Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769: Princeton president and theorist on race
Princeton University Library/Firestone Collection, James Sharples, British, 1752–1811, Samuel Stanhope Smith, Class of 1769, gift of Alfred A. Woodhull, Class of 1856
Was Princeton’s seventh president a bigot, a progressive, or both?

During the protests last year that culminated in the occupation of President Eisgruber ’83’s office, students led by the Black Justice League insisted that the problems of race and memory on campus went beyond the naming of the Woodrow Wilson School and Wilson College. The protesters asked for a “cultural space on campus dedicated specifically to Black students,” named for a person of the students’ choosing rather than for “a white benefactor or person with bigoted beliefs, as evidenced by the naming of Stanhope Hall.”

Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769, who led what was then the College of New Jersey from 1795 to 1812, might have noted a couple of ironies here. First, Smith presided over an institution at which undergraduate riots were a common occurrence, and challenges to the president’s authority were both flamboyant and familiar. (In 1802, he accused his students of starting a devastating fire that nearly destroyed Nassau Hall.) Second, Smith was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic as the leading defender of the “unity of mankind.” Differences in physical appearance and skin color, he argued in print and in his Princeton lectures, were entirely the product of one’s environment. Race was a fiction.

So did the Black Justice League identify the wrong dead white male as a bigot? The short answer is ... it’s complicated. Princeton has been grappling with the issue of race for longer than the nation itself has existed. The first eight presidents of the College of New Jersey were slaveholders, as were many of the early trustees. Within a generation of Princeton’s founding, however, both faculty and students began to challenge slavery. Princetonians also became interested in the other major nonwhite population on the American continent, the Native Americans who stood in the way of the nation’s westward expansion. Princeton and its graduates would confront both of these racial “problems” in the decades after the American Revolution, guided by the writings and teaching of America’s most celebrated racial theorist of his time: Samuel Stanhope Smith.

Smith was born in Pennsylvania in 1751; he graduated in 1769 with a passion for mathematics, natural sciences, and theology. Like his father, Smith became a Presbyterian clergyman and a teacher. He didn’t see any antagonism between religion and science, and during his long career on the Princeton faculty Smith transformed the College’s curriculum and purpose. In the 1770s, when Smith began teaching at Princeton, the College was principally a training ground for Presbyterian ministers. By 1812, when he resigned the presidency, undergraduates were studying chemistry and philosophy — and creatively combining the two in their protests against the administration. Princeton’s emergence as the most modern university in the nation alarmed the trustees, who happily accepted Smith’s resignation. The Presbyterian Church, meanwhile, felt the need to found a theological seminary within sight of Nassau Hall to do the work that the College of New Jersey had once performed.

Smith’s innovations as an educator were matched by his bold thinking about race. He came of age at a moment of huge interest in the subject. Imperialism and the Atlantic slave trade had introduced European scientists and philosophers to a key question: Since human beings in different parts of the world looked very different, how could they all be descended from Adam and Eve? Enlightenment thinkers proposed a simple answer: Human beings were profoundly shaped by the environment — natural and social — in which they lived. The French naturalist and writer Comte de Buffon (Georges-Louis Leclerc) ventured a memorable hypothesis: If you took a few dozen white residents of Denmark and swapped them with a few dozen black Senegalese, within a few generations the descendants of the groups would swap places: The Senegalese would be white, and the Danes would be black. Armed with this confidence in the power of the environment, theorists like Smith could solve the mystery of human diversity without threatening humanity’s roots in the Garden of Eden.

Ironically, it was the rise of the first antislavery movement in the 1770s that brought “scientific” racism into the open. Stung by the language of human brotherhood that inspired early antislavery campaigners in Europe and America, French and British supporters of slavery suggested that black people might be permanently inferior to whites. Thomas Jefferson became the first prominent American to test the same logic. In his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson “advance[d] it as a suspicion only” that black people “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

This was anathema to Smith, who produced an elegant riposte. His Essay on the Causes of Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species was first delivered as a paper to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1787. The published version, which appeared the following year, became one of the most celebrated scientific studies before Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). Smith was unwavering in his insistence that all men were created equal. Every difference in the human form could be explained by “the minutest causes, acting constantly, and long continued.” Crucially, human variations were reversible. Enlightened reformers could change virtually every aspect of a human being if they simply altered the environment in which that person lived — moving to a different climate, for example, or adopting the customs and practices of a more “civilized” people. On Jefferson’s tentative racial hierarchy, Smith was witheringly brief: “These remarks upon the genius of the African negro appear to me to have so little foundation in true philosophy that few observations will be necessary to refute them.”

Smith was a universalist, believing that all humans had the same potential, but decidedly not a relativist. He didn’t recognize African or Native cultures as equivalent to Anglo-American culture, and his hopes for the nation’s future were grounded in his belief that blacks and Native Americans could be “improved” — physically and culturally — until they closely resembled white people. In the Essay, Smith wrote about an early experiment in racial “improvement” at Princeton. In 1785, a Delaware Indian named George Morgan White Eyes entered Nassau Hall to begin his freshman year. The young student’s father, White Eyes, had been killed by American militiamen in 1778, and the U.S. Congress had voted funds for his son to be educated at Princeton. “From an accurate observation of him,” Smith wrote in the Essay, “I have received the most perfect conviction that the same state of society, united with the same climate, would make the Anglo-American and the Indian countenance very nearly approximate.” Smith conceded that a childhood spent among Native American people on the frontier had produced some “obvious differences” in physical appearance. But by 1787, young White Eyes’ progress at Princeton had convinced Smith that “the varieties among mankind are much less than they appear to be.”

Then, abruptly, White Eyes’ academic career came to a halt. The young Delaware had fallen in with a group of dissolute and unruly students, and in December 1787 he was formally admonished for his conduct. By 1789, White Eyes was living in poverty in New York City. When Congress cut off his stipend, he complained to George Washington of “the treatment I met with at Princeton” and the bad reputation that had followed him to New York. White Eyes eventually returned to the West, and was later killed in a brawl. Washington concluded that educating Native Americans in the nation’s most prestigious colleges was a bad idea. White Eyes’ experience was “not such as can be productive of any good to their nations,” he told a friend in 1791. “It is, perhaps, productive of evil.”

American Colonization Society map showing coastal towns in Liberia in the 1850s. More than 5,000 African Americans moved to Liberia during that decade.
Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C.

Smith must have known the sad ending to White Eyes’ Princeton career, but he changed barely a word of his upbeat account in the Essay’s second edition of 1810. During the intervening decades, Smith’s ideas about racial “improvement” had been reworked on a national scale. The administrations of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson crafted a “civilizing” policy that expected Native Americans to embrace white society and even to intermarry with white settlers. When Native American nations placed a higher value on their own land and culture, they were drawn into wars with the United States that relieved them of both. Smith had suggested that Native Americans would welcome the chance to embrace a superior civilization. With no explanation for why indigenous people might prefer their own culture, Smith’s theory ran aground on the realities of westward expansion.

These ideas about the malleability of human appearance and behavior informed Smith’s approach to African Americans as well as to Native Americans. We know from a 1784 newspaper advertisement that Smith owned at least one slave during his time at Princeton, a farmhand whom Smith was keen to exchange for another slave “accustomed to cooking and waiting in a genteel family.” This preference for house slaves made its way into Smith’s Essay. There was, he insisted, a “great difference” between the facial features of “domestic and field slaves.” House slaves soon began to resemble their masters, both in their features and their conduct. This gave Smith hope that, if “admitted to a liberal participation of the society, rank and privileges of their masters, they would change their African peculiarities much faster.” Smith’s view of human potential was tethered to the cumbersome belief that blacks and Indians could escape from their physical appearance as well as from slavery or “the savage state.”

Smith took up the subject of black “improvement” in his undergraduate lectures at Princeton. He acknowledged that slavery was wrong and that white Americans had a duty to abolish it, while insisting that slavery had done real damage to the morals of its victims. “No event can be more dangerous to a community than the sudden introduction into it of vast multitudes of persons … possessing only the habits and vices of slavery,” Smith declared. The solution was to cultivate “good moral and industrious habits” among slaves before emancipation. Perhaps slaveholders could give their slaves a small area of land to cultivate in their free time, paying them modest wages and finally rewarding their hard work. The payoff for masters would be a more virtuous class of freed people, a prerequisite for social harmony after emancipation.

The Virginia abolitionist George Bourne later remarked that Princeton’s Southern students must have been laughing behind their hands at Smith’s portrait of the kindly slaveholder. But most white reformers in Smith’s day worked from the same assumption: that masters would be central to the abolition of slavery. Even if white Southerners agreed to “improve” and free their slaves, the road ahead was daunting. Smith thought that many whites would retain “prejudices” against ex-slaves that would prevent social cohesion. Newly freed people might become alienated from their white neighbors and fall in with their fellow blacks who were still in bondage. A program of gradual abolition might easily spin off into a race war, undoing all of Smith’s hopes.

His solution was, if nothing else, bold: The United States should set aside a “large district” in the West, and persuade freed people to resettle far from the heartlands of slavery. Whites should be offered land grants to marry African Americans and live alongside them in the new territory. “In a course of time,” Smith told his Princeton students, the scheme would “obliterate those wide distinctions which are now created by diversity of complexion.” He feared that neither the states nor the federal government were likely to make the “great sacrifices” this scheme required. But he promised his students that, if slavery were allowed to continue unchecked, it would “be productive of many moral and political evils.”

Membership certificate for James Madison 1771, dated 1816.
The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress

The first half of this outlandish scheme had a strange afterlife, thanks to the careers of two of Smith’s students. Robert Finley, who became a clergyman in Basking Ridge, N.J., after graduating from Princeton in 1787, was fascinated by the problem Smith had defined in his lectures: How could the evil of slavery be safely removed from the nation? Charles Fenton Mercer, the son of a Virginia slaveholder, graduated from Princeton in 1797 with a conviction that slavery should be abolished. He went on to become a congressman from Virginia, a role that gave him a powerful platform to develop his convictions.

Mercer and Finley met with Smith in the fall of 1816 as their plans took shape. Finley then convened his first colonization meeting in Princeton, before traveling to Washington in December 1816 to found the American Colonization Society (ACS).

The society immediately attracted the most powerful men in the nation to its ranks. James Madison 1771 welcomed Finley to Washington, while James Monroe, his successor in the White House, helped the society to purchase what became the colony of Liberia in 1820. (The colony got its name from the Maryland politician Robert Goodloe Harper 1785, yet another colonization supporter who had been taught by Smith at Princeton.) Colonization became the most popular solution to the problem of slavery among “moderate” whites across the nation. The ACS struggled to win support from free blacks, who suspected its motives and its white managers, and it eventually drew the fire of William Lloyd Garrison and radical abolitionists. But in the decades before the Civil War, colonization proposals drew support from some of the most celebrated figures in American public life: from Madison, who became the ACS president in 1833, to Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and even Abraham Lincoln.

It’s hard to measure the effect of the colonization movement on the long-term place of black people in America, though I think we need to pay much more attention to the fact that most mainstream opponents of slavery before the Civil War were also segregationists. Princeton’s role in this is easier to establish. Colonization took root in the ideas of Samuel Stanhope Smith, and developed in the shadow of his intellectual frustrations and disappointments. His students met the challenge of integrating the races with a clever fudge: Slavery could be ended through the logic of separate-but-equal.

Should Smith’s story have any bearing on our conversation about race and memory on campus? I think so, for two reasons. First, a narrow focus on Woodrow Wilson 1879 may distract from the longer history of racial injustice at Princeton. In April, when discussing President Wilson’s decision in 1909 to discourage a young black Virginian from applying to Princeton, the distinguished Wilson biographer A. Scott Berg ’71 asked us to recall that the University had “existed for 160 years before having to deal with an African American.” Yet a full accounting of Princeton’s past requires us to look far beyond Wilson.

Samuel Stanhope Smith — or, to be more precise, Stanhope Hall — also may have something to teach us about the politics of commemoration. In the recent debate over Wilson, opponents of renaming warned against dishonoring the achievements of our forebears or erasing difficult truths. But the process of remembering is always about the present as well as the past. For more than a century after Smith raised the money to build it, Stanhope Hall was known by other names: the University Offices, the Library, Geological Hall. The trustees of his time were hardly likely to confer the honor on President Smith, whose educational reforms had so exasperated them before his forced retirement in 1812. Memory is not only an inheritance, but an act of shared expression. We find community in the past partly through our willingness to challenge it. 

Nicholas Guyatt *03 teaches history at Cambridge University and is the author of Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (Basic).