The Seminary Founders and
Their Involvement with Slavery
In the Seminary’s early years, several of its founders and prominent leaders were entangled with slavery and even employed slave labor themselves. Ashbel Green (1762-1848), the first president of the Seminary Board of Directors, is a case in point. In 1809, Green, then pastor of Philadelphia’s Second Presbyterian Church, formally proposed the creation of the Seminary to the Presbyterian General Assembly. At the school’s opening in 1812, he was elected president of the Board of Directors—a post he held until his death in 1848. He was also president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) from 1812 to 1822. Despite espousing anti-slavery sentiments (examined below), Green employed slave labor. Shortly after becoming president of the college, he acquired a 12-year-old boy, John, in addition to Phoebe, a girl almost 18. As historian R. Isabela Morales observes, their respective birth years (1801 and 1794) meant that they were not covered by New Jersey’s gradual manumission law of 1804. An entry in Green’s diary, however, indicates that he may have promised them eventual freedom if they served him satisfactorily. Their ultimate fate, however, is unclear. Also among Green’s servants was Betsey Stockton, who was born sometime around 1798, probably as a slave in the family of Robert Stockton, one of Princeton’s most prominent figures. Betsey entered the Green household as a young girl, transferred to Ashbel’s wife, Elizabeth, who was the daughter of Robert Stockton.
Green’s attitudes toward slavery are difficult to discern, as his relationship with Betsey Stockton indicates. Green’s encouragement of Betsey’s education and his willingness to free her and to support her involvement as a missionary to the Hawaiian islands (then called the Sandwich Islands) have been taken as evidence that his household provided a mild and relatively benign form of slavery. Yet it is possible to read the sources—almost all of which came from him and reflected his self-perceptions—in a more critical light. During a period when he found her recalcitrant, he sold her labor for several years to someone else in his extended family. In Morales’s judgment, one must resist romanticizing Green as an indulgent master, for he “exercised patriarchal authority in all realms of his life, authority that extended to corporal punishment of his children, students, and slaves. Green described one such occasion in his diary entry for December 9, 1816: ‘Had a most uncomfortable time with my servant John. I had to whip him.’” Yet whatever one’s assessment of his relationship with his slaves, including Betsey Stockton, Green did facilitate her missionary service which in turn paved the way for her, after returning to the United States, to embark on a career as an educator, first in Philadelphia and then in Princeton, where she shaped the distinguished Quarry St. School for black children.4
Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), the first professor at Princeton Seminary, likewise was complicit with slavery, although there is no evidence that he held slaves while he was at the Seminary. A native of Virginia, he was ordained in 1794 to serve the Briery and Cub Creek Presbyterian churches in the state’s southside, became president of Hampden-Sydney College in 1797, and was called to the Third (“Old Pine”) Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1807. While there, he assumed a leading role in wider Presbyterian circles and advocated that the General Assembly establish a theological seminary; and when Princeton Seminary was formed in 1812, he was named the first professor.
Alexander’s entanglement with slavery dated at least from his days as pastor of the Briery Church, which derived some of its revenue from slavery. In 1766, the church began a campaign to raise funds to purchase slaves. The intent was to hire out the slaves—and their descendants—in order to raise money to pay the minister’s salary and other church-related expenses. “For the next 100 years,” historian Jennifer Oast has recently documented, “the members of Briery Presbyterian were the beneficiaries of the labor of those slaves and their descendants.” Presumably, too, Archibald Alexander was a financial beneficiary when the church paid him for his services as pastor. Oast also suggests that Hampden-Sydney College, while not possessing slaves itself, on occasion hired their labor from those who did own them.5
Alexander benefitted from slavery again when he acquired through his wife, Janetta Waddel, a slave woman named Daphne who had served her since childhood. When the Alexanders moved to Philadelphia, Daphne accompanied the family. Slaves brought into Pennsylvania from other states would, if their owners remained more than six months, become free. Although the Alexanders apparently did not formally emancipate Daphne when they went to Philadelphia, she and they recognized her changed legal status when she accompanied them. The Alexanders’ subsequent relationship with Daphne—or at least the family’s memory of it—is illuminating. As told by Alexander’s son more than a half century later, the salient facts were these: Daphne’s husband, John Boatman, had remained in Virginia as a slave, presumably owned by a family other than Alexander’s. When members of Philadelphia’s Society of Friends learned of her separation from her spouse, they raised money to purchase his freedom, and he joined her. For a time, Alexander “kept them both as hired servants upon wages.” Realizing that he could earn more elsewhere, Boatman—remembered by the Alexanders as “a brawny and ill-favored black”—became a coachman for the governor of Pennsylvania. Likewise, his wife “learned to entertain more lofty thoughts” and “she soon left her kind protectors and set up for herself.” Then the husband went astray, deserted his wife, and ended up in prison. She fell ill, could no longer work, and had to enter an almshouse. When two of Janetta Alexander’s sisters visited her there and proposed that she return to the service of the Waddel family in Virginia, she readily agreed. Archibald Alexander, now living in Princeton, told her that this meant she would have to go back to slavery. She acquiesced, recalling “the quiet and ease which she [had] enjoyed under a nominal bondage.” Or so the story was remembered by the Alexander family; how it appeared to Daphne, one suspects, was probably quite different.
Yet whatever the facts of the case, the episode reveals much about the Alexanders’ view of themselves as slaveholders and their perception of those whom they held in bondage. They saw themselves in the role of “kind protector” of those whose enslavement was only “nominal.” They feared that blacks who entertained “lofty thoughts” and struck out on their own risked harm to themselves. In the background also lurked the menacing image of “a brawny and ill-favored” black male. The Alexanders’ memory was fraught with racial stereotypes and paternalistic assumptions.6
The Seminary’s second professor, Samuel Miller (1769-1850), a native of Delaware who joined the Seminary in 1813 after a distinguished pastorate in New York City, likewise employed slave labor in his lifetime, including while he lived in Princeton. His son recorded of Miller:
But greatly as he disliked the institution [of slavery], he did not, we have seen, consider slaveholding in itself, of necessity, a sin; and even during the earlier part of his residence in New Jersey, at different times, held several slaves under the laws providing in that state for the gradual abolition of human bondage. In fact he held them only for a term of years, in a sort of apprenticeship, excepting in one case, in which he found himself deceived by the vendor as to the age of a man- slave, and obliged, by law, to hold him and provide for him for life. It was difficult otherwise to secure domestics; but this experiment of slavery, what with some that ran off, one that he could not get rid of, and the short-comings of all, was not very encouraging.
In short, while Miller did not like slavery and hoped for its eventual demise, he did not consider the use of slave labor as sinful and was not averse to employing it himself.7
Charles Hodge (1797-1878), a native of Philadelphia and after 1820 the third person to join the Seminary faculty, likewise employed slave labor. In 1828, as his family was growing, he purchased Henrietta and a few years later acquired Lena, perhaps through his mother’s estate. During the 1830s, he also used at least two other African American servants—John and Cato— though Hodge’s most careful recent biographer says that it is impossible to determine whether they were enslaved or wage earners.8
Many at the Seminary also called for the Christianizing and educating of slaves and freed people as a means of uplift. For example, Sarah Miller, Professor Samuel Miller’s wife, helped create the Mount Lucas Orphan and Guardian Institute near Princeton and helped secure an endowment for it. When that organization later closed, she arranged for the endowment to be transferred to the Ashmun Institute (later renamed Lincoln University) whose purpose was to provide higher education for African Americans.
Despite entanglement with slavery, the leaders of the Seminary professed to long for a day, unspecified and uncertain, when slaves would all be free. They insisted, however, that slavery per se was not condemned in the Bible and that abolitionists who called slaveholders sinners were fanatics. The faculty at the Seminary, along with others in the College of New Jersey, played a key role in the formation of the American Colonization Society and made Princeton an epicenter of support for the movement (see Colonization Section).
The Seminary’s founding leaders and faculty members in the school’s early years were in many ways complicit with slavery as individuals, and they participated in a larger culture that was inextricably entangled in the effects of the slave trade. In many cases, their personal views on slavery, while sometimes difficult to discern, reflect a fundamental contradiction between expressions of condemnation of the institution of slavery, on the one hand, and reticence to call for its immediate and radical abolition, on the other.