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Presidents of Princeton

The President of the University is its chief executive officer. The President presides at all meetings of the Board of Trustees and of the Faculty and at all academic functions. The President represents the University before the public. The bylaws charge the President with the general supervision of the interests of the University and with special oversight of the departments of instruction.

Princeton presidents have been: Jonathan Dickinson, 1747; Aaron Burr, Sr.,1748-57*; Jonathan Edwards, 1758; Samuel Davies, 1759-61; Samuel Finley, 1761-66; John Witherspoon, 1768-94; Samuel Stanhope Smith, 1795-1812; Ashbel Green, 1812-22; James Carnahan, 1823-54; John Maclean, Jr., 1854-68; James McCosh, 1868-88; Francis Landey Patton, 1888-1902; Woodrow Wilson, 1902-10; John Grier Hibben, 1912-32; Harold Willis Dodds, 1933-57; Robert Francis Goheen, 1957-72; William Gordon Bowen, 1972-88; Harold T. Shapiro, 1988-2001; Shirley M. Tilghman, 2001–13; and Christopher L. Eisgruber, 2013–.

Acting Presidents during the interregnums were: Jacob Green, 1758-59; John Blair, 1767-68; Philip Lindsly, 1822-23; John Aikman Stewart, 1910-12; and Edward Dickinson Duffield, 1932-33.

The first five Presidents together served less than twenty years. Their tenures were cut short by untimely deaths owing in part to overwork and in part to the backward state of the art of medicine at that time: Edwards died at 55 of a fever after an inoculation for smallpox; Davies, who was tubercular, died at 38, after being bled for a bad cold.

In the early years, there were two instances of succession by in-laws: Aaron Burr, our second President, was succeeded by his father-in-law Edwards. Witherspoon, our sixth President, was succeeded by his son-in-law, Samuel Stanhope Smith.

Two Presidents were imported from Scotland -- Witherspoon in 1768 and McCosh, a hundred years later, in 1868 -- and both left their marks on Princeton and on the nation. They both died in Princeton -- Witherspoon on November 15, 1794, McCosh on November 16, 1894 -- a century and a day apart.

Burr, at thirty-two, was the youngest person ever elected President; Dickinson, at fifty-nine, the oldest. James Carnahan's administration has been the longest (thirty-one years); Edwards' the shortest (five weeks).

The royal charter of 1746, which gave the Trustees the power to "elect . . . such qualified persons as they . . . shall think fit to be President'" and also empowered them "at any time [to] Displace and discharge such President." Three Presidents were induced to resign: Smith in 1812, Green in 1822, and Patton in 1902.

The first three Presidents -- Dickinson, Burr, and Edwards -- were graduates of Yale. The next two lacked college degrees; they were trained in classics and divinity, both in Pennsylvania: Davies in Samuel Blair's school at Faggs Manor, Finley in William Tennent's "Log College" at Neshaminy. Witherspoon was a graduate of Edinburgh, Patton of Knox College in Toronto. Tilghman is a graduate of Queen's University at Kingston, with a Ph.D. from Temple. Eleven earned degrees at Princeton -- Smith, Green, Carnahan, Maclean, Wilson, Hibben, Dodds, Goheen, Bowen, Shapiro, and Eisgruber.

The President's Lot in the Princeton Cemetery on Witherspoon Street contains the graves of all the deceased Presidents of Princeton, except four: Dickinson, who died and was buried in Elizabethtown, before the college was moved to Princeton; Finley, who died and was buried in Philadelphia (there is a cenotaph for him in the President's Lot, however); Patton, who died and was buried in Bermuda; and Wilson, who died in Washington, D.C. and was interred in the Washington Cathedral.

*Although Burr was formally elected President in November 1748, he had been in charge of the College since Dickinson's death in October 1747.

[Curators Note: Leitch commentary ended with Bowen still in office, updates are in progress. Princeton has a more recent history of its presidents here]

Source: Leitch p. 375 ff