President Witherspoon's Campaign

Under the leadership of President John Witherspoon, the College of New Jersey launched an ill-fated campaign to secure donors among slaveholding plantation elites in the West Indies in the late 18th century. The trustees’ efforts to gain funding from these sources, and the trajectories of students from the West Indies who subsequently enrolled in the college, illuminate Princeton’s institutional, economic and social linkages to networks of slavery across several colonial systems.

In March 1772, College of New Jersey president John Witherspoon published a call for donations from potential supporters living in the West Indies. His address in the New York Gazette was part of a fundraising drive directed at the West Indian elite. Witherspoon was, in the words of historian Craig Steven Wilder, “a supplicant of the planter class.”[1] Witherspoon sought to convince wealthy planters to send their sons to Princeton by discussing the challenges of vice and temptation faced by those from “higher ranks of life.”[2] He argued for Princeton’s advantages in climate, location, discipline and academic quality, and noted that the college was “independent” from government funding or influence and demonstrated a high “spirit of liberty”—words particularly meaningful just a few years before the American Revolution.[3]

Address To The Inhabitants Of Jamaica And Other West India Islands

President John Witherspoon's controversial address to slaveholders in the Caribbean, first published in the New York Gazette in 1772.

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Witherspoon’s address circulated widely within the United States as well as in the West Indies, and his descriptions of the College of New Jersey’s merits—especially the mention of independence—raised objections at the College of New York, also known as King’s College (now Columbia University). In a response also published in the New York Gazette, John Vardill questioned Witherspoon’s insinuations about government dependence at peer institutions like King’s College, which had its own West Indies fundraising campaign that emphasized loyalty to the crown. Vardill accused Witherspoon of trying to “throw a Shade over them.”[4] According to Vardill, the very fact that Witherspoon’s address sought donations from benefactors demonstrated the College of New Jersey’s dependencies, influences and allegiances.

Regardless of the political and professional rivalries contained in these documents, questions of financial support and institutional power are central to understanding the relationships between institutions of higher learning and slavery. The college’s efforts to find benefactors among West Indian plantation owners reveal the social and economic networks that kept Princeton running. As Wilder writes, “the pattern of recruitment and enrollment at New Jersey conformed to the geography of American slavery.”[5] This pattern extended outside of the continental United States into the Caribbean.

During a meeting earlier that March, the college trustees had discussed “the fair Prospect of collecting a considerable Sum, for the Use of this College, in the West-Indies…”[6] Witherspoon proposed the trip based on his own connections—his brother, Captain David Witherspoon, was a merchant in the Caribbean—and he intended to travel there personally. In the end, however, Witherspoon's son James traveled to Barbados with Reverend Charles Beatty, college treasurer and trustee. At the next board meeting in September, the trustees discussed a replacement for Beatty, who had died in Barbados “before he had made any Collections for the College.”[7]

Rev Charles Beatty

Portrait of the Rev. Charles Beatty (c.1715-1772), who traveled to the West Indies to raise funds for the college.

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Results of the Campaign

In the years following this ill-fated campaign, sixteen students from the West Indies or Caribbean enrolled in the college.[8] Though the fundraising mission did not result in any financial contributions to the college, Beatty and James Witherspoon's presence may have encouraged some students to matriculate—for example, John Trotman, a young man from Barbados who arrived in April 1773.[9] Trotman did not graduate because, while on vacation from school, he was pressed into naval service with the Continental navy in Philadelphia in 1776 and wound up on a ship that would bring him back to the Caribbean.

The trustees’ fundraising efforts targeted the British West Indies, especially Barbados, Antigua and Jamaica, but powerful families from the French, Spanish, Dutch and Danish Caribbean soon learned about Princeton as well.[10] John Ruan and his younger brother James were born into a planter family on St. Croix and traveled to New Jersey to be educated after both their parents died.[11] At the time when the Ruan brothers attended the college (graduating in 1790 and 1792, respectively), St. Croix was the most lucrative sugar-producing island in the Danish West Indies, with an enslaved population upwards of 20,000 people and a white population less than one-tenth that number.[12] The Ruan brothers were supervised in the U.S. by a man named Isaac Barnes, likely as a result of his business obligations on St. Croix—an example of the close economic and social links between plantation owners in the Caribbean and Princeton’s elite.[13] John Ruan practiced as a physician near Philadelphia, moved to Maryland for ten years to “live the life of a planter,” and eventually returned to Philadelphia to practice obstetrics.[14] The John Ruan House in Philadelphia is on the National Registry of Historic Places and currently houses the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library. At the time of St. Croix’s 1820 census younger brother James Ruan owned the "Cane Estate," a plantation on the southwest coast of the island, not far from the bay still known today as Ruan Bay.[15]

Lottery Preview

Advertisement for a lottery to raise funds for the College of New Jersey, printed in an Antiguan newspaper.

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From the Dutch West Indies, Lawrence Ravens (class of 1797) came from one of the oldest Protestant families on Curacão.[16] Dirck Salomons grew up on St. Eustatius, the island that provided arms and ammunition used against the British during the American Revolution. After three years in Princeton, Salomons left the college in 1807 amidst the student riots of that spring. He was awarded an honorary degree in 1812, in part based on his medical training in New York, but also related to his 1810 marriage to Susan Stanhope Smith, daughter of sitting college president Samuel Stanhope Smith and Ann Witherspoon. Salomons died in 1815 at his father’s estate in St. Eustatius, and his widow and children returned to live in the President’s House in Princeton.[17]

There are many possible explanations for why only seven of the sixteen students from the West Indies eventually graduated. It was not unusual for students from any region to discontinue their studies for economic, political or personal reasons, especially those who had far to travel to campus. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that many of the West Indies students left Princeton to return to family estates as wealthy plantation owners on islands with large enslaved populations. Cases such Dirck Salomons's illustrate the valuable social and economic networks that Princeton offered and nurtured, even for many who did not avail themselves of the college’s full academic program. Although Witherspoon did not include the advantage of these connections in his list of the college’s merits, they were premium benefits of attending Princeton that could be enjoyed by graduates and non-graduates alike.

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Jessica Mack is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Princeton. Her research examines linkages between higher education and political transformation in modern Mexico. Her dissertation project traces intellectual and spatial change at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) alongside profound shifts in Mexico’s post-revolutionary public sphere. Jessica holds a B.A. in history from Wesleyan University and an M.A. in history from Princeton University. Her broader interests include public history and memory, space and urban history, and global higher education networks.

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[1]

Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 81.

[2]

John Witherspoon, “Address to the Inhabitants of Jamaica, and other West-India Islands, in Behalf of the College of New Jersey,” in The Works of John Witherspoon, D.D., Vol. VIII (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815).

[3]

Ibid.

[4]

John Vardill, “Response to Witherspoon Address,” (1772), New Jersey Archives, Vol. 28 (1772-1773), 345-359.

[5]

Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, 105.

[6]

Minutes of a Meeting of the Trustees of the College of New Jersey, March 11, 1772. 1748-1777; Board of Trustees Records, Volume 1A; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, 184-186.

[7]

Minutes of a Meeting of the Trustees of the College of New Jersey, September 30, 1772. 1748-1777; Board of Trustees Records, Volume 1A; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, 189.

[8]

Prior to the fundraising campaign, there were few students from the Caribbean region on campus. Simon Williams, class of 1766, was a clergyman from Ireland who lived in Jamaica before coming to study in Princeton. Lewis Feuilleteau Wilson, who would graduate the year after the trip in 1773 and become a college tutor until 1775, was from a wealthy planter family on St. Christopher (now known as Saint Kitts) in the British West Indies. 

See: James McLachlan, Princetonians: A Biographical Dictionary, 1748-1768 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 448; Richard A. Harrison, Princetonians: A Biographical Dictionary, 1769-1775 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 352.

[9]

Harrison, Princetonians: A Biographical Dictionary, 1776-1783, 254.

[10]

Students Peter Perrier and Auguste Guibert both listed their place of origin as San Domingo, and both left the college in 1798 without graduating. In the late 1850s, Augustus Armagnac listed independent Haiti as his place of origin. He graduated with an A.B. in 1861, A.M. in 1872, and an honorary Ph.D. in 1885, all from Princeton, and became a professor at several other institutions. William M. Williams, who only indicated he was from the West Indies, left the college without graduating in 1810, as did Jonathan Henry (Harvey) Hodges from the British colony of Anguilla in 1817. 

See: Perrier, Peter M.; 1801; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box Non-graduate card file; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Guibert, Auguste; 1802; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box Non-graduate card file; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Armagnac, Augustus; 1861; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box 119; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Williams, William M.; 1814; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box Non-graduate card file; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Hodge, Jonathan Henry; 1820; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box Non-graduate card file; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[11]

Ruan, John; 1790; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Series I, Box 51; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[12]

St. Croix African Roots Project, accessed 17 July 2017, www.visharoots.org.

[13]

Ruth L. Woodward and Wesley Frank Craven, Princetonians, 1784-1790: A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 517-518.

[14]

Ibid., 518.

[15]

1820 St. Croix Residents Database, St. Croix African Roots Project, accessed 17 July 2017, www.visharoots.org.

There were five other Princeton students from wealthy sugar plantation owning families on St. Croix. Christian DeWint and Peter Markoe were admonished and left the college in 1788, while Peter’s younger brother Francis Markoe graduated in 1791. Isaac Hartman and Samuel VanBrackle left the college in 1795 and 1806, respectively, without graduating. See: Woodward and Craven, Princetonians, 1784-1790, 363-365. J. Jefferson Looney and Ruth L. Woodward, Princetonians, 1791-1794: A Biographical Dictionary(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 73-76. Hartman, Isaac; 1795; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Series I, Box 60; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. VanBrackle, Samuel H.; 1808; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box Non-graduate card file; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[16]

Raven (Ravens), Lawrence L.; 1797; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Series I, Box 61; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[17]

Salomons, Dirck; 1807; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box 68; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

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