Belcher, Jonathan

Belcher, Jonathan (1681/2-1757), governor of the Province of New Jersey from 1747 to 1757, granted Princeton its second charter and helped its advancement in many other ways; the College, his fellow trustees declared in 1755, viewed him as ``its founder, patron, and benefactor.''

A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he graduated from Harvard in 1699, second in a class of twelve, accumulated a fortune at an early age as a merchant in Boston, and then occupied himself with a succession of public offices: tithingman and town accountant of Boston, member of the Massachusetts Council, governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and finally, during the last decade of his life -- to quote from his commission, which is preserved in the University Library -- ``Captain General and Governor-in-Chief of the Province of New Jersey and territories thereupon depending in America, and Vice-Admiral of the same.''

Belcher had a quick temper and a sharp tongue, which aggravated the troubles that every royal governor faced in reconciling colonial interests with those of the Crown, and earned for him many enemies in Massachusetts and New Hampshire whose intrigues brought about his dismissal in 1741. He was, however, able to convince the English court that he had been maligned by his political enemies, and after living in England for several years he was appointed to the New Jersey governorship.

Soon after his arrival in New Jersey in 1747, Belcher, a Congregationalist, adopted the infant college of the dissenting Presbyterians as his own and busied himself in its promotion for ``better enlightening the minds and polishing the manners of this and neighboring colonies.'' Finding the legality of the College's original charter under attack -- it had been granted by Acting Governor John Hamilton, whose authority was questioned -- Belcher granted a second one on September 14, 1748. The charter provided for twenty-three, rather than twelve, trustees, thus permitting the governing board to broaden and strengthen its representation politically and religiously (Charter). Eight weeks later at the College's first commencement, the trustees conferred on Belcher Princeton's first honorary degree.

Belcher encouraged the trustees to raise funds for a college building and a house for the president and, in the dispute as to where the College was to be settled, threw his influence in favor of Princeton -- ``as near the center of the Province as any and a fine situation.''

Just before the College moved from Newark to Princeton Belcher gave the trustees his library of 474 volumes, his full-length portrait, his carved and gilded coat-of-arms, a pair of terrestrial globes, and ten framed portraits of kings and queens of England. In their address of thanks the trustees asked his permission to name the first building, then being erected in Princeton, Belcher Hall. Modestly -- and providentially -- the governor declined this honor and persuaded them to name it Nassau Hall for ``the glorious King William the Third . . . of the illustrious House of Nassau,'' who was held in high regard by dissenters as a champion of religious freedom and political liberty.

Although only six of Belcher's books have survived, he is still held in honor as the library's oldest benefactor: when Firestone Library was built in 1948, the governor's arms were carved in stone over the main entrance along with those of the University. His portrait and those of the ten English monarchs were destroyed during the Revolution. The portrait of Belcher that now hangs in Nassau Hall was obtained from an English descendant of the governor and presented to the University in 1953 by Carl Otto von Kienbusch '06.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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