An Update on the Earliest Records of Jewish Students at Princeton

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the search to find the first Jewish student at Princeton. As I noted, the “first” student in any category is probably impossible to determine. However, I was able to find a record suggesting possible Jewish presence dating back to 1859, when Albert Mordecai of the Class of 1863 arrived to begin his studies. In today’s post, I support my own claims about the difficulty of determining “firsts” by showing that Jewish presence at Princeton goes back at least half a century further than initially thought. The earliest records I have found thus far now uncover the life of another Jewish student who began his work at Princeton in 1809, Mordecai Myers, but a handful of other Jewish students also attended Princeton in the antebellum period.

Follow up from our readers has prompted this update on two counts. The first concerns Albert Mordecai’s connection to Judaism. Yosef Razin ’11 wrote in with research he conducted on the Mordecai family in the U. S. Census records and other sources. There is conflicting data regarding the family origins, he says, but sources seem to agree that Mordecai’s origins through his paternal line were Jewish. His mother’s ethnic background may or may not have been Jewish. Those on campus or with a subscription can access these records through the Ancestry.com databases.

The second update makes it clear, however, that whether or not Albert Mordecai considered himself Jewish, he would not have been the first Jewish student at Princeton. Sven Henningson ’16 uncovered a reference to Mordecai Myers as a Jewish graduate of Princeton and alerted us to the possibility that he had been on campus much earlier than Albert Mordecai. Having done some digging, I have confirmed that Mordecai Myers, Class of 1812, was Jewish and earned his A.B. from Princeton in 1812. This research led down a path that uncovered a few other Jewish students at Princeton prior to the Civil War.

Mordecai Myers, the son of Levi Myers and Francis Minis, born November 9, 1794, was just shy of 15 years old when he arrived at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1809. Myers was advanced enough to skip his freshman year and was admitted to the sophomore Class of 1812. This proved fortuitous in terms of being able to finish his degree, because war broke out in 1812. According to a 1909 letter from his son to the Princeton University Secretary, when armed conflict began with Great Britain in June 1812, Myers returned home to his native Charleston, South Carolina, but this didn’t prevent him from graduating with his class the following September.

Myers,_Mordecai_Class_of_1812_AC104_Box_72

Mordecai Myers, Class of 1812. Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920 (AC104), Box 72.

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Mr. Madison’s War: A Handful of Princeton Perspectives

By: Amanda Pike

Today marks the bicentennial of the official declaration of the War of 1812. While the war itself had little influence on the daily experiences of Princeton students, on occasion, these students would witness soldiers passing through town on their way to the conflict. Some of these encounters were detailed in student correspondence to family members, and these letters also address the public sentiment towards the war and the tumultuous political climate that provided its impetus. A few examples of these writings are highlighted below.

The first excerpt is from a letter written by James Mercer Garnett, Jr., Class of 1814, to his mother, Mary E. Garnett of Pittsville, Virginia. Dated June 16, 1812, two days before President James Madison (a fellow Princetonian, Class of 1771) officially declared war on Great Britain, Garnett wrote his letter while traveling through Washington, D.C. on his way to Princeton. Meanwhile, Congress deliberated Madison’s grievances with England, which included British trade restrictions with France, British support of indigenous resistance to American expansionism, impressment of American soldiers in the British Royal Navy, and British seizure of American ships.

As I probably shall not have an opportunity to write, on the way between here and Princeton; I take the opportunity while my Father is writing, to let you know we have got so far safe on our journey….I have not time to say much more now, as we are going to the Cappitol (sic) in a few minutes. Tell Uncle Mercer that the recruiting business goes on very slowly here; & that in stead (sic) of the 17 thousand men that are reported in our neighbourhood to have enlisted; the Secretary at war says there are only between three and five thousand. I fancy all the reports about what the senate have done are false, their doors are still closed; I expect we shall know what they have determined on tomorrow; the general oppinion (sic) about here is that we shall have war, although they say the public sentiment seems to be much against it….
Student Writings and Correspondence Collection (AC334, Box 9)

After several days of deliberation, the House of Representatives voted 79 to 49 for a declaration of war, and the Senate agreed by a vote of 19 to 13. On June 18, 1812, Madison signed this measure into law, becoming the first U.S. President to declare war on another nation.

The following excerpt is from a letter written by Walter Kirkpatrick, Class of 1813, to his cousin, Maria Cobb of Morristown, New Jersey dated July 6, 1812. In the letter, Kirkpatrick addresses the recent declaration of war, and the anticipated effect it will have on the college. He writes:

…War is indeed declared, yet it will not have that effect on this institution which you seemed to imagine it would have, the probability is that we shall continue here as we have done as idle spectators of the scene, since no student is obliged to perform military duty while he is a member of college ….Wednesday last a company of about one hundred soldiers passed through this place on their way to New York – They had with them 12 pieces of cannon, each piece being able to carry a ball of six pounds weight, and men followed at a considerable distance by four very large baggage-wagons guarded by about twenty soldiers…

Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC104, Box 73)

Walter Kirkpatrick letter, envelope

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