Manhattan Institute

Princeton and Slavery

Leave it to a university not to know its history.

Since our universities have become intellectual black holes—dead stars which no longer radiate light but instead suck enlightenment into darkness by the irresistible gravitational pull of their collapse—little wonder that whatever they have to say about their own history and slavery is mere obscurantism. But Princeton, for the moment, wins the palm and the laurel for militant ignorance. Here’s an educational institution that, more than any other, could boast of giving us our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Instead, it is engaged in today’s apparently gratifying (if perverse) self-flagellation of counting the ways in which it was complicit with slavery—minor, compared with the ways in which it gave us our liberty.

Yes, lots of slave-owning Southerners attended the College of New Jersey in its early days. And yes, the university’s first six presidents, from the time of its foundation in 1746, owned slaves—not astonishing when you consider that New Jersey did not abolish slavery until 1804, and that even such a vehement abolitionist as John Jay, a founder of the New York Manumission (anti-slavery) Society, also owned a slave or two at one point in his life. America was—to its everlasting shame—a slave-owning republic, until the northern states outlawed it out of a sense of justice and then fought a Civil War to extirpate it from the rest of the nation—not, as W.E. B. Du Bois rightly says, to assert states’ rights, or to adjust borders, but simply out of the moral recognition that slavery was wrong.

Every slave-owning Founding Father knew that it was wrong, including Thomas Jefferson, who wrote into the Declaration of Independence the immortal words that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the unalienable right to liberty, and who wrote later in his life that “When the measure of [the slaves’] tears shall be full, when their groans shall have involved heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a god of justice will awaken to their distress, and . . . by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to the things of this world, and that they are not to be left to the guidance of a blind fatality.” And so He did, with His terrible swift sword.

One of those early Princeton presidents—the sixth, John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence—was a Scotch Presbyterian minister who brought to these shores the Scottish Enlightenment that also produced Adam Smith and David Hume, and that bristled with a belief in independence of thought and conscience and radical republicanism. And to whom did this great man impart these beliefs? None other than his favorite pupil, Virginia slave-owner James Madison, who went back home to the Piedmont on fire with the idea of liberty of conscience, an idea that, it so happened, ends only in political liberty for the intellectually consistent, as Madison emphatically was. And so Madison sat in his library overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, reading history and political philosophy, until he arrived at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 with a fully formed plan for the Constitution—which, with remarkable political flexibility, he was able to compromise into something that all the representatives could sign and all the states ratify. And when he understood, as leader of the first Congress under the new Constitution, how avid was the nation’s thirst for a Bill of Rights, he wrote one, and passed it through the legislature, sorry that he hadn’t made it his first piece of business.

Princeton is also currently flagellating itself over racist Virginian Woodrow Wilson, its president from 1902 until 1910. Good. Don’t stop. But racism wasn’t the worst of Wilson’s various faults. Above all, he hated his fellow Virginian Princetonian’s Constitution, and explicitly set out to crush it as an anachronism. Not just the Constitution but even the Declaration of Independence. Inalienable rights? “No doubt a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle,” Princeton’s president pontificated. But these notions are hogwash. And the Constitution framed to protect those inalienable rights is hopelessly obsolete. “Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and practice,” he contended—meaning that the federal courts must become a permanent constitutional convention, with unelected judges continually adapting Madison’s masterpiece “with open minds, sometimes even with boldness and a touch of audacity,” to make it ever “more liberal, not to say more lax.” In practice, what he envisioned was government by “expert” administrators, rather than by the people’s elected representatives. Franklin Roosevelt took up this principle with gusto and steamrolled the Supreme Court when it rightly tried to stop him from carrying out the Wilsonian program to overturn the magnificent experiment in government of, by, and for the people that the Founding Fathers had proposed and that Abraham Lincoln had fought a Civil War to reassert. Now we have the Administrative State, first invented by Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and guided by Wilson’s tutelary philosopher, Georg W. F. Hegel.

So thanks, Princeton. You didn’t give us slavery, but you did give us “enlightened” despotism. And despotism generally outlasts enlightenment.

Meanwhile, will everyone please stop pretending that by airbrushing the past, Soviet-style, we can change present reality? We can’t. What is, is; what was, was. Face up to it, and then try as hard as you can—and with as much intelligence and historical information as Madison brought to bear—to make the future better.

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