Smith, Samuel Stanhope

Smith, Samuel Stanhope 1769 (1751-1819), was the seventh president of the College and the first alumnus to hold the office. He was born March 15, 1751 (not 1750, as often has been said, even on his tombstone), the year in which his father, Robert Smith, was installed as pastor of the Presbyterian church in Pequea, Pennsylvania. The father was a trustee of the College from 1772 to 1793. Elizabeth, his mother, was a daughter of Samuel Blair, one of its founding trustees. Two younger brothers, John Blair and William Richmond Smith, graduated with the Class of 1773. His own ties to Princeton were strengthened when on June 28, 1775, he married Ann, the oldest daughter of President Witherspoon, whom he would succeed in 1795.

Samuel was prepared for college by his father, who conducted a famous school at Pequea, from which Samuel was admitted to the College in 1767 as a member of the junior class. Having excelled in mathematics and having become one of the earlier members of the Whig Society, he graduated two years later with the highest honor of delivering the Latin salutatory address at commencement. He returned to Pequea to assist his father in the school and to begin with him the study of theology. In 1770 he was brought back as a tutor to Princeton, where he continued his preparation for the ministry with Witherspoon. Licensed to preach in 1773, he went then as a missionary to Virginia.

There Smith had a leading part in the founding of two academies. One of them, located first in Augusta County, later became Washington College and still later Washington and Lee University. Prince Edward Academy, of which Smith was appointed first rector in 1775, became in 1783 Hampden-Sydney College. He also assumed a lead in bringing the support of Virginia's Presbyterians to the hope of Jefferson and Madison for the separation of church and state. In 1779 he was called back to Princeton as Professor of Moral Philosophy.

Smith and his family reached Princeton in December, taking up residence in the President's House, as Witherspoon moved to Tusculum, the house and farm he owned outside the village. Smith would occupy the President's House (now Maclean House) for almost 33 years, one of the longest tenures in the some 220 years of its history. Witherspoon, who remained active in the affairs of state and church, promptly turned over a large part of his administrative responsibilities to his son-in-law, who was named vice president in 1786. As the venerable president advanced in years, becoming totally blind during the last three years of his life, Smith's responsibilities grew. On Witherspoon's death in 1794 there was no question as to who should succeed him, and no problems of transition into the new administration.

Tall and well proportioned, with finely formed features and noticeably blue eyes, Smith by all accounts was an unusually handsome man who paid close attention to his dress and manners. Archibald Alexander recalled that when he first saw him at a meeting of the Presbyterian General Assembly he thought him the most elegant person he ever had seen. Elegance seems also to have contributed to his fame as a pulpit orator. There is an oft-repeated story, probably apocryphal, that his brother John once said to him: ``You don't preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified, but Sam Smith and him dignified.'' Any one who turns to the collection of his sermons published in 1799, or to the two-volume edition of them brought out after his death, will be impressed by their quality and their readability even today.

President Smith was fortunate in the reputation he enjoyed as a scholar. Elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1785, he delivered before that body An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species. It argued that all mankind belonged to the same family, and attributed diversity within the species to environmental influences. Although the paper brought nothing original to discussion of an old question, it displayed a respectable command of the existing literature and was important enough, after its initial publication at Philadelphia, to be reprinted at Edinburgh and London, and to bring attacks from other scholars, which caused Smith to respond with an enlarged edition in 1810. Above all, the Essay expressed Smith's abiding faith that there could be no conflict between science and revealed religion.

That faith provides the key to his educational policies at Princeton. Without challenging the fundamental place of classical languages and literature in education, he sought more time for the study of science and modern languages. One device was to strengthen requirements for admission so that further classical instruction might be limited to the first year. Another proposal, with agreement of the trustees in 1799 that was withdrawn in 1809, was to allow students to pursue a special program leading to a certificate of achievement, a significant step toward the later Bachelor of Science degree.

Smith did not achieve all that he hoped for in the way of curricular reform, but his achievements in other areas were impressive. The College in 1795 was still struggling to recover from the disastrous effects of the war years. Especially critical was the financial problem. Smith's success in getting from the state legislature in 1796 a grant of 600 per year for three years provided only partial relief. The grant was not renewed, and the College remained primarily dependent upon tuition fees for its income. An enrollment of just above 75 students in 1794 had grown to a total of 182 in 1805, and the 54 A.B. degrees awarded in 1806 was the largest number since the founding of the College. A faculty of two professors, including the president, had grown to one of four professors in addition to the president, the usual two or three tutors, and an instructor in French. Among the professors was John Maclean, a graduate of Edinburgh whose special interest was chemistry. Faculty minutes, which had their beginning in 1787 and for a time dealt almost exclusively with a nagging problem of student discipline, reveal that the faculty increasingly was consulted on academic questions.

Smith himself continued to carry a teaching schedule that any modern teacher will regard as unbelievably heavy. The two volumes of his Lectures . . . on . . . Moral and Political Philosophy published in 1812 testify to the high quality of the instruction he gave. He acutely estimated the special opportunity the College faced in the light of its history and the growing competition from other colleges. He was fond of describing Princeton as a mecca for students drawn from the region reaching southward from the Hudson to Georgia. How accurate was the estimate is suggested by the origins of students attending the College in January 1805. From New Jersey there were 32, Pennsylvania 31, Maryland 28, Virginia 22, South Carolina 13, and Georgia 9. Of the other states, only New York had as many as Georgia.

The high point in Smith's presidency came just after the fire that in 1802 destroyed Nassau Hall. The constituency of the College rallied to its support so well that funds were raised not only for the reconstruction of Nassau Hall but for the addition of two new buildings to flank it on the front campus, Stanhope Hall and Philosophical Hall, which no longer stands. Except for the unhappy sequel that followed, this would have to be described as an unqualified tribute to the man who headed the institution.

The sequel is not easily explained. A student riot in 1807, resulting from Smith's mishandling of a problem of discipline, brought the suspension of 125 students and a growing distrust by the trustees of the president. For some of them his educational reforms had gone too far, and there was discontent over the declining number of students preparing for the ministry. Enrollments declined, four professors resigned, Maclean the last in 1812. In that year, too, Smith was given no choice but to resign. He was provided a pension and a house. He died on August 21, 1819.

W. Frank Craven


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

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