Early Presidents

Slavery was a central feature of the college from its founding. Several of the early presidents of King’s and Columbia owned slaves and had deep family ties to slavery. Some of them also opposed the transatlantic slave trade or supported the gradual abolition of slavery, but none of them championed equality for former slaves and free black people in the United States.

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson was an Anglican minister and the first president of King’s College, serving from 1754 to 1763. He also served as the sole faculty member of the college until 1757.

Johnson was a critic of the Atlantic slave trade, but he bought and sold slaves who worked in his household. In 1755, Johnson wrote to Joseph Haynes, a leading New York merchant and a governor of King’s College, asking him to help him acquire a slave. He already owned one slave, but he hoped to purchase another to serve as a domestic servant. He took part in further transactions to buy and sell female domestic slaves in 1767.

Johnson was a prominent theologian and philosopher. In his Elementa Philosophica, published in 1752, he used the term “slavery” metaphorically to describe any morally degraded condition. Prior to his King’s College presidency, Johnson served as a missionary in Connecticut, where he worked to convert Native Americans and enslaved black people to Christianity. As both a critic of aspects of the institution and a slave owner himself, Johnson’s ambivalent attitude towards slavery is representative of many early affiliates of King’s and Columbia.

Benjamin Moore

Benjamin Moore

Benjamin Moore served as the interim president of King’s College after President Myles Cooper, a staunch loyalist, emigrated to Britain during the War of Independence. Moore attempted to keep the college going in the midst of the chaos of the conflict, but King’s was eventually forced to close for the duration of the war. Moore returned to serve as the president of the renamed Columbia College in 1801.

Moore joined the New York Manumission Society in 1785, the first year of existence. Like many other members of the society, however, Moore owned slaves. As of 1810, while Moore was serving as Columbia’s president, the census records that he owned two slaves.

Benjamin Moore also served as the rector of Trinity Church and the Bishop of New York. Because of these additional commitments, he was only minimally involved in daily life at Columbia during his ten-year term as president.

William Samuel Johnson

William Samuel Johnson

William Samuel Johnson was the son of King’s College’s first president, Samuel Johnson. Following the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the United States, King’s College was re-established as Columbia College, and Johnson served as the institution’s third president from 1787 to 1800. Johnson was a lawyer, and he held several political and judicial offices during his lifetime. He was elected as U.S. Senator from Connecticut in 1788, and he held this office through 1791, simultaneously with his Columbia presidency.

In 1756, Samuel Johnson, then serving as the King’s College president, helped his son William to obtain a female slave. Records of a slave sale in 1785 demonstrate William Samuel Johnson’s continued slaveholding.

William Samuel Johnson was one of several Columbians who served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. At the Convention, Johnson supported delegates from South Carolina and Georgia in their campaign to allow states to import slaves through the transatlantic slave trade for twenty years. The “Great Compromise” between Northern and Southern representatives with respect to the future of slavery in the United States was etched into the Constitution, sowing the seeds for further division down the line.

William Alexander Duer

William Alexander Duer

William A. Duer served as the president of Columbia College from 1829 to 1842. Duer was a lawyer, and he held positions in the New York State Assembly and Supreme Court prior to his Columbia presidency.

Duer was descended from an elite colonial family, who made their wealth through direct participation in the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery in the North American and Caribbean colonies. Duer himself advertised for the sale of a female slave as late as 1814. By this date, New York’s gradual emancipation laws were well underway.

In 1830, Duer became the president of the newly formed Colonization Society of the City of New York. This society acknowledged that slavery (now abolished in New York State) was wrong, but it argued that the growing population of free black people in large cities posed a threat to the nation. Duer and the Colonization Society denounced the immediate abolition of slavery and advocated for the settlement of black Americans in Liberia. This movement was bitterly opposed by black New Yorkers.

While Duer resigned as president of the Colonization Society of the City of New York in 1833 to focus on his duties at Columbia, he continued to speak and write in support of colonization through the 1850s.

Duer slave sale

Charles King

Charles King

The son of Rufus King, Charles King served as the president of Columbia College from 1849 to 1864. Prior to his presidency, King was the editor of the New York American newspaper. King was not an advocate of immediate emancipation, but he did publish articles expressing antislavery views throughout the 1830s and 40s.

King presided over Columbia during the time of sectional crisis over the issue of slavery and the outbreak of the Civil War. He tried to keep the College itself removed from sectional politics, forbidding political speeches on campus. In spite of this policy, however, King himself spoke out against slavery publicly, and by 1859 he allowed speakers at the College’s commencement to make antislavery remarks.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, King led Columbians in support of the Union cause. He invited Major Robert Anderson, the federal commander of Fort Sumter, to speak at a flag-raising ceremony on campus in May 1861, just one month after the surrender of the fort. While the speeches at this ceremony did not mention the issue of slavery, in 1862, King participated in meetings advocating for emancipation as a policy of war. He was also a founder of the Union League Club and served as president of the Loyal Publication Society, both of which aimed to build city unity in support of the war.

During the New York City draft riots of 1863, the mob targeted King’s house on College grounds. Luckily, King and his family were out of town for the summer, and quick-thinking Catholic priests were called upon to persuade the mob to disperse. One of King’s final acts as Columbia president was to present a group of black soldiers from New York with a regimental flag at a ceremony marking their departure for the South.

Frederick A.P. Barnard

Frederick A.P. Barnard

Frederick A.P. Barnard succeeded Charles King as the president of Columbia College, serving from 1864 to 1889. Born and educated in the North, Barnard taught at the University of Alabama from 1837 to 1856 and served as chancellor at the University of Mississippi from 1856 until the outbreak of the Civil War. He consistently expressed his Unionist politics, and he resigned his position at Ole Miss after the war began. He declined an offer from Jefferson Davis of a position in the Confederate government and instead chose to travel North, where he worked as the head of the Map and Chart Department of the U.S. Coastal Survey in Washington, D.C. until 1864.

While at the University of Mississippi, Barnard purchased slaves, identifying as a “Southron” despite his Unionist views. He was caught up in a dispute in 1859, when he expelled a student, Samuel Humphreys, who sexually assaulted a female slave, Jane, who worked in Barnard’s home. The expulsion was opposed by faculty members of the University, on the grounds that the evidence for the rape came from the testimony of another slave. These faculty opponents questioned Barnard’s commitment to the institution of slavery, but he found support from the trustees, one of whom invoked Barnard’s property right to the body of the enslaved woman as justification for his choice to expel the student.

At Columbia, Barnard did not follow his predecessor Charles King in actively opposing slavery or improving the condition of free black people. While he later supported, unsuccessfully, the admission of women to Columbia College, he never advocated for the admission of black students. When Columbia established a separate women’s college in 1889, it was named in Barnard’s honor.

Albert L. Brophy, University, Court, and Slave: Proslavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts, and the Coming of the Civil War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), ch. 5.

“Benjamin Moore,” Columbia University President Profiles, Columbia University Archives. http://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/presidents/moore_benjamin.html

“Charles King,” Columbia University President Profiles, Columbia University Archives. http://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/presidents/king_charles.html

“Frederick A.P. Barnard,” Columbia University President Profiles, Columbia University Archives. http://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/presidents/barnard_frederick.html

“Samuel Johnson,” Columbia University President Profiles, Columbia University Archives. http://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/presidents/johnson_samuel.html

"William Alexander Duer," Columbia University President Profiles, Columbia University Archives. http://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/presidents/duer_william.html

“William Samuel Johnson,” Columbia University President Profiles, Columbia University Archives. http://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/presidents/johnson_william.html