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Who Founded Princeton University?

Q. Dear Mr. Mudd,

Who founded Princeton University? 

A. The founding of Princeton University is nearly as complex as the courses that have been and continue to be taught within its hallowed lecture halls. The College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was known until 1896) was a child of the Great Awakening, an institution born in opposition to the religious tenets that had ruled the colonial era.

The principles on which Princeton University was founded may be traced to the Log College in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, founded by William Tennent in 1726. Tennent was a Presbyterian minister who, along with fellow evangelists Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, and George Whitefield of England, preached and taught an approach to religion and life that was the very essence of the Great Awakening period. The seven founders of the College of New Jersey were all Presbyterians. Ebenezer Pemberton, a minister and a graduate of Harvard, was the only one of the seven who did not graduate from Yale. The remaining six were Jonathan Dickinson, Aaron Burr Sr., and John Pierson, who were ministers; William Smith, a lawyer; Peter Van Brugh Livingston, a merchant; and William Peartree Smith.

Original location of Pennsylvania’s Log College (photo taken in 1914). Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP62, Image No. 2402.

This group approached Governor Lewis Morris in late 1745 or early 1746 seeking a charter for a college that would, in time, become Princeton University. Governor Morris, an Anglican and a Loyalist, refused the charter because of the applicants’ anti-Anglican views and beliefs. Soon afterwards, Governor Morris died and John Hamilton became Acting Governor of New Jersey. Hamilton was also an Anglican but more liberal-minded than his predecessor. Furthermore, the proposed college had won the support of several members of the Governor’s Council. Accordingly, the petitioners resubmitted their request for a charter, and Governor Hamilton granted their wish on October 22, 1746, the date that Princeton University celebrates as its founding.

First Charter in Board of Trustees Minutes
Charter of the College of New Jersey, in Board of Trustees Minutes, Vol. 1. (Board of Trustees Records (AC120)).

Once the charter was secured, the seven petitioners became trustees of the College of New Jersey and named five others, including Samuel Blair, Samuel Finley, Gilbert Tennent, William Tennent, Jr., all graduates of the Log College, and Richard Treat, a supporter of the Log College, to the new board. The trustees elected Jonathan Dickinson the first president of the College on April 27, 1747, and classes began in May at Dickinson’s parsonage in Elizabethtown. Upon Dickinson’s death in October 1747, the College moved to Newark, where its second president, Aaron Burr, Sr. resided.

The College was only in its infancy when the charter and its validity began to be questioned by many influential Anglicans who contended that Governor Hamilton, an “acting governor,” did not have the authority to grant such a charter. Governor Jonathan Belcher, a graduate of Harvard and a supporter of the ideals of the Great Awakening, issued a second charter on September 14, 1748. Governor Belcher’s charter upheld the fundamental characteristics of the first. His, however, enlarged the Board of Trustees from 12 to 23 and included the governor of New Jersey as an ex-officio trustee.

It was Aaron Burr, Sr. who turned the founding ideals of the College into a reality during his tenure as its president (1748-1757). President Burr presided over initial decisions on such matters as entrance requirements and the course of study, as well as overseeing the move of the College from Newark to Princeton in 1756. Four wealthy landowners in Princeton helped to secure the move. Together, John Stockton, Thomas Leonard, John Hornor, and Nathaniel FitzRandolph gave 211.5 acres of land as well as monetary contributions. Nassau Hall was built on 4.5 acres of land donated by FitzRandolph. Nassau Hall, when completed in 1756, was the largest stone building in the colonies. Seventy students, two tutors, and President Burr comprised the small beginnings of a great institution.

Related Sources

Historical Subject Files Collection, 1746-2005

Leitch, Alexander. A Princeton Companion. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978). Also available online.

This post was originally written by Tad Bennicoff in 2003 and appeared in the FAQ section of our old website. It has been revised and expanded here as part of the launch of our new website.

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