College of New Jersey - American EducationPredecessor institution of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY. The college was founded in 1746 by the New Light Synod of New York, following a split between orthodox and liberal leaders of the then-dominant Presbyterian church. New Light devotees, or popularists, had split with Old Light Calvinists over such issues as the rights of congregations and pastoral powers and the then-raging issue of epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. Scotsmen all, Old Light Presbyterians believed only in the reality of God and the Scriptures and, like philosopher David Hume, denied the objective value of reasoning based on human senses. New Light Presbyterians were adherents of the Scottish “school of common sense,” a philosophy best articulated by Thomas Reid, who believed in the validity of judgments based on man’s senses. His supporters favored extension of the traditional, religiously oriented curriculum of “moral philosophy” to include the sciences, or natural philosophy. (See also NEW LIGHT–OLD LIGHT CONTROVERSY.)
The debate provoked seven New Light Presbyterians (four ministers and three laymen) to found the College of New Jersey to train young men as New Light ministers. Later they expanded their mission to include the education of men for other learned professions. They obtained a charter in 1746, and the college opened a year later in the Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth) parsonage of Jonathan Dickinson, who became the college’s first president and teacher. It eventually moved to the parsonage of Aaron Burr, Sr., in Newark and, about 10 years later, to Nassau Hall, in Princeton, where Dickinson, Burr, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davis and Samuel Finley made it the center of evangelistic New Light Presbyterian studies.
After Finley’s death in 1766, the trustees named Scottish minister JOHN WITHERSPOON president, and he reorganized and expanded the curriculum to include politics, history, economics, jurisprudence, literature, modern languages and philosophy. The new curriculum reinvigorated the college and made it one of the nation’s preeminent intellectual centers. His graduates included a U.S. president (James Madison), a vice president (Aaron Burr), 10 cabinet members, 60 members of Congress and 3 future Supreme Court justices. Through his students, Witherspoon’s presidency helped shape the young nation’s political philosophy. Witherspoon’s tenure at Princeton also enunciated for the first time the role of higher education as a training field for national leadership. Witherspoon was himself an important philosophy lecturer, who continually reminded his students of their obligations, as scholars, to enter public life and better their nation.
Nassau Hall lay in ruins following the Revolutionary War battles in and around Princeton, but the college was rebuilt and remains the centerpiece of what is now Princeton University, the name it adopted in 1896.