More than 50 years after the end of the Civil War, a memorial to the Princeton alumni who lost their lives in the bloody conflict over slavery was carved into the marble walls of Nassau Hall’s atrium. Alone among American universities, Princeton chose to commingle the names of Union and Confederate dead, without noting which side they had fought for.

That reticence, says Princeton history professor Martha A. Sandweiss, grew out of the University’s antebellum history, and the deep ties to slavery that shaped a Northern school long known for its affinity with the South.

For more than four years, Sandweiss and some three dozen undergraduates, graduate students, and established scholars have explored those connections in a group research effort now known as the Princeton & Slavery Project, whose findings will be officially unveiled this month on a website and at a Nov. 17–18 scholarly symposium on campus. (Related events take place Nov. 16–19.)

This inventory list from the estate of John Maclean Sr., the first chemistry professor in the country and at the University, includes items meant for his son John Maclean Jr., Class of 1816 and Princeton’s 10th president. The last two entries are slaves.
Princeton University Archives

From small personal stories and large data-mining efforts, researchers have pieced together a portrait of a Princeton with intimate but largely unacknowledged ties to the enslavement of African Americans: a university whose trustees, presidents, and faculty owned slaves; whose finances were shored up with slave money; and whose graduates sometimes went on to become apologists for America’s “peculiar institution.”

“On our campus — where the Continental Congress met, where the patriots won a victory against the British — human beings were enslaved,” Sandweiss says. “That’s the story of American liberty and freedom. Slavery was a part of it, and that’s true on our campus also. We are deeply and quintessentially American in that respect.”

READ MORE from PAW’s special issue on Princeton and Slavery

Princeton is not the first university to investigate its pre-Civil War ties to America’s original sin. In 2003, Brown University, which is named for a family of slave traders, convened a committee to study the issue and recommend an official response, and since then, more than 30 other schools have followed suit, estimates Leslie M. Harris, a Northwestern University history professor and co-editor of a forthcoming essay collection on universities and slavery.

Unlike the research efforts at some other universities, the Princeton & Slavery Project was not an administration initiative, although it has received funding from a number of groups affiliated with the University, led by the Humanities Council. In a statement provided to PAW, President Eisgruber ’83 suggested that independent research can result in “richer, more stimulating, and more varied work than would any official history published or approved by the University administration.”

The research projects at universities across the country stem from American historians’ renewed interest in slavery, and particularly in slavery’s importance outside the South, Harris says. But she also connects the work to truth-and-reconciliation efforts in countries like post-apartheid South Africa. “That put on the map this idea that it is fruitful for societies to really confront their histories,” she says. In some ways, universities are “very conscious of their past. They hold up their famous alumni, they talk about the founding,” she says. “But it’s another thing to investigate these other kinds of histories.”

Princeton’s links to slavery are less direct than those of some other schools, the Princeton & Slavery researchers found. Unlike Georgetown University, which stayed afloat using the proceeds from an 1838 sale of 272 Jesuit-owned slaves, Princeton — as an institution — apparently never owned slaves or rented their labor. And no evidence supports the oft-repeated claim that Princeton students from the South brought their slaves to campus.

But slavery was woven into campus life nonetheless. According to essays on the project website, 16 of the University’s 23 founding trustees “bought, sold, traded, or inherited” slaves, and Princeton’s first nine presidents, who served between 1746 and 1854, all held slaves at some point in their lives — although, in a strange cognitive dissonance, several also preached that slavery was morally wrong.

In 1766, after the death of the University’s fifth president, the Rev. Samuel Finley, his executors advertised an auction of his property — including six slaves — to be held outside the President’s House, now known as Maclean House. Nearby stood the two sycamore trees Finley had planted earlier that year, in what campus legend inaccurately holds to be a commemoration of the repeal of the Stamp Act, a milestone on the road to American independence.

Princeton’s entanglement with slavery mirrors New Jersey’s status as a nominally anti-slavery Northern state with unusual sympathy for the South. New Jersey was the last Northern state to abolish slavery, voting in 1804 to outlaw the institution with a gradualism that favored the interests of slaveholders and left a handful of slaves as late as 1865. Abraham Lincoln lost the popular vote in New Jersey in both 1860 and 1864, and the state initially refused to ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned slavery.

“This is a very peculiar experience in the North,” says Craig Hollander, an assistant professor of history at the College of New Jersey, who worked with the Princeton & Slavery Project as a postdoctoral fellow in 2013–15. “There were just a lot of economic and cultural ties to the South, and Princeton played an extremely important role in cultivating those ties.”

But if New Jersey was an extreme case, the North was also more closely implicated in slaveholding than traditional accounts acknowledge, scholars say. “Too many people simply still see slavery as a Southern question, a Southern problem,” says Eric Foner, a Columbia University history professor who directs Columbia’s investigation into its own links to slavery. “But for a long time, slavery was a very significant institution in all of the Northern colonies, and indeed states. That’s important for people to realize, how deeply embedded slavery is in the history of the entire country.”

Although Sandweiss has published several books about 19th-century American history, she is not a specialist in the history of slavery, and as a relative newcomer to Princeton (she joined the University in 2009, after a long career at Amherst College), she knew little about Princeton’s history when she taught the first Princeton & Slavery undergraduate seminar in 2013.

“I can’t overemphasize how ignorant I was in the beginning,” Sandweiss says. “We didn’t really know what we were looking for. We didn’t know what the low-hanging fruit for this story would be, we didn’t know where we would find the good stories, we didn’t know where to look in the archives.”

Initially, University archivist Dan Linke, who helped Sandweiss and her students track down sources, wasn’t optimistic. “Because of the nature of how enslaved persons are recorded in history — no last names, just as a number in a census — I really didn’t think she was going to find a lot,” he says. The project’s biggest surprise, Linke says, is “how easily undergraduates asking fairly simple questions have found so much.”

In the seminar, versions of which Sandweiss or her postdoctoral fellows have taught each year since 2013, students pored over a wide array of sources: letters, diaries, wills, sermons, speeches, newspaper advertisements, census data, genealogy records, student directories, the minutes of University trustee and faculty meetings. Some sources, such as newspaper databases, were newly digitized, available online only in the past decade; others had been gathering dust in University archives for generations.

When Hollander first arrived on campus and saw the archival riches awaiting him, “my eyes just lit up,” he says. “You rarely get opportunities to see these kinds of primary sources and explore them — not for the first time; people had been perusing them for years — but with fresh eyes. We are now looking for a very different story than people in the past had looked for.”

For undergraduates, the seminar offered a chance to do original work, rather than replicate the findings of established historians. “The greatest thing about this course was there were no rules,” says Sven “Trip” Henningson ’16, a history major who took the class in his last semester at Princeton and has continued to do research for the project since graduating, during weekend breaks from his consulting job. “You could find whatever you wanted. Whatever you dug up was fair game.”

Lesa Redmond ’17 enrolled in the course as a sophomore, promptly switched her major to history, and ended up writing her senior thesis on slavery connections in the family of John Witherspoon, Princeton’s sixth president. Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, opposed immediate abolition and owned slaves — even though he tutored several black men to prepare them for work as Christian missionaries.

Three hundred years of Witherspoon genealogy made for a family tree so sprawling that it wouldn’t fit on a single sheet of paper; Redmond had to post it on her bedroom wall, where it greeted her when she awoke each morning. “I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be an African American student enrolled in Princeton studying the history of this university,” says Redmond, who plans to attend graduate school in history. “That was very powerful for me.”

University archivist Dan Linke and Professor Martha Sandweiss work with students researching Princeton’s connections to slavery.
Ricardo Barros

Among the tasks tackled by students in successive seminars was the verification and documentation of a piece of conventional wisdom: that Princeton was the “most Southern” of what now are the Ivy League universities, in the composition of its student body if not in its geographical location.

Because Princeton has a file for virtually every undergraduate ever enrolled, students and archivists were able to build a spreadsheet listing everyone who attended Princeton before the Civil War — 6,593 men from the classes of 1748 through 1865. Then researchers set out to determine where they were from, turning to student catalogs, biographical dictionaries, and online genealogical records to verify each person’s origins.

The work culminated in what project participants fondly call the “hackathon,” held one night in early 2016, when a dozen student researchers gathered over pizza at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library to nail down the last 2,200 names, with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton soundtrack playing in the background.

The results were illuminating. Between 1746 and 1863, the research showed, the proportion of Southern students at Princeton averaged 40 percent. From 1820 to 1860, at a time when the enrollment at Harvard and Yale averaged 9 and 11 percent Southern, 12 Princeton classes enrolled a majority of Southerners, with Southern enrollment in the Class of 1851 reaching 63 percent.

Princeton’s strong Southern flavor influenced the political climate on campus, the research suggests. Violence occasionally flared; project researchers uncovered a disturbing account of an 1835 incident in which University students manhandled a visiting abolitionist and ran him out of town. But antebellum Princeton mostly dealt with slavery — the most fundamental political issue of the day — by muting discussion of it, sacrificing the University’s vaunted commitment to liberty on the altar of community harmony.

“There was this sense that if this institution could do it — could not only keep itself together but thrive as a community of both slaveholders and non-slaveholders — then the country could do the same thing,” Hollander says. “They thought of themselves as a model for the nation.”  

In the decades before the Civil War, as the national debate about slavery intensified, Princeton grew more conservative on the issue. In 1850, a Commencement speaker told newly minted graduates that abolishing slavery would be tantamount to invalidating Christianity and welcoming anarchy. “That 63 percent of our students came from the South in 1851 helps us to better understand the conservative political culture on campus, which we could document in other ways,” Sandweiss says. “You put those two bits of data together, and you get it.” 

For much of Princeton’s history, slave money also bolstered the University’s finances. As president from 1768 to 1794, Witherspoon aggressively recruited Southern students and their tuition dollars, and Princeton’s geographical reach grew as slavery spread westward. “You can map almost a 1-to-1 correlation of the cotton boom in Mississippi to the attendance of students from Mississippi,” says Henningson, the 2016 Princeton graduate.

In an era when the elite universities of today were still struggling startups, Princeton was not the only school that turned to slave money to shore up shaky financial foundations, says Hollander. “It was not out of the question that these places would just collapse. Plenty of schools did during the 19th century,” he says. “One of the reasons why they’re willing to make these kinds of compromises is because they were worried about the bottom line.”

And the financial ties did not end with emancipation: A century after Witherspoon’s presidency, Moses Taylor Pyne 1877 drew on his grandfather’s fortune — a fortune amassed by supplying ships and financial services to slave-dependent sugar plantations — to become one of Princeton’s most generous and influential benefactors.

As Princeton’s antebellum graduates moved on into their adult lives, they spread across the country, creating networks that solidified the University’s influence and its ties to slave-owning families and communities. Some alumni were firmly anti-slavery, or dedicated to gradualist methods of abolishing it: Princetonians were disproportionately involved in the American Colonization Society, for example, which sought to end slavery by returning freed blacks to Africa. But many other Princeton graduates returned to their Southern homes to become lawyers, ministers, and statesmen who advocated the continuation and expansion of slavery.

“We were the most national university in America, hands down,” Sandweiss says. “What happened at Princeton had a very broad national impact.”

While the Princeton & Slavery Project has excavated neglected corners of the University’s past, such projects also carry lessons for how we understand the place of institutions of higher education today, researchers say.

The work makes clear how deeply universities are embedded in a social context, scholars say. “We tend to think of universities as ivory towers, but they are not removed from their societies,” says Harris, the Northwestern professor. “They are part of the society, and so they reflect the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the history of slavery in universities shows that.”

A deeper understanding of historical context can also inform contemporary debates, like the one that raged at Princeton in 2015–16 over whether to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from campus buildings, scholars say. “The debate about Woodrow Wilson would have been a more informed conversation if we had thought about him in the context of the much longer history of racial thinking on our campus,” Sandweiss says. “He didn’t just appear from nowhere. He appeared on a campus that was hospitable to very conservative racial thought.”

“The debate about Woodrow Wilson would have been a more informed conversation if we had thought about him in the context of the much longer history of racial thinking on our campus.”

— Professor Martha Sandweiss

Understanding the past has implications for the University’s future, as well. “Knowing your past can help you craft an identity that either looks like that past or doesn’t, depending on what you want,” says Redmond, the 2017 Princeton graduate. “But if you don’t know what you were in the past, it’s very hard to go forward.”

How should universities go forward when projects like this uncover ties to slavery? Other institutions have built on the results of their slavery investigations to make amends, both concrete and symbolic. Georgetown is offering preferential admission status to the descendants of the enslaved people it sold; Brown invested in the local public school system, erected a campus slavery memorial, and established a research center for the study of slavery. Eisgruber’s general statement to PAW did not address steps the University may take in response to the Princeton project’s findings.

“When you look at the institution of slavery honestly, and you acknowledge your complicity in it, then the next step has to be some kind of repair, it would seem to me,” says Melvin McCray ’74, a journalist, filmmaker, and educator whose documentary about Princetonians’ family ties to slavery will premiere during the weekend of the Princeton & Slavery symposium. “What kind of repair or reparation is another question. But it seems to me that it would be only natural to want to make amends.”

Those amends might include a commitment to righting contemporary inequities — social, economic, and educational — that stem from slavery, some suggest. Elite universities like Princeton and Columbia are “very eagerly engaged in promoting diversity among their student bodies,” says Foner, the Columbia professor. “Whether more should be done, whether this history tells us to do more along those lines, I don’t know.”

Ultimately, historians can only provide the information on which to base a course of action, Princeton & Slavery researchers say. What that course of action should be is a decision that the University community will have to make together.

“I hope in the end it’s a project that makes Princeton proud — we can now look at ourselves and try to understand ourselves more fully,” Sandweiss says. “Then we’ll figure out how to reckon with it.” 

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in Princeton Junction, N.J. Her most recent book is Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom.

Clarification: The article was updated in October 2023 to reflect new information regarding John Witherspoon.