Contents and Arrangement

Notes on the Founding and Early Years of The College of New Jersey, 1869

1 folder

Collection Overview

Collection Description & Creator Information


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 History

Archival Appraisal Information:

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.

Access & Use

Access Restrictions:

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 for Reproduction and Use:

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. For quotations that are fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. The Trustees of Princeton University hold copyright to all materials generated by Princeton University employees in the course of their work. If copyright is held by Princeton University, researchers will not need to obtain permission, complete any forms, or receive a letter to move forward with non-commercial use of materials from the Mudd Library. For materials where the copyright is not held by the University, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold the copyright and obtaining approval from them. If you have a question about who owns the copyright for an item, you may request clarification by contacting us through the Ask Us! form.

Credit this material:

Notes on the Founding and Early Years of The College of New Jersey; Office of the President Records : Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, AC117, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library
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Storage Note:
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