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Presidents of Princeton

President of the University is its chief executive officer. He presides at all meetings of the Board of Trustees and of the Faculty and at all academic functions at which he is present and represents the University before the public. The Trustee bylaws charge him with the general supervision of the interests of the University and with special oversight of the departments of instruction. Princeton presidents have been:

  1. Jonathan Dickinson 1747

  2. Aaron Burr, Sr. 1748-1757*

  3. Jonathan Edwards 1758

  4. Samuel Davies 1759-1761

  5. Samuel Finley 1761-1766

  6. John Witherspoon 1768-1794

  7. Samuel Stanhope Smith 1795-1812

  8. Ashbel Green 1812-1822

  9. James Carnahan 1823-1854

  10. John Maclean, Jr. 1854-1868

  11. James McCosh 1868-1888

  12. Francis Landey Patton 1888-1902

  13. Woodrow Wilson 1902-1910

  14. John Grier Hibben 1912-1932

  15. Harold Willis Dodds 1933-1957

  16. Robert Francis Goheen 1957-1972

  17. William Gordon Bowen 1972- 1988

  18. Harold T. Shapiro, 1988–2001

  19. Shirley M. Tilghman, 2001–13

  20. Christopher L. Eisgruber, 2013–

Acting presidents during the interregnums were: Jacob Green, 1758-1759; John Blair, 1767-1768; Philip Lindsly, 1822-1823; John Aikman Stewart, 1910-1912; and Edward Dickinson Duffield, 1932-1933.

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 stat of the art of medicine at that time: Edwards died at 55 of a fever after an innocculation 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, second president, was succeeded by his father-in-law, Jonathan Edwards. John Witherspoon, sixth president, was succeeded by his son-in-law, Samuel Stanhope Smith.

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

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

The royal charter of 1746, which gave the trustees power to "elect . . . such qualified persons as they . . . shall think fit to be President'" 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 in progress]

Source: Leitch p. 375 ff