Finley, Samuel

Finley, Samuel (1715-1766), fifth president of Princeton, was a Scotch-Irishman who came to this country with his parents when he was nineteen. He is thought to have attended William Tennent's Log College at Neshaminy, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His early career as an evangelical preacher was marked by an energetic, contentious, and sometimes acrimonious spirit that was not uncommon in the eighteenth-century religious revivals known as The Great Awakening. In Cape May he once carried on a two-day debate with a Baptist minister on infant baptism; he called a collection of sermons on the evils of another sect ``Satan Stripp'd of His Angelic Robe.'' During a pastorate in Milford, Connecticut, he was arrested on his way to preach to the Second Society at New Haven, a ``separatist'' congregation then illegal under Connecticut law, and was expelled from the colony as a vagrant. For the next seventeen years he was pastor of the church at Nottingham, Maryland, where he also conducted an academy renowned for its standards of scholarship and for training such men as Benjamin Rush 1760, physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Ebenezer Hazard 1762, United States postmaster general. With increasing maturity Finley became less contentious and more effective in his preaching. Ebenezer Hazard said his sermons ``were calculated to inform the ignorant, to alarm the careless and secure, and to edify and comfort the faithful.'' Finley was given an honorary degree by the University of Glasgow, the first Princeton president and the second American divine to receive an honorary degree abroad. Finley, who had been one of the original trustees of the college, succeeded Samuel Davies as president on May 31, 1761. At the time of his election he was regarded as ``a very accurate scholar, and a very great and good man.''

Finley's presidency was marked by steady growth in enrollment, by his planting of shade trees -- two sycamores that he planted in front of the President's House (now the Maclean House) are still standing -- and by his effective teaching. He was ``a man of small stature, and of round and ruddy countenance,'' respected and beloved by the students. In his fifty-second year he died in Philadelphia, where he had gone for medical treatment; many students journeyed from Princeton to pay their last respects, and eight members of the senior class bore his body to the grave.

Midway in Finley's administration the trustees declared, ``Our idea is to send into the World good Scholars and useful members of Society.'' Some of the 130 graduates Finley sent out during his five-year presidency more than fulfilled this modest purpose, notably the Rev. James Manning 1762, founder and first president of Brown University; William Paterson 1763, governor of New Jersey; the Rt. Rev. Thomas J. Clagget 1764, Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Maryland; the Rev. Samuel Kirkland 1765, founder and first president of Hamilton College (for whom Hamilton's sister college, opened in 1968, was named); David Ramsay 1765, physician and historian of the American Revolution; Oliver Ellsworth 1766, chief justice of the United States.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse, developer of the telegraph, was the great grandson of President Finley; in 1870 he gave the portrait of Finley that hangs in the Faculty Room in Nassau Hall.


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

Go to Search A Princeton Companion