Princeton 275: The Charter of the College of New Jersey, 1746 and 1748

This post is part of a series about items currently on exhibition at Mudd Library as part of “Princeton 275.” In this series, we go in-depth about selected items on display to let you know more about the story behind them and why we chose to include them.

Transcript of the first page of the Charter of the College of New Jersey. Board of Trustees Records (AC120), Vol. 1.

In an exhibition looking backward to the founding of Princeton, we needed something that would represent its origins, but the selection of the charter is about more than merely showing you its beginnings. Historical records attest that Princeton was the first college on the continent to guarantee students religious freedom, opening doors for those otherwise excluded from higher education at the time:

Petitioners have also expressed their earnest Desire that those of every Religious Denomination may have free and Equal Liberty and Advantage in the Said College any different Sentiments in Religion notwithstanding.

Given America’s founding myths, today’s Princetonians may not fully appreciate the radicalism inherent in this. Although the institution’s stance on religious freedom was aligned with colonial New Jersey’s, many other British colonies and early U.S. states had established churches. Princeton’s was a controversial position and remained so for decades. In 1836, for example, a Maryland newspaper declared Princeton’s decision to award an honorary doctorate to a Catholic alum from the Class of 1796 as “a most gross outrage…on all proper feelings” on the basis of his religion.

To be sure, Princeton has undergone continual transformation over the past three centuries. Religious minorities have not always found the environment supportive or inclusive, and the majority of its students were initially Presbyterian in spite of ideals expressed for supporting diversity of opinion. The founding charter expressed hopes our community still strives to fully realize. Indeed, the charter also included a de facto ban on Catholics (“Popish recusants”) serving as Trustees, because there were oaths they could not swear, including their respect for the succession of the Crown. As we acknowledge this, we can also appreciate that significant progress has been made toward interreligious (and nonreligious) inclusivity at Princeton over the past three centuries.

Close observers will note, however, that the document we have on display isn’t familiar as “the” Charter. That one can be viewed online in our finding aid to the Board of Trustees Records (AC120). The one we would call the Charter—indeed, the one still in effect for Princeton University today—is also the second one issued, from 1748, and bears the official seal of provincial governor, Jonathan Belcher. Our handwritten transcript, taken instead from the first volume of the Board of Trustees minutes, was chosen for an intensely practical reason: It’s smaller and therefore fits in our exhibition case!

Today, it is believed that the oldest charter transcript isn’t held in the University Archives at all, and can be found instead in London, at the library for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. From this we know that the text is virtually identical to the page we have on display at Mudd Library right now, though subsequent pages reflect somewhat more substantive edits. For the purposes of the Princeton 275 exhibition, the key is the expressed hope for an educational institution that welcomed students from all religious backgrounds.

The story behind the 1746 and 1748 charters takes us into a complex colonial past, but can be summarized as essentially logistical. The differences between the documents do not concern the philosophical underpinnings of the institution. The most significant changes concerned the operations of the Board of Trustees, and the signature of a new governor. The reason for this concerned a dispute over who had the authority to grant permission for the new college to operate.

New Jersey had secured, upon petition to the crown, a distinct administration from New York in 1738. Its first governor was Lewis Morris, who died in 1746. Until a permanent replacement could be found, John Hamilton served as interim governor, and it is he who signed the college’s 1746 charter, issued in Elizabeth. Anglicans critical of the institution (which was, in effect, a Presbyterian one) protested that Hamilton did not have the proper authority to sign the charter. After Jonathan Belcher was appointed in 1747, he took special interest in the fledgling College of New Jersey, and signed a new charter in 1748 to give the enterprise clear legitimacy under the Crown. He also encouraged the College—then in Newark—to move to Princeton, because he felt a central location would help show that the school was meant to serve all of New Jersey. This was, at the time, an ambitious and expansive goal. As other materials on display as part of Princeton 275 show, however, Princeton’s influence quickly grew far beyond the borders of colonial New Jersey.

Sources:

Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson. Princeton 1746-1896. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

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