I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass
— Bob Dylan, 1967
Given the vast melange of available column topics, it might surprise the occasional dabbler — although not you, the Seasoned Historian — to realize that one of our generally least visited locales is One Nassau Hall in the present moment. This is not because of aversion to the power structure, but instead a recognition that Nassau Hall is already quite effective at what is does, namely running the place and keeping the general populace reminded that it’s running the place. The president, who is a fine person with many admirable traits and a first-rate mind, has plenty of help to keep the world at large reminded that he’s a fine person with many admirable traits and a first-rate mind. So I’ve usually focused elsewhere in spinning tales of institutional history and lessons learned.
Which I mention to emphasize the unusual importance of President Eisgruber ’83’s statement earlier this year focusing on the University not as an ivory-tower observation post, but as a keep of broad-ranging rationality and universal wisdom. In line with his fondness for Princeton’s history, responding to the U.S. government’s initial 2017 attempt to ban various immigrants he noted:
Many of you have written to express concerns about the recent federal executive order barring entry to the United States for refugees and for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. I share those concerns. Since its early days, when the College of New Jersey recruited a transformative president from Scotland, this University has depended on America’s ability to attract and engage with talented people from around the world.
And so, with a nod to the president, we focus today on examples of leading members of the University who, literally over centuries now, have come to Princeton from many far places in many circumstances and have hugely contributed to what we are today.It’s compulsory, as Eisgruber did, to begin with John Witherspoon. As a highly learned and respected cleric in Paisley, and notably a voice of the traditional Scottish church in cautious contrast to the great Scots Enlightenment thinkers of the time — Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, and the like — he was hired by desperate college trustees in 1768 to be a conciliating figure with the Old Side Presbyterian stuffed shirts from Philadelphia who were trying to throw out the New Lights, who had founded the school 22 years prior. Ironically, this respected but intentionally middle-of-the-road hire took one look around his new country, completely overturned the curriculum to allow more freedom of inquiry, and decided that the prevailing, highly idealistic New Light philosophy badly needed a much more practical grounding in the humanistic Enlightenment. A mere eight years after first setting foot in America, Rev. Witherspoon sat with the two great Princetonians who had been foremost in recruiting him — Robert Stockton 1748 and Dr. Benjamin Rush 1760 — and signed the Declaration of Independence, the only college president to do so, effectively cementing his institution as the intellectual center of the Revolution, perhaps next to Jefferson’s brain.
But that’s far from the whole story.
After its near-death experience in the early 19th century, the College under the academic leadership of John Maclean Jr. 1816 slowly began to address the needs of modern education, including another Scotsman, James Moffatt 1835, who taught classics and history, and the internationally renowned Swiss scientist Arnold Guyot in geology. In 1836 Austrian Benedict Jaeger arrived to manage the zoological museum, teach natural history, and become professor of modern languages, teaching French, Spanish, German, and Italian. But even that breadth barely stands up to Germanic languages professor Karl Langlotz, hired in 1856 from Austria, who also started a fencing club and, having been a student of Liszt in the old country, directed a college singing group and in 1859 composed the music for Harlan Page Peck 1862’s new composition, “Old Nassau.”
Then, battered by a Civil War that left 70 of its alumni dead and its spirit in tatters, the College hearkened back to the Witherspoon lesson and reached across the world to bring in a transformational leader. Of course, if you’re Presbyterian, “across the world” may very well be Scotland, and indeed the president of Queen’s College, Belfast, had degrees from Glasgow and Edinburgh, leadership in the disruptive creation of the Free Church of Scotland, and, crucially, connections at Oxford, Cambridge, and the great universities of Europe. James McCosh took the reins to reinvigorate Princeton in 1868, precisely 100 years after Witherspoon. One of his first hires in the newly endowed chair of Modern Languages was the dashing if eccentric general Joseph Kargé, who had fled to America under penalty of death as a Polish revolutionary, then became a brilliant cavalry commander for the Union in the Civil War, and finally a renowned instructor in German and French for 25 years. Oh yes, he also led summer trips for students to the American Western badlands, just for fun.
Foreshadowed by the previous success of Guyot, as Princeton exerted itself to become world-class in the sciences in the early 20th century, a strong global component became crucial, brought in first by Henry B. Fine 1880, then by Luther Eisenhart and Oswald Veblen. The hiring of Russian immigrant mathematician Solomon Lefschetz in 1924 was fortuitous; nine years later he succeeded Eisenhart as the math chair, then guided the department for a glorious 20-year period that included such names as Turing, Tukey, Tucker, and Nash. As the world began to seethe in the early 1930s, Veblen’s visits to Europe yielded a stunning group of refugee/immigrant mathematicians and scientists: Albert Einstein, Eugene Wigner, and John von Neumann were three of the great minds of the age, and their presence at the University and/or Institute for Advanced Study helped make the Princeton community the center of global math and physics ideas that it remains to this day. In 1938, the Austrian Anschluss led economist Oskar Morgenstern to emigrate to Princeton as well; six years later, he and von Neumann published their seminal text on game theory, revolutionizing huge swaths of the applied math and economics worlds in one blow. Wigner taught at Princeton for 35 years and won the Nobel Prize in 1963 for his work in quantum mechanics and elementary particles.
We’ve even had our modest invasion from the north, believe it or not. Canadian Jacob Viner came to Princeton’s economics department in 1946, became a mainstay of its teaching and scholarship, and maintained crucial activity at the library and the Princeton University Press even after his nominal retirement. Along with Morgenstern, Nobel-winner W. Arthur Lewis from Saint Lucia, Austrian Fritz Machlup, and Gregory Chow from China fueled an explosion in economic research that not only laid the groundwork for the current powerhouse department, but trained two successive Princeton teachers and presidents, Bill Bowen *58 and Harold Shapiro *64, yet another Canadian. And Shapiro in turn was succeeded by the Canadian head of the genomics institute, Shirley Tilghman.
Indeed, as you look at the 1,100 or so faculty members today, it is utterly unremarkable to see vital roles filled at a world-class level by the 30 percent of the faculty who are foreign-born: from Chih‐p’ing Chou, the director of the Program in East Asian Linguistics, from China; to poet Paul Muldoon of Ireland, the founding director of the Lewis Center for the Arts, one of Princeton’s largest new educational initiatives in decades.
And perhaps most telling, the most recent five Princetonians to win the Nobel Prize — Oliver Hart *74 (economics, Britain), Professor Duncan Haldane (physics, Britain), Professor Angus Deaton (economics, Britain), researcher Thomas Lindahl (chemistry, Sweden), and Professor Arthur McDonald (physics, Canada) — are from outside the United States.
Earlier in the year, we noted the somewhat surprising history of a small college in New Jersey — born in the USA along with the Witherspoon’s Declaration and James Madison 1771’s Constitution — affecting through its alumni the course of many far-flung areas of the world around us. Once we understand the huge importance of immigrants and refugees to our own fabric for 250 years, though, it seems natural if not inevitable; and Eisgruber’s statement in support of welcome, tolerance, and support seems completely well-founded, including its historical conclusion:
Princeton’s position on immigration policy issues reflects our conviction that every single person on this campus has benefited from the ability of people to cross borders in search of learning or a better life.
Dei sub numine viget.