Skip to content

08. Green, Ashbel, Class of 1783

Green, Ashbel, Class of 1783

Green, Ashbel, Class of 1783

Princeton University. Property of the Trustees of Princeton University.

Unknown American artist Ashbel Green (1762–1848), Class of 1783, President (1812–22) Oil on canvas

Source: Princeton University, gift of Mr. Stockton Green

Ashbel Green, Class of 1783 (1762-1848), eighth president of Princeton 1812-1822, and the second alumnus to serve in that post, was a native of Hanover, New Jersey. His father, Jacob Green, was a controversial and independent-minded Presbyterian minister and a trustee of Princeton. His mother, Elizabeth Pierson Green, was the daughter of John Pierson, one of Princeton's original trustees. Green was educated at home by his father and at the age of sixteen began a three-year stint as a local schoolmaster. He entered Princeton in the junior class and graduated as class valedictorian in 1783. His valedictory address was delivered before George Washington and other members of the Continental Congress, then meeting in Princeton.

Green must have impressed President Witherspoon favorably, for he spent the two years after his graduation as a tutor in the College, and another one and a half years as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. During this period Green married the first of his three wives, Elizabeth Stockton, daughter of a prominent Princeton family. Undecided about the choice of a career, Green sought advice from Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769, later his predecessor as president. "Theology is not the road either to fame or wealth," Smith told Green. "The law, in this country, leads to those objects. But if you wish to do good, and prefer an approving conscience before all other considerations, I have no hesitation in saying you ought to preach the gospel." Green immediately decided to become a minister, studied with Witherspoon (whom he revered deeply and whose "Life" he later wrote), and in 1787 began an association with Philadelphia's Second Presbyterian Church that would last until 1812.

A medium-sized, stocky man of commanding presence, Green soon rose to a position of considerable prominence within his denomination. A long-term member of the Presbyterian General Assembly, he was its Stated Clerk from 1790 to 1803, and had the additional distinction of serving as chaplain to the United States Congress from 1792 to 1800. Green was noted for his energy and organizational powers; his interests and activities covered a wide area. But the two objects closest to his heart were missionary work and education. He was a member of the committee that drew up plans for the Princeton Theological Seminary, and he maintained a close association with that institution from its founding in 1812 until 1848. Green was equally concerned with the College, which he served as a trustee beginning in 1790. By the early 1800s it seemed to some that Princeton under President Smith was not producing enough Presbyterian ministers, was theologically suspect, and, worst of all, was the scene of constant student riot and dissipation. In 1812 Smith was eased out of this post, and Green assumed the presidency of the College.

Green was fifty years old when he took up his new position. Most of his mature years had been spent in the successful service of his congregation and his denomination. It was as the stern but kindly pastor, rather than the educator, that Green approached his presidency. Rigorous disciplinary rules were introduced and a heavily religious tone soon pervaded the College. "Dr. Smith's works have all been expelled, and others substituted in their room . . . ," one student reported to his father. "There appears to subsist between these ministers of Christ but little harmony or love." Green's efforts bore some fruit in the form of religious revivals among the students, and, for a short period, in relative peace. It is almost impossible to evaluate Green's effect in raising academic standards at Princeton. "I fear it is an undeniable fact," he had reported to the trustees in 1813, "that the majority of those who have received degrees with us, for a number of years past, could not possibly have translated their own diplomas into English." Many must have thought that Green had wrought a change for the better in Princeton, for despite some serious student riots, enrollments increased during his administration.

Green's tenure as president ended in 1822. The immediate cause of his resignation appears to have been an effort by the trustees to ease Green's son Jacob out of the post of professor of natural philosophy. The larger cause may well have been Green's involvement with the affairs of the Theological Seminary to the detriment of those of the College. Whatever the case, Green went on to a long and extremely influential career as a prominent religious writer and journalist and a major force in the "Old School" wing of the Presbyterian Church.

Green's administration has sometimes been accounted a failure. In fact, the heavily authoritarian and evangelistic spirit that marked his regime would become characteristic of many American colleges in the mid-nineteenth century. Ashbel Green was simply a Victorian ahead of his time.

Source: James McLachlan as quoted in Leitch p. 229 ff

Curators note: Green was a slaveholder, and his slaves included Betsey Stockton. After gaining her freedom, she lived an extraordinary life, traveling as a missionary to what is now Hawaii, and subsequently founding in Princeton both a school and a church for African Americans.