Slavery and the Seminary
It is clear that the early leaders of the Seminary benefitted individually from the use of slaves. But did the Seminary as an institution have ties to human bondage? To date, research suggests that slave labor was not involved in the construction or in the maintenance of the school’s buildings. The workers involved in the Seminary’s first construction projects, including the original Seminary building and Archibald Alexander’s home, were paid laborers for whom the Seminary has records of wages disbursed. Nor did the institution as such own slaves.
However, the institution’s financial ties to slavery represent a more complicated issue.
In answering this question, it is important first to acknowledge the pervasiveness of slavery’s role in the American economy during the pre-Civil War era. Daved Anthony Schmidt, who prepared an examination of the Seminary’s finances for this project (see Appendix B), offers thoughtful comments on this reality, and they merit quotation at length.
Slavery was interwoven into the American economy. Its presence was felt in the mills and workshops of New England as well as on the plantations in Georgia. It created the capital needed to build schools of higher education in Virginia as well as in New York. One did not have to own slaves to benefit from slavery. Yet it is not helpful for this type of study to paint everyone who simply participated in the economy in the same shade. Most people would agree that there is a difference between the owner of a cotton plantation in Georgia and someone who buys a cotton shirt in Boston. It is often difficult to talk about how.
This report approaches the problem by viewing donors based on their relationship with slavery. These categories are far from perfect, and individuals often do not fit neatly into one, but they do provide a framework for discussing how a person could potentially benefit financially in a slave economy. The first is, of course, slave owners. The second is a person who does not personally own slaves, but was nevertheless raised in a family of slave owners and thus accrued financial advantages by extension. The third consists of individuals who profited from slavery through business and financial ties. Where the second category is determined by chance of birth, the third is voluntary and often deliberate. Finally, the fourth category is the cotton shirt buyer who benefited from slavery far down the production line.
Ultimately, the Seminary sits in the middle of this spectrum. It benefited financially from those in its denominational family who owned slaves and who profited from the slave system. It also invested its funds in organizations that both profited from slavery and financed its expansion.9
As a school of the Presbyterian Church, the Seminary’s donor base reflected the geographical diversity of the denomination, and Southern slave owners were a source of fundraising in the early years of the school. Schmidt estimates that money given by slaveholders and the interest income it subsequently generated accounted for 15 percent of the total revenue of the Seminary in the pre-Civil War era. Furthermore, if one considers donors who remotely profited from slavery and thus whose wealth was in some measure derived from the slave trade, then as much as 30 to 40 percent of the Seminary’s revenue before the Civil War could be connected to slavery. As Schmidt concludes, “No prominent institution from this period could escape its own context. Slave owners played a part in the Seminary’s donor base because slave owners were part of the Presbyterian Church. Slavery contributed to the school’s revenue because slavery was a key part of the American economy. The Seminary was, in the end, merely a product of its time.”10
From its beginning, Princeton Seminary gained advantage from those who owned slaves. Richard Stockton, one of the Princeton community’s wealthiest individuals and a slaveholder, donated the land on which the school’s first buildings were erected. The Seminary similarly benefitted through the financial campaigns conducted by the Presbyterian General Assembly. Starting in 1810, two years before the school opened, the assembly designated several dozen prominent clergy to serve as agents to raise funds for the Seminary. In the decades before the Civil War, approximately 16 percent of the funds raised for the Seminary came from the South, and nearly all of the major gifts from that region came from slaveholders. As illustrations, Schmidt’s report includes the following biographical information of some of those who established scholarships or made other contributions before the Civil War:
John Whitehead owned around 40 slaves on a plantation in Burke County, Georgia. James Nephew owned over 120 slaves on plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. Jane Keith was the influential wife of Isaac Stockton Keith, an equally prominent (and wealthy) pastor in Charleston. His previous wife was Catharine Legare who inherited slaves from her father Thomas Legare, one of the largest slave owners in Charleston. When Isaac died in 1813, Jane inherited an estate of $30,000 along with slaves. Hester Smith of Natchez, Mississippi likewise inherited slaves from her parents. Ann Timothy of Charleston also owned slaves, but she freed them upon her death in 1853.
Charleston and the surrounding area was perhaps the most active donor base in the South. Along with Jane and Isaac Keith, the most important Presbyterian figure in the city was Andrew Flinn, the founding pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston. The church was erected in 1811 at the cost of $100,000, a testament to the planter class who attended. Flinn and his wife Eliza Berkley Grimball were major voices of support for the Seminary. The Grimball family, like the Legares, were one of the largest slave owners in Charleston. They recruited other individuals on the same tier of the Southern social hierarchy to give to the Seminary. James Legare owned a 2,000-acre plantation named Mullet Hall on John’s Island with around 130 slaves. He and his brother John were both faithful contributors to the Seminary, as was William Eddings of Edisto Island.11
Donor connections to slavery were not limited to persons from the southern states. At least two major Seminary patrons from the mid-Atlantic derived, through their families, significant income generated in part from slave-related enterprises, though these individuals never owned slaves themselves. For example, James Lenox, a director of the Seminary from 1835 to 1847, financed the first separate library building on campus—the Lenox Library. He inherited his fortune from his father Robert (also a Seminary director, 1813-1830). One of three immigrant brothers, Robert came to America shortly before the American Revolution. He and a younger brother established a merchant firm, based in New York City, which engaged in far- flung trade, their business extending to plantations in Jamaica, Cuba, and the New Orleans area. “His ships,” Schmidt notes, “did not carry slaves as cargo, but rather goods such as sugar, rum, and pimento produced by slaves, which they brought to New York before traveling on to Europe.” From the fortune that he amassed, Robert Lenox became a philanthropist, endowing a scholarship at the Seminary and ensuring the inheritance that would allow James to continue the family tradition of generosity to the school.
Isabella McLanahan Brown, who donated the funds for the Seminary’s Brown Hall, is another case in point. Her husband, George Brown (1787-1859), at the age of 15 had joined his father’s investment banking firm, Alex. Brown and Sons. The company became part of an international trading powerhouse with offices in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Liverpool, and London. Schmidt summarizes the firm’s scope succinctly:
Its range of services included shipping, insurance, currency exchange, and credit. By the late 1820s, it had become the leading exporter of cotton to Liverpool and the second largest exchange merchant in the United States. The Browns not only benefited from the products of slavery, they also benefited from slaves themselves. The firm provided loans to plantation owners in lands opening in the West. During this same period, the firm’s ships carried slaves from the East Coast as cargo to be sold in markets in New Orleans and Mississippi.
The profit from this business gave George Brown the capital that he subsequently invested in America’s burgeoning railway system, particularly the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. That money, passed to his wife Isabella upon his death in 1857, in turn allowed her to endow the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore in his memory, as well as to finance Princeton Seminary’s Brown Hall.
In addition to funds raised for annual operating expenses and building projects, the Seminary raised money for an endowment to support the school, and the General Assembly itself became an investor of funds on behalf of the Seminary, though initially there was not much to invest. What money the General Assembly did have in the permanent endowment fund for the Seminary was chiefly invested until the mid-1830s in government bonds and secured loans.
These yielded a generally reliable but unspectacular (by the standard of the day) five to seven percent per year.
In the 1830s, the General Assembly adopted a more aggressive investment strategy. It invested much of the Seminary’s endowment with Southern banks, especially in the western part of the Old Southwest, where annual yields of eight to 10 percent were promised. These banks were helping fund the expansion of white settlement in the West. When the government opened millions of acres in the 1830s, expelling native Americans in the process, the availability of cheap land drew those seeking economic opportunity and resulted in the dramatic expansion of the cotton industry—and, consequently, the use of slave labor—across the West. Such expansion was financed by a complex system of credit. As individuals borrowed funds from banks to purchase land, seed, equipment, and slaves, the speculators who provided capital to the banks often made considerable profit. However, this system of speculation would prove to be a bubble that would soon collapse, in part triggering the Panic of 1837. The result was the collapse of many institutions, and Princeton Seminary was a victim, too. At its low point in the early 1840s, the value of the Seminary endowment fell to less than 50 percent of its worth in the mid-1830s.12
To rebuild its diminished resources, the Seminary turned to the Rev. Cortlandt Van Rensselaer to spearhead a campaign for a larger and permanent endowment. Van Rensselaer, who studied for a time at the Seminary and served as a member of the Board of Directors, came from an exceedingly wealthy family whose fortune went back to the Dutch patroons who settled along the Hudson River in the 1630s. The acquisition of that fortune had included ownership of slaves, though there is no evidence that Cortlandt himself did. His own personal contribution to the Seminary’s campaign—$2,000—was a substantial sum for the era and a sign of the wealth he had inherited. Van Rensselaer’s fundraising was highly successful. Between 1844 and 1846, he raised nearly $37,000; and by 1852 the total rose to over $86,000. Although he kept a diary of his journeys and submitted a final report to the General Assembly in which he detailed the churches from which he had received contributions, neither document is extant. In view of the general giving patterns to the Seminary by the 1840s, it is likely that the vast majority of the funds came from the mid-Atlantic states. On the other hand, one contemporary account noted that he travelled to “almost every section of the country from Champlain to Pontchartrain, and from the Hudson to the Mississippi.” Therefore, it seems likely that at least some of the donations he secured derived from slaveholders.13
Van Rensselaer and his campaign thus symbolized Princeton Seminary’s complicated financial engagement with slavery. In the years before the Civil War, Princeton Seminary as an institution reflected a complex moral and financial entanglement with slavery that was not untypical for its day. The institution did not own slaves or earn revenue directly from slavery. However, it benefitted financially from philanthropists who derived their wealth within an economy in which slavery was a significant force.
Van Rensselaer also symbolized a broader outlook on the peculiar institution typical of the Seminary. He wrote to a Southern correspondent in 1858: “Slaveholding is not in all circumstances sinful. … We regard the Christian instruction of slaves as a means to an end, and that end is the recovery of the blessings of personal liberty, when Providence shall open a way for it.” In short, he refused to call slaveholders sinners and would have no truck with those who demanded immediate abolition. On the other hand, he thought that Christians had a duty to educate slaves in such a way as to prepare them for eventual liberty. Bondage was not their ultimate destiny.14 Similarly, many of the Seminary’s leaders and faculty members were wary of, if not hostile towards, the abolitionist cause, instead favoring gradual emancipation and colonization, as we will examine in the following chapter.