The book: Princeton University: The First 275 Years (Arcadia Publishing) is an ode to the interesting history surrounding the University. Using archival photographs, W. Bruce Leslie ’66 starts in 1747 with founding trustee the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson and takes readers on a journey to present-day events, including the COVID-19 pandemic. 


The author: W. Bruce Leslie ’66 is a New Jersey native and professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Brockport, where he taught in the history department for half a century. He studied history at Princeton and earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1971.



In May 1747, students entered Rev. Jonathan Dickinson’s study, breathing life into the recently chartered College of New Jersey. Surely, this small band of pioneers never could have imagined that they were the launching a university destined to become one of the most prestigious in the world.

How did we get from that inauspicious morning to modern Princeton? This volume takes you on a brief tour of those 275 years. But to understand what drew the students to Dickinson’s manse on that spring morning, we must reach back even further. Why did a handful of Presbyterian ministers pursue the audacious dream of founding an institution of higher learning at a small crossroads in an 18th-century British colony? Why did students appear at Reverend Dickinson’s doorstep? Where did the idea of a college come from?

If founding the College of New Jersey was a very New World act of optimism, it also embraced long-standing cultural and institutional traditions. Yes, we must make the proverbial return to classical Greece, the scholars of which began an intellectual quest that launched the Western intellectual tradition. Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey recounted a martial society — Achilles did not seek a liberal education! But by the 5th century, relative stability freed an intellectual elite to examine life with perspective. Some, such as those gathered in Hippocrates’s school of medicine, specialized. Others, notably Socrates and the Sophists, ranged more widely. Socrates paid the ultimate price for his belief that the unexamined life was not worth living, though the teaching technique bearing his name lives on over two millennia later.

Plato, Socrates’s most famous protégé, gave the search for knowledge an enduring institutional form. His academy among olive trees outside Athens lasted for nearly a millennium and bequeathed the term “groves of academe,” idealized in Raphael’s beguiling image of the scholars strolling under Greek arches lost in thought.

Whereas Plato’s Academy offered brilliant dialectical training, it added little knowledge. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, added empirical research to philosophical debate. His extensive collections of manuscripts and maps as well as natural specimens, inspired new branches of learning while philosophy retained a place as Aristotle wrestled with the nature of knowledge. Aristotelian ideas shaped curricular debate long after English settlers crossed the Atlantic.

Although Greece had been reduced to a Roman province in 146 BC, in Horace’s words, “Captive Greece by the charm of her civilization took captive her conqueror.” Greek was the language of refinement, and Athens remained a seat of learning until Justinian closed its schools, including Plato’s Academy, around 520 AD. The Romans organized Greek pedagogy into the trivium and quadrivium. The trivium reflected Roman emphasis on oratorical skill through grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. The quadrivium contained the scientific fields of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (as a branch of mathematics). These seven liberal arts and sciences provided the base for training in the learned professions of law and medicine.

Thus, Greco-Roman culture bequeathed a body of knowledge and an enduring curricular model based upon the seven liberal arts and sciences. However, an institutional structure for higher learning did not emerge until a half millennium later, after the vicissitudes of the Middle Ages.

In Western Europe, classical scholarship barely survived in monastic scriptoriums, with little knowledge of classical science and mathematics. Most scholarly advances were in the Islamic world, especially Andalusian Spain. Then, despite entering the second millennium as a backwater, Western Europe stabilized and prospered. Emerging nation-states in creative tension with the Catholic Church provided the conditions for the rise of the West. Increasing contact with the Arab world reconnected Europeans to Greek scholarship and several centuries of Islamic scholarship.

This rebirth led to the institutionalization of intellectual life. Bologna, often cited as the first university, dates from 1088. Leading legal scholars had attracted students into a studium generale.

Conflicts with the church and local authorities led to its formal recognition as an academic guild, bestowing protections and privileges upon students and scholars. An important precedent had been established. As advanced learning gained stature, a body of law developed for the academic guild, or universitas.

How did the path to Princeton cross the Alps and, ultimately, the English Channel? As the concept of the university moved north, variants emerged, most importantly in Paris. By the early 1100s, a studium generale had formed along the Seine, with students especially drawn by the charismatic and controversial Abelard. His Sic et Non displeased the church, and his star-crossed love affair with his pupil Heloise led to monastic banishment.

To avoid future Abelards, the church placed the studium generale under the looming authority of the chancellor of Notre Dame. Unlike at Italian universities, students exerted less power than the scholar’s guild, which established control over granting degrees codified in graduations and echoed in today’s rites. By formally making the arts and science degree preparatory for professional degrees, the curriculum evolved in ways that still shape higher education in the United States. The traditions of Roman law and medieval guilds converged to shape higher learning’s institutional traditions.

The story continues with England’s King Henry II famously falling out with the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, who prudently fled to Paris. In retaliation, in 1167, Henry ordered English students in Paris to return home. Soon, a thriving studium generale emerged along a tributary of the Thames. Despite the unlikely location, Oxford grew with remarkable rapidity and, by 1200, bulged with English and foreign students and teachers as well as the requisite booksellers and parchment-makers.

Oxford’s transformation from studium generale to privileged formal institution followed the continental pattern of town-gown and monarchical-papal disputes. Legendary “Bad King John,” foe of Robin Hood and reluctant signatory of the Magna Carta at Runnymede, was locked in a losing battle with the church. Pope Innocent III excommunicated John in 1209, the same year an Oxford student’s stray arrow killed a young woman. In revenge, the townspeople hung three students, and the studium generale dispersed. King John sided with the town. But when Pope Innocent III brought John to heel, the town of Oxford had to make peace with the church by reducing students’ rents and ceding control over the price of food and ale to university officials. The first legal recognition of a university in the Anglophonic world stemmed not from intellectual creativity but from tragedy, revenge, and a power struggle.

Cambridge University traces its origins to the same incident. Many of those fleeing Oxford settled in the fenlands of Cambridgeshire. It was an unlikely location — the town had only a modest reputation for learning and a poor one for health. Some of the emigrants soon returned to Oxford, but enough stayed by the River Cam to generate a second English university, jointly dubbed Oxbridge.

Unlike most continental universities, neither English university resided in a cathedral city. Oxford was far from its bishop in Lincoln, and Cambridge was similarly distant from the bishop of Ely. In this vacuum, the universities elected their own chancellors and sidestepped church intervention until John Wycliffe’s apostasy in the late 1300s. By then, both had strong traditions of autonomy. The Oxbridge town-gown relationship differed from those at most continental universities. The authorities and citizens of cities like Paris possessed the physical and political muscle to challenge the masters and students. Although the citizens of Oxford and Cambridge often took umbrage at the legal privileges and occasionally offensive behavior of students and faculty, power was balanced differently in England. In successive confrontations, the universities emerged with bloodied noses and enhanced privileges. In the centuries between the foundings of Oxbridge and Harvard, the English universities developed unique patterns of living, teaching, and learning that were carried to the colonies. Particularly important for the colonial colleges was Oxbridge’s collegiate residential tradition.

Colleges extended their influence over the next three centuries. Endowments from nobility and the monarchy strengthened the colleges that became the locus of teaching. The Tudors particularly valued the universities as vehicles of statecraft and promoted colleges. Today’s tourists visiting Kings College Chapel at Cambridge or listening to its Christmas Eve carol service benefit from one of the Tudors’ most visible and mellifluous legacies.

The English Reformation completed the rise of the colleges. After the dissolution of the monasteries, new colleges literally rose from their ruins, while existing colleges appropriated their endowments, libraries, and even lead roofs. Teaching shifted from university lectures to individual meetings with college tutors, who were personally responsible for undergraduates’ intellectual and social lives. Closer control of student lives satisfied Tudor desires for order as well as emerging Puritan moral sensibilities. The colleges became virtually self-contained teaching entities, while university lectures became peripheral. The universities only retained control over examinations and granting degrees. The residential college matured before Elizabeth’s death, providing a model carried to the colonies.

For its first three centuries, Oxbridge’s curricula reflected continental intellectual life. Then, the English Reformation deflected the intellectual trajectory. Most Catholic authors were proscribed, leapfrogging curricula back to a purer classical tradition. Henry VIII’s 1535 Royal Injunctions commanded that all colleges provide daily lectures in Greek and Latin, leading with Aristotle. Once the commentaries were revised to fit post-Reformation sensibilities, the undergraduate curriculum returned to its classical base — another Tudor practice transplanted across the Atlantic.

Under the Stuarts, religious conflicts divided the universities and inspired the migration that carried the English university tradition from old to New England. The universities, especially Cambridge colleges under Puritan control, received unwelcome attention from the infamous Archbishop Laud. Those colleges particularly rejected Anglican practice by hiring married faculty but embraced Cambridge’s tutorial system, requiring that tutors assiduously oversee students’ moral and religious lives while delivering heavy doses of the classics.

Among Puritans fleeing Stuart oppression were graduates of the Puritan colleges who would transplant academic seeds that had developed over two millennia in their new world. Massachusetts Bay was, arguably, the most highly educated society in the world. Over one percent of the 1630s migrants had experienced university, and preserving that intellectual tradition drove the leaders to found Harvard College barely after the colonists had arrived.

Harvard’s charter stipulated that it be pro modo Academiarum in Anglia (i.e., according to the manner of universities in England). More specifically, the founders copied Cambridge’s Puritan colleges, especially John Harvard’s alma mater Emmanuel. They consciously echoed Oxbridge collegiate life, erecting a substantial building containing a dining hall with high table for faculty, a library, and sleeping quarters with studies. The curriculum also closely resembled Cambridge’s Puritan colleges, steeping classical learning within a disciplined and pious atmosphere. Latin was the lingua franca except in Greek and Hebrew classes. Undergraduate years were devoted to liberal education and training to be Christian gentlemen. For those heading for the pulpit, theological training came later.

Despite deliberate imitation, the English model mutated when transplanted to American soil. Financial need forced innovation. Since these new colleges lacked Oxbridge’s endowments, a mixture of public subsidies and private contributions kept them afloat. Oxbridge’s level of self-governance was also not replicated. Harvard’s board of overseers had founded the college, establishing the precedent of external governance. The Oxbridge pattern of multiple colleges within a university was obviated by colonial dynamics. Anglicans organized the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and Calvinists dissatisfied with Harvard created Yale College in Connecticut.

Thus, the first three colleges acted in concert with their respective colonies’ established churches, were monopolies, and received taxpayer support. But in the 1740s, a fourth colonial college was founded in New Jersey that, while sharing the commitment to classical curriculum and collegiate life, would pioneer new models of finance and control that would shape the unique higher education system of the United States.

Copyright © 2022 by W. Bruce Leslie. All rights reserved. Published by Arcadia. Reproduced with permission from W. Bruce Leslie.