King’s was the richest colonial college; its endowment, derived from province-sponsored lotteries, grants of land from New York’s government, and philanthropic gifts from its governors and others, reached 17,000 pounds on the eve of the Revolution, almost equal to that of all the other colonial colleges combined. Yet because of the cost of constructing and maintaining the college building, King’s found itself in constant need of operating funds and it launched numerous fund-raising campaigns, including a number in the West Indies. Many prominent New York merchants not only had business contacts in the Caribbean but owned property there and sent members of their families to live and handle their affairs. Few donations were forthcoming. Of course, those that were came from slaveowners.[i]
Most of King’s money came from New York. The College netted over 8,000 pounds from a bequest in the will of Joseph Murray, a well-connected, childless New York lawyer who served as a King’s governor from 1754 until his death in 1757. This was the largest single philanthropic gift in colonial America. Murray had acted as assistant prosecutor during the 1741 “slave plot” trials. He obtained convictions for two of his own slaves, Jack and Adam, the former of whom admitted that he planned to kill Murray and his family. Both were “transported” out of New York as punishment. These events may have made Murray think in new ways about the institution of slavery. In the will that gave his estate to King’s, he also freed two slaves and provided an annual stipend of 20 pounds for their support. Freeing slaves in a will was highly unusual in colonial New York.[ii]
Merchants, including “the wealthiest and most important men of their time” considerably outnumbered lawyers, ministers, and others on the board of governors. They donated generously to the College. The initial list of 66 “subscribers,” who donated a total of over 5,000 pounds to help launch King’s, included Atlantic slave traders John Watts, Nathaniel Marston, Adoniah Schuyler, and John Cruger, and many others engaged in commerce with the Caribbean. Apart from Governor Charles Hardy, who gave 500 pounds, the largest contribution, 200, came from Marston, one of the city’s merchants most actively involved in the slave trade from Africa. Most of the donors had a connection to slavery either via ownership or trade.[iii]
If King’s profited from its mercantile connections, some of the governors personally benefitted from their relationship to King’s. Augustus Van Horne, whose ancestors had accumulated wealth via the slave trade and who himself owned slaves (one of whom, Caesar, ran away in April 1786), became treasurer of King’s in 1779. At the request of the board of governors, he conducted an audit of the college accounts and discovered that a number of governors and graduates, as well as other prominent New Yorkers, some with no connection at all to the college, for years had used the King’s endowment as a source of credit, borrowing funds at below-market interest rates. The governors on the list included Leonard Lispenard, Van Horne’s predecessor as treasurer of King’s and a member of a prominent slaveowning merchant family; the previously mentioned Justice Hormanden; James Delancey, a slaveholding lawyer; and Henry Cuyler, a 1762 graduate who inherited his father’s sugar refining business and as late as 1800 owned four slaves. Access to credit was a persistent problem for merchants and others in late colonial New York. King’s’ endowment helped to subsidize the mercantile and other business activities of men who profited from slavery.[iv]
[i]. McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, 37-38; Humphrey, King’s College, 132-34; Columbia University, Early Minutes of the Trustees (New York, 1932), October 2, 1759, April 15, 1762, May 20, 1773; Schneider and Schneider, Johnson, 1: 226; 4: 55; Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, 96-97.
[ii]. McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, 37-38; Tyler Zimmet, “Joseph Murray, Edward Antill, and New York City's Interlocking Elite,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2015, 2-12.
[iii]. Harrington, New York Merchant, 33-34; “Subscription List” [December 1755], Columbia College Records, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University; Subscribers Names, who have agreed to pay Three Pounds yearly ... 1766, New-York Historical Society; Humphrey, King’s College, 96-97.
[iv]. Augustus Van Horne Account Book, i, 31-34; New-York Historical Society; New York Packet, September 4, 1786; Lorenzo A. Gibson, “Necessary Evil: Slavery and Columbia College’s Revolution Era and Post-Revolution Era Finances,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2015, 10-19.