From Princeton to Williamsburg!

TWOILH at Williamsburg

In 1773, a recent graduate of the College of New Jersey at Princeton from the southern New Jersey town of Greenwich went to Virginia to teach the children of a wealthy plantation owner.

The tutor was Philip Vickers Fithian.  The planter was Robert Carter III.  Carter’s plantation was called Nomini Hall, but he also had a house in Williamsburg.

I wrote about Fithian’s experience in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: The Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  The teachers in my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America read the book during their week in Princeton.

So perhaps it is fitting that some alums from the Princeton Seminar traveled, like Fithian, to Williamsburg this week.  And look what they found on sale in the Colonial Williamsburg bookstore!

Thanks for sharing Jamie, Jen, and Tracy!

American Slavery and American Freedom at Princeton University

Tree at princeton

Samuel Finley planted this sycamore after the 1766 repeal of the Stamp Act

As some of you know, I was at Princeton University last week for the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History summer seminar on colonial America.

Each year the teachers take a tour of colonial-era Princeton.  One of our stops is the Maclean House (aka The President’s House), the home of the earliest presidents of the College of New Jersey at Princeton.  Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, John Witherspoon, and several others lived here.

McLean House

The President’s House at Princeton University: a view from Nassau Street

According to Princeton lore, Samuel Finley, the president of the college, planted two sycamore trees in the front yard of the house to commemorate the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766.  They still stand today. (See pics above).

Did Finley’s slaves plant these trees?

Here is a 1764 sketch of the campus with Nassau Hall on the left and the president’s house on the right:

Nassau 18th

In May 2019, the Princeton & Slavery Project complicated the story of this house and its relationship to American liberty. Visitors will now get a better glimpse of the close relationship between slavery and freedom at Princeton by viewing this plaque:

Plaque at Princeton

Plaque placed at the President’s House by the Princeton & Slavery Project in May 2019

plaque-2

President’s House with the plaque

 

Slavery at Princeton University

MacLean House Princeton

Check out Alex Carp‘s piece at The New York Review of Books on slavery and American colleges and universities.  This particular excerpt deals with slavery at Princeton:

Last fall, after more than four years of research, Princeton became the latest university to present its results. Princeton was the site of a George Washington victory over British forces and housed the Continental Congress. All of the university’s founding trustees, and its first nine presidents, owned slaves. Slaves owned by the university’s fifth president—two women, a man, and three children—were auctioned off under the so-called “liberty trees” outside his house, two sycamores planted around the time of the repeal of the Stamp Act and pointed out on campus tours through this year only as evidence of the college’s devotion to the American Revolution. (Princeton is one of the rare American institutions older than its country. The university was on its sixth president by the time the ink dried on the US Constitution.) According to Martha Sandweiss, the historian who led the project, Princeton epitomizes “the paradox at the heart of American history: from the very start, liberty and slavery were intimately intertwined.”

Slavery was not uncommon in New Jersey, and even once abolition began, it took generations to complete. An 1804 law granted emancipation only to New Jersey slaves born after July 4 of that year, and only after they had served what one historian has called a “term” of slavery that could last for as many as twenty-five years. One result of this gradual abolition was that many New Jersey slaveholders sold enslaved children born after that deadline to plantations out of state, which reduced the number of enslaved people in New Jersey without emancipating anyone. Another was the transition to institutions that closely resembled slavery: towns throughout the state established “poorhouse farms,” where the vagrant or indigent would be confined to work or were sometimes rented out. Businessmen traveling from New Brunswick to New York at the turn of the nineteenth century—a trip that could take the better part of three days, generally by carriage and boat—would come across “stray negroes” who could be jailed, then sold to pay jail expenses, if they failed to explain themselves sufficiently. The last child registered for gradual emancipation—a girl named Hannah, born in 1844, before legislators replaced the category with something called “apprentices for life”—remained enslaved until barely two weeks before the Confederacy’s 1865 surrender. Princeton’s entanglement with slavery, Sandweiss said when describing the project’s findings last fall, is “typical of other eighteenth-century institutions. And it makes us quintessentially and deeply American.”

At its best, this wave of research demonstrates the ways in which slavery and its legacies have built the world we live in: how the ideas and institutions born in one era do not entirely cast off the forces that shaped them as they move through time. There is no evidence that Princeton University itself owned slaves, but by the early nineteenth century its main building, Nassau Hall, was adjacent to a private farm where enslaved people tended to cattle and worked in a cherry orchard; on the other side of the building, slaves worked in the taverns and other businesses on Nassau Street. Before they could enroll in courses, prospective students had to pass exams in Latin and Greek administered personally by the president; Sandweiss speculates that students arriving for their exams early on their first morning would be greeted at the president’s doorstep by “an enslaved person—the first person on campus a prospective student might meet.” As the college began to chase planter wealth, its antebellum student body grew disproportionately Southern and repeatedly clashed withPrinceton’s community of free African Americans. The school’s Civil War memorial is one of the very few in the country to list the names of the war dead without noting on which side they fought—Sandweiss knew of only one other, at a boarding school—and the university began to grow to its modern size through gifts from a family fortune made by providing financial and shipping services to Cuban slave plantations until at least 1866, the year after slavery’s abolition in the United States.

Read the entire piece here.

John Adams Visits Princeton

36167-nassau_hall_princeton

His made his first stop to Nassau Hall on August 27, 1775.  Boston 1775 has it covered:

In his diary Adams recorded his impressions:

The Colledge is a stone building about as large as that at New York [i.e., what is now Columbia]. It stands upon rising Ground and so commands a Prospect of the Country.

After Dinner Mr. [John] Pidgeon a student of Nassau Hall, Son of Mr. [John] Pidgeon of Watertown [actually Newton] from whom we brought a Letter, took a Walk with us and shewed us the Seat of Mr. [Richard] Stockton a Lawyer in this Place and one of the Council, and one of the Trustees of the Colledge. As we returned we met Mr. Euston [William Houston], the Professor of Mathematicks and natural Philosophy, who kindly invited Us to his Chamber. We went.

The Colledge is conveniently constructed. Instead of Entries across the Building, the Entries are from End to End, and the Chambers are on each side of the Entries. There are such Entries one above another in every Story. Each Chamber has 3 Windows, two studies, with one Window in each, and one Window between the studies to enlighten the Chamber.

Mr. Euston then shewed us the Library. It is not large, but has some good Books. He then led us into the Apparatus. Here we saw a most beautifull Machine, an Orrery, or Planetarium, constructed by Mr. [David] Writtenhouse of Philadelphia. It exhibits allmost every Motion in the astronomical World. The Motions of the Sun and all the Planetts with all their Satellites. The Eclipses of the Sun and Moon &c. He shewed us another orrery, which exhibits the true Inclination of the orbit of each of the Planetts to the Plane of the Ecliptic. 

He then shewed Us the electrical Apparatus, which is the most compleat and elegant that I have seen. He charged the Bottle and attempted an Experiment, but the State of the Air was not favourable.

Read the entire post here.

 

Review of Gideon Mailer’s *John Witherspoon’s American Revolution*

MailerMy review of this important book is in the Summer 2017 issue of New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Here is a taste:

Prior to John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, the received wisdom from historians of Witherspoon’s thought was that the Presbyterian divine was the perfect representation of how evangelical Protestantism had either merged with, or was co opted by, the enlightened moral thinking emanating from the great Scottish universities. Historians Ned Landsman and Mark Noll argued that Witherspoon’s ethical sensibilities drew heavily from moralist Francis Hutcheson and the moderate wing of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Landsman coined the phrase “The Witherspoon Problem” to describe how Witherspoon strongly opposed Hutcheson’s human-centered system of morality prior to arriving in the colonies in 1768, but then seemed to incorporate these same ideas in the moral philosophy lectures he delivered to his students at Nassau Hall. Noll forged his understanding of Witherspoon amidst the intramural squabbles in late twentieth-century evangelicalism over whether or not the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Since Witherspoon was a minister with deep evangelical convictions, many modern evangelicals claimed him as one of their own and used his life and career to buttress the Christian nationalism of the Religious Right. In a series of scholarly books, Noll challenged his fellow evangelicals to understand Witherspoon less as an evangelical in the mold of First Great Awakening revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, and more as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment who drew heavily from secular ideas to sustain his understanding of virtue.

Mailer’s revisionist work challenges much of what we have learned from Landsman and Noll. 

Read the entire review here.

“Political Jealousy is a Laudable Passion”

eacac-fithian2bbookI was watching the news last night and remembered this passage (p.142) from my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

Philip reached maturity in this patriotic culture.  He was taught at Princeton that it was appropriate to exercise the passions in the defense of liberty.  In his 1772 commencement disputation he echoed the words of the eighteenth-century political tract of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters, by defending the notion that “political jealousy is a laudable passion.” His speech distinguished between “domestic and ecclesiastical jealousies,” which were harmful, and “political jealousy,” which was “rational & uniform & necessary.”  As Philip had learned all too well through his courtship with Elizabeth Beatty, “jealousy” was normally a dangerous “disease” that could blight friendships and lead to “suspicions” among acquaintances.  However, when channeled in the right direction, it was also a useful passion.  The truly “jealous” citizen kept a careful and virtuous watch on his government leaders to guard against vice and corruption.  Political jealousy served as a unifying force–a common political ideology of resistance grounded in a common morality–that held a community togehter in times of strife and preserved societal order.  Philip said that it had a “natural tendency” to “unite people” around interests that were closely associated with the preservation of the nation.”

Project Reading

I just finished the first volume of John Maclean’s History of the College of New Jersey (1877).  I read Maclean while I was working on The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but this time around I was looking for different things. (My notes from my earlier reading are pretty sketchy. I was basically just looking for references to Philip Vickers Fithian and the Princeton classes of 1771 and 1772).

Maclean was president of Princeton from 1854-1868 and clearly loves the college where he spent his entire academic career. His history borders on hagiography in places (as is the case with most 19th century institutional histories), but it is generally a solid chronicle of college life at Princeton through the Civil War era.

What I like about Maclean is his use of primary sources.  While I wish he would have more footnotes, he does reproduce dozens of letters, trustee minutes, and commencement exercises from the eighteenth century.  Some of these sources I have not been able to find in archives, making Maclean’s work very useful to my project.

Stay tuned.

Project Reading (and Writing)

First, I was encouraged by Joseph Adelman’s post yesterday at The Junto.  It looks like someone is actually interested in my attempt to chronicle some of the reading I am doing for my project on Presbyterians and American Revolution.  Thanks, Joseph.

I hope that these “project reading” reports will serve as a nice way of motivating me in my work.

I have failed to mention so far that a lot of the reading I have been doing these past few weeks has been connected to the preparation of a book proposal.  I am playing with two titles right now.  One is “A Presbyterian Rebellion: The American Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic.”  The other is ” ‘Yet to be Decided Quote’: Presbyterians in a Revolutionary Age.”

My choice of a working title will depend on how I frame the book.  Will I be writing a new history of the American Revolution in the mid-Atlantic that takes the role of radical Presbyterians seriously?  Or will I be writing a history of Presbyterians in the eighteenth century and how they intersected with the American Revolution?  The answer to these questions will come to me as I continue to read in primary and secondary material.

I have already written a preliminary book proposal with a preliminary chapter outline.  My “project reading” over the last week or two has really been centered on the sample chapter–a vital part of any proposal.  Most scholars assume that the sample chapter submitted with the full proposal should be a finished and polished chapter, a piece of prose that will appear close to “as is” (with minor copy-editing) in the finished book.  Indeed, this is how I approached the assignment for both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Such an approach will probably suffice for most university presses.

But I am going to try something a bit different this time around, especially after reading Susan Rabiner and Aldred Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction–and Get it PublishedHere is what they say about a book proposal’s “sample chapter”: 

A sample chapter is not really a chapter at all. It looks and smells like a chapter, in that it usually runs about a chapter’s length and has a beginning, middle, and end.  But like no chapter in your final book, it succeeds by cannibalizing other chapters, stealing the best material in the book and presenting it in such a way as to showcase the dramatic potential of the book or the power of the argument, or the richness of the topic.

Rather than calling this a “sample chapter,” Rabiner and Fortunato prefer to call it a writing sample.”

Since the College of New Jersey at Princeton, and what Mark Noll has called “the Princeton Circle,” plays such a prominent part in the book I hope to write, I decided to focus my “writing sample” on Princeton and John Witherspoon. I may not end up with an entire chapter in the book devoted to Princeton and Witherspoon, but for the writing sample I have chosen to “cannibalize” from material that will be dispersed throughout several chapters.

I got up early yesterday morning and started writing. This is what I’ve got so far:


Princeton

“Nassau Hall.  May she again flourish and continue the nursery of statesmen, as she has been of warriors.”

            Independent Gazetteer, May 3, 1783

           Things were beginning to look a lot brighter for John Witherspoon.  The president of the College of New Jersey was presiding over a gathering of dignitaries, including William Livingston, the revolutionary governor of the state, who had come to Princeton in late April 1783 to commemorate American independence.  As Witherspoon looked at the candles illuminating Nassau Hall, the college’s main building, and listened to a local infantry company fire cannons in celebration, he must have been hopeful.  Nassau Hall was damaged but still standing after the Battle of Princeton.  Students had returned in 1778 (originally sharing the building with an army hospital) and repairs were almost complete.  Most importantly, independence had been won.  When he came to Princeton from Paisley, Scotland in 1768 Witherspoon knew very little about the colonies’ grievances against England.  He had arrived to bring leadership to a fledgling college and unite a divided American Presbyterian church.  He could not have imagined toasting independence with some of the mid-Atlantic’s most prominent revolutionaries at a school he had transformed into a “seminary of sedition.”  

But what if Witherspoon never came to Princeton?  What if he had done the safe thing and settled for the security of his Paisley parish over this small crossroads village in central New Jersey?  Commemorations like the one that took place in Princeton on that Spring afternoon in 1783 can be times of contemplation, times to reflect on what might have been.  As Witherspoon thought about his brief but tumultuous sojourn in America he probably also remembered that he almost didn’t come.

 

Project Reading

My reading over the Christmas Holiday included two books on Presbyterians and the founding of the College of New Jersey.

I reread the first several chapters of Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker’ Princeton, 1746-1896 (1946).  This is a very useful mid-twentieth-century institutional history, but it was made even better by John Murrin‘s 1996 introduction to the paperback edition.  Murrin’s essay reminded me that I need to reread the diary of Esther Edwards Burr (Ned Landsman had me read it in graduate school), look at a few essays from the 1970s on Princeton and the American Revolution (including one by Murrin himself), and review the first two volumes of Princetonians:A Biographical Dictionary.

I also reread the letters in L.H. Butterfield’s John Witherspoon Comes to America.  This thin volume contains correspondence between Witherspoon, Benjamin Rush, Richard Stockton and others during the period of negotiation that eventually led to Witherspoon accepting the presidency of the College of New Jersey.  In the process I realized that Witherspoon’s wife almost kept him from coming to Princeton.  She did not want to leave Paisley, Scotland for New Jersey and feared that her husband would die in America, leaving her all alone in a “foreign land.”  Eventually, thanks to the gentle touch of Benjamin Rush, who was studying medicine in Edinburgh at the time, Elizabeth consented and the Witherspoons made the journey to Princeton.

I was quite taken by the role that Witherspoon’s friends in Scotland played in this decision.  Many of these esteemed Presbyterian ministers not only urged Witherspoon to take the job in Princeton, but accused him of allowing his wife to stand in the way of God’s call on his life.  Their letters on this front are pretty harsh on Elizabeth. 

I think this story, if told well, might make for some good reading.

Not All Presbyterians Were Radical Whigs in April 1776

This morning I was reading the memoirs of Elias Boudinot (1740-1821), a Presbyterian lawyer from Elizabethtown, New Jersey, the president of the Continental Congress (1782-83), and the first president of the American Bible Society (1816).

Boudinot was a strong supporter of the American cause, but in the months leading up to July 4, 1776 he was a bit more conservative than some of his fellow Presbyterian Whigs. Boudinot thought that John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, was moving far too quickly toward independence in some of his speeches and political activities.

In April 1776, Boudinot attended a meeting of the Board of Trustrees of the College of New Jersey, a Presbyterian school in Princeton that Witherspoon had transformed into a bastion of American patriotism. After a routine day of business, Boudinot found it odd that Witherspoon did not show up for the second day of meetings.  What college president skips out on a meeting of his own Board of Trustees?  There must have been something more important to tend to.  And there was.

Witherspoon had left the Trustees meeting to give a speech to a gathering of New Jersey county representatives who had answered an anonymous call in a New York newspaper to come to New Brunswick for the purpose of discussing a “matter which greatly concerned the province.” As the delegates learned upon their arrival to New Brunswick, it was Witherspoon himself who had called this meeting for the purpose of “declaring a separation from Great Brittain.”

Meanwhile, on his return to Elizabethtown following the College of New Jersey Trustees meeting, Boudinot and his traveling companion, William Peartree Smith, stopped at New Brunswick to feed their horses. They soon learned that Witherspoon was not only the driving force behind the delegates meeting, but he was also planning a speech later that afternoon to try to convince the delegates to support independence.  Concerned that Witherspoon’s ideas were too radical, and perhaps wondering what kind of revolutionary fire Witherspoon was going to try to ignite among the gathering of delegates, Boudinot and Smith decided to make a stop at the meeting before heading to Woodbridge for dinner.  Here is his description of what happened that afternoon in New Brunswick:

We accordingly attended the Meeting in the Afternoon when Dr. W rose and in a very able and elegant speech of one hour and an half endeavoured to convince the audience & the Committee of the absurdity of opposing the extravagant demands of Great Brittain, while we were professing a perfect allegiance to her Authority and supporting her courts of Justice.  The Character of the speaker, his great Influence among the people, his known attachment to the liberties of the People, and the artful manner in which he represented the whole subject, as worthy their attention, had an effect, on the assembly that astonished me.

Boudinot was obviously impressed by Witherspoon’s rhetorical skills, but he was also angered by the Princeton president’s political scheming.

I never felt myself in a more mortifying Situation.  The anonymous publication; The Meeting of the Trustees of the College but the Day before made up wholly of Presbyterians; Their President leaving them to attend the meeting & avowing himself the Author of it; The Doctor known to be at the head of the Presbyterian Interest; and Mr Smith & Myself both Presbyterians, arriving at New Brunswick in the morning, as if intending to go forward & then staying an attending the meeting, altogether looked so like a preconcerted Scheme, to accomplish the End, that I was at my wit’s end, to know how to extricate myself from so disagreeable a situation, especially as the measure was totally ag[ainst] my Judgment.

I am still trying to decipher what Boudinot is saying here, especially related to his remark that the Princeton board meeting was scheduled a day before the New Brunswick meeting and the former meeting was “made up wholly of Presbyterians.”  Does this means tha Boudinot believed that Witherspoon scheduled the New Brunswick meeting at the time he did precisely because he knew there would be a large number of Presbyterian patriots down the road in Princeton who might come to New Brunswick to support his political ends?

Whatever the case, Boudinot would not allow Witherspoon to dominate the New Brunswick meeting. When the opportunity arose, he gave a thirty-minute extemporaneous speech opposing Witherspoon’s plea for independence.  Boudinot claimed that Witherspoon’s plan:

…was neither founded in Wisdom, Prudence, nor Economy; That we had a chosen Continental Congress, to whom we had resigned the Consideration of our public affairs; That they, coming from every part of the Union, would best represent all the Colonies not thus united.  They would know the true Situation of our Country with regard to finances, Union & the prospects we had of a happy reconciliation with the Mother Country…”

Of course Boudinot could not have been more wrong about the Continental Congress. Two months later its members would take the radical step of breaking with England. And it would be Witherspoon, representing the New Jersey delegation, who would end up signing the Declaration of Independence.

But on this particular day, Boudinot was victorious. After his dissenting remarks, Witherspoon responded and a debate between the two Presbyterians ensued on the floor of the meeting.  When Boudinot sensed that he had the upper hand and had won over the delegates with his rhetoric, he called for a vote on independence. Witherspoon was not happy:

The Doctor was a good deal out of humoor & contended warmly against a vote, but a large Majority of the Meeting insisted on a Vote, which, being taken, out of 35 Members, there were but 3 or 4 who Voted for the Doctors proposition, the rest rejecting it with great warmth.  Thus ended this first attempt to try to the pulse of the People of New Jersey on the Subject of Independence….”

Stay tuned for more stuff like this when and if I ever complete my manuscript: “A Presbyterian Rebellion: The American Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic.”  I am hoping to make some good headway this summer.