Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
by Gregg Lange '70

March 21, 2007:

A debacle waiting to happen
The Great Riot of 1807 left its mark on the college for decades

By Gregg Lange ’70

As my fellow curmudgeon Andy Rooney (Colgate ’42) would put it, “Didja ever notice how children like to torture their parents and test their limits of taste and authority?” As any good psychology major knows, this doesn’t have as much to do with the current political climate, country of residence, or sex of the individuals involved as it does with Freud’s cigar, or whatever it was he was talking about. While I was not a psychology major (as you’ve now suspected), I do identify closely with the course description of Psych 237 – tellingly co-taught by the philosophy department – which notes “there is ample evidence for irrationality in human affairs – including notions such as hysteria, addiction, lack of self-control, wishful thinking, and self-deception.”

Ya think?

So in that transcendant spirit, it’s time to celebrate the bicentennial of the Great Riot of 1807, an occasion oddly overlooked by today’s well-oiled University publicity operation. This pivotal exercise in bullheaded intergenerational hubris and its aftermath undermined the College for decades and left its forward-thinking president humbled and defensive. It even gave a running start to the creation of a separate Princeton Theological Seminary, on the practical basis that students who were in open revolt against their elders throughout their college days might not be optimal candidates for the ministry.

As Aims McGuinness ’90 pointed out in PAW (April 17, 1991), the backstory of the Riot includes a vast range of political baggage and ferment from the prior 35 years. This included not only the American Revolution – to which Princeton was so central – but the French Revolution with its anti-religious aspects and its bloody denouement, the false start of the American Articles of Confederation, the Whiskey Rebellion, and the Alien and Sedition Acts that put an emphatic wedge into the hatred between the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.

The internal conflicts at Princeton began to mount as early as 1795, when John Witherspoon died and was succeeded as college president by his son-in-law, Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769. Smith’s main interests and significant talents were academic, and his efforts to put the college on a sound financial footing were mixed at best. Serious student altercations (reflecting the egalitarian aspects of the Jeffersonians, and common elsewhere, too) with the faculty in 1800 and 1802 put everybody on edge, and then Nassau Hall burnt to the walls. Smith immediately blamed it on the students, although they denied it. The donations that came in to rebuild the landmark gave added power to the college trustees, heavily Federalist and conservative, who after Jefferson’s ascendance to the U.S. presidency in 1801 were in a state of near apoplexy. So March 1807 was a debacle just waiting to happen.

It began with Francis Cummins 1807 staying out too late, drinking in town. Now there’s something you don’t see anymore; too bad the eating clubs hadn’t been invented yet. Anyway, he and then two other students were suspended for boozy activities, and the lines were drawn. Eighty percent of the student body signed a petition demanding that Smith reverse the penalties. He not only refused to read it, but after prayers in the chapel on March 31 he increased the stakes: He turned the gathering over to trustee Richard Stockton 1779, formerly a Federalist senator. Stockton demanded that each student immediately declare for or against the “combination” represented by the petition. More than two-thirds of the students in the room walked out and barricaded themselves in Nassau Hall, and the trustees literally brought in the militia. The resulting damage, less than five years after the building’s reconstruction, was extensive; the college was closed for six weeks. Of the 200 or so students, 125 ended up suspended, with more than 70 never to return. Those coming back were forced to explicitly renounce the petition. Of the 41 seniors at Princeton on March 31, only 19 would complete their studies there.

Having seized the battlefield and gleefully expanded it, the trustees continued to pound away. Joseph Bloomfield, the governor of New Jersey and chairman of the trustees who loved to be called “General” in deference to his Revolutionary War and Whiskey Rebellion exploits – now there’s a promising academic resume – wrote form letters to the parents of the expelled supposed hooligans. The letters noted that “insurrection among the students of the college has endangered its very existence” and pointed out that each of their sons had “obstinately persisted in his error.” If that didn’t have sufficient Kafkaesque premonitions, senior trustee Elias Boudinot, who had earlier presided over the Continental Congress but was now a full-time crusader against “irreligion,” lambasted the students who came back and had renounced the petition, appealing to “security” and calling on “Patriots” to get with the program. For softliners, he pointedly theorized that “if for disorderly behavior we should disband the whole of the students at any time collected, it would be so high a recommendation of the Institution to all virtuous minds that in a few months we should have it filled with the best Youth in the United States.” Free translation: welcome back, pond scum.

Thus began a downward spiral leading to the resignation of Smith in 1812, to be succeeded by a hand-picked religious conservative, Ashbel Green 1783, from among the trustees. While president, he enthusiastically re-emphasized discipline and religious education with breathtaking condescension: “I consider every member of the faculty a younger brother, and every pupil a child.” All the while, he actively joined with the Presbyterian hierarchy in the creation and expansion of the supposedly non-competing Princeton Theological Seminary, apparently one of the reasons that he was removed by the college trustees in 1822.

The student riots around the country were virtually gone by 1812 anyway, with more substantial issues taking the national stage. The General resigned the governorship when the War of 1812 broke out, got recommissioned, and oversaw training and defensive units on the Canadian front. Andrew H. Holmes 1809, who had been expelled in the aftermath of the Riot, then was involved in a riot at William & Mary and expelled there too, gained a battlefield promotion to major. He was killed in the Battle of Mackinac Island in 1814, presumably despite his obstinate persistence. P

Lange '70Gregg Lange '70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.