The “northernmost outpost of Southern culture” — that’s how a letter to the editor of the Prince described the University in 1935. The letter was a joke — signed by “Jefferson Davis ’36” and four Confederate colleagues — but its sentiment rang true: For generations the school had a certain Dixie flavor, in spite of lying farther north than Springfield, Ill.
With the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War next month, it seems timely to tell the story of Princeton’s role in the Confederacy. In the Colonial era, Harvard and Yale served New England; Penn and Columbia belonged to Philadelphia and New York. By contrast, Princeton sent its tendrils southward, down the route of the great Scots-Irish migration. Three of the school’s first dozen graduates went to Virginia as Presbyterian ministers, recruiting future students there. Princeton soon became the most Southern of all the Northern colleges. By the 1790s the pattern was set: Forty percent of undergraduates came from below the Mason-Dixon Line.
From James Madison 1771 onward, Princeton grads were honored in their Southern communities for erudition and polish. They often became local leaders — planters, doctors, lawyers, judges. In the decades prior to 1860, a total of 15 Southern governors had been Tigers. Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens praised the “sound, practical wisdom” of Princeton alumni, “the wise moderation and conservatism of their views.” He considered these graduates “superior to those of any other school or college in the country.”
According to period accounts, the planters’ sons who enrolled at Princeton College fit a stereotype: courtly to the point of chivalric, warm-hearted toward friends but hot in a quarrel, fond of gunplay. They set a colorful tone, even as they outraged Northern peers with their illiberal views. Henry Clay Marks 1863 of Louisiana was typical: “a genuine Southern character, proud and opinionated in all that related to the social and political principles of his section, but in his intercourse with his associates, a gentleman of the fairest mould.” So wrote sorrowful classmates after the 18-year-old met his death in the Confederate army.
The school prided itself on amicable relationships among students and faculty, but in time it was torn by quarrels, along with the country. In December 1859, pro-Southern students marched to condemn “John Brown, The Horse Thief, Murderer, and Martyr,” and burned effigies of Northern political leaders on front campus. The town was split, given its longstanding ties to the South — the Potter family of Savannah slaveholders, for example, summered at Prospect House, next to campus. John H. Potter 1863 grew up in Princeton, died fighting for the Confederacy (“gentle as a woman, he was brave as a lion”), then was brought home to be buried in Princeton Cemetery.
During the long buildup to war, alumni in the South defended what John C. Calhoun called the “peculiar institution” of keeping humans in chains. In Norfolk, Va., the Rev. George Armstrong 1832 wrote The Christian Doctrine of Slavery in 1857, arguing that slaves enjoyed better protections against capitalist exploitation by the rich than did poor whites in the North — notwithstanding, yes, “some deprivation of personal liberty.”
Views were hardening. In his youth, Georgia Supreme Court justice Joseph Lumpkin 1819 joined the back-to-Africa American Colonization Society, in which Princetonians played leading roles, but later he condemned emancipation and equated black people with the biblical “Tribe of Ham,” marked for servitude. Abolitionists were “fiends,” and “humanism, which has so pervaded and poisoned the northern mind,” inevitably would yield “a sea of fratricidal blood.”
Several vociferous champions of slavery attended Princeton. James McDowell 1816, soon to be governor of Virginia, gave an alumni oration in 1838 that called abolitionism “destructive and mad philanthropy” that threatened to bring “a strife and a woe that may bury us all.” Its followers, he said, fomented bloody slave revolts. So popular was his florid lecture that a local printer made copies to sell to students, and it was quoted approvingly in Southern newspapers.
Fellow Virginia student Abel Upshur was expelled for participating in the Riot of 1807, a rebellion against a strict college administration. Later he became U.S. secretary of state, calling slavery “a great positive good, to be carefully protected and preserved,” and spearheading the annexation of Texas as a huge new slave state — until he was blown up by an exploding cannon on the U.S.S. Princeton in 1844.
In the following decade, U.S. Supreme Court justice James Wayne 1808 concurred in the Dred Scott decision that claimed black Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect” — an inflammatory ruling that pushed the nation toward conflict. Alfred Iverson 1820 of Georgia, one of a remarkable 22 antebellum Southern U.S. senators educated at Princeton, gave ferocious speeches threatening secession.
To the horror of white Southerners, Abraham Lincoln won the bitter four-way presidential election of 1860. New Jersey leaned conservative, and became the only free state that Lincoln lost; he received 44 percent of the vote in the town of Princeton, compared to 56 percent for the two Democrats. One of these was pro-slavery candidate John C. Breckinridge, a Kentuckian who had prepared for law school with six months of graduate study in Nassau Hall and represented the Southern wing of the split Democratic party. An able speaker in pro-Southern Whig Hall, Breckinridge had deep Princeton connections: He was the great-grandson of John Witherspoon and grandson of Samuel Stanhope Smith, presidents of the College. Later he served the Confederacy as a major general and secretary of war.
On campus, the graduating Class of 1861 smoked a “pipe of peace” at the big cannon in May, then milled about at the east end of Nassau Hall saying fond farewells — friends who would meet again on battlefields (of 119 in the class, at least 10 would not survive the war). Relatively few Southerners remained after a mass exodus the previous winter, when the secession of seven Deep South states sent many hurrying home. The College was facing the greatest crisis in its history. “Her resources were crippled, her interests divided,” faculty historian William M. Sloane later would write, and faced “utter shipwreck in that dark hour.”
Fearful of alienating Southern sympathizers who remained — including a vocal New York City contingent — College authorities discouraged patriotic demonstrations. When students hoisted an American flag atop Nassau Hall right after Fort Sumter, it quickly was hauled down (though later raised again). When three undergraduates ducked a pro-Southern classmate from Brooklyn under the campus pump to “wash the suds of secession” off, they instantly were expelled. Newspapers blasted Princeton for being unpatriotic.