Who Founded Princeton University?

Q. Dear Mr. Mudd,

Who founded Princeton University? 

A. The founding of Princeton University is nearly as complex as the courses that have been and continue to be taught within its hallowed lecture halls. The College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was known until 1896) was a child of the Great Awakening, an institution born in opposition to the religious tenets that had ruled the colonial era.

The principles on which Princeton University was founded may be traced to the Log College in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, founded by William Tennent in 1726. Tennent was a Presbyterian minister who, along with fellow evangelists Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, and George Whitefield of England, preached and taught an approach to religion and life that was the very essence of the Great Awakening period. The seven founders of the College of New Jersey were all Presbyterians. Ebenezer Pemberton, a minister and a graduate of Harvard, was the only one of the seven who did not graduate from Yale. The remaining six were Jonathan Dickinson, Aaron Burr Sr., and John Pierson, who were ministers; William Smith, a lawyer; Peter Van Brugh Livingston, a merchant; and William Peartree Smith.

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Original location of Pennsylvania’s Log College (photo taken in 1914). Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP62, Image No. 2402.

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Study of Education at Princeton and the 1954 Advisee Project

By Madeline Lea ’16

The Study of Education at Princeton was a unique project that evolved during post-World War II discussions of education at the University led by economics professor Frank W. Notestein. Professor Samuel S. Wilks of the mathematics department and Dean of the Faculty J. Douglas Brown ’19 were also involved. They asserted that a scientific study of education would provide hard data to support any changes to University admissions or curriculum. The project’s goal was “to examine as critically and systematically as possible all aspects of residential university life, including both instructional methods and programs and extracurricular activities, for their effect on the student’s intellectual, moral and physical development.” Faculty interest in the study was bolstered by President Harold W. Dodds’s wholehearted support and the assistance of University Trustee General Frederick H. Osborn, Class of 1910.

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“The Underclass Years,” by S. Roy Heath, Jr. ’39, Princeton Alumni Weekly, October 16, 1953.

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This Week in Princeton History for December 7-13

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a history professor gets national attention, undergraduates protest new library rules, and more.

December 7, 1776—The British Army reaches Princeton to begin the “20 days of tyranny.” Annis Boudinot Stockton hides the papers of the College of New Jersey’s American Whig Society while burying her family silver on the Morven estate. Later, she will be posthumously elected as Whig Hall’s first female member.

December 8, 1998—Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz makes the news for his testimony before the United States Congress, saying to House Republicans aiming to impeach President Bill Clinton, “…history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness.” The New York Times will later editorialize that his testimony was a “gratuitously patronizing presentation,” but Wilentz will respond that he has been misunderstood.

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Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz, 1994. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 193.

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This Week in Princeton History for November 9-15

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the school holds its first Commencement, a “food revolt” causes tension between students and administrators, and more.

November 9, 1748—The College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) holds its first Commencement in Newark, where six students are granted the degree of Bachelor of the Arts. The New York Gazette reports “That Learning, like the Sun in its Western Progress, had now began to dawn upon the Province of New Jersey…”

November 11, 1985—Director of University Health Services Dr. Louis Pyle ‘41 speaks to the University Council on medical and administrative issues arising from a new national concern: the spread of AIDS. Though no cases have been found at Princeton, Pyle believes it is only a matter of time before UHS begins facing the issue head on, and refers to the syndrome as “medicine’s most challenging current problem.”

November 13, 1978—Princeton administrators warn 180 students who have signed a petition threatening to cancel their meal plans if food quality does not improve that they will not allow contract cancellations related to what is known as the Wilson College “food revolt.” (Students organized under the slogan “The food is revolting, so why aren’t you?”) In response, hundreds more will sign the petition, for a total of 715 students.

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Princeton University dining hall, ca. 1970s. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP192.

November 15, 1877—The Princetonian editorializes, “We regret that Yale has again been constrained to make herself obnoxious,” in response to Yale’s refusal to modify the rules of American football to have 15 players per team rather than 11.

For last week’s installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

Power to the People: Princeton’s Black Activism Movement

ABC was a place where we could go and it was us. We did have a kindred spirit. I mean because it was 98 black students, all of us knew each other. And even guys that you didn’t hang out with, at some point in time you might be in their dorm room.
Ralph Austin ’73

In 2015,  Brandon A. Holt ’15 conducted interviews with black activists from Association of Black Collegians (ABC) and other organizations at Princeton. The interviews, which include alumni from the classes of 1969-1981, address student participation in demonstrations, hate crimes on campus, and black solidarity. The transcripts of the Brandon D. Holt Collection of Oral History Interviews on Black Student Activism at Princeton are available freely online and provide an insider’s look into black student life.

Princeton’s black students experienced the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement as a reality of daily life, not just as stories they saw on the news. From low numbers of African American students to discrimination on campus, the black college experience at Princeton University had its share of adversity. During these tumultuous years, black Princetonians united across national, class, and gender lines to fight for inclusion and civil rights on campus as well as worldwide.

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Photo from 1970 Bric-a-Brac.

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This Week in Princeton History for September 14-20

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the infirmary surprises incoming freshmen with a nude photo requirement, a water shortage prevents students from showering, and more.

September 14, 1887—Although the name of the school is still The College of New Jersey, the New York Herald Tribune reports that its alumni have all been referring to it as Princeton University and that it is “a university in everything save the name.”

September 17, 1989—Virginia Cha ’86 is named first runner up in the Miss America pageant and wins a $20,000 scholarship, which Cha says she plans to use to pursue graduate studies in journalism. She will later become a news anchor for ABC 10 in San Diego.

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Virginia Cha ’86 modeling at a local fashion show in Princeton in February 1986. Photo from the Daily Princetonian.

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Dear Mr. Mudd: Which School Is Older, Penn or Princeton?

By Spencer Shen ’16

Q: Dear Mr. Mudd,

I have a friend at Penn who claims that his school is older than Princeton. Is he right?

A: The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “older”, but institutional pride can result in tenuous claims for precedence. The University of Pennsylvania currently asserts that it is the fourth oldest college in the United States, placing Princeton in fifth place after Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, and Penn. Its basis for this claim is that it is an outgrowth of a “charity school” founded in 1740, but the school was never operational. Its building was used for religious services until 1749, when it was acquired by Benjamin Franklin and his associates for the purposes of establishing an “academy”, including an agreement to operate a charity school. “We have bought for the Academy,” Franklin wrote on February 13, 1750, “the house that was built for itinerant preaching, which stands on a large lot of ground capable of receiving more buildings.” The charter for Franklin’s Academy incorporated the text of the previous charity school’s trust verbatim. This adoption of the exact wording of the trust lies at the heart of Penn’s claim to precedence. However, it was not until 1751 that instruction actually commenced and not until 1753 that the “College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania” was chartered.

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Click to enlarge graphic.

Penn celebrated its centennial in 1849, and its trustees did not formally accept 1740 as the year of the institution’s founding until 1899. By contrast, Princeton was chartered in 1746 as the College of New Jersey, began to offer instruction in 1747, and moved to Newark later that year. To the south, in Philadelphia, no such signs of higher educational life existed.

This post was originally written by John Weeren (2001) as an FAQ page on our old website. It has been revised and expanded here by Spencer Shen ’16 as part of the launch of our new website.

This Week in Princeton History for July 13-19

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the first African American head coach in the Ivy League is hired, a professor climbs a mountain, and more.

July 13, 1770—Students are outraged by a “Letter from the Merchants in New York to the Committee of Merchants in Philadelphia,” which they have somehow intercepted. The letter outlines the intent of the New York merchants to abandon a nonimportation agreement within the colonies. In response, the students process in front of Nassau Hall and burn the letter “with hearty Wishes, that the Names of all Promoters of such a daring Breach of Faith, may be blasted in the Eyes of every Lover of Liberty, and their Names handed down to Posterity, as Betrayers of their Country.”

July 14, 1970—Larry Ellis is named head coach of track and cross country at Princeton University, becoming the first African American head coach in the Ivy League. He will later coach at the 1984 Olympic Games.

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Larry Ellis (far left, middle row) with the 1981 Princeton University cross country team. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 168.

July 16, 1799—Three students are brought before the faculty on charges of “a violation of those Laws of the College which forbid the carrying of firearms.” They write a letter of apology and are permitted to continue their studies.

July 17, 1877—Princeton professor William Libbey makes the first recorded ascent of Mount Princeton near Nathrop, Colorado.

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Mount Princeton, undated. Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection (AC126), Box 27.

For last week’s installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

When Did the College of New Jersey Change to Princeton University?

Q: Dear Mr. Mudd,

When and why did the College of  New Jersey change its name to Princeton University?

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Sesquicentennial Archway, Princeton, New Jersey, October 1896. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box LP19, Image No. 1387.

A: The College of New Jersey, founded in 1746, changed its name to Princeton University during the culmination of the institution’s Sesquicentennial Celebration in 1896. Historically, the University was often referred to as “Nassau,” “Nassau Hall,” “Princeton College,” or “Old North.” Continue reading

A Brief History of the Architecture of Nassau Hall

Nassau Hall first opened its doors on November 28, 1756. The College of New Jersey (Princeton) at that time consisted of its president, Aaron Burr, 70 students, and three tutors. Robert Smith, the carpenter-architect who would later construct Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, designed Nassau Hall with the assistance of Dr. William Shippen of Philadelphia and William Worth, a local stonemason. Construction began on July 29, 1754 on part of the 4.5 acres donated by Nathaniel and Rebeckah FitzRandolph. Smith designed the building to withstand the variable climate of New Jersey in the Georgian-Colonial style popular at the time, choosing locally quarried sandstone as building material for the 26-inch thick walls. The building has three floors and a basement, measuring 176 feet by 54 feet, with a two-story central prayer hall in the rear of the structure, measuring 32 by 40 feet. Originally, there were five entrances to the building, three in the front and two in the rear. The rooftop cupola provided an elegant final touch to a modestly constructed building. When finished in 1756, Nassau Hall was the largest stone structure in North America.

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First known image of Nassau Hall, New American Magazine, 1760. Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177), Box 1.

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