Samuel Stanhope Smith

Written by
Nicholas Guyatt *03
May 12, 2016

Nicholas Guyatt, who earned his Ph.D. in history from Princeton in 2003, teaches history at Cambridge University and is the author of Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (Basic).

Was Princeton’s seventh president a bigot, a progressive, or both?

During the protests last year that culminated in the occupation of President Eisgruber ’83’s office, students led by the Black Justice League insisted that the problems of race and memory on campus went beyond the naming of the Woodrow Wilson School and Wilson College. The protesters asked for a “cultural space on campus dedicated specifically to Black students,” named for a person of the students’ choosing rather than for “a white benefactor or person with bigoted beliefs, as evidenced by the naming of Stanhope Hall.”

Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769, who led what was then the College of New Jersey from 1795 to 1812, might have noted a couple of ironies here. First, Smith presided over an institution at which undergraduate riots were a common occurrence, and challenges to the president’s authority were both flamboyant and familiar. (In 1802, he accused his students of starting a devastating fire that nearly destroyed Nassau Hall.) Second, Smith was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic as the leading defender of the “unity of mankind.” Differences in physical appearance and skin color, he argued in print and in his Princeton lectures, were entirely the product of one’s environment. Race was a fiction.

So did the Black Justice League identify the wrong dead white male as a bigot? The short answer is ... it’s complicated. Princeton has been grappling with the issue of race for longer than the nation itself has existed. The first eight presidents of the College of New Jersey were slaveholders, as were many of the early trustees. Within a generation of Princeton’s founding, however, both faculty and students began to challenge slavery. Princetonians also became interested in the other major nonwhite population on the American continent, the Native Americans who stood in the way of the nation’s westward expansion. Princeton and its graduates would confront both of these racial “problems” in the decades after the American Revolution, guided by the writings and teaching of America’s most celebrated racial theorist of his time: Samuel Stanhope Smith. Read more at Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Image credit: Princeton University Library/Firestone Collection, James Sharples, British, 1752–1811, Samuel Stanhope Smith, Class of 1769, gift of Alfred A. Woodhull, Class of 1856