Contents and Arrangement Expanded View

Collection Overview

Princeton University. Office of the President.
Office of the President Records : Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup
Princeton University Archives
Permanent URL:
1746-1999 (mostly 1830-1869)
271 boxes
Storage Note:
  • Mudd Manuscript Library (scamudd): Boxes 1-262; 1A; 3A; 34A; 34B; 34C; 34D; 39A; 40A; 79A; 79B


This collection contains records relating to Princeton University presidents from Jonathan Dickinson, who served in this capacity from 1746 to 1747, to Harold W. Dodds, whose tenure spanned the period from 1933 to 1957. It brings together both primary and secondary materials pertaining to individual presidents as well as the office of the president itself. The Princeton University Presidents' Records document the lives and accomplishments of each president with varying completeness, as well as the functions of their office.

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

The content of this collection varies markedly over time. The eighteenth and early nineteenth-century presidents' records are typically secondary sources such as clippings or letters written by others, most of which long postdate the lifetimes of the men to whom they refer. In a few instances, primary material in the form of correspondence, financial records, and sermons exists. The early presidents' records are usually divided into five broad categories: biographical information, their presidency, family members, post- mortem material, and portraits. It is only with the presidency of John Maclean, Jr. that original materials such as correspondence begin to predominate. Maclean's and Harold Dodds' records are most strongly represented. In the post-Maclean era, James McCosh's administration is the least well documented, comprising just six boxes of material, and those of Francis Landey Patton, Woodrow Wilson, and John Grier Hibben, though informative in many regards, are by no means complete.

Presidential portraits and other images have been placed at the end of the collection under the appropriate series number and are referenced in the following series descriptions. Every president is depicted, along with many of their wives, though these images are limited in number and variety until the advent of photography in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Photographs of Presidents Robert Goheen (1957-1972), William Bowen (1972-1988), and Harold Shapiro (1988-2001), whose records are separately cataloged under different call numbers, can be found in the box 252.

The role of Princeton University's president, who is chosen by and answerable to the Board of Trustees, has evolved significantly since Jonathan Dickinson first taught a handful of students in his Elizabeth, New Jersey parsonage in 1747. By the close of Harold Dodds's tenure, more than two centuries later, the undergraduate and graduate student body had swelled to 3,584 and the faculty to 582, supported by an extensive infrastructure of libraries, laboratories, classrooms, and residential and recreational facilities. By the middle of the twentieth century, the president, once the heart and soul of a fledgling college chiefly concerned with preparing men for ministry, was charged with leading a complex multi- disciplinary and non-sectarian institution.

The presidents of Princeton University (or the College of New Jersey, as it was known prior to 1896) have always served as their institution's chief executive officer. Their primary function, however, is no longer pedagogical but administrative, and even in this sphere, they now share their duties with others. Their leadership remains a critical factor in Princeton University's success, but their centrality and ubiquity have slowly diminished.

Even when Princeton University had far outgrown its small beginnings, presidents like Francis Landey Patton carried a disproportionate burden, though by the close of the nineteenth century, this was seen as an error in judgment rather than a necessary virtue. According to David W. Hirst, "Even by standards of that day, the administrative structure of Princeton was spare to the extreme. Patton conducted college affairs from his study in Prospect. He had no personal secretary until 1895 when he assigned that position to his son, George Stevenson Patton '91, and there was no college or university secretary until the election of Charles Williston McAlpin in December 1900. Patton was assisted by only one dean for most of his term, during which he turned aside the faculty's urgent appeals to inaugurate a system of deans to accommodate the expanding institution" (A Princeton Companion). In contrast, by 1957, when Dodds retired, the president could draw on the talents of no fewer than six deans, aided, in turn, by six assistant or associate deans.

The 15 presidents whose records can be found in this collection faced a wide range of challenges, from the warfare of the American Revolution, which left Nassau Hall in ruins, to the twentieth-century educational reforms that propelled Princeton University into the first tier of the world's universities. Their training and abilities also varied, and it is this diversity of people and issues, interacting with one another in unique ways, that have defined the office of Princeton University's president.

The office has never been self-sufficient, even in its earliest incarnation, for presidents have always had to work in concert with the Board of Trustees and, as the latter's day-to-day involvement in the life of the institution lessened, with a corps of administrative officers as well. The will of the faculty, students, and alumni have also had an important impact on the power of presidents. Each of these groups has asserted itself at different points in history, from the rampaging students who helped to wreck the presidency of Samuel Stanhope Smith, to the faculty who agitated for Patton's removal, to the alumni who undermined Woodrow Wilson's initiatives concerning graduate education and undergraduate eating clubs. At times, however, power has been willingly shared, as the close partnership of James Carnahan and John Maclean, Jr., the College of New Jersey's ninth and tenth presidents, demonstrates.

Variety has also marked the length of presidential tenures. The combined service of Princeton University's first five presidents was under 20 years, thanks to stress and illness.

Carnahan, in contrast, headed the College of New Jersey for no fewer than 31 years, and four of the presidents represented here enjoyed tenures of between 20 and 30 years.

Familial and religious cohesion has given way to pluralism. Until Wilson assumed the presidency of Princeton University in 1902, the men who held this office were exclusively Presbyterian clergymen, and in two cases, family members succeeded one another: Burr was succeeded by his father-in-law, Jonathan Edwards, and John Witherspoon by his son-in-law, Smith. Not until 2001 did Princeton elect a female president, Shirley Tilghman.

The contributions of Princeton University's presidents have varied with the times in which they lived and in proportion to their talents and resources. Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Wilson guided the United States through the First World War. The impact of educator James McCosh was likened to "an electric shock, instantaneous, paralyzing to the opposition, and stimulating to all who were not paralyzed." Burr oversaw his institution's move from Newark to Princeton in 1756 and the erection of Nassau Hall. Dodds, notwithstanding the turmoil of the Great Depression and the Second World War, set a new standard of academic excellence and, as the development of the Woodrow Wilson School (now the School of Public and International Affairs) attests, gave his university a global outlook. Inevitably some presidents failed to sustain the burdens of their office: men like Smith, whose tenure was marred by a fire that gutted Nassau Hall in 1802 and student riots that led to mass suspensions in 1807. Indeed, Smith is one of four presidents who have been compelled to resign under pressure. The other three are Ashbel Green, Patton, and Wilson.

The series descriptions that follow provide individual profiles of Princeton University's first 15 presidents, as well as insights into the changing character of their office. Their names and tenures are listed below:

President Tenure

Jonathan Dickinson 1747

Aaron Burr, Sr. 1748-1757

Jonathan Edwards 1758

Samuel Davies 1759-1761

Samuel Finley 1761-1766

John Witherspoon 1768-1794

Samuel Stanhope Smith 1795-1812

Ashbel Green 1812-1822

James Carnahan 1823-1854

John Maclean, Jr. 1854-1868

James McCosh 1868-1888

Francis Landey Patton 1888-1902

Woodrow Wilson 1902-1910

John Grier Hibben 1912-1932

Harold Willis Dodds 1933-1957

Collection Creator Biography:

Princeton University. Office of the President.

The President is the chief executive officer of the University. They preside at all meetings of the boards of trustees and of the faculty and at all academic functions at which they are present and represent the University before the public. The Trustee by-laws charge them with the general supervision of the interests of the University and with special oversight of the departments of instruction.

Collection History


This is an artificial collection that came to the Princeton University Archives from a variety of sources over a period of years, including the office of the president, former Secretary of the University Varnum Lansing Collins, and other donors.


No information on appraisal is available.


These papers were processed with the generous support of former Princeton University President Harold T. Shapiro, Charles Brothman '51, and the John Foster Dulles and Janet Avery Dulles Fund.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Carol V. Burke and Stacey C. Peeples in 2002. Finding aid written by Carol V. Burke and Stacey C. Peeples in 2002.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

Materials generated by the office of the president are closed for 30 years from the date of their creation. Some records relating to personnel or students are closed for longer periods of time.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. The Trustees of Princeton University hold copyright to all materials generated by Princeton University employees in the course of their work. For instances beyond Fair Use, if copyright is held by Princeton University, researchers do not need to obtain permission, complete any forms, or receive a letter to move forward with use of materials from the Princeton University Archives.

For instances beyond Fair Use where the copyright is not held by the University, while permission from the Library is not required, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections, nor does it require researchers to obtain its permission for said use. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

Office of the President Records : Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup; Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library
Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library
65 Olden Street
Princeton, NJ 08540, USA
(609) 258-6345
Storage Note:
  • Mudd Manuscript Library (scamudd): Boxes 1-262; 1A; 3A; 34A; 34B; 34C; 34D; 39A; 40A; 79A; 79B

Find More

Other Finding Aids

The Office of the President Records: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup forms part of the Princeton University Office of the President Records. Finding Aids for other subgroups and portions of the collection are also available online:

Office of the President Records: Robert F. Goheen Subgroup, 1924-1988 (bulk 1957-1972): Finding Aid.

Office of the President Records: William G. Bowen Subgroup, 1940-1998 (bulk 1972-1987): Finding Aid.

Office of the President Records: Harold Shapiro Subgroup, 1961-2001 (bulk 1987-2001): Finding Aid.

Subject Terms:
College administrators -- New Jersey -- Princeton.
Universities and Colleges -- New Jersey -- Princeton -- Administration.
Genre Terms:
Photographs, Original.
Presbyterian church in the U.S.A.
Princeton University
Princeton University Administration.
Bowen, William G.
Burr, Aaron, 1716-1757
Carnahan, James, 1775-1859
Davies, Samuel, 1723-1761
Dickinson, Jonathan, 1688-1747
Dodds, Harold W. (Harold Willis), 1889-1980
Duffield, Edward D. (Edward Dickinson), 1871-1938
Edwards, Jonathan, 1703-1758.
Finley, Samuel, 1715-1766
Fox, Arthur E. (Arthur Eugene), 1891-1957
Gemmell, Edgar M. (Edgar Mills), 1911-1990
Goheen, Robert F. (Robert Francis) (1919-2008)
Green, Ashbel (1762-1848)
Hibben, John Grier (1861-1933)
Maclean, John (1800-1886)
McCosh, James (1811-1894)
Patton, Francis L. (Francis Landey) (1843-1932)
Shapiro, Harold T. (1935-)
Smith, Samuel Stanhope, 1750-1819
Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924.
Witherspoon, John, 1723-1794