As an undergraduate, I wrote my thesis on Samuel Stanhope Smith, Witherspoon’s son-in-law and successor as president of the College of New Jersey. Witherspoon and Smith began the traditions of Princeton in the nation’s service and a more latitudinarian approach to the heavily doctrinal (Presbyterian) 18th-century curriculum. Smith believed the academies and colleges of his day should provide easy access to the arts and sciences, and called places like Princeton “elementary schools for training a constant succession of wise and enlightened statesmen for the republic.” He wrote to Benjamin Rush 1760 that “the diffusion of knowledge is the diffusion of virtue and freedom.”
So, against the wishes of a conservative board of trustees, for whom his views were anathema, Smith hired the first undergraduate teacher of chemistry and natural sciences in America, John Maclean. His spirit of tolerant catholicity led him to defend the right of persons to hold whatever opinions they wished, without censure, including the right of Old Testament figures to practice polygamy, and the right of his universalist cousin, the Rev. Samuel Blair, to believe that “all men would be saved.” Smith employed anthropology and other empirical scientific insights from the Age of Enlightenment to oppose “creationism” and a narrow Biblicism that literally interpreted the Book of Genesis. And he declared: “I do not intend to wrap myself in the shroud of orthodoxy with lifeless acquiescence in established systems.” The upshot of his conflict with the trustees was, sadly, that he was forced to resign in 1812.
But Smith saved Princeton’s curriculum from stultifying narrowness and its spirit from subservience to institutionalized orthodoxy. That is his enduring legacy, and I was so pleased to read about the multidenominational nature of this year’s Opening Exercises and the institutional support students are receiving “in their choice of religious beliefs and practices,” because it strikes me that the great Princeton commitment to searching for truth wherever the search may lead, is yet alive and well after two centuries and more, in “the best old place of all.”