As we have previously pointed out, Princeton’s first African American undergraduates were not purposefully admitted: they were instead brought as part of a Navy training program during World War II. In 1945, Trustee Laurence G. Payson wrote to fellow member of the Class of 1916 John McFerran Barr to explain the presence of black students in response to apparent objections. “When the personnel [for the Navy unit] arrived its members included, unbeknownst to us in advance, four negroes.” Meanwhile, a law requiring tax-exempt institutions not to discriminate on the basis of race had recently passed in New Jersey. “If Princeton were to stand against the negroes who were admitted under the Navy War-time ROTC the Trustees would be in a very difficult spot.” He explained that future African American applications for admission would be evaluated by administrators at Nassau Hall (i.e., the Office of the President) rather than by the Office of Admission, then headed by Dean Radcliffe Heermance. (Heermance had revoked one black student’s offer of admission in the 1930s when he showed up to register for classes and his race became apparent.) In spite of Princeton’s wariness of challenge to its traditions, one young local African American resident found the presence of black students at the prestigious university inspirational in its seeming promise of new possibilities.
In 2013, 26,642 people applied to the Princeton University Class of 2018. Princeton made offers of admission to 1,983 of these applicants, an acceptance rate of 7.4%. Though many find this competitiveness discouraging, clearly a significant number choose to try their odds anyway. Yet how many applications can one imagine Princeton would get if the school announced that they might end up rejecting all of those who applied? This was the dilemma faced by female students in the winter of 1969: whether to apply to a university unsure if it would admit a single woman.
Bruce Wright applied for admission to Princeton University in the 1930s, having spent some of his childhood living in its shadow in Princeton, New Jersey. He was excited to be awarded a scholarship, and showed up in the fall ready to start as a freshman. So far as the Dean of Admissions was concerned, however, there was just one problem: Wright was black, and the Admissions Office hadn’t known that when they offered him a place among white Princetonians. Though many students who stood in line to register with Wright were not at all resistant to having him there, Dean Radcliffe Heermance (Graduate Class of 1909) decided that Princeton would not accept him as one of its own. In a later interview, Wright recalled, Heermance had told him: “If you’re trying to come here, you’re going someplace where you’re not wanted.” With no other recourse he could see, Wright went outside, sat down on his suitcase, and waited for his father to drive down from New York to pick him up.
The words lingered in Wright’s mind. “I was shattered, and I became more so as time went on,” Wright said. “For some reason I persisted in writing to Heermance to demand to know why. Was I a danger, a menace to a great university?”
This was Heermance’s answer:
A question that is frequently asked of us here at the archives is whether or not there was ever a “Law School.” The answer to that is, not really!
Initial attempts to create a law school at the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was then known) were unsuccessful. The College trustees appointed a committee to hire a law professor in 1824, but the first two choices (Richard Stockton ‘1779 and John Van Cleve ‘1797) both died before they could begin classes. In 1835 James Kent declined to take the position offered, as did Justice Smith Thompson, Theodore Frelinghuysen, and retired governor Samuel L. Southard ‘1804 in 1839.
After these unsuccessful attempts, the College finally established a law school in 1846. The school boasted three prominent professors, James S. Green, a U.S. attorney; Richard Stockton Field ‘1821, the New Jersey Attorney General; and Joseph C. Hornblower, the retired Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Field built the law school building at his own expense on a piece of his family’s land and named it Ivy Hall. The building, now maintained by Trinity Episcopal Church, still stands in Princeton at its original location on Mercer Street facing Alexander Road .
The law school was largely independent from the College. The College could not afford to contribute any funding to the law school, and it did not intervene in curriculum or degree decisions. None of the law faculty ever attended even a single faculty meeting at the College. Law students were allowed, however, to attend chapel and lectures at the College and use its library.
The professors designed the program to be completed in three years, although it could be finished in two. On the recommendation of the law faculty, the College awarded a bachelor of laws degree to students who had completed the program. Seven law students graduated before instruction at the law school was discontinued, due to lack of funds, in 1852. The school officially closed in 1855.
In 1871 the trustees instructed the business committee to look into reviving the law school, but the issue did not receive serious attention. In 1890 President Francis Landey Patton remarked to a gathering of alumni, “We have Princeton philosophy, Princeton theology, but we have to go to Harvard and Columbia for our law. Gentlemen, that is a shame. Just as soon as I find a man with a half a million, I am going to found a law school.” Nothing came of this pronouncement either, probably because a man with half a million never showed up. Patton’s successor, Woodrow Wilson (who was elevated to the presidency from his position as professor of jurisprudence), also wanted to start a law school, but was too busy battling faculty, trustees, and alumni over the graduate school and the residential college plan to concentrate on forming a new school.
World War I clouded hopes of acquiring a law school in New York City in 1918, but a proposal to create a law school was seriously considered from 1923 to 1925. However, in 1926 the idea was abandoned in order to conserve funds. Professor John Dickinson’s proposal for a law school in 1929 received little attention. On the recommendation of President William G. Bowen in 1974, the trustees appointed a committee to determine the resources necessary to establish a law school. The president and the trustees decided, after the committee issued its report, that Princeton ought to focus on maintaining the quality of its current programs instead of adding new ones during that time of fiscal insecurity.
Board of Trustees Minutes and Records, 1746-Present. Entries on the following dates, at least, contain references to creating a law school: June 26, 1871; January 23, 1897; December 14, 1899; October 24, 1918; April 12, 1923; April 11, 1929; and September 1974 (restricted until 2024).
Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the College of New Jersey (Princeton, New Jersey: John T. Robinson, printer). Volumes for the years 1846-1847 to 1854-1855 contain the names of the law professors, students, and a description of the program.
Leitch, Alexander. A Princeton Companion. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976). Also available online.
Link, Arthur S., ed. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press). Vol. 7, 1969. Pages 63-68 discuss Princeton University President Francis Patton’s and Woodrow Wilson’s attempts at establishing a law school.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. Entries on the following dates, at least, contain references to the topic of a law school: November 26, 1974; March 11, 1975; and December 8, 1975.
Waller, Amelia Carpenter. “Princeton for the Nation’s Service”: The Debate Over Legal Education at Princeton.Waller’s senior thesis (110 pages) was submitted to the History Department of Princeton University in 1979. This thesis can be viewed on request at the Mudd Manuscript Library and can also be found in the “Law School” files of the Historical Subject Files. For information on how to request a photocopy of this thesis please click here.
Wertenbacher, Thomas Jefferson. Princeton : 1748-1896 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1946). Pages 229-232 and 377-378.
Note: This post, authored by Matthew Reeder, was previously on the Mudd Manuscript Library’s FAQ website and has been moved to our blog as part of our website upgrade.