A few weeks ago, I blogged about the search to find the first Jewish student at Princeton. As I noted, the “first” student in any category is probably impossible to determine. However, I was able to find a record suggesting possible Jewish presence dating back to 1859, when Albert Mordecai of the Class of 1863 arrived to begin his studies. In today’s post, I support my own claims about the difficulty of determining “firsts” by showing that Jewish presence at Princeton goes back at least half a century further than initially thought. The earliest records I have found thus far now uncover the life of another Jewish student who began his work at Princeton in 1809, Mordecai Myers, but a handful of other Jewish students also attended Princeton in the antebellum period.
Follow up from our readers has prompted this update on two counts. The first concerns Albert Mordecai’s connection to Judaism. Yosef Razin ’11 wrote in with research he conducted on the Mordecai family in the U. S. Census records and other sources. There is conflicting data regarding the family origins, he says, but sources seem to agree that Mordecai’s origins through his paternal line were Jewish. His mother’s ethnic background may or may not have been Jewish. Those on campus or with a subscription can access these records through the Ancestry.com databases.
The second update makes it clear, however, that whether or not Albert Mordecai considered himself Jewish, he would not have been the first Jewish student at Princeton. Sven Henningson ’16 uncovered a reference to Mordecai Myers as a Jewish graduate of Princeton and alerted us to the possibility that he had been on campus much earlier than Albert Mordecai. Having done some digging, I have confirmed that Mordecai Myers, Class of 1812, was Jewish and earned his A.B. from Princeton in 1812. This research led down a path that uncovered a few other Jewish students at Princeton prior to the Civil War.
Mordecai Myers, the son of Levi Myers and Francis Minis, born November 9, 1794, was just shy of 15 years old when he arrived at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1809. Myers was advanced enough to skip his freshman year and was admitted to the sophomore Class of 1812. This proved fortuitous in terms of being able to finish his degree, because war broke out in 1812. According to a 1909 letter from his son to the Princeton University Secretary, when armed conflict began with Great Britain in June 1812, Myers returned home to his native Charleston, South Carolina, but this didn’t prevent him from graduating with his class the following September.
After Myers’s graduation, South Carolina Governor James Alston brought him onto his staff as an Aide-de-Camp and private secretary with the rank of Colonel. From 1812-1814, Myers lived with the Governor’s family while Alston oversaw his legal education. After being admitted to the bar, Myers married Henrietta Cohen and moved to Savannah, Georgia, where a significant antebellum Jewish population thrived. There, they had 12 children together, not all of whom survived to adulthood.
Myers practiced law in Savannah in partnership with Princeton classmate John C. Nicoll, also of the Class of 1812. Myers held a variety of public offices there, including alderman (elected in 1818) and the clerk of the Savannah City Council (elected in 1819). He then represented Chatham County off and on for a decade in the Georgia legislature (1824-1834). In 1839, Myers co-founded the Georgia Historical Society with his brother-in-law, Solomon Cohen. He was appointed Collector of the Port of Savannah in 1844, but the Senate voted not confirm his nomination. He and his family moved to a farm in Cobb County, Georgia in 1847, where his son wrote that Myers “returned to private life and devoted himself to his books.”
Records suggest the Civil War disrupted Myers’s retirement in more ways than one. The sources concerning Myers and slavery are conflicted, but I believe it is safe to assume he was a slave owner. One source asserts that Myers’s 2,000-acre farm had no slaves, and it appears he served as a guardian to several free black men (at the time the law required free blacks to have guardians, which was often a civic duty without clear reward; however, in other cases guardianship looked quite a bit like ownership, with the distinction between being free and slave being roughly nonexistent). Meanwhile, the United States Census Federal Slave Schedules for Cobb County, Georgia in 1850 and 1860 list “Mordaci Myires” and “M. Myers” as owning about 30 and 40 slaves, respectively, which is a pretty strong indication that Mordecai Myers, Princeton Class of 1812, was, indeed, a slave owner, at least prior to the outbreak of war. Nonetheless, his son reported in 1903, “He had been an old line Whig … he became a Southern State rights democrat, always a Union man–opposed to secession but when all of his sons entered the C. S. [Confederate] Army & Navy, he clung to them and the side they took…” The Union army occupied Mordecai Myers’s home in 1864, and he died shortly thereafter on February 21, 1865.
Beyond Myers, I’ve also found some other antebellum Jewish students at Princeton. Though no records remain other than those asserting that they were students here who were Jewish, Samuel and William Marx came to Princeton in 1812. Neither graduated, but it appears Samuel Marx went on to the University of Pennsylvania, as is noted in the alumni file of Mordecai Myers. Someone named Samuel Marx received a B.A. from Penn in 1815.
Finally, our records give us glimpses into the life of one other antebellum student said to be of Jewish descent, Tobias Epstein, the valedictorian of the Class of 1827. Epstein arrived from Philadelphia in 1823 and attended college at a time of religious fervor in Princeton. Records say that Epstein was of Jewish background and converted to Christianity at some point, but give few details. He had been meeting secretly with three other students for prayer for a while before the group decided to openly and formally organize as the Philadelphian Society in 1825. John T. Duffield of the Class of 1876 paraphrased a letter from Epstein in an article he wrote for the Society’s journal, the Philadelphian, in 1887: “Shortly after entering College, in 1823, in a letter to a friend, he gratefully refers to his religious privileges, mentions incidentally that ‘there are about seventeen professors of religion in College’ [i.e., students who claim an evangelical conversion experience]; expresses his desire and purpose to devote himself wholly to God’s service; and prays for an outpouring of the Spirit upon the Institution.” After his graduation from Princeton, Epstein entered Princeton Theological Seminary, where he died still a seminarian on May 30, 1828. With the Philadelphian Society, however, Epstein left a lasting legacy at Princeton; this organization played a significant role in campus life, went through numerous changes, and eventually became what is today known as the Student Volunteers Council.
Princeton University sources:
Board of Trustees Records (AC120)
General Catalogue of Princeton University 1746-1906. Princeton: Princeton University, 1908.
Williams, John Rogers, ed. Academic Honors in Princeton University 1748-1902. Princeton: Princeton University, 1902.
Wilson, J. M. A Historical Sketch of the College of New Jersey. Princeton: Princeton University, 1859.
For further reading:
Bodziner, Merry. “Mordecai Myers.” 1976.
Collins, Kenneth. “Levi Myers (1767-1822): An Eighteenth Century Glasgow Medical Graduate from South Carolina.” Journal of Medical Biography (2014).
Fraser, Walter. Savannah in the Old South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003.
Friedman, Saul S. Jews and the American Slave Trade. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1998.
Hühner, Leon. “An Early Record of Prominent American Jews.” American Jewish Historical Quarterly 12 (1904).
Jennison, Watson W. Cultivating Race: The Expansion of Slavery in Georgia, 1750-1860. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.