Why Princeton’s Founding is an Important Date in History

History Hit

3 mins

22 Oct 2016

On 22 October 1746, Princeton University received its first charter. One of just nine universities in the 13 colonies created before independence, it would later boast three of America’s most famous Presidents alongside innumerable other notable scholars and scientists.

Religious toleration

When Princeton was founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey, it was unique in one respect: it allowed young scholars of any religion to attend. Today to have it any other way seems wrong, but in a time of religious turmoil and zealotry tolerance was still relatively rare, especially if one considers the fact that many of the Europeans who had gone to America had been fleeing some form of religious persecution back home.

Despite this semblance of liberalism, the original aim of the college, which was set up by dour Scottish Presbyterians, was to train a new generation of Ministers who shared their worldview. In 1756 the college expanded and moved into Nassau Hall in the town of Princeton, where it became a hub of local Irish and Scottish learning and culture.

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A radical reputation

Due to its position near the east coast, Princeton was at the centre of life and political developments during these early years, and still bears the mark of a cannonball fired during a nearby battle during the American War of Independence.

The culture of the university itself changed dramatically with the installation of John Witherspoon as its sixth president in 1768. Witherspoon was another Scot, at a time when Scotland was the world hub of the enlightenment – and changed the aim of the university; from producing the next generation of clerics to creating a new breed of revolutionary leaders.

Students were taught Natural Philosophy (what we now call science) and a new emphasis was placed on radical political and analytical thought. As a result, Princeton students and graduates were key in the uprising of New Jersey in the War of Independence, and were represented more than any other institution’s alumni at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Witherspoon had done his job well.

Princeton’s radical reputation remained; in 1807 there was a mass student riot against outdated rules, and the first American religious leader to accept the theories of Darwin was Charles Hodge, the head of the Princeton Seminary. Women were allowed to enroll in 1969.

A painting of John Witherspoon.

Presidential alumni

James Madison, Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy are the three American Presidents to have been to Princeton.

Madison was the fourth President and famous for being the father of the American constitution, though it must be added that the White House was also burned on his watch by the British. A graduate of Princeton when it was still the College of New Jersey, he shared a room with the famous poet John Freneau – and proposed in vain to his sister before graduating in 1771 in a variety of subjects including Latin and Greek.

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Wilson, on the other hand, was a 1879 graduate in political philosophy and history, and is now famous for being an idealist who was influential in world affairs at the end of World War One. Wilson’s commitment to self-determination helped shape modern Europe and the world at Versailles in 1919, where he was the first President to leave US soil during his tenure.

And finally, despite lasting only a few weeks at Princeton due to illness, Kennedy’s name burns the brightest of them all – a young glamorous President shot before his time after guiding America through the Civil Rights movement and some of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War.

Even without the many scientists writers and other famous alumni of this prestigious institution, shaping the futures of these three famous sons of America ensures that Princeton’s founding is an important date in history.

Woodrow Wilson looking scholarly.

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