In 1868, after its first choice for president declined the post, Princeton looked to Scotland

Land of my high endeavor,
Land of the shining river,
Land of my heart forever,
Scotland the Brave!

— Cliff Hanley

I would readily concur with you, the Serious Historian, that the eddies and backwaters of history operate in such mystical ways that timing them like a clock or a calendar is a ludicrous waste of time. But nevertheless, let’s begin today by looking at a set of completely arbitrary dates, and contemplate their import to us at Princeton.

There is, for starters, 1968 — 50 years ago. Among a large number of other disquieting and disorienting events of that year, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis brought a large proportion of the campus together spontaneously in the Chapel, as PAW has recalled recently. The Princeton that entered the Chapel, and the Princeton that left it after the tears were very different places. Coeducation and further diversification of the community would come very soon, but the true change of spirit took place in that room on that day in April, and anyone who was there will concur.

There is 1918 — 100 years ago. With chunks of the campus involved in war training and Reunions suspended, Princeton went on a military footing for the first time, as we began the American Century. Led into war by an alumnus, Woodrow Wilson 1879, the effects on Princeton were profound, and stars began to appear on windows of dorms across campus.

There is 1818 — 200 hundred years ago. In the midst of barely contained chaos (a major student riot the year before resulted in complete disdain of the Ashbel Green 1783 administration by, well, almost everybody), an 18-year-old alumnus already with a degree not only from the College but the new Princeton Seminary as well was hired as a Greek tutor. John Maclean Jr. 1816 would be full professor five years later, founder of the Alumni Association three years after that, and he’d teach in Princeton for 50 years, outlasting insipid administrators and confused trustees, arduously carrying the College on his back even through the second Nassau Hall fire and the cataclysm of Civil War until he, exhausted, could safely hand it to sufficiently able men.

There is 1768, a full quarter-millennium back, when the carping among the Presbyterians in the Colonies caused brave adherents of the College of New Jersey to think outside the box and go for broke by enticing John Witherspoon to America. A veteran at 45 of Scottish political, religious, educational, and philosophical infighting, he unpacked his bags in the president’s house next to Nassau Hall, and eight years later signed the Declaration of Independence along with the two men who recruited him in Scotland.

OK, you say, but you skipped 1868 — 150 years ago, during the magical American administration of Andrew Johnson. What about that, huh?

Well, we’ve saved the best for last, the eventual topic of two columns here in fact — one today and one this fall — which appropriately honor possibly the most important Princetonian of the 19th century.

Rev. William Henry Green.

Rev. William Henry Green
Just a minute, you say: I, the Serious Historian with the certificate in Tiger Studies, have no earthly idea who the Rev. William Henry Green might — or might not — be. Well, he was the unanimous choice for the presidency of the College of New Jersey when the completely drained John Maclean Jr. surrendered it in 1868. An erudite professor at the Princeton Seminary, he was a descendant of Jonathan Dickinson, first president of the College, and the nephew of trustee Chancellor Green, chief justice of New Jersey, and of John C. Green, railroad magnate and soon to be the College’s biggest donor. William Henry Green had the pedigree, personality, and extensive contacts to take the College back into the mainstream of American education.

He said no. Which vaults him into the front ranks of historic Princetonians because it was only then that somebody on the board thought of another highly personable, but much further removed, option for the presidency, the Rev. James McCosh of Queen’s College, Belfast.

James McCosh
John White Alexander, American, 1856–1915, James McCosh (1811–1894), President (1868–88), 1886; Oil on canvas 89.2 x 123 cm (35 1/8 x 48 7/16 in.) frame: 124.5 x 157.5 cm (49 x 62 in.), Princeton University, gift of alumni
While we’ve spoken before of the intriguing parallels between McCosh and his worthy Scots predecessor Witherspoon exactly 100 years prior, there’s always a sense in which the foundational nature of Witherspoon’s presidency (in both the College’s reputation and the country as a whole) make him a towering historical figure, while McCosh’s many achievements reflect a more limited focus and institutional impact. Although I don’t think any of us wishes to be compared straight up to the historical importance of Witherspoon, that particular comparison is a bit unfair, as we’ll see in the ensuing column discussing McCosh’s transformational 20-year administration. In the meantime, we’re going to examine the source of an educator notable enough that, even in New Jersey, trustees with great aspirations felt that a philosophy professor from a young college in Ireland would somehow be the answer to their longstanding difficulties.

McCosh was born in Ayrshire in 1811, 15 years after and a few miles down the road from where Robbie Burns was interred in Dumfries. He came from a line of “large farmers,” as he put it, solidly middle class though born in a farmhouse. He adored his faithful collie, Famous, and felt every boy should have a young lamb to bond with and tend. But from the start he much preferred books to farming, and when his father died when James was 9, his education was accelerated so he could go 30 miles to Glasgow for college studies when he was but 13.

The books there were preferable to the professors, and the learning regimen consisted of extensive essays, which he brought along to Belfast and then to Princeton. His early background with religious studies, which in Scotland were inextricably entwined with intellectuals such as John Knox, extended to David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment.

After five years, he took his huge leap, moving to the big leagues in Edinburgh, former seat of both Hume and Witherspoon. Here he found many engaging teachers with whom to hone his intellectual skills in religion, in philosophy, and even in psychology, all of which this study-hall junkie found irresistible. In fact, his big crisis came when it was time to leave, and he had to decide between teaching and preaching.

After soul-searching, he chose the ministry, where he was immediately advised to go easy on big sermon words like “transcendentalism,” and served parishes in Arbroath and then Brechin, where he expanded and enriched a thriving congregation of almost 1,500 and, more important to Princetonians, met and married Isabella Guthrie, daughter of a respected local physician who would later become a medical beacon on the campus.

When the issue of congregational polity (masking class friction) endangered the Scottish church, McCosh dove in on the side of the Free Church radicals, and led the 40 percent of his flock that broke away with him to a new home, preaching to Free Church gatherings around the country; in 1844, he conducted a service in a sawmill. He traveled to England to raise funds for the breakaways. He termed the schism “the greatest event of my life.”

Ceaselessly curious about philosophy, he was not happy with some of John Stuart Mill’s new ideas, and he published his response of sorts, the wide-ranging Method of Divine Government, Physical and Moral, in 1850, and it instantly became his calling card in academic circles. He was offered without applying a chair in logic and metaphysics at the new Queen’s College, Belfast, where he taught, wrote, and carried on his religious and benevolent activities. He toured universities in Europe in 1858, meeting with such notables as Alexander von Humboldt and Robert Bunsen.

Given his ongoing interest in ecumenism, the Evangelical Alliance sponsored McCosh’s triumphant college tour to the United States in 1866, where he covered 7,000 miles and impressed just about everyone, including Princeton trustees and professors. Now celebrated as a philosopher throughout the English-speaking world, he applied in turn for three prestigious academic positions in Britain and was rejected, presumably because his chair in Belfast was not sufficiently prestigious. But the minute William Henry Green turned them down (and apparently following an unsolicited suggestion from McCosh’s American publisher), the Princeton trustees recalled his talents and Witherspoon’s legacy. On April 29, 1868, they elected him president without even interviewing him. Feeling, among other things, that European and British universities were unduly stodgy, and that American colleges were more in line with the Scots in their welcoming of modern languages and the natural sciences, educator James McCosh and healer Isabella McCosh enthusiastically accepted, and five months later their ship arrived off Sandy Hook.

In the fall, we’ll see how McCosh’s experiences at a new college in Ireland transform into the creation of a modern university half a world away.