The Raid

When word of the Battle of Lexington reached Savannah, Georgia, in 1775, six young men brazenly raided the British-held powder magazine to arm the revolutionaries. James Habersham Jr. led the charge, followed by friends and fellow patriots Noble W. Jones, Edward Telfair, Joseph Clay, William Gibbons, and John Milledge.[1] One of the first acts of revolutionary resistance in the state, the incident propelled the raiders to local notoriety, and they would all go on to prominent roles in Georgia politics. Most interestingly from a Princeton perspective, all but one of the raiders (Milledge) would either attend or send their sons to the College of New Jersey.[2] And finally, all were large-scale slaveholders—several having directly participated in the importation of African slaves into Georgia.

Ps 1 James Habersham Jr

A portrait of James Habersham Jr., who attended Princeton in the 1760s.

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Like many Princeton graduates from the college’s founding in 1746 through the Civil War, these six men showed great courage and determination in building their new nation. At the same time, their calls for liberty and independence directly contradicted their actions in establishing their home state as a bastion of slavery.

Savannah's Slave Traders

James Habersham Jr. (1745-1799) was likely the first Georgian to make the journey to Princeton for his education. Born in Savannah in 1745, Habersham Jr. enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, supported by his father’s import business, and was sent away at an early age to be educated in Princeton (though he did not graduate). Little is known about James Jr.’s time at the College of New Jersey, but upon his return to Georgia he followed in his merchant father’s footsteps. Although James Sr. once remarked that his son was a “gentleman, that is, not overly fond of business,” he provided capital for James Jr. to set up a Savannah-based import company with his cousin Joseph Clay.[3] Joseph Clay, perhaps influenced by his business partner, would send his own son to Princeton with the class of 1784.

African slaves were a particularly profitable cargo for Habersham and Clay’s firm. During the 1760s, the firm brought hundreds of slaves to Savannah, some they advertised as “direct from the River Gambia.”[4] Perhaps some of the men and women James Jr. and Joseph Clay imported into the colony went to work with the 200-odd other slaves on the Habersham family’s 15,000 acre rice plantation.[5] Or perhaps Clay purchased some—he too owned a large number of slaves. Indeed, when the British captured the port of Savannah during the Revolutionary War, Clay sent his adolescent son, Joseph Jr. (‘1784), to Virginia to keep the family’s “people” (slaves) out of reach of the encroaching troops.[6]

Like Clay and Habersham, other prominent Georgians supported the revolutionary cause while also owning slaves. Edward Telfair, father of Thomas (‘1805) and Josiah (‘1807) was a partner in a merchant enterprise which "handled fifteen sales of African cargoes in Georgia—more than any other firm, partnership or individual."[7] After independence, Telfair would go on to serve three terms as Governor of Georgia.

Georgia Gazette Savannah Georgia 10 22 1766

Advertisement for slaves imported and sold by Clay and Habersham's firm.

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Ps 2 Port Of Savannah

A View of the Port of Savannah in 1734.

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Educating the Elite

A Princeton education quickly became a mark of distinction among Georgia’s early slaveholding elite. Four of Habersham’s co-conspirators in the 1775 raid on the powder magazine sent at least one son to Princeton.[8] Of the nineteen delegates that Georgia sent to the First, Second or Third Continental Congresses, ten had a close familial connection to the college.[9] When President George Washington visited Georgia in May 1791, he noted that he was met at the border “by Messrs. [Noble] Jones, Coln, [Joseph] Habersham, Mr. John Houstoun, Genl. McIntosh and Mr. [Joseph] Clay [Sr.], a comee. from the city of Savanna to conduct me thither.” This welcoming party of state leaders was comprised entirely of past and future Princeton parents.[10]

When early Princetonians from Georgia returned to their home state, they almost invariably took up prominent positions in society, both as politicians and slaveholders. Joseph Clay Jr. (‘1784) studied and practiced law in Savannah, and in 1796 President Washington appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the District of Georgia.[11] Although he worked primarily as a lawyer and minister, as the only son of Joseph Clay Sr. he also likely inherited and managed a large portion of his father’s $276,000 mercantile and plantation fortune.[12] Robert Habersham (‘1802), son of Joseph Habersham (non-graduate), spent most of his adult life managing and enlarging his family’s several large plantations; by one scholar’s count, he owned 334 slaves in 1850. But he also devoted himself to public service.  He served locally as the treasurer of Chatham County for a number of years and nationally as Postmaster General during Washington’s administration.[13]

In the Service of Slaveholders

From the colonial era to the Civil War, Georgia’s Princeton graduates and their families contributed to the expansion of slavery in the South. Soon after British Georgia was founded in 1732, the governing Board of Trustees outlawed slavery within the colony. However, many white Georgia residents soon realized that the colony would not enjoy the prosperity of neighboring South Carolina if the government continued to prohibit slaveholding.

James Habersham Sr. and George Whitefield (‘AM 1754) were among the most vocal proponents for legalizing slavery in colonial Georgia. Both had ties to the College of New Jersey: Whitefield was a Presbyterian minister who received an honorary degree from the college in 1754, and Habersham sent two of his three sons to be educated at Princeton.[14] In 1747, Habersham drew up a detailed economic plan for the colony, insisting that without slave labor Georgians would be unable to compete with their neighbors. A year later, George Whitefield—Habersham’s close friend and mentor—petitioned the trustees to allow slave labor, arguing that “Georgia never can or will be a flourishing province without negroes.”[15] By 1751, Whitefield, Habersham, and other Georgians had worn down the trustees, who legalized slavery and removed the ban on the importation of slaves.[16]

Habersham’s sons disagreed with him on certain political issues. Habersham Sr., for example, professed his continued loyalty to the British crown during the Revolutionary War, while his sons supported independence. But even Habersham’s patriot children shared their father’s enthusiasm for the institution of slavery, each of the three sons owning slaves in their adult lives. Despite declaring their willingness to fight for their own liberty, they saw no contradiction in holding human property.

As soldiers and statesmen, Georgians showed courage and determination in building their new republic.  Their stated goals, however, directly contradicted their efforts to strengthen the institution of slavery in their home state and the nation at large.

About the AuthorPanel Toggle

Sven “Trip” Henningson graduated from Princeton University in 2016. While at Princeton, he majored in history and completed certificates in German Language and Culture as well as Humanistic Studies. Henningson wrote his senior thesis on the Cold War foreign relations of U.S. labor unions under Professor Robert A. Karl. He was also active as the varsity coxswain for Princeton’s lightweight rowing team and served as the vice president of Cloister Inn. Since graduation, Henningson has been living in DC where he works as a strategy consultant and moonlights as a weekend historian.

View all stories by Trip Henningson »

ReferencesPanel Toggle


Lucian Lamar Knight, A Standard History of Georgia and Georgians, Volume I (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1917), 269.


Database of Princeton Student Origins, Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed 16 October 2017,


James Habersham, Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Vol. VI: The Letters of James Habersham (Savannah, GA: The Savannah Morning News Print, 1904), 67; Jonathan M. Bryant, Dark Places of the Earth: Voyages of the Slave Ship Antelope, (New York: Liveright, 2015), 78-79.


Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America: Volume IV: The Border Colonies and The Southern Colonies, (Buffalo, NY: William S. Hein and Co, 2002), 623-625. 


Cherri Shelnut, “Robert Haversham,” in Savannah Biographies, Volume 14 (Savannah, GA: Armstrong Atlantic State University, 1986) 31; W. Calvin Smith, “Habersham Family,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, accessed 16 August 2016,; W. Calvin Smith, “Habersham Family,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, accessed 16 August 2016,; Joseph Clay Boxes.


Carolyn Clay Swiggart, Shades of Gray: The Clay and McAllister Families of Bryan County, Georgia During the Plantation Years (ca. 1760-1888) (Darien, CT: Two Bytes Publishing, 1999), 6.


James McMillin, "The Transatlantic Slave Trade Comes to Georgia," in Slavery and Freedom in Savannah, ed Harris and Berry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 23.


Joseph Clay Jr, (1784), Joseph and Barach Gibbons (1790 NG), Noble Wymberly Jones (1804), Josiah and Thomas Telfair (1805 NG, 1805).


William Gibbons (Father, Joseph and Barach Gibbons, 1790 NG), John Houstoun (Uncle, Patrick Houstoun, 1795), William Houstoun (Uncle, Patrick Houstoun, 1795), William Pierce (Father, William Leigh Pierce, 1808), John Habersham (Uncle, Robert Habersham, 1802), Joseph Clay (Father, Joseph Clay, 1784), Edward Telfair (Father, Josiah and Thomas Telfair, 1805), George Walton (Father, George Walton Jr, 1809), John Zubly (Honorary degree, 1774), Noble W. Jones (Father, Noble Wymberly Jones,  1804).


Database of Princeton Student Origins, Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed 16 October 2017,; James Habersham, Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Vol. VI: The Letters of James Habersham, (Savannah, GA: The Savannah Morning News Print, 1904), 65.


Mrs. John Arscott, Letter to George Derby dated 11 November 1938, 2 in “Clay, Joseph: 1784;” Undergraduate Alumni Records, Series I, Box 42; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


Carolyn Clay Swiggart, Shades of Gray: The Clay and McAllister Families of Bryan County, Georgia During the Plantation Years (ca. 1760-1888) (Darien, CT: Two Bytes Publishing, 1999), 7.


Cherri Shelnut, “Robert Habersham,” in Savannah Biographies, Volume 14, (Savannah, GA: Armstrong Atlantic State University, 1986) 31; W. Calvin Smith, “Habersham Family,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, accessed 16 August 2016,


James McMillin, "The Transatlantic Slave Trade Comes to Georgia," in Slavery and Freedom in Savannah, ed Harris and Berry (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 23, 9.


Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 209.


McMillin, “The Transatlantic Slave Trade Comes to Georgia,” 9.


Burnett Anderson, “James M. Wayne,” in Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, ed. Claire Cushman (London: CQ Press, 2012), 97-98.


Interestingly enough, Wayne filled the seat of fellow Princetonian, William Johnson ‘1790. According to historian George Lamplugh, fellow Georgia Princetonian, John Alfred Cuthbert ‘1805 also petitioned for the post, but ultimately lost to Wayne, a member of the opposing political faction in Georgia. See George Lamplugh, Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1807 - 1845 (New York: University Press of America, Inc., 2015), 233.


Paul Finkelman, “Scott V. Sandford: The Court's Most Dreadful Case and How It Changed History,” in The Chicago-Kent Law Review, Volume 82, (2007), 4, accessed 16 August 2017,


Ibid., 34.


Anderson, “James M. Wayne,” 99.


Sally Swartz, “Pauline Stoney’s Story,” Savannah Port City Magazine (June 1977), 6-7.

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Did You Know...?Most of Princeton's founding trustees bought, sold, traded, or inherited slaves. Read More