Alumni Association Meeting 1787: Something completely different
“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States,” by Howard Chandler Christy, via Wikipedia
Starting your own country, in 10 easy lessons

“Only the educated are free.”

— Epictetus

So there we were, the benevolent overlords of Your Favorite Periodical explaining to me that this issue would feature the 25 most influential Princeton alumni today — a sort of freshening up of the wonderful all-time listing of 10 Januaries ago — and me figuring that, perhaps, that choice implied some historical bias that bore reflection. As ever gracious and broadminded, they grasped the import of the question, and asked if I’d do my bit to ameliorate the problem. Of course, if I came anywhere near the 20th century, they would break my three typing fingers. As a compromise, I pitched a column enumerating the 25 most influential alumni of the 18th century, which offered a century’s safety buffer. They considered, polled the staff, consulted my devoted public, and retorted that a top 10 was fine; beyond that the finger thing was still in force.

So. Let’s discuss the 10 Most Influential Princeton Alumni of the 18th Century.

Winnowing the list is more difficult than you might imagine at first glance, given that fewer than 1,500 students had so much as a cup of coffee at the College of New Jersey prior to 1801. But — just for one way of considering the question — two alumni signed the Declaration of Independence and nine others the U.S. Constitution, so we’re already in trouble. Or, for another approach, try the Class of 1760 on its own, which comprised a signer of the Declaration, another member of the Continental Congress, chaplains in the Continental Army, judges in Maine and Pennsylvania, the founder of a North Carolina college, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The class totaled 11 men. With a recognition, then, that these picks only scratch the surface of the College’s effect on the creation and launching of the American Experiment, let’s consider my digits and look only at the foremost 10:

1. James Madison 1771. Not difficult to defend, and in fact the top finisher in the 2008 PAW survey overall, Madison towers over the 18th century as a 5-foot-4-inch colossus, the subtle melder of the U.S. Constitution from the many viewpoints at the 1787 convention, trying to design Something Completely Different, as our Monty Python friends would say. He then had a major part in assuring its passage via The Federalist, for which he wrote two crucial broadsides explaining the necessity of checks and balances, and essentially the structural inadequacies of all the pre-existing forms of government. Becoming secretary of state, and then America’s fourth president in 1808, was icing on the cake.

2. Benjamin Rush 1760. One of the signers of the Declaration, along with College president John Witherspoon, whom he recruited from Scotland only eight years before while working on his M.D. degree in Edinburgh. Holder of a unique double distinction, signing the document on July 4, then playing a major role as chief army surgeon at the Battle of Princeton six months later. Following the war, he was the best-known physician in the country, founder of Dickinson College, survival instructor of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and national advocate for the elimination of slavery and capital punishment, the education of women, and the benevolent treatment of mental illness as a disease.

3. Philip Freneau 1771. A unique voice on this list to be sure, he and classmate Hugh Breckenridge wrote Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, a satire and possibly the first work of prose fiction in America. Famed as the “Poet of the Revolution,” he wrote moving broadsides against the British, by whom he had been imprisoned and almost killed. He subsequently became a journalist, eventually editing a newspaper for Jefferson and Madison that conveyed an anti-Federalist message against Washington’s presidency and Hamilton. His later non-political writing presaged the Transcendentalists of the 18th century and the Gothic writing of Poe, including perhaps America’s first romantic poem, “The House of the Night.”

4. Oliver Ellsworth 1766. One of my personal favorites, the Federalist was the often-overlooked third chief justice of the United States, and also instrumental in the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the U.S. Senate, and crucial foreign-relations initiatives, including the negotiations with Napoleonic France that paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase, on a perilous trip that almost killed him. At Princeton, he was one of the founders of what became Whig-Clio; in the Senate, he designed the 1789 legislation establishing the structural pre-eminence of the federal court system in the brand-new United States.

5. William Paterson 1763. Immigrant from Ireland as a youth, he was another major player at the Constitutional Convention, where he was a primary architect of the legislative branch. A busy lawyer to say the least, he was attorney general of New Jersey, then its second governor. He served in the U.S. Senate too, and joined Ellsworth, No. 4 above, in constructing the landmark Judiciary Act of 1789. Consistent with that, he was named to the Supreme Court by Washington, and took part in Marbury v. Madison, the bedrock of the court’s authority to declare legislation unconstitutional. Who would know better?

6. Richard Stockton 1748. Scion of the town of Princeton’s first family, he served on the pre-Revolutionary provincial council, then on the New Jersey Supreme Court. He was a College trustee for 26 years and traveled to Scotland to join Rush, No. 2 above, in recruiting Witherspoon for the presidency. He signed the Declaration along with them both, then was captured by the British and imprisoned. Released with impaired health and his estate Morven ruined, he then taught the law to the Revolutionary generation, notably including Paterson, No. 5 above.

7. Jonathan Edwards the Younger 1765. Among the lawyers and statesmen, it’s a good idea to include an exemplum of Princeton’s contribution to the ministry, ostensibly its primary purpose when organized in 1746. After tutoring for a short time in Princeton, the son and namesake of the late College president was a minister for 30 years in Connecticut, during which he preached and published his father’s Enlightenment theology with a liberal twist, and spoke out continuously opposing slavery and the slave trade. Always a curious academic, he became an authority on Native American linguistics, publishing works on the Mohegan tongue. Accordingly, at the end of his career he was named president of Union College, the avowedly non-denominational institution in Schenectady, succeeding founder John Blair Smith 1773, brother of Samuel Stanhope Smith, No. 10 below.

8. William Johnson Jr. 1790. Another of my emotional favorites, he began his career in the South Carolina House of Representatives at age 23, then was named to the state supreme court. He was Jefferson’s first U.S. Supreme Court appointment in 1804 when he was only 33, and thus became its first non-Federalist ever. Remaining on the court for 30 of Chief Justice John Marshall’s 34 years, Johnson became the “First Dissenter,” often alone, and wrote 34 minority opinions, far beyond anyone else on the court in that era and an example for generations to come.

9. Aaron Burr Jr. 1772. Here’s your apt reminder that this listing reflects influence on world affairs, not benevolence, certainly not the strong suit of the self-promoting Burr in stark contrast to his reverend cousin Jonathan Edwards, No. 7 above. But anyone who not only serves as vice president of the U.S., but then inspires a great novel by Gore Vidal in the 20th century and a smash musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the 21st must have something going for him. His life, on a grand scale, whether in his choice of dueling opponents or frontier land investments, seemed custom-designed for both literary and judicial edification, if not moral rectitude; in that, at least, he certainly succeeded.

10. (tie) Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769 and Ashbel Green 1783. (You might think this is a tweak at the 2008 survey’s tie at No. 25 between Donald Rumsfeld ’54 and Ralph Nader ’55. Well, maybe.) The first two alumni to become presidents of the College, they took on jarringly contrary roles in the history of American education. Smith was the founding president of Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, then came back to Princeton to serve as assistant to his father-in-law, the aging Witherspoon. Succeeding him as president in 1794, Smith espoused advancements such as modern language study and the first chemistry professorship in the country, emphasizing the compatibility of religion and science. As the trustees became more conservative and the students restive, he suffered through the Nassau Hall fire of 1802 and the Riot of 1807, eventually being ousted by the board.

John Witherspoon: Behind every great alumnus….
Courtesy Princeton University Art Museum: John Massey Rhind, American, born Scotland, 1860–1936, John Witherspoon (1723-1794), Stone, Princeton University, gift of Mrs. Percy R. Pyne
Trustee Green took over as president in 1812 and promptly lavished all his spare time on the new Princeton Seminary, of which he was a founder. His neglect of the College and the hatred from the students over his condescension finally brought about his firing in 1822, but by then malaise had settled in, and the College would limp from crisis to crisis until the hiring of James McCosh in 1868. A somewhat grim ending to our century.

As intriguing and compelling as this survey is, it does additionally serve to emphasize one overarching conclusion looming in the background: John Witherspoon, an immigrant at age 46, may well have affected the initial development of the nascent United States more than any other individual besides Washington. Recruited by Rush and Stockton, six of the other nine above were his pupils. At Princeton he taught less than the equivalent of one current-day undergraduate class. Among them were a U.S. president, a vice president, 10 cabinet officers, 21 U.S. senators, 39 U.S. representatives, three Supreme Court justices, eight college presidents, 12 governors, and officials beyond counting spread across the 13 states. Let’s see our friends in the 21st century match that.