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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, with Ebenezer Pemberton, a minister and a graduate of Harvard, the only one of the seven who did not graduate from Yale. The remaining six included 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.

    The aforementioned seven 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.

    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 and was admired by all who entered its doors, including the seventy students and two tutors who, with President Burr, comprised the small beginnings of a great institution.

    We have also found the origins of when the name Princeton was adopted. This is detailed in our blog.

    Related Sources

    Historical Subject Files Collection, 1746-2005

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

  • The Library of the College of New Jersey (which in 1896 became Princeton University) was first destroyed during the Revolutionary War and then was burned again in 1802. Since 1803, the collections have remained intact. Regrettably, only one shelf of books remains from the early days of the Library and consists of only a few titles falling into two groups.

        I. Books from the Library of Governor Belcher, first major donor.
       II. Books from other sources, such as Nicholas Bayard, Class of 1757, and "his Royal Highness, George, Prince of Wales, 1757."

    For a list of these books see the Collections File under College of New Jersey.

    For books presented by Thomas Hollis (1720-74) to Princeton, such as that at left, see James Holly Hanford, "Ut Spargam; Thomas Hollis Books at Princeton" in the Princeton University Library Chronicle XX, 4 (Summer, 1959) pp. 165-74. [full text]

    See also William S. Dix, The Princeton University Library in the Eighteenth Century (Princeton, 1978) [full text]

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