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.


Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Princeton Alumni Weekly

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

“He Decided to Conquer the Place that Had Conquered Him”: Peter Putnam ’42 *50’s Princeton, Part II

In Part I of this two-part series, I told the story of how Peter Putnam ’42 *50 lost his sight in a suicide attempt and fought for the right to return to Princeton University and finish his degree. In this second installment, I detail the life Putnam lived as a student, an employee, and an alum of Princeton University after his return.

Peter Putnam ’42 re-entered Princeton University over the initial objections of the administration, bringing along with him a new companion, Minnie, the first of many guide dogs. (Undergraduates quickly dubbed Minnie “the first co-ed in Princeton history.”) Though Putnam would be known as part of the Class of 1942 in perpetuity, he was a junior when he came back in his original graduation year.

Whether he set out to prove his detractors wrong or it simply happened, Putnam defied their low expectations at every turn. Putnam participated in campus life, with some limitations. He did not, for example, eat with his peers at Commons, his academic record notes tersely, “because of physical disability.” Based on his later writings about not being granted entry to many places in Princeton because of his need for a service dog, it’s possible he wasn’t permitted in the dining hall because Minnie was not allowed to go along. However, he threw himself into opportunities that were available, earning local celebrity for reasons far beyond his constant canine companion. As the Princeton Alumni Weekly put it in 1957, “he decided to conquer the place that had conquered him.”

Triangle Club elected Putnam its president in 1942. He supervised the last of Triangle’s productions during World War II, a show that might not have been possible without him. “Time and Again,” unlike most other Triangle Shows before it, had no Christmas tour, and was only performed locally. Triangle membership that year included students on accelerated programs who had little time for extracurriculars. Putnam ended up writing most of the script himself, playing the role of a World War I veteran in the first scene, and handling the administrative tasks for the show like managing the budget and securing permissions from various stakeholders to stage the production.

Illustrations from the Nassau Sovereign, November 12, 1942, including a reference to “Boss Putnam.”

The song “Here I Sit with the Physically Unfit” from “Time and Again,” written by William K. Zinsser ’44, may give us insight into how ableism would have pervaded Putnam’s experiences at Princeton, even in spaces that seemed otherwise welcoming. In the lyrics, a woman seeking a man to love at a time when most were away at war complains about her options. After the woman notes “I’m left to be protected/By the rejected/But I’m feeling tepid/T’ward the decrepit,” she goes on to list a variety of disabilities that she finds unappealing, including blindness.

I’m left behind

With the lame and the halt and the blind back here

Ev’ryone who isn’t knock-kneed is flying a Lockheed

Ev’ryone without myopia is in Ethiopia

But I must be sweet

To the guys who have got flat feet back here. Continue reading

“A Fairyland and Hell to Me for Years”: Peter Putnam ’42 *50’s Princeton, Part I

This is the first in a two-part series on the life of Peter Putnam ‘42 *50 in Princeton, before and after he lost his sight. This first installment focuses on the events leading up to the incident in which he was blinded and his fight to return to Princeton University afterward.

Peter Putnam entered Princeton University in 1938 with a talent for academics, but lacking in direction. Because he had long expected to join the Army, he had also assumed he would attend West Point, like his father before him, but the elder Putnam suggested his son find a less frustrating career. The looming threat of war may or may not have influenced the Putnams; in any case, an uncle and other relatives had attended Princeton, and many of Putnam’s classmates were headed there, so it seemed like the default place for him to go. Decades later, Putnam described his 1938 arrival at Princeton University as entering “a fairyland and hell to me for years to come.”

While in college, Putnam was engaged in an internal war with himself, alternately taking advantage of the pleasures offered to a privileged young man in the Ivy League and becoming frustrated when no consequences for his hedonistic lifestyle materialized. He drank and partied his way through a few years, and his photographic memory meant no real need to study in order to pass his classes. Putnam was not a stellar student, to be sure, but he was still doing relatively well, earning grades that would have allowed him to graduate with honors, whether he applied himself or not—and mostly he did not. In a letter to the Dean of the College, Putnam later made some references to family problems contributing to his feelings of despair, without detailing what they were.

A bout with appendicitis and mononucleosis in his junior year deepened Putnam’s depression. He began fantasizing about playing Russian roulette with a revolver to which he had access, wrote a suicide note, and carried bullets to be prepared for the moment he would call it quits on life. He deliberately isolated himself, quitting his extracurriculars and moving into a single room. When Houseparties weekend came in 1941, Putnam went to visit his parents instead of socializing. There, he attempted to carry out his plans.

Telegram from Peter Brock Putnam, May 6, 1941, informing Princeton University that his son had been shot. Undergraduate Academic Records (AC198).

Putnam survived the gunshot, but his vision did not. The bullet severed his optic nerves. Although coming out of a 10-day coma reportedly jolted him out of his depression, giving him a sense of purpose and new goals to work toward, he would now be followed by a double stigma of mental illness and physical disability in an era when neither were granted legal protection against discrimination. He would spend the rest of his life in Princeton contending with both. Continue reading