Revolution-Era Textbook ~ A Time Capsule from Princeton’s Past

Homeri Ilias, v. 1 (London: Charles Rivington, 1768).

A recent gift to the Princeton University Library opens a time capsule from the university’s remote past. At the dawn of America’s Revolutionary War, when Princeton was still known as the College of New Jersey, at least four students signed their names to a copy of an assigned text. The book, volume 1 of Homer’s Iliad in Greek with parallel Latin text and notes, was printed in London in 1768, the same year that John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, became the university’s sixth president. Used heavily during the 1770s, the book offers today’s Princetonians a lesson in institutional history and a glimpse of the earliest actors involved.

Samuel Whitwell, Jr. was the first of the students to have used the 1768 Iliad. His signature appears on the book’s flyleaf and title page. His father’s name appears in the printed bookplate, pasted inside the front cover, which also bears an inscription by Isaac Tichenor, who presumably inherited the book from his upperclassman. The names of Robert Wharry and William Ross, non-graduate members of the class of 1778, are written on the flyleaf.

The younger Samuel Whitwell, of Boston, was among the students who met John Adams during the latter’s visit to Princeton in August 1774. He completed his degree that year, studied medicine after graduation, and served as surgeon to the 3rd Massachusetts Regiment from 1777 to 1783. Wharry (also Wherry) followed in his footsteps as a surgeon’s mate in a Pennsylvania regiment from 1778 until the end of the war. Little is known of Wharry’s classmate, William Ross.

Isaac Tichenor was perhaps the most active reader and ultimately the most prominent member of the group. The next page of the book, actually a fold-out map of ancient Greece that faces the title page, also bears Tichenor’s signature. His interlinear glosses (his signature appears among the annotations on p. 10), demonstrate his attempts to parse the classical text and render words and phrases into English. Upon graduating in 1775 after two years at Princeton, the Newark native studied law in New York and assisted the Continental Army at the Battle of Bennington in Vermont. The end of the Revolutionary War saw him settled in Vermont, where he pursued a long career in legislature as a state assemblyman, councilor, supreme court justice, and governor, and as a Federalist senator in Congress from 1796 to 1797 and 1815 to 1821.

In politics, Tichenor was (respectfully) nicknamed “Jersey Slick” for his polished appearance and manners, but he and his fellow Princetonians assumed other pseudonyms as members of the Cliosophic Society on campus.[i] “Handel” may have referred to Tichenor’s affinity for music, while Samuel Whitwell borrowed his alias, “Dickinson,” from the first university president.[ii] Robert Wharry was known as “Warren” after the physician, Joseph Warren, a hero of Bunker Hill.[iii]

Tichenor would likely have heard John Witherspoon’s “Address to the Students of the Senior Class,” delivered “on the Lord’s Day preceding Commencement, September 23, 1775.” The president divided his remarks into three branches: “your duty to God, and the interest of your souls”; “the prosecution of your studies, or the improvement of your talents, as members of society”; and “prudence in your commerce with the world in general, your outward provision, and other circumstances in life.”[iv] If his speech differs in tenor – and certainly in length – from a contemporary commencement address, his enforced curriculum at Princeton has little in common – except perhaps rigor – with an average course of study today. A speech Witherspoon delivered in 1772 outlines four years of instruction:

In the first year, [students] read Latin and Greek, with the Roman and Grecian antiquities, and rhetoric. In the second, continuing the study of the languages, they learn a complete system of geography, with the use of the globes, the first principles of philosophy, and the elements of mathematical knowledge. The third, though the languages are not wholly omitted, is chiefly employed in mathematics and natural Philosophy. And the senior year is employed in reading the higher classics, proceeding in the mathematics and natural philosophy, and going through a course of moral philosophy.[v] 

Witherspoon added to this the four lectures he delivered annually to juniors and seniors on chronology, history, composition, and criticism and indicated that he would continue to teach French to interested students. Tichenor, then, would have been early in his Princeton career during his lucubrations (imaginably) over Homer.

That the president’s account was unembellished is supported by a letter from an undergraduate to a prospective student during Tichenor’s term at the College. Edward Crawford wrote to his brother, James, who hoped to enter the junior class:

‘The studies you will be examined on…are Virgil, Horace, Cicero’s Orations, Lucian, Xenophon, Homer, geography, and logic. Four books of Virgil’s Aeneid together with the Bucolics and Georgics and four books of Xenophon are only looked for; but I would advise you if you come to college to study the whole of Xenophon…Try to accustom yourself to read Greek and Latin well as it is much looked to here and be accurate in geography; study if you can the five common rules of arithmetic, interest, rebate, equation of payments, barter, loss and gain, fellowship, compound-fellowship, the double rule of three, comparative arithmetic, geometrical progression, vulgar and decimal fractions and the square root.’[vi] 

An A.B. candidate at Princeton today, as every undergraduate knows, must fulfill a writing and a foreign language requirement in addition to distribution requirements in seven fields. Homer is no longer mandatory reading, but Isaac Tichenor’s 1768 Iliad survives as a memorable precursor to a standard issue from the Loeb Classical Library.

[Homer. Iliad]. Homeri Ilias graece et latine, annotationes in usum serenissimi principis Gulielmi Augusti, ducis de Cumberland, &c. Regio jussu scripsit atque edidit Samuel Clarke, S.T.P., vol. 1 (London: Excudit Car. Rivington, Impensis J. Pote, [etc.], 1768), 7th edition. This item from the library of Rev. Alfred L. Baury (1794-1865), Episcopal Minister in Newton, MA, was thoughtfully donated by Caroline Knox of Waltham, MA, with assistance from Nell K. Carlson, Curator of Historical Collections, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, of the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. It is an outstanding addition to Princeton’s early bibliographical heritage.

[i] Tichenor, Isaac; 1775; Undergraduate Alumni Records, 18th Century, Box 32; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[ii] Whitwell, Samuel; 1774; Undergraduate Alumni Records, 18th Century, Box 29; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[iii] Wharry (Wherry), Robert; 1778; Undergraduate Alumni Records, 18th Century, Box 38; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[iv] The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon… Vol. 3. Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1802. p. 101.

[v] Witherspoon, John. “Address to the Inhabitants of Jamaica, and other West-India Islands, in behalf of the College of New Jersey.” The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon. Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1803. p. 349.

[vi] Edward Crawley to James Crawford, Aug. 29, 1774, Presbyterian Historical Society. Quoted in: Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson. Princeton, 1746-1896. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946. pp. 93-94.

~ Jessica Terekhov, PhD candidate in English, is the graduate assistant to the Curator of Rare Books, Princeton University Library

 

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