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Five Princeton Alumni Minority Rights Activists from the 18th and 19th Centuries

There are Princeton alumni who were involved with advancing minority rights in the 20th and 21st centuries who are known better today, but Princeton graduates engaged in these activities well before then. Here are five alumni who advocated for Native American, Black, Jewish, and immigrant rights after earning a Princeton degree in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Leonard D. Shaw, Class of 1784

Leonard D. Shaw, a member of the Class of 1784 from New Jersey, had close ties to Native Americans. Shaw was appointed a deputy agent of the United States to the Cherokee in 1792. This appointment meant learning to speak Cherokee and exchanging information on agriculture and “such useful arts as you may know or can acquire.” The intent of the appointment was to improve relations and “to infuse into all the Indians the uprightness of the views of the President…and his desire to better the situation of the Indians in all respects.”

Records assert that after moving to live among the Cherokee, however, Shaw’s sympathies began to fall with them rather than with his own country’s leadership. Soon, he had married into the tribe. He advised the Cherokee chiefs that they should not confer with the Tennessee governor, because the governor would not act in the best interests of the tribe, urging them to attempt to deal directly with the federal government in Washington instead. He then reportedly told them, “You know I was sent here by your father the president, to do you justice, and justice you shall have, as far as in my power.” He promised to “go to Congress, and recover your land for you, to the old line.” This did not go over well with Shaw’s superiors.

We have found no record of what happened to Shaw after 1793, when he was removed from office for “inebriety and great want of prudence.” The only thing we know is that he vowed to bring the Cherokee to then-president George Washington to help them demand a return of their land, an event that did not apparently occur. It is believed that he lived out the rest of his life with his new family among the Cherokees in Tennessee.

Elias Ellmaker, Class of 1801

Elias Ellmaker graduated with the Class of 1801. We are aware of Ellmaker’s views due to a posthumously published book, The Revelation of Rights. Unlike many early abolitionists, Ellmaker did not argue for gradual emancipation or some form of colonization. Instead, he demanded immediate emancipation as a moral imperative, rooting his argument in Christian theology. Ellmaker’s book lambasted American hypocrisy when it came to race:

If our government be founded on the equal rights of man, and be administered on the principle of universal equity; if it have any pretence [sic] to benevolence, or any claim to the semblance of philanthropy; it will be necessary for our politicians to define what they mean by MAN. Their definition must be more limited than the common acceptation of the word, which is, a being who is capable of reasoning, or who possesses the faculties by which reason is exercised. It must also be more limited than the definition of Plato who defined man to be, “a two legged animal without feathers.”

In America, the great cry is, we have the Africans among us, and how will we get rid of them? Alas, we have tolerated the crime, and how can we cease to sin in the deed? May not the African in his turn say, we have the whites among us, and how will we get rid of them? We have submitted to bondage, how shall we regain our freedom?

Have we any better claim to the air or the soil of America than the Africans? Have we any charter from God which secures it to us in exclusion of all others, of a different complexion, or of different features? Are the Africans and ourselves of different families? …  If priority were to determine who should have the preference to the air and soil of this country; then, the copper-colored Indian would have the best title of any.

Ellmaker acknowledged that slaveowners would suffer from immediate emancipation of all enslaved people, but said this was irrelevant because more people would suffer from enslavement. He asserted that their right to avoid suffering should not be ignored in favor of the white ruling class’s comfort. Because Ellmaker died a young man, we do not know what he might have achieved through his influence had he lived to continue his advocacy.

John V. L. McMahon, Class of 1817

John Van Lear McMahon, from Maryland, was a member of the Class of 1817. He practiced law in Baltimore and Cumberland in the 1820s and served in Maryland’s House of Delegates in 1823-1824 and 1827-1828. He became best known for his support of the so-called “Jew Bill,” which removed the requirement that all elected officials in Maryland swear to “a belief in the Christian religion.” On January 28, 1824, McMahon spoke to the House of Delegates in support of the bill:

it is a bill founded wholly on the mild and benignant doctrines of their Gospel, which teach them to yield to every man his due, and to give every citizen having the necessary civic qualifications, the civil and political rights which those qualifications entitle him to, without diving into his heart and setting up in bar to the enjoyment of those rights, religious opinions and practices which are matters wholly between himself and the God whose creature he is.

The Act to Extend to All the Citizens of Maryland the Same Civil Rights and Religious Privileges that Are Enjoyed Under the Constitution of the United States passed on January 5, 1826.

William Justin Harsha, Class of 1874

After graduating from Princeton in 1874 and attending McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, William Justin Harsha, originally from Illinois, became the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Omaha, Nebraska. There, his congregation included many prominent combatants from the Indian Wars, including General George R. Crook and General Oliver Otis Howard, among others. This did not stop him from advocating for indigenous people.

William Justin Harsha, Class of 1874. Historical Photograph Collection, Alumni Photographs Series (AC058), Box SP03.

Harsha took interest in the civil rights of Native Americans and was “instrumental in having the Indian declared a person in the eyes of the law.” Harsha was the author of books and articles asserting the need to respect the humanity of indigenous peoples. Ploughed Under: The Story of an Indian Chief was a historical fiction novel written in a manner that appears to have been intended to arouse white sympathies for Native Americans. In it, Harsha wrote,

The advancing ploughshare turns under the wild and beautiful growths of the native sod to enrich the soil and open the way for new seeds and growths. This is beneficial and necessary in the case of vegetable life; but it is a fair question whether it is so in the case of the human bodies and souls that go down under the advancing ploughshare of American civilization on the Western plains.

Instead, Harsha argued, Native Americans needed legal rights and the explicit legal recognition of personhood, as he wrote in 1882 in “Law for the Indians.” In recognition of his efforts, Harsha was reportedly inducted into the Omaha tribe.

William H. Hudnut, Class of 1886

After a handful of pastorates, William H. Hudnut of the Class of 1886 became the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Youngstown, Ohio. There, he was known for advocating for the rights and welfare of immigrants, blue collar workers, Catholics, and African Americans.

William Hudnut, Class of 1886, in Youngstown, Ohio, 1940. Historical Photograph Collection, Alumni Photographs Series (AC058), Box MP34.

When the Ku Klux Klan became active in Youngstown in the 1920s, many local ministers welcomed them and their activities. As in other northern cities in the 1920s, the Klan tended to emphasize the ideas that immigrants were responsible for America’s ills, Jews were not true Americans because they were not Christians, African Americans were inferior, and, above all, that Catholics were disloyal to America and must be kept out of power. They stoked anti-Catholic prejudices by spreading rumors. In Youngstown, they also particularly emphasized the local government’s perceived failures to enforce Prohibition, which was one of the major reasons they got so much praise from the local clergy. William D. Jenkins found that in 1923, at least 10 ministers in Youngstown were preaching in support of the Klan.

Hudnut openly contradicted ministers who supported the KKK. The Youngstown Vindicator reported on the local clergy’s take on the Klan’s effort to be elected to run the local government in its November 5, 1923 issue. Next to headlines like “ARCHIBALD FOR SCHEIBLE, KLAN” and “ELLIOTT CALLS KLAN CHRISTIAN,” Hudnut was quoted unequivocally condemning the Klan and warning against the misinformation that leads to bigotry. “I have sincere pity for my brethren who are so led astray,” he said. “A city divided against itself cannot stand.” Youngstown wasn’t listening to Hudnut at the time, and the Klan overwhelmingly won in that year’s elections. Nonetheless, Hudnut remained firm in his convictions.


Ellmaker, Elias E. The Revelation of Rights. Columbus: Wright & Legg, 1841.

Harsha, William Justin. “Law for the Indians.” North American Review 134, No. 304 (March 1882): 272-292.

__________. Ploughed Under: The Story of an Indian Chief. New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1881.

__________. A Timid Brave: The Story of an Indian Uprising. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1888.

Historical Photograph Collection, Alumni Photographs Series (AC058).

Historical Subject Files (AC109).

McMahon, John Van Lear. Remarks of John McMahon in the House of Delegates of Maryland on 26th January 1824. Hagers-Town, Maryland: W. D. Bell, 1824.

Undergraduate Alumni Records, 18th Century (AC104.01).

Undergraduate Alumni Records, 19th Century (AC104.02).

Woodward, Ruth L. and Wesley Frank Craven. The Princetonians, 1794-1790: A Biographical Dictionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.


For further reading:

Goldberg, David J. “Unmasking the Ku Klux Klan: The Northern Movement against the KKK, 1920-1925.” Journal of American Ethnic History 15, no. 4 (Summer 1996): 32-48.

Jenkins, William D. “The Ku Klux Klan in Youngstown, Ohio: Moral Reform in the Twenties.” The Historian 41, No. 1 (November 1978): 76-93.

Jenkins, William D. Steel Valley Klan: The Ku Klux Klan in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990.

Princeton & Slavery Project

Railton, Ben. Contesting the Past, Reconstructing the Nation: American Literature and Culture in the Gilded Age, 1876-1893. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.

Sabatini, Thomas Joseph. A Nation Made of Steel: The Remaking of the White Republic in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, 1915-1942. University of Minnesota, 2006.

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