrect information. We therefore estimate our margin of error to be about 8%. For more information about our methodology, see the “Student Origins Exhibit” on the Princeton and Slavery website.


Henry A. Stinnecke to Winfield S. Purviance; Purviance, Winfield; 1861; Autograph Book Collection; Box 20; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


James J. Gigantino II, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865 (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 17.


Ibid., 68. Mercer County, where Princeton is located, was not founded until 1838.


Laws of the College of New Jersey; Revised, Amended and Adopted by the Board of Trustees (Princeton: Printed by John T. Robinson, 1851), 24.


William Birney, the son of James G. Birney (class of 1810) wrote that his father could not, as a college student, avoid the subject of slavery because “it was. . .daily suggested by the presence of slaves who swept the corridors of the dormitories.” (William Birney, James G. Birney and His Times: The Genesis of the Republican Party With Some Account of Abolition Movements in the South Before 1828 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890), 28.) But there is actually no evidence that the college itself ever owned slaves or even rented enslaved workers. It is possible, though, that the college occasionally hired contractors who used slave labor. For instance, during the late 1780s, George Morgan, the owner of the Prospect Farm next to campus, hired a free Black man named Cezar Trent to cut wood for the students at the College. Trent was a slaveholder, who might have used his enslaved workers to complete this job. And there is no doubt that the college employed former slaves. In his autobiography, Samuel I. Prime recalled that his father, Nathaniel Scudder Prime (class of 1804), had befriended a young servant named Peter Scudder, “who had been a slave in the Scudder family of Princeton.” Samuel Prime then met Peter Scudder in Princeton years later. (Samuel Irenaeus Prime, Wendell Prime (ed.), Autobiography and Memorials (New York: Anson D.F. Randolph & Company, 1888), 9-11.).


Census for 1820 (Washington: Printed by Gales & Seaton, 1821), 71. The Seventh Census of the United States: 1850. . .(Washington: Robert Armstrong, Public Printer, 1853), 136.


Donated to the college in 1878, this farmland became the site of Prospect House, which served as the residence of the university president between 1879 and 1968.


Diary; 1790 June 14-1800 February 21; Princeton University Library Collection of Ashbel Green Materials, Box 1 Folder 1; Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


There are several secondary sources about Betsey Stockton, including: John A. Andrew III, “Betsey Stockton: Stranger in a Strange Land,” Journal of Presbyterian History 52 No. 2 (Summer 1974): 157-166; Karen A. Johnson, Undaunted Courage and Faith: The Lives of Three Black Women in the West and Hawaii in the Early 19th Century,” The Journal of African American History 19, No. 1 (Winter 2006): 4-22; and Eileen F. Moffett, “Betsey Stockton: Pioneer American Missionary,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 19, No. 2 (April 1995): 71-76.


After Princeton published a Triennial Catalogue in 1863, a newspaper reported that a total of 3,980 students had graduated from the college since its founding. Among those alumni, 748 had entered the ministry, 379 had earned a doctorate in medicine, 100 had served in the U.S. House of Representatives, 48 had served in the U.S. Senate, 31 had been state governors, 6 had been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, two had been elected vice president, and one had been elected president (James Madison). For more of these figures, see: “College of New Jersey,” The Daily Age (Philadelphia, PA), November 28, 1863, P. 1.


Jonathan Edwards, Jr., The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave-Trade, and the Slavery of the Africans (New Haven: Printed by John Carter, 1791), 27.


Abruzzo, 500-501.


John Murrin, "Preface," in Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Princeton, 1746-1896 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946; rev. 1996), xxi.


Mark A. Noll, Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822: The Search for a Christian Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1989), 81.


Ibid., 91.


“To Be Sold,” The New Jersey Gazette (Trenton, New Jersey), April 13, 1784, P. 1.


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. II (Trenton: Daniel Fenton, 1812), 165, 168.


Ibid., 172, 171, 176-177. For more information about Samuel Stanhope Smith’s views on race, see: Nicholas Guyatt, “Samuel Stanhope Smith: Was Princeton’s Seventh President a Bigot, a Progressive, or Both?” Princeton Alumni Weekly Vol. 116, No. 12 (May 11, 2016).


William Birney, James G. Birney and His Times: The Genesis of the Republican Party With Some Account of Abolition Movements in the South Before 1828 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890), 26, 27.


Several American leaders – including Samuel Hopkins, Ezra Stiles, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe – had already toyed with the idea of colonizing Black people. Jefferson had even inquired whether the United States could send them to the British colony of Sierra Leone. For more information, see: Allan Yarema, The American Colonization Society: An Avenue to Freedom? (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006), 5.


For a thorough examination into Mercer’s reasoning, see: Douglas R. Egerton, “‘Its Origin Is Not a Little Curious’: A New Look at the American Colonization Society,” Journal of the Early Republic 5, No. 4 (Winter 1985): 463-480.


Douglas R. Egerton, Charles Fenton Mercer and the Trial of National Conservatism (Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi, 1989), 31.


R. John Brockmann, Commodore Robert F. Stockton, 1795-1866: Protean Man for a Protean Nation (Amherst, New York: Cambria Press, 2009), 58.


Inventory, John Maclean, Sr; 1814; John Maclean, Jr. Papers; Box 4, Folder 11; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


Samuel Southard, “Address Delivered Before the Newark Mechanics’ Association, July 5, 1830,” (Newark: Printed by W. Tuttle & Co., 1830), 25.


William Halsey to John Maclean, Jr., October 24, 1842, p. 1; Papers 3: American Colonization Society; 1820-1849; Office of the President Records: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup; Box 23, Folder 6; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


Princeton had a Department of Law between 1847 and 1852.


The Diary of Henry Craft, May 9, 1848, Stephen Berry (ed.), Princes of Cotton: Four Diaries of Young Men in the South, 1848-1860 (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2007), 445.


Berry, 445.




J. H. Muse to Henry Kirk White Muse, July 1856, J. H. Muse (ed.), Correspondence With My Son, Henry Kirk White Muse: Embracing Some Brief Memorials of his Character, and Essays from his Pen, Whilst a Student at Princeton College, New-Jersey (New York: John A. Gray, Printer, 1858), 160.


Charles C. Jones, Jr. to Mrs. and Rev. C. C. Jones, September 16, 1850, Robert Manson Myers, A Georgian at Princeton (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 88.


John Beatty Kyle to Mary Kyle, February 12, 1851, p. 1; John Beatty Kyle Letters; 1850-1851; Student Correspondence and Writings Collection; Box 5, Folder 2; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


Papers 2: Alumni Association of Nassau Hall; 1820-1879; Office of the President Records: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup; Box 23, Folder 5; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


Charles C. Jones, Jr. to Mary Jones, June 17, 1851, Robert Manson Myers, A Georgian at Princeton (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 191.


Charles C. Jones, Jr. to Mary Jones and Charles Colcock Jones, October 9, 1851; Robert Manson Myers, 232. Similarly, Edward Wall (class of 1848) remembered that Maclean’s “character was so well known and he was so popular in the South, that it was said of him during the Civil War, that he could have gone any where [sic] in the Confederacy unchallenged.” (Edward Wall, Reminiscences of Princeton College, 1845-1848 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1914), 7.)


Edward W. Smith to John Maclean, Jr., April 28, 1861, p. 1; Series 1: Correspondence; 1794-1892; John Maclean, Jr. Papers, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


Charles C. Jones, Jr. to Mrs. and Rev. C. C. Jones, August 9, 1851, Robert Manson Myers, A Georgian at Princeton (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 215.


J. H. Muse to Henry Kirk White Muse, March 13, 1856, J. H. Muse (ed.), Correspondence With My Son, Henry Kirk White Muse: Embracing Some Brief Memorials of his Character, and Essays from his Pen, Whilst a Student at Princeton College, New-Jersey (New York: John A. Gray, Printer, 1858), 94-95.


The Diary of Henry Craft, May 9, 1848, Stephen Berry (ed.), Princes of Cotton: Four Diaries of Young Men in the South, 1848-1860 (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2007), 445-446.


John Witherspoon Woods to Mrs. Marianne Woods, September 14, 1835, p. 2; John Witherspoon Woods Letters; 1835-1838; Student Correspondence and Writings Collection; Box 7, Folder 10; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


John Robert Buhler, “My Microscope,” entry dated February 1, 1846.


“Correspondence for the State Gazette Commencement of the College of New Jersey Princeton, June 25,” State Gazette (Trenton, NJ), June 26, 1850, P. 2.


James J. Coale to James M. Ludlow; Ludlow, James M; 1861; Autograph Book Collection; Box 20; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


J. H. Muse to Henry Kirk White Muse, March 13, 1856, J. H. Muse (ed.), Correspondence With My Son, Henry Kirk White Muse: Embracing Some Brief Memorials of his Character, and Essays from his Pen, Whilst a Student at Princeton College, New-Jersey (New York: John A. Gray, Printer, 1858), 134.


Henry Kirk White Muse to J. H. Muse, April 5, 1856, J. H. Muse (ed.), Correspondence With My Son, Henry Kirk White Muse: Embracing Some Brief Memorials of his Character, and Essays from his Pen, Whilst a Student at Princeton College, New-Jersey (New York: John A. Gray, Printer, 1858), 113-114.


John Maclean, Jr. to the Editors of the Central Presbyterian, November 20, 1860; Letters; Office of the President Records: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, Box 17, Folder 3; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


Thomas McGowan to Edward S. Wilde; Wilde, Edward S; 1861; Autograph Book Collection; Box 21; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


Orange Key tour guides often claims that Princeton’s Civil War memorial displays an equal number of Union and Confederate dead—a testament to the genuinely “national” character of the college during the antebellum period. We now know, however, that there are as many as 45 Princetonians who died in the war and whose names are not are listed on the monument. And, of the 115 known dead, at least 62 fought for the Confederacy (a total of 54%).


W. Barksdale Maynard, “Princeton in the Confederacy’s Service,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, Vol. 111, No. 9 (March 23, 2011).


“Offer Tribute to Southern Heroes,” Trenton Sunday Times (Trenton, New Jersey), April 13, 1924, P. 28.



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