Inside the Chronicle: Cezar Trent and Peter Scudder, Two Free Black Men in Antebellum Princeton

This series gives readers an inside look into the scholarly articles that grace the pages of the Princeton University Library Chronicle.

The following is excerpted from the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue; Volume LXXVIII, No. 1.

Cezar Trent and Peter Scudder, Two Free Black Men in Antebellum Princeton, by Brett Diehl

IN 1804, New Jersey became the last Northern state to take steps to emancipate its enslaved population.Even before this “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” the state’s free black population numbered in the thousands.2 Historical examinations of the period, however, often ignore the contributions that free blacks made to New Jersey’s development during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.3 To amend this neglect, this article examines the lives of two free black men, Cezar Trent and Peter Scudder, in order to better understand the roles that free blacks played in Princeton, New Jersey.4 Despite racial prejudice, Trent and Scudder built successful, interwoven, commercially complex lives.

George Morgan’s account book, noting a payment to “Cesar Trent” in 1788 for cutting and delivering firewood to a room in Nassau Hall. George Morgan Collection (c1394), box 1, folder 4, page 199. Manuscripts Division, Special Collections, Princeton University Library..

Princeton during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was, by regional standards, a conservative town. Wealthy slaveholding families lived throughout the area. Many males from these families attended the College of New Jersey (as modern-day Princeton University was known until 1896) and were involved with its governance. Because of this influence, the ideological views of faculty and students matched the conservative values of the townspeople. From 1819 to 1856, well over 35 percent of College of New Jersey students hailed from states that later joined the Confederacy, with southerners composing over half of each class from 1847 through 1852.5 Many southern students, as well as some northern ones, came from slaveholding families.6


1 Gary K. Wolinetz, “New Jersey Slavery and the Law,” Rutgers Law Review 50 (1997–98): 2246.

2 Guy Weston and Eric Rhodes, “Regional Variations in Manumission of Slaves in New Jersey,” New Jersey Studies (2018); James J. Gigantino II, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775–1865 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 170–71; Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, “Philanthropy at Bargain Prices: Notes on the Economics of Gradual Emancipation,” Journal of Legal Studies 3, no. 2 ( June 1974): 392.

3 For a recent notable contribution, see Hendrik Hartog, The Trouble with Minna: A Case of Slavery and Emancipation in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

4 In different historical documents, Trent’s name is spelled “Ceasar,” “Caesar,” “Cesar,” and “Cezar.” In this article he is referred to as “Cezar Trent,” the version used in his will, a document that he personally commissioned and oversaw.

5 College rules, nevertheless, prohibited students from bringing slaves to campus. “Laws of the College of New Jersey,” 1748–1796, Board of Trustees Records (ac120), vol. 1, p. 446, Princeton University Archives, Special Collections, Princeton University Library (hereafter pua); Jennifer Epstein, “Slaves and Slavery at Princeton” (unpublished senior thesis, Princeton University, 2008), 60. Research by the Princeton & Slavery Project has allowed the creation of an antebellum student origins heat map.

6 Joseph Yannielli, “Student Origins,” Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed Feb. 23, 2020.

About the Princeton University Library Chronicle
The Princeton University Library Chronicle is an interdisciplinary journal sponsored by the Friends of Princeton University Library since 1930. Its mission is to publish articles of scholarly importance and general interest based on research in the collections of the Princeton University Library (PUL). The Chronicle welcomes submissions of articles relating to all facets of the collections. We also welcome articles relating to the history of the University and the Princeton region. The entire archives of the Chronicle (1939-) and its predecessor, Biblia (1930-1938), are available, open-access, full-text on JSTOR.

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Published March 29, 2022.