John Maclean Sr. (1771-1814) was the College of New Jersey’s first chemistry professor and a slaveholder. His son John Maclean Jr. (1800-1886) would serve as Princeton's president from 1854 to 1868.[1] Maclean Sr., a trained physician, arrived in the United States from Scotland in 1795 and began teaching at the college that year.[2] During his tenure at Princeton from 1795 to 1812, Maclean was a professor of science and mathematics as well as bursar and clerk for President Samuel Stanhope Smith. In 1798, Maclean declared his intentions to become a U.S. citizen and married Phoebe Bainbridge of New York.[3]

In the first days of January 1799, Maclean purchased an enslaved woman named Lydia for the sum of $160.[4] As with so many historical records about enslaved people, this bill of sale—the only extant piece of information about Lydia's life in Maclean's household—leaves many questions and silences about her experiences.

Bill Of Sale For Lydia

Bill of Sale for Lydia in 1799.

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Lydia was the first of several slaves owned by Maclean as a Princeton professor. In July 1808, he placed an advertisement to sell a young enslaved man in the New York Evening Post. In the ad, Maclean described “a smart and active NEGRO BOY, between 19 and 20 years of age: he is a good plan Cook house Servant and Waiter…”[5] Maclean instructed those interested in the sale to contact John T. Bainbridge, his brother-in-law and a clerk in New York, but there is no record of a sale—if one ever happened. Six years later, upon his death, Maclean owned two slaves. The 1814 inventory attached to his will included a woman named Sal listed with the monetary value of $175 and a man named Charles listed with the monetary value of $75. Next to Charles’ name, Maclean specified the following: “Negro Boy Charles Placed out with Mr. John Vanhorn for 6 years then to return to the family.”[6] These small glimpses into the stories of Lydia, Sal, Charles and others enslaved by the professor highlight their absence in the historical archive despite their essential contributions to the households of Princeton’s most influential and renowned leaders.

Professor Maclean’s son and the executor of his estate, John Maclean Jr., was an active member of the American Colonization Society during his time as a tutor, professor, vice president and eventually president of the college. Although there is no record that Maclean Jr. owned slaves, he grew up in a slaveholding home and likely had close contact with Lydia, Sal, Charles and any other enslaved people owned by his father.

The bill of sale for Lydia and the inventory that listed Sal and Charles as property are located in Maclean’s presidential papers within the Princeton University archives.

John Maclean Sr  Estate Inventory

Inventory from the estate of John Maclean Sr., listing two slaves, a "Negro Girl Sal" and "Negro Boy Charles."

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Indenture Contract Jack Rouse

1823 indenture contract for Jack Rouse, a nine-year-old African American boy. Rouse's mother indentured him to "Phebe McLean," likely John Maclean Sr.'s widow.

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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]

John Maclean, Jr., A Memoir of John Maclean, M.D., the First Professor of Chemistry in the College of New Jersey, by his son, John Maclean, the Tenth President of the College (Princeton, NJ: The Princeton Press, 1885), 18.

[2]

Samuel Stanhope Smith, “The trustees of the college,” Woods’s Newark Gazette, 11 November 1795.

[3]

Citizenship Document, John Maclean, Sr., 1807, Letters, 1752-1807, Office of the President Records: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, Box 7, Folder 7, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[4]

Bill of Sale for Lydia, 1799; Letters; 1752-1807; Office of the President Records: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, Box 7, Folder 6; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[5]

Advertisement, The New York Evening Post, 22-29 July 1808.

[6]

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.

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