As both the most populous state at the nation’s founding and the largest slave state throughout the antebellum period, Virginia’s influence stretched far beyond the commonwealth’s borders. Over the course of the College of New Jersey’s early history, students from the Old Dominion journeyed north to Princeton to fill Nassau Hall.

In the colonial period, Princeton’s ties to Presbyterianism drew Virginians who dissented from the colony’s Anglican establishment and its monopoly on higher education at the College of William & Mary. In later decades, this Presbyterian affinity, alongside the college’s reputation for academic excellence, continued to draw Virginian students.

In the 1820s, however, a national economic downturn known as the Panic of 1819 led many students to forgo an expensive college education. A series of clashes between Princeton’s administration and students further decreased enrollment.[1] Meanwhile, the establishment of the secular University of Virginia in 1825 began to draw Virginians away from New Jersey. Thus, while there were 14 Virginians among the 83 students in the class of 1819 (17 percent of the class), only one Virginian could be counted among the 42 members of the class of 1831.

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

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Princeton’s fortunes rebounded in the 1830s and 19 Virginians joined 90 classmates in the class of 1839 (once again reaching approximately 17 percent of the incoming class). However, the intensification of the sectional crisis in the late 1840s and 1850s placed pressure on Virginia’s elite to enroll their sons at southern colleges, and only a handful of students from the Old Dominion enrolled each year at Princeton in the 1850s even as the total class size remained consistent.[2]

Virginia, like other states in the Northeast and Upper South, experienced a moment of antislavery activism in the wake of the American Revolution. Some state leaders, committed to the Revolution’s promise of liberty, grew uncomfortable with the institution of slavery, while others questioned its economic viability as the state shifted from the production of tobacco to wheat and other grain crops.[3]

Yet following a brief surge of private manumissions in the 1790s, the potential profits of the domestic slave trade and the perceived danger posed by free people of color gradually hardened Virginia’s position on slavery. Backing away from the potential of emancipation and a biracial society, many white Virginians devoted their attention to deporting African Americans via the colonization movement, while by the mid-19th century others abandoned any pretense of discomfort with slavery, embracing the institution as a “positive good.”[4]

The following biographies of three Virginia alumni, each of whom went on to influence southern education as ministers and teachers, provide a window into changing views of slavery both at Princeton and across the Upper South in the years in between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Samuel Doak (Class of 1775)

Born in August County, Virginia to Ulster Scots immigrant parents on August 1, 1749 (O.S.), Samuel Doak grew up in humble circumstances compared to some of his future Princeton classmates.[5] Separated from Virginia’s principal settlements by the imposing Blue Ridge Mountains, white settlers in Augusta carved out a hardscrabble existence for themselves on Virginia’s frontier.[6] Doak worked as a manual laborer on his father’s farm throughout his teenage years but displayed an unusual aptitude for academics. Encouraged in his education by his parents, Doak began a classical course of study at a local academy and subsequently worked as an assistant instructor while he saved money to attend college.[7]

These savings eventually allowed Doak to enter the College of New Jersey in 1773 at the relatively late age of 24.[8] At Princeton, Doak received instruction from the college’s sixth president, John Witherspoon, a fellow Presbyterian and a proponent of Scottish Enlightenment thought.

In the tumultuous years on the eve of the American Revolution, Witherspoon offered his students a deep grounding in moral philosophy, emphasizing sympathy, virtue, and duty; he also advocated the cause of the Revolution, stressing individual freedom and natural rights.[9] Witherspoon’s courses provided a philosophical grounding for antislavery thought for students such as Doak. At the same time, however, Witherspoon owned two enslaved laborers on his local estate, Tusculum.[10]

Peale Charles Willson John Witherspoon 1723 1794 President 1768 94

Portrait of John Witherspoon, Princeton's sixth president.

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After graduating in 1775, Samuel Doak returned to Virginia. He served for two years as an instructor at Hamden & Sydney College (founded by Princeton president Samuel Stanhope Smith) and studied theology there in order to enter the ministry. Ordained by the Presbytery of Hanover in 1777, Doak initially preached in Washington County, Virginia, before migrating west to the Holston Valley in what later became the state of Tennessee.[11] Caught up in the chaotic guerilla violence that characterized the American Revolution on the southwestern frontier, Doak served as a chaplain with the patriot militia, delivering a famous sermon to the “Over the Mountain Men” prior to the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780.[12]

In the years after the Revolution, Doak devoted himself to promoting higher education on the frontier, founding an academy in east Tennessee that received a state charter as Washington College in 1795. As president of the institution for two decades, Doak strove to recreate the classical education he had enjoyed at Princeton, assembling a modest library of Greek and Latin texts for his students. In 1818, Doak handed off the college presidency to his son, John W. Doak, and with another son, Samuel Witherspoon Doak, founded a second academy that would grow into Tusculum University.[13] Doak’s decision to name a son after Witherspoon as well as name his academy after Witherspoon’s estate reflect the depth of his teacher’s influence, and perhaps helps to explain Doak’s own complicated relationship with chattel slavery.[14]

It was during these same years, according to a later account by the abolitionist William Birney, that Doak grew more radical on the question of slavery. While long troubled by the institution of slavery, Doak had himself owned enslaved people. In 1819, he declared himself an abolitionist and emancipated the Black families he held in bondage, enabling them to start new lives in the free state of Ohio. Doak’s guidance also helped shape the career of John Rankin, a young student at Washington College who later became a prominent “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.[15] Doak’s legacy reflects the potential of a Princeton education to inspire antislavery thought on the eve of the American Revolution.

Still, Doak’s influence only went so far, and according to the census of 1830, Doak had moved in with his son, Samuel Witherspoon Doak, who continued to enslave seven African Americans. Samuel Sr. died later that same year.[16]

William Mayo Atkinson (Class of 1814)

Born into a prosperous family on April 22, 1796, William Mayo Atkinson grew up in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. The first of eleven children born to Robert Atkinson, a slaveholding planter with Quaker ancestry, and Mary Tabb Mayo Atkinson, a professed Episcopalian, William M. Atkinson grew up in a pious but denominationally mixed household. This religious influence profoundly shaped the lives of four of the Atkinson brothers, who went on to become clergymen in the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches.[17]

At the age of 16, Atkinson entered the College of New Jersey as a junior, graduating two years later in 1814.[18] Although New Jersey had begun the process of gradual emancipation by the time Atkinson arrived at Princeton, enslaved African Americans remained a presence on campus, including in the home of Princeton’s eighth president, Ashbel Green.

Like many of his contemporaries, Green was an enslaver with conflicted views on slavery. In a resolution he presented to the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly in 1818, Green denounced the institution as “utterly inconsistent with the law of God” but also cautioned his audience to “forbear harsh censures, and uncharitable reflections” on slaveholders, who, he insisted were “using all their influence” to bring about “a state of freedom” when “lawful and practical.”[19]

Minute On Slavery Preview

Princeton president Ashbel Green's report on the relationship of slavery to the Presbyterian church, written for the 1818 General Assembly and cited as the opinion of the church for decades after.

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Princeton students in this period occasionally debated the question of abolishing slavery at the Whig and Cliosophic Societies, but the presence of enslaved and free African Americans on campus and in town would have done little to challenge Atkinson’s acceptance of slavery as a fact of daily life.

He likely, however, encountered early supporters of the colonization movement, who hoped to gradually end slavery by deporting both free Black people and enslaved people from the United States to colonies abroad. A fellow Virginian and Princetonian, Charles F. Mercer (class of 1797), founded the American Colonization Society with several classmates shortly after Atkinson’s graduation.

Although profoundly devout (at Princeton, Atkinson sometimes slept on the rounded top of his trunk instead of in bed as an act of penance), Atkinson initially pursued a career in law after graduation, practicing as an attorney in Petersburg, Virginia.[20] In 1822, Atkinson joined the Tabb Street Presbyterian Church and became an elder in the congregation two years later.

Increasingly interested in religious education, he served on the board of trustees for Union Theological Seminary and Hampden-Sydney College. Following the deaths of two of his children in quick succession in 1832, Atkinson closed his law practice to pursue a career in the ministry. Initially appointed as general agent of the American Bible Society, Atkinson traveled extensively throughout the state distributing Bibles and other religious literature to the unchurched. Ordained by the East Hanover Presbytery in 1834, he continued to travel the state to promote Christian education and various reform causes such as the temperance movement.[21]

In 1835, rumors surfaced in Virginia that Atkinson was secretly an abolitionist. While a slaveholder himself, Atkinson took the accusation seriously and responded at length in an open letter to the Richmond Whig, subsequently reprinted in other newspapers such as the Presbyterian Southern Religious Telegraph.[22] In the letter, he admitted that he considered “slavery a great evil” because he felt that its “withering influence” had held Virginia back economically, but he denounced abolitionism as “spurious philanthropy” bent on the “destruction of family and friends and country.”

In his formulation, slavery had “but enfeebled” Virginia while abolitionism, “the bold prescription of the quack,” would “utterly destroy” the state.[23] Atkinson’s anti-abolitionist position subsequently drew the ire of prominent antislavery activists Elijah Lovejoy and William Llloyd Garrison, who denounced him as a “trafficker in human cattle” in their own newspapers. Nevertheless, Atkinson’s ambiguous feelings concerning slavery did eventually lead to his appointment as secretary for the Virginia Colonization Society, following in the footsteps of numerous Princeton alumni afilliated with the colonization movement.[24]

In later years, Atkinson relocated to Winchester, Virginia, to become the pastor for that community’s Presbyterian church. His tenure was marked by schism over the Old School/ New School controversy, which divided Presbyterian churches throughout the United States.[25] Although Atkinson sympathized with the Old School, championed by Princeton Theological Seminary professor Charles Hodge, he positioned himself as a moderate in the crisis.[26] On other issues, however, he proved more partisan, and he bitterly denounced the renewed interest in liturgy and apostolic succession in the Episcopal Church sparked by the Oxford Movement.[27] Following a stint as an agent for the Presbyterian Board of Education from 1846-1848, he returned to Winchester and died there on February 24, 1849.[28]

Dabney Carr Harrison (Class of 1848)

Born in Albemarle County, Virginia, on September 12, 1830, Dabney Carr Harrison was a product of two of Virginia’s most prominent planter families and inherited the immense privileges that came along with this status.[29] His father, Peyton Randolph Harrison, a well-to-do lawyer who also managed a plantation with fifteen enslaved workers, decided to enter the Presbyterian ministry and relocated the family to Richmond in 1833.[30]

Dabney Carr Harrison developed into a remarkably studious child, and his family later claimed that he had read the entirety of David Hume’s History of England as a young boy.[31] Shortly before his fifteenth birthday, in August 1845, Harrison enrolled in the College of New Jersey as a sophomore.[32] Harrison’s tenure at Princeton was marked by increasing sectional tension at the college as students reacted to the national controversy surrounding slavery’s expansion into the western territories. Princeton erupted into violence during Harrison’s time on campus when in June 1846, more than a dozen southern students attacked northern classmates who sought to protect a Black man who had drawn the ire of the southerners.[33]

By the time of Harrison’s graduation from Princeton in 1848, his fellow southern classmates had begun to defend slavery with increasing vehemence as antislavery thought and abolitionism grew more influential elsewhere in the North. Despite its location in a nominally free state, the College of New Jersey remained conservative on the slavery issue throughout these years, a reflection of the large number of southern students on campus in the late 1840s and early 1850s.

This southern influence peaked in the class of 1851, in which 62 percent of students hailed from slaveholding states. In the aftermath of the Compromise of 1850, however, skepticism among southerners towards all northern colleges led to a decline in southern enrollment at Princeton.[34] After 1851, southern students never exceeded 50 percent of any given class.

Student Enrollment Preview

An interactive chart of student enrollment, showing the total number of students from the North and the South in each graduating class.

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Indeed, despite the efforts by Princeton’s faculty and administration to appeal to southerners, Harrison himself chose to return to Virginia for further education. Enrolling at the University of Virginia (UVA) to study law in 1849, Harrison entered a student climate boiling over with pro-southern and proslavery sentiment.[35] In his second year, the UVA’s Southern Rights Association issued an “Address to the Young Men of the South,” which denounced the “spirit of abolitionism” in the country and warned that “unless speedy and effectual measures are taken for its preservation,” slavery would collapse under the pressure of northern attacks “upon the rights, interests, and institutions of the South.”[36]

Harrison departed UVA in 1851 and briefly practiced law in Martinsburg, Virginia (present-day West Virginia), near his father’s church.[37] Likely inspired by his father’s example, Harrison soon decided to follow him into the Presbyterian ministry and enrolled at Richmond’s Union Theological Seminary in 1852. Completing his course of study in three years, Harrison stayed on at Union an additional year as an instructor of Hebrew. Drawn into college ministry, Harrison served as pastor to the students of Hampden-Sydney College from 1856-1857 before returning to UVA to serve as the University’s chaplain.[38]

If anything, Harrison experienced an even more fervent proslavery environment during his second stint at UVA. Although the texts of his sermons to the students and faculty have not survived, Harrison became popular among a set of proslavery professors including George F. Holmes, Albert T. Bledsoe, and James P. Holcombe.[39] Holcombe may have borrowed from Harrison when in 1858, he argued that by preserving slavery the South sought “to discharge, not simply the obligations of justice, but the larger debt of Christian humanity toward [that] degraded race.”[40]

After the expiration of his term as UVA’s chaplain, Harrison took this spirit of pro-slavery paternalism to his next assignment at Bethlehem Church in Hanover, Virginia. According to an account published shortly after his death, Harrison “was drawn to this position chiefly because of the access it gave him to a multitude of negroes.” Having “long felt a profound interest in their spiritual welfare,” Harrison preached a gospel of submission and obedience to the enslaved people of the region.[41]

Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Harrison followed his brother into the Confederate Army, serving as a Captain in Company K of the 57th Virginia Infantry. Harrison was one of approximately 600 Princeton alumni who fought in the war–more than half of them for the Confederacy.

Mortally wounded defending Fort Donelson against the forces of U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant in February 1862, Harrison emerged as a Confederate martyr.[42] William J. Hodge, writing on behalf of the Presbyterian Committee of Publication of the Confederate States, praised Harrison as a true patriot:

His last breath was for his county; for the young Confederacy, whose liberty, honor and righteousness were inexpressibly dear to him.[43]

By the end of the Civil War, 47 of Harrison’s fellow Princetonians would join him in sacrificing their lives for the perpetuation of slavery.[44]

Dabney Carr Harrison Tribute

A tribute to Dabney Carr Harrison ('1848), written on behalf of the Presbyterian Committee of Publication of the Confederate States in 1863.

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As clergymen and educators, these three Princeton alumni witnessed and contributed to the evolution of antislavery and proslavery thought across the Upper South from the Revolutionary era through the Civil War.

Following a brief period of antislavery activism inspired by the American Revolution, Virginians grew increasingly reactionary throughout the first half of the 19th century. In turn, this proslavery sentiment grew ever more pervasive in southern colleges and universities, including those at which Princeton alumni such as Doak, Atkinson, and Harrison served as faculty, administrators, and trustees. This retrenchment evolved over time from a defense of the institution as an unfortunate but still necessary relic of a past era to a full-throated defense of slavery as a positive social good.[45]

This shift in political thought can be seen in the careers of Doak, Atkinson, and Harrison. Influenced by his Princeton education under John Witherspoon, Samuel Doak embraced antislavery thought during a time of Revolutionary fervor. In the first decades of the 19th century, William Mayo Atkinson, like other Princeton alumni, was drawn to the colonization movement. Finally, at mid-century, Dabney Carr Harrison vehemently opposed abolitionism and fought and died for the Confederate cause alongside dozens of other Princeton graduates.

ReferencesPanel Toggle


Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Princeton, 1746-1896 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946), 170-183. See also, “Catalogue of the officers and students of the University of Virginia, First Session, March 7th, 1825-December 15th, 1825” (Charlottesville, VA: Chronicle Steam Book Printing House, 1880).


“Database of Princeton Student Origins,” Princeton & Slavery, Accessed January 18, 2022.


Kenneth Morgan, “George Washington and the Problem of Slavery,” Journal of American Studies 34, No. 2 (Aug. 2000): 279-301.


Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 33-42.


E. Alvin Gerhardt, Jr., “Samuel Doak,” Tennessee Encyclopedia, Accessed December 7, 2021,


Warren R. Hofstra and Robert D. Mitchell, “Town and Country in Backcountry Virginia, Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley, 1730-1800,” Journal of Southern History 59, No. 4 (Nov. 1993): 619-646.


William Buell Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit: Volume III, Presbyterian (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1858), 392.


Samuel Doak, Princeton University General Biographical Catalogue, Box 30, Undergraduate Alumni Records, 18th Century, AC104-01, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


Wanda S. Gunning, “The Town of Princeton and the University, 1756-1946,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle 66, No. 3 (Spring 2006), 452-454; Margaret Abruzzo, “‘A Humane Master—An Obliging Neighbor—A True Philanthropist’: Slavery, Cruelty and Moral Philosophy,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 66, No. 3 (Spring 2005): 493-512.


Lesa Redmond, “John Witherspoon, Princeton & Slavery,” Accessed December 8, 2021,


Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit, 393.


Edmund Kirke, The Rear-Guard of the Revolution (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1886), 217.


Knoxville Register, 14 April 1818.


Tusculum University, “Our History,” Accessed 9 December 2021,


William Birney, James G. Birney and His Times: The Genesis of the Republican Party with Some Account of the Abolition Movement in the South Before 1828 (New York: D. Appleton & Co, 1890), 74-76.


1830 United States Census, Population Schedule for the District of Eastern Tennessee, Microfilm Series 19, Roll 180, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives, Washington, D.C.


John T. Kneeboone, “ Atkinson, W. (1796-1849),” Encyclopedia Virginia, Accessed December 10, 2021,


William Mayo Atkinson, Princeton University General Biographical Catalogue, Box 73, Undergraduate Alumni Records, 19th century, AC104-02, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


R. Isabela Morales, “Ashbel Green,” Princeton & Slavery, Accessed December 14, 2021,; Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America from its organization A.D. 1789 to A.D. 1820 inclusive(Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1847), 692–694.


Kneeboone, “Atkinson,” Encyclopedia Virginia.


Alfred Nevin, ed., Encyclopædia of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America: Including the Northern and Southern Assemblies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Encyclopædia Publishing, 1884), 42-43; Kneebone, “Atkinson,” Encyclopedia Virginia.


In 1830, Atkinson enslaved three women and a man to maintain his household; see 1830 United States Census, Population Schedule for Petersburg, Dinwiddie, Virginia, Microfilm Series 19, Roll 196, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives, Washington, D.C.


Southern Religious Telegraph (Richmond, VA), September 11, 1835.


Alton Observer (Alton, IL), May 4, 1837; Liberator (Boston, MA), July 7, 1837; Richmond Inquirer, March 2, 1849.


Samuel S. Hill and Charles H. Lippy, editors, 2nd ed., Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005), 572-575; United States Gazette (Philadelphia, PA), June 2, 1838.


Kneeboone, “Atkinson,” Encyclopedia Virginia.


William Mayo Atkinson, “A Sermon Delivered at the Installation of the Rev. John M.P. Atkinson, as Pastor of the Church at Warrenton, Fauquier, Virginia, September 15, 1844” (Winchester, VA: Winchester Republican, 1844).


Nevin, ed., Encyclopædia of the Presbyterian Church, 43; Alexandria Gazette, 1 March 1849.


“Harrison of James River,” Virginia Historical Magazine 37, No. 2 (April 1929), 179.


1830 United States Census, Population Schedule for Albemarle, Virginia, Microfilm Series 19, Roll 197, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; History of West Virginia Old and New and West Virginia Biography (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1923), 242; “Reverend Peyton Harrison,” Capturing Our Heritage, Scottville Museum, Scottsville, VA, Accessed December 16, 2021,


William J. Hodge, Sketch of Dabney Carr Harrison Minister of the Gospel and Captain in the Army of the Confederate States of America (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication of the Confederate States, 1863), 5.


Dabney Carr Harrison, Princeton University General Biographical Catalogue, Box 100, Undergraduate Alumni Records, 19th century, AC104-02, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


R, Isabela Morales “The Riot of 1846,” Princeton & Slavery, Accessed December 16, 2021,


See diary entry of Henry Craft as quoted in Sandweiss and Hollander, “Holding the Center,” Princeton & Slavery.


Catalogue of the University of Virginia, Session of 1849-50’ (Richmond: H.K Ellyson, 1850).


Address reprinted in the Spirit of the South (Eufaula, AL), 11 February 1851.


Dabney Carr Harrison, Princeton University General Biographical Catalogue, Box 100, Undergraduate Alumni Records, 19th century, AC104-02, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


Hodge, Sketch of Dabney Carr Harrison, 6-9; Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 3 February 1857.


Hodge, Sketch of Dabney Carr Harrison, 11-12.


James P. Holcombe, “Is Slavery Consistent with Natural Law?,” Southern Literary Messenger 27, No. 6 (December 1858), 421.


Hodge, Sketch of Dabney Carr Harrison, 14.


“Fall of Gallant Officers,” Richmond Dispatch, February 27, 1862.


Hodge, Sketch of Dabney Carr Harrison, 45.


Daniel J. Linke, "Counting Princetonians in the Civil War," The Princeton & Slavery Project,


Alfred L. Brophy, University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016; Michael O’Brien, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South 1810-1860, 2. vols (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). See also, Jennifer Oast, Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680-1860 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Vol. 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Lacy K. Ford, Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

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