In December 2015, Princeton students sparked a heated debate over former United States and Princeton president Woodrow Wilson’s legacy on campus. While their protests focused on Wilson’s endorsement of racial segregation during his years in the White House, students also touched briefly on the deeper history of race at Princeton. During their occupation of the Princeton president’s office, they pointed towards Stanhope Hall—which today houses the Department of African American Studies—and lamented that it was named for “a white person with bigoted beliefs.”
Samuel Stanhope Smith, president of Princeton from 1795 to 1812, might have seen some irony here. Smith himself had presided over an institution seething with student discontent: during his presidency, undergraduates rioted on several occasions and managed to burn down Nassau Hall in 1802. And Smith, too, grappled with questions of race. In his time, he was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic as the leading defender of the “unity of mankind.” Differences in physical appearance and skin color, he argued both in print and in his Princeton lectures, were entirely the product of one’s environment. Race was a chimera.
Smith’s theories—forward-thinking for the time—failed to align with the practices of race both nationally and at the college. Slavery was embedded at Princeton long before Smith assumed the presidency in 1795; in fact, it was there from the beginning. All six of Smith’s predecessors as president were slaveholders, along with many of the founding trustees. Yet while Smith’s explanations for human difference made him a theoretical opponent of slavery, he rarely engaged the practical problem of emancipation. Like his predecessors, he was limited by subtle biases that conditioned his embrace of human difference. At root, Smith never abandoned the belief that white people stood at the apex of human society. He passionately insisted that African Americans and Native Americans could become white if placed in different environments, or after intermarriage with whites. But when this physical transformation failed to take place, he struggled to imagine other pathways to racial equality.
Life and Career
Samuel Stanhope Smith was born in Pennsylvania in 1751, and graduated with the Princeton class of 1769 with a passion for mathematics, natural sciences and theology. Like his father, Smith became a Presbyterian clergyman and teacher. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Smith saw no conflict between religion and science, and attempted to reconcile the two during his long career—transforming Princeton’s curriculum in the process.
When Smith began teaching at Princeton in the 1770s, the college was principally a training ground for Presbyterian ministers. By 1812, when he resigned the presidency, undergraduates were studying chemistry and philosophy (and creatively combining the two in their explosive protests against the administration). Princeton’s emergence as the most modern college in the nation alarmed many of the trustees, who happily accepted Smith’s resignation. The Presbyterian church, meanwhile, felt the need to found a theological seminary within sight of Nassau Hall to do the work that the College of New Jersey had once performed.
Smith’s stridency as a college president was matched by his bold thinking about race. Smith came of age at a moment of huge interest in the subject. Imperialism and the Atlantic slave trade had brought Europeans into contact with peoples across the globe, raising a key question: since human beings in different parts of the world looked very different, how could they all be descended from Adam and Eve? To answer the question, Enlightenment scientists and philosophers theorized that human beings were profoundly shaped by the environment (natural and social) in which they lived. The French naturalist Buffon ventured a memorable hypothesis: if you took a few dozen residents of Denmark and swapped them with a few dozen Senegalese, within a matter of generations the descendants of the groups would swap places—the black would be white, and vice versa. Armed with their confidence in the power of the environment to shape humankind, theorists like Smith felt they had solved the mystery of human diversity without threatening humanity’s roots in the Garden of Eden.
The idea that African Americans or Native Americans might be permanently inferior to white people had been debated only sparingly during the colonial period. Ironically, it was the rise of the first antislavery movement in the 1770s that brought ‘scientific’ racism into the open. Stung by the language of human brotherhood that inspired early antislavery campaigners in Europe and America, French and British pro-slavery thinkers countered that non-whites lacked the intelligence and potential of Europeans—using racist conceptions of biology to normalize servitude across generations. Thomas Jefferson became the first prominent American to theorize along these lines. In his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson “advance[d] it as a suspicion only” that black people “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
This was anathema to Samuel Stanhope Smith, who sought out Jefferson’s book and produced an elegant riposte. Smith’s Essay on the Causes of Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species was first delivered as a paper to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1787. The published version, which appeared the following year, became one of the most celebrated scientific studies before Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Smith was unwavering in his insistence that all men were created equal. Every difference in the human form could be explained by “the minutest causes, acting constantly, and long continued.” Crucially, he believed that human variations were reversible—that enlightened reformers could change virtually every aspect of a human being if they simply altered the environment in which that person lived out their life. On Jefferson’s tentative racial hierarchy, Smith was witheringly brief:
“These remarks upon the genius of the African negro appear to me to have so little foundation in true philosophy that few observations will be necessary to refute them.”
Samuel Stanhope Smith's "Essay on the Cause of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species," first presented in 1787.
View Primary Sources
Smith and Native Americans
Smith was a universalist, believing that all human beings had the same potential, but decidedly not a relativist. He didn’t recognize African or Native cultures as equivalent to Anglo-American culture, and his hopes for the nation’s future were grounded in his belief that African Americans and Indians could be 'improved'—both physically and culturally—until they closely resembled white people.
In his Essay, Smith wrote about an early experiment in racial ‘improvement’ at Princeton. In 1785, a Delaware Indian named George Morgan White Eyes entered Nassau Hall to begin his freshman year. The young man’s father had been killed by American militiamen in 1778, and Congress had voted to fund his son’s education at Princeton. “From an accurate observation of him,” Smith wrote, “I have received the most perfect conviction that the same state of society, united with the same climate, would make the Anglo-American and the Indian countenance very nearly approximate.” Smith conceded that a childhood spent among Native people on the frontier had produced some “obvious differences” in physical appearance. But by 1787, White Eyes’s progress at Princeton had convinced Smith that “the varieties among mankind are much less than they appear to be.”
Then, abruptly, White Eyes’s academic career came a halt. The young Delaware had fallen in with a group of dissolute and unruly students, and in December 1787 he was formally admonished for his conduct. By 1789, he was living in poverty in New York City. When Congress cut off his stipend, he complained to George Washington of “the treatment I met with at Princeton” and the bad reputation that had followed him to New York. White Eyes eventually returned to the West, and was later killed in a brawl. Washington concluded that educating Native Americans in the nation’s most prestigious colleges was a bad idea. George’s experience was “not such as can be productive of any good to their nations,” he told a friend in 1791. “It is, perhaps, productive of evil.”
Samuel Stanhope Smith must have known the sad ending to White Eyes’s Princeton career, but he changed barely a word of his enthusiastic account in the Essay’s 1810 edition. During the intervening decades, Smith’s ideas about racial ‘improvement’ had been reworked on a national scale. The administrations of Washington, Adams and Jefferson had crafted a ‘civilizing’ policy that encouraged Native Americans to embrace white society and even amalgamate with white settlers. When Indian nations placed a higher value on their own land and culture, however, they were drawn into wars with the United States—which relieved them of both. Smith had suggested that Native Americans would welcome the chance to embrace a superior civilization. But with no explanation for why indigenous people might prefer their own culture, Smith’s theory ran aground on the realities of westward expansion.
Smith and Enslaved People
Smith’s ideas about the malleability of human appearance and behavior informed his approach to African Americans as well as Indians. Throughout his life, Smith lived among enslaved people. After his years as an undergraduate and then a tutor at Princeton, Smith moved to Virginia in 1773 as a Presbyterian missionary. Within a year of his arrival, his talents were noted by David Rice, a local preacher and an architect of the new Hampden-Sydney College. When Smith accepted the invitation to became the college’s first president in 1775, he was only twenty four years old. The American Revolution had just erupted in the colony, and Virginia’s last royal governor, Lord Dunmore, had issued a proclamation encouraging the slaves of patriots to flee from their masters and fight for the British. Smith, who embraced the patriot cause in Virginia, effectively took the side of the slaveholders who howled at Dunmore’s proclamation.
Historian Bruce Dain has argued that Smith’s time in Virginia gave him an opportunity to see “life in a slave society at first hand.” While this is true, it would be a mistake to see Smith’s experience at Hampden-Sydney as an easy or unthinking accommodation with slavery. The Upper South harboured a complex and emerging antislavery sentiment, especially away from the tidewater regions where slavery was most profitable and ubiquitous. Smith’s relationship with David Rice offers a clue that the young Princetonian may already have developed an aversion—in theory, if not in practice—to the institution of slavery. Rice was among the most celebrated antislavery activists in the Upper South during the late 18th century. In 1792, he would famously attempt to persuade the Kentucky constitutional convention to outlaw slavery. Rice, who had many connections with Princeton’s Presbyterian diaspora, clearly recognized something in the recent graduate. Had he realized that Smith was a kindred spirit?
Colleges were important sites of antislavery thinking in the early United States. Even in the tidewater region of Virginia, the College of William and Mary witnessed a lively debate among students and faculty over the legitimacy of slavery. Many of Hampden-Sydney’s Presbyterian founders were personally opposed to the institution, and one of Smith’s successors as president freed his slaves during his time in office. From his campus vantage at least, Smith may not have noticed much difference between the culture of slaveholding he had witnessed in New Jersey and the educational frontier of central Virginia. Hampden-Sydney as an institution didn’t own slaves, but hired them regularly to assist in the daily upkeep of the college. Many of the faculty and trustees held antislavery views, but also allowed students to bring their ‘servants’ to campus. These tangled compromises and contradictions knitted together New Jersey and Virginia in ways that challenge our conventional assumptions about sectional divergence. In the 1770s, the North hadn’t abolished slavery and the South hadn’t yet become lost to it.
The pioneering reformers of the upper South—even radicals like David Rice—frequently owned slaves, despite their commitment to a future without slavery. After Smith’s return to Princeton in 1779, he slipped easily into the role of the antislavery slaveholder. We know from a 1784 newspaper advertisement that Smith owned at least one slave during his time at Princeton, a farm hand whom Smith was keen to exchange for another slave “accustomed to cooking and waiting in a genteel family.” This preference for house slaves made its way into Smith’s Essay. There was, he insisted, a “great difference” between the facial features of “domestic and field slaves.” House slaves soon began to resemble their masters, both in their features and their conduct. This gave Smith hope that, if “admitted to a liberal participation of the society, rank and privileges of their masters, they would change their African peculiarities much faster.” Smith’s bright view of human potential was tethered to the cumbersome belief that African Americans and Indians could escape from their physical appearance as well as from slavery or supposed savagery.
Smith took up the subject of racial 'improvement' in his undergraduate lectures at Princeton. He admitted that slavery was wrong, and that white Americans had a duty to abolish it, but insisted that slavery had done real damage to the morals of its victims—damage that had to be repaired before emancipation. “No event can be more dangerous to a community than the sudden introduction into it of vast multitudes of persons…possessing only the habits and vices of slavery,” he declared. His solution was to cultivate “good moral and industrious habits” among slaves before emancipating them. Perhaps slaveholders could give their slaves a small area of land to cultivate in their free time, paying them modest wages and finally rewarding their hard work. The payoff for masters would be a more virtuous class of freed people, a prerequisite for social harmony after emancipation.
Virginia abolitionist George Bourne later remarked that Princeton’s southern students must have been laughing behind their hands at Smith’s portrait of the kindly slaveholder. But most white reformers in Smith’s day reasoned from the same assumption that masters would be central to the abolition of slavery. Even if white southerners agreed to ‘improve’ and free their slaves, however, the road ahead was daunting. Smith thought that many whites would retain “prejudices” against ex-slaves that would prevent social cohesion. Newly freed people might become alienated from their white neighbors and fall in with those African Americans who were still in chains. A plan to end slavery gradually might easily spin off into a race war, undoing all of Smith’s hopes.
Smith’s solution was, if nothing else, bold: the United States should set aside a “large district” in the West and persuade freed people to resettle there, far from slavery’s heartland in the South. Whites should then be offered land grants to marry African Americans and live alongside them in the new territory—ultimately eliminating not just slavery but race itself. “In a course of time,” Smith told his Princeton students, the scheme would “obliterate those wide distinctions which are now created by diversity of complexion.” He feared that neither the states nor the federal government were likely to make the “great sacrifices” this scheme required. But he warned his students that, if slavery was allowed to continue unchecked, “it will be productive of many moral and political evils.”
The first half of Smith’s outlandish scheme had a strange afterlife, thanks to the careers of two of his students. Robert Finley, who became a clergyman in Basking Ridge after graduating from Princeton in 1787, was fascinated by the problem Smith had defined in his lectures: how could the evil of slavery be safely removed from the nation? Charles Fenton Mercer, the son of a Virginia slaveholder, graduated from Princeton in 1797 with the conviction that slavery should be abolished. He went on to become a U.S. congressman, a role that gave him a powerful platform from which to promote his beliefs.
In 1816, Finley and Mercer proposed a colonization plan by which African Americans could escape the debilitating effects of white prejudice. They had tweaked Smith’s scheme in two important ways: the colony would be located in West Africa rather than the western territories of the United States, and it would be limited to black colonists only. Mercer and Finley met with Samuel Stanhope Smith in the fall of 1816 as their plans took shape. Finley then convened his first meeting in Princeton, before traveling to Washington in December 1816 to found the new American Colonization Society (ACS).
The ACS immediately attracted the most powerful men in the nation to its ranks. James Madison, another Princeton alumnus, welcomed Finley to Washington, while James Monroe, his successor in the White House, helped the society to purchase what became the colony of Liberia in 1820. (The colony received its name from Maryland politician Robert Goodloe Harper, yet another colonizationist taught by Samuel Stanhope Smith at Princeton.) The ACS quickly became the most popular solution to the problem of slavery among ‘moderate’ whites across the nation. Colonization struggled to win support from free blacks, however, who suspected its motives and its white managers, and the ACS eventually drew fire from William Lloyd Garrison and other radical white abolitionists. But in the decades before the Civil War, the ACS received support from some of the most celebrated figures in American public life: from James Madison, who became the ACS president in 1833, to Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln.
The numerous connections between Princeton and the colonization movement led back to Samuel Stanhope Smith, and to the intellectual ambiguities of his racial universalism. Smith’s thinking was hamstrung by an over-dependence on physical malleability and a quiet privileging of whiteness. He rejected permanent racial hierarchies and recognized the corrosive effects of slavery, but placed so much faith in environment (and in the essential benevolence of the antislavery slaveholder) that his writings on race and slavery lacked a critical edge. By the time he’d developed his fantasy of moving black people to the West and experimenting with amalgamation, his more sober disciples had already embraced colonization without any reference to racial mixing.
Smith, like many reformers before 1830, was both a gradualist and a believer in the logic of cooptation: he sincerely imagined that slavery could be abolished with the consent of slaveholders, and that the common origins of blacks and whites would lead to a recognition of their shared humanity. By 1816, as the ACS established exile as the precondition for black freedom, Smith’s partial universalism had terminated in an early version of separate-but-equal. That same year, Virginia abolitionist George Bourne pronounced a harsh verdict on the man who had shaped the racial thinking of the post-Revolutionary generation:
“Dr. Smith exemplifies the difficulties which a man must surmount, who endeavors to combine truth with error, and rectitude of principle with corruption of practice.”
For general accounts of Smith's life and career, see: Edward L. Lach, Jr., ‘Smith, Samuel Stanhope,’ American National Biography, February 2000; Mark A. Noll, Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822: The Search for a Christian Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).
Lach, “Smith, Samuel Stanhope”; Noll, Princeton and the Republic, 185-243; John M. Murrin, “Introduction,” in Ruth L. Woodward and Wesley Frank Craven, Princetonians: 1784-1790, A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), xvii-xli.
Nicholas Guyatt, Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 22-28.
Ibid., 199-201; Roxann Wheeler, The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 235-87; Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Paris: n.p.,  1785), 263-64.
Samuel Stanhope Smith, An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species. To which are added, Strictures on Lord Kames’s Discourse on the Original Diversity of Mankind (Edinburgh: C. Elliot, 1788), 12; Ibid., second edition (New Brunswick: J. Simpson and Co., 1810), 267. See also Bruce Dain, A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 40-80.
Smith, An Essay, first edition, 94-96; Ruth L. Woodward, ‘George Morgan White Eyes,’ in Woodward and Craven, Princetonians: 1784-1790, 442-52.
George Morgan White Eyes to George Washington, 2 June, 8 July, and 8 August 1789, Papers of George Washington, digital edition; George Washington to Timothy Pickering, 20 January 1791, in Octavius Pickering, The Life of Timothy Pickering, 4 vols. (New York: Little, Brown, 1967), 2: 474.
Noll, Princeton and the Republic, 66-68.
Dain, Hideous Monster, 48; ‘A Biographical Sketch of the Rev. David Rice,’ Danville Quarterly Review, 4, no. 2 (1864): 274-209, 275.
Jennifer Oast, Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680-1860 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 161-62; Terry L. Meyers, ‘Thinking About Slavery at the College of William and Mary,’ William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, 21, no. 4 (2013): 1215-57.
Samuel S. Smith, sale advertisement, New Jersey Gazette, 25 March 1784; Smith, An Essay, first edition, 92-93.
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, two vols. (Trenton, NJ: Daniel Fenton, 1812), 2: 172-75.
George Bourne, The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable. With Animadversions upon Dr. Smith’s Philosophy (Philadelphia: J.M. Sanderson & Co., 1816), 144; Smith, Lectures, 2: 176.
Guyatt, Bind Us Apart, 263-75.
Bourne, The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable, 146.