Contents and Arrangement

Series 11: James McCosh Records, 1747-1995

10 boxes
Restrictions may apply. See Access Note.

Collection Overview

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

James McCosh was the first president since John Witherspoon who was not an alumnus of the College of New Jersey. Many similarities have been noted between the two men. Both were born in Scotland and graduated from the University of Edinburgh. Witherspoon was inaugurated in 1768, and McCosh was inaugurated one hundred years later in 1868. They died one hundred years apart, almost to the day, and like all presidents until Woodrow Wilson, both were ministers.

McCosh was born April 1, 1811 on a farm in Ayrshire, Scotland. His father, who died when James was nine, had decided that he should be educated for the ministry. McCosh attended Glasgow University and then Edinburgh University. In Edinburgh he joined debating societies, discussing such issues as theology and the power of patronage. He sided with several others in believing that the major landowners should not have the final say on who became the minister of a congregation. This issue would resurface later. Inspired by his professor, Thomas Chalmers, McCosh and other students went to the poorer districts of Edinburgh to preach and do missionary work. He also began to study philosophy and created the groundwork for what would become his most noted published work , The Method of Divine Government, Physical and Moral. Licensed to preach in 1833, his first assignment was the Abbey Chapel in Arbroath; his second at Brechin in Forfarshire, where he met his wife, Isabella Guthrie. The two were married in September 1845. In 1843 "The Disruption" occurred when McCosh, along with one-third of his fellow ministers, left the security of the established Church of Scotland to begin the Free Church of Scotland. The rebellion was caused by the increased interference of Great Britain's central government in church affairs, with ministers being settled in parishes against the will of the people.

McCosh also disagreed with the lack of weight given to supernatural powers in John Stuart Mill's System of Logic and wrote The Method of Divine Government, Physical and Moral in response. The work received much recognition and led to his appointment to the chair of logic and metaphysics at Queen's College, Belfast. He spent 16 years in Ireland, published several other works, and became well known in the English-speaking world. He was one of the few clergymen who agreed with the theory of evolution, albeit within limits. He taught that it served "to increase the wonder and mystery of the process of creation." His published lecture on this subject was The Religious Aspect of Evolution.

McCosh was offered and accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey in 1868. He found an institution that was in need of repair after the turbulence caused by the Civil War, and McCosh, an expert fundraiser, undertook great improvements. He added distinguished faculty, increased the size of the student body, developed elective courses, bought scientific equipment, founded schools of science, philosophy, and art, added buildings, and enhanced the campus landscape. McCosh believed that the body as well as the mind should be cultivated, and on his arrival, he announced that he would build a gymnasium. When the Bonner-Marquand Gymnasium was completed a year later, it was the first college gymnasium built in the United States. McCosh also added Chancellor Green Library (1873), the Marquand Chapel (1881), and the Observatory (1869), among other buildings, while increasing the treasury by three million dollars. During his presidency The Daily Princetonian, The Tiger, and the Bric-a-Brac were founded, and extracurricular activities that evolved into the Triangle Club, the Glee Club, and intercollegiate football were initiated. With all these accomplishments to his credit, it is no wonder that McCosh referred to the College of New Jersey as "me college." His students affectionately referred to him as "Jimmie," and his wife also took a personal interest in students by caring for those who were ill. Four years after McCosh retired, the trustees erected the College's first infirmary and named it in her honor. McCosh ranks among Princeton University's most successful presidents, setting his institution well on the path to university status.

The McCosh records are arranged topically. Materials of note during his presidency include information about commencements, the regulation of liquor in the town of Princeton, and his request to stop teaching while serving as president. Pre-presidency highlights include the certificate appointing McCosh as the first minister of the church of Brechin, a farewell letter signed by his associates and friends in Ireland, plans for the Queen's College Library, and invitations and programs from his inauguration. The correspondence is arranged alphabetically by correspondent, with foreign letters at the end of the run. Letters from McCosh with unidentifiable addressees are filed under McCosh in chronological order. This series also contains numerous clippings and articles of a biographical nature. Also of interest are a large number of images, including photographs of McCosh and the construction of his Prospect Street house.


No arrangement action taken or arrangement information not recorded at the time of processing.

Collection History


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:

Series 11: James McCosh Records; 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
Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library
65 Olden Street
Princeton, NJ 08540, USA
(609) 258-6345
Storage Note:
  • Mudd Manuscript Library (mudd): Boxes 34-39; 257; 34C; 34D; 39A