John McMillan at Princeton


James T. Herron, Jr.

 Annotations are included in the text in red, with a bullet.

To some extent, nearly every one of our acquaintances influences us. As a child, everyone has been warned about running with the wrong crowd. Friends, gangs, cliques, clubs, fraternities—whatever you want to call them—are a part of growing up. Some of these relationships are life-long, though sometimes intermittent. At a school or family reunion, conversations often begin with the words, "Do you remember…?" As we will see, John McMillan had a lot to remember, but because of modesty, introversion, single-purposeness, or whatever, he didn’t see fit to record much of it.
John McMillan, the first settled minister on the Western Pennsylvania frontier, probably never attended a high school (in his case, academy) or college reunion, and he didn’t return to Princeton to receive his Master’s Degree. In his time the A.M. was honorary, awarded to graduates three years after they received their baccalaureate degree, provided they were reasonably respectable and paid the required fee. The D.D., Doctor of Divinity, was even more honorary; you didn’t have to pay for it.
John McMillan was on a missionary tour through Western Pennsylvania in September 1775, when he and his classmates were eligible to receive their Master’s Degrees. Jefferson College awarded him his Master’s in 1805. When he received his Doctor of Divinity is not known.

Preparatory studies

Much of what we know about John McMillan comes from a letter he wrote near the end of his life to James Carnahan, president of Princeton, and a manuscript that presumably had been used to prepare the letter. McMillan knew Carnahan because he had attended and taught at Canonsburg Academy, before it became Jefferson College.
The manuscript was used by the Rev. L. F. Leake, his successor at Hill Church, for a sketch of John McMillan’s life that appeared in the Presbyterian Advocate in 1845. Leake came to Hill Church in 1831, two years before McMillan died, so he would have known McMillan personally. Leake’s biography was reprinted in Joseph Smith’s History of Jefferson College and the letter to James Carnahan in Daniel Bennett’s and Dwight Guthrie’s biographies.
McMillan recollected, though he was not sure about the specifics, that his parents had two young sons who had died. His father had promised God that if he were given another son he would call him John and dedicate him to the ministry. This, of course, is what happened. It sounds bazaar and primitive, as does another recollection, of youthful religious terror.
I …was frequently terrified by dreams and visions in the night, which made me cry to God for mercy …. I saw that I was a lost, undone sinner, exposed to the wrath of a justly offended God, and could do nothing for my own relief…. I felt that I deserved hell, and that in all probability must be my portion.
John McMillan would not have been the only child affected by the hellfire and damnation theology of the time. A historian of the university, in discussing the preponderance of nascent Presbyterian ministers in the student body, commented on "the devout lads who went about their daily tasks with long faces and spent all their spare moments reading the Bible.... [O]n the whole the students were a sober lot."
John McMillan was fortunate that his parents settled in Fagg’s Manor, Chester County, Pennsylvania when they immigrated from the Province of Ulster, Ireland, about 1742. It could be argued that it was predestination. In this small town was one of the pre-eminent preparatory schools in the colonies. It had been started by the Rev. Samuel Blair, a native of Ireland who received his classical education under William Tennant at the famous "Log College" at Neshaminy, Buck’s County, Pennsylvania. Blair modeled his Fagg’s Manor school on Tennant’s.
When John McMillan attended, the school was taught by Samuel’s brother, John Blair, also a graduate of Tennant’s school. By this time, Tennant’s school was gone, and the purpose of the Blair school had changed.
The log cabin schools had been founded to educate men for the Presbyterian Church, which required an educated ministry. This meant prospective ministers were examined on their knowledge of Latin, Greek, and mathematics as well as theology. By the time McMillan received his education, the College of New Jersey at Princeton was able to provide the necessary higher education, and schools such as Blair’s existed to provide the requisite knowledge of Greek, Latin, mathematics, and rudimentary science needed for admission to college.
McMillan’s manuscript doesn’t say how long he was at the Fagg’s Manor school, but it closed in 1767 when its teacher, the Rev. John Blair, was called to the College of New Jersey at Princeton as vice-president and Professor of Divinity and Moral Philosophy. He taught there until the arrival from Scotland of the celebrated Dr. John Witherspoon, the new president of the college. Witherspoon took over his courses, and Blair resigned in 1769, as there were insufficient funds to pay him. Rather than returning to Chester County and teaching, he accepted the call to a pastorate in New York, where he died two years later, at age 51.
On the closing of the Fagg’s Manor school, McMillan transferred to a similar academy in Pequea (pronounced PECK way), in neighboring Lancaster County. He was fifteen years old, and at the time he was certainly of age to be on his own. He probably worked, most likely as a school teacher, to help support himself, but his memoir dwells on a revival and his religious experiences when he was there. This is what might be expected, since he wrote the manuscript after some sixty years as a minister. If he had been a chef, he probably would have described the meals. Smith, Old Redstone, 414.
The academy at Pequea was taught by the Rev. Robert Smith, pastor of the Presbyterian church there. He had been Samuel Blair’s student at Fagg’s Manor until 1750 and married Samuel and John Blair’s sister. The Pequea Academy, like the Blairs’ academy at Fagg’s Manor and the Tennants’ classical school was housed in a log cabin. John McMillan, and probably other Pequea students, would continue the tradition to a fourth generation.
Pequea students tended to go to the College of New Jersey at Princeton (now Princeton University). Of course, in the late 1760s there were few colleges to choose from. Only Harvard (1650), William & Mary (1693), Yale (1701), College of New Jersey (Princeton, 1746), Kings College (Columbia, 1754), University of Pennsylvania (1755), Brown (1765), Queen’s College (Rutgers, 1766), and Dartmouth (1769) and been chartered, and not all were actually in operation.
For students who were preparing for the Presbyterian ministry, like John McMillan, there was no real choice. Kings in New York and William & Mary at Williamsburg were of Episcopal lineage. Queen’s (Rutgers) was Dutch Reformed, which was theologically close to that of the Presbyterian Church, but it didn’t begin accepting students until 1771. The University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, had an Episcopalian provost and an unusually high proportion of its students had Royalist leanings.
Instruction at Pequea could be specifically targeted toward the entrance requirements of the College of New Jersey at Princeton. Principally, this meant heavy doses of Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Latin was taught by immersion; it was the oral language of the school. This was not the case at Princeton, though college literary exercises, even debates, were conducted in Latin, so a firm grounding was necessary.
In his 1845 biography of McMillan, published in the Presbyterian Advocate and reprinted in Old Redstone, the Rev. Lemuel Leake describes an unfamiliar John McMillan. He was a very large man with a voice that carried for a great distance, sort of a Paul Bunyan with a Bible and an axe, striding through the wilderness chopping down trees and saving sinners. Yet Leake wrote of McMillan’s "timidity of temper, which was characteristic and peculiar, and which to himself was often extremely distressing."
As to his appearance, his biographer wrote that John McMillan’s teacher, Robert Smith, "saw through the darkening disparagements of an exterior, forbidding as it was, the indications of talent that gave much promise of future usefulness." Smith, through what Leake termed "kind and soothing, and judicious attention" encouraged him to overcome his timidity. Particularly kind and soothing was a statement attributed to Smith that McMillan was "better than he looks."
In his final months at Pequea, John McMillan was fortunate to be able to study under Samuel Stanhope Smith, Robert Smith’s son who had graduated from Princeton in September 1769. He was eighteen years old and had come home to assist his father, as well as to prepare for licensure as a Presbyterian minister. He had spent just two years at Princeton, having entered as a member of the junior class.



In the Spring of 1771, halfway through the college year, John McMillan was considered ready for the College of New Jersey. He was admitted to the sophomore class. It may he that the timing of his entrance coincided with the return of Samuel Stanhope Smith to Princeton as a tutor.
Imagine what it would have been like for a big, clumsy, timid, homely boy to go from a log academy to one of the great colleges of his time. Nassau Hall, for many years the largest college building in the colonies, was only about fourteen years old. The college had moved from Newark in the fall of 1756.
Hoards of students rushing to class, football weekends, fraternity parties—no, that was not college life at Princeton in the 1770s. Today, sports and parties are accepted as parts of college life; alcohol is not. In John McMillan’s day it was the other way around.
Nassau Hall was the largest building on the Princeton campus, but there were few others: just the kitchen, the college’s prep school, a shed that housed the fire engine, and the president’s house. The sophomore class that McMillan joined was fairly large for the period, but only 24 members have been identified. The class ahead graduated just 13 members. The seniors numbered 16, and the freshman class would have 29 members at graduation. In all, the college had fewer than a hundred students. Yale graduated just 19 in 1770 and 1771, 25 in 1772, and 36 in 1773, which made it just slightly larger. There were probably fewer than a hundred graduated each year from all the colleges in the colonies. John McMillan had joined an elite group.
The College of New Jersey was not yet 25 years old when John McMillan entered. Even so, in the colonies there were just three older: Harvard (120 years old), William and Mary (77 years), and Yale (69 years). The college had begun in Newark, New Jersey, where classes were held in the county courthouse and the students lived in rooms throughout the town. The situation was unsatisfactory and land was acquired in the peaceful Village of Prince Town (shortened to Princeton), on the King’s Highway between Philadelphia and New York. Work was started on the building in July 1754. By the fall of 1756, it was completed to the point it could be used, and the entire enrollment, 70 students, moved in.
The trustees were quite pleased with their new college building and decided to honor the colonial governor by naming it after him. The governor demurred and suggested that the college honor King William III, Prince of Orange and Nassau instead. Thus the building, still standing though it has been rebuilt several times, is known as Nassau Hall.
If the trustees had not been overruled, the generations of Princeton students who have sung of Old Nassau would have had, at least, a tougher rhyme. The governor was Jonathan Belcher.
The building was built of stone, 176 by 54 feet, with a basement and three upper stories. It was symmetrical, with a center section that projected forward some three feet and back about twelve feet, and two wings. The architect was Robert Smith, of Philadelphia. Above the central section was a cupola with a bell tower. The building had sixty rooms, sixteen of them in the basement. Forty-nine rooms were equipped to accommodate students, three to a room. Since the size of the student body was far less that the capacity of Nassau Hall, it appears that the 20-foot square rooms were divided into three parts, a sleeping room and two studies. The students’ rooms were in the wings.
At one time there were student rooms in the basement. The author of a Princeton history said they would "hover over their wood fires and write home complaining of the dampness and the darkness." The college furnished a bed, mattress, table, and chair, but a student had to provide his own rug, bedclothes, and firewood.
In the back of the central part of the building was Prayer Hall, about 32 by 40 feet, where students gathered for morning and evening worship. There was a gallery in the front of the room on which there was a small organ, the first such instrument to be used for Presbyterian worship services in the American Colonies. On the opposite end of the room, and of the same height, was a stage for the use of the students in their public exhibitions. Obviously, the seats were not fixed to the floor. On one wall was a full-length portrait of King George II, father of the Revolutionary War king, who had signed the college charter. On the opposite wall was the portrait of Governor Belcher. On either side of Prayer Hall were classrooms.
The library was on the second floor and consisted principally of the personal library of Governor Belcher, which he had given to the college. The two literary societies each had meeting rooms on the third floor. The accommodations were short on comfort as the ventilation was poor, the rooms were hot in summer, and the roof leaked. The dining hall was in the basement, large enough to accommodate at least 150. Originally the kitchen had been in the basement, but a separate kitchen had been built at the eastern end of Nassau Hall in 1762. The college steward and his family lived in the space where the kitchen had been.
Apparently, the entrances were at the ends of the building when John McMillan was a student. John Adams, who visited the college in 1774, wrote: "The College is conveniently constructed; instead of entries across the building, the entries are from end-to-end, and the chambers are on each side of the entries. There are such entries one above another in every story…."
This may have significance for Canonsburg. No picture of the 1791 Canonsburg Academy/Jefferson College building is known, and the only description is by Joseph Smith in his 1857 History of Jefferson College. Smith, who graduated from the building, described the academic procession at graduation going "up the outside steps, on the upper side of the old building" to the second floor. From there, the august faculty and trustees, as well as the graduates, had to climb through a window to a stage erected the full width of the front of the building.
The upper view of Nassau Hall and the President's House is identified as "Princeton in 1764," but it shows stairways at the front of the building rather than the ends. From Wertenbaker, Princeton 1746-1896, opp. p.. 8.



The lower diagram shows the first floor of Nassau Hall, presumably after reconstruction occasioned by the fire in 1802, as the entrances are on the front. Windows are shown only in the room to the left of the central front entrance. The largest room is Prayer Hall, but the significance of the dotted line is not known. From Wertenbaker, Princeton 1746-1896, 47.

Princeton students were required to live in Nassau Hall and take their meals as a community. The only exceptions were students whose parents lived in town or the immediate vicinity and those who received the recommendation of a physician and the permission of the president. This stems from 1765, when the board of trustees was concerned because "a considerable number" of the students were taking their meals elsewhere and "detriment does and is likely to accrue to this institution." A nineteenth century president explained that the reason was to shield the students "from the various temptations, attending a promiscuous converse with the world, that theatre of folly and dissipation." A cynic might say it was because the college was losing a source of revenue.
When John McMillan attended, Princeton was undergoing the changes that occur when there is a new administration. The previous president, the Rev. Samuel Finley, a native of Ireland, had died in July 1766. His son, Ebenezer, graduated with McMillan.
The trustees elected as their next president a man known to them only by reputation, John Witherspoon, a graduate of the Edinburgh University and the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Scotland. He was told that he was desperately needed to be the savior of religion and education in America.
That seems to be an awfully important task, but Mr. Witherspoon declined. Apparently, he was willing, but his wife was afraid that he "might soon die and she be left in a strange land." The trustees then proceeded to select three professors, one of which was McMillan’s teacher, John Blair, and three tutors. Mr. Blair was the only professor who accepted. He and the three tutors were the entire faculty. The trustees were still trying to get Witherspoon, so Blair was named Vice President.
In the end, persuasion worked and Witherspoon sailed across the sea to the land of the wild Indians, from the land of the wild Caledonians. He arrived in August 1768 at Philadelphia with his wife and five children. One would wish that the ship had carried a name like "Argus" or "Hope of the Nation." But no, he arrived on the ship, "Peggy."
If, as Robert Smith had said of John McMillan, "He’s a better man than he looks," the same might have been said of John Witherspoon. He too was a large man, in height and girth. He was 46 years old, brown haired with blue eyes, but no Robert Redford. He had a large, pointed nose and elephantine ears. His eyebrows were bushy thickets that he tended to pull when he was perturbed.

Medallion with likeness of President John Witherspoon. From George R. Wallace, Princeton Sketches, 39.

The day for John McMillan and his schoolmates began at five o’clock in the morning when a large horn was blown at the entrance of each floor. No dawdling was allowed, nor breakfast until after the morning worship service. Students were required to attend morning and evening prayers on week days and church services on Sunday.
For morning and evening prayers and meals, if not the entire day, the students were required to appear in their black academic gowns. The rules under which the students lived were quite strict. They were well protected from "promiscuous converse with the world." Students were not allowed to leave their rooms without permission except for half an hour after breakfast, an hour and a half in the afternoon after the mid-day meal (dinner, the main meal of the day), and from evening prayers until seven o’clock.

This Matthew Pratt portrait shows James McCulloch, Princeton 1773, in his academic gown, the earliest such image known. Illustration from Harrison, Princetonians: 1769-1775, 321; information from J.T.Miller, Princeton University.
Entertaining in one’s room was permitted only with the permission of the president or a tutor. Of course, having a woman in one’s room was strictly forbidden. A student need have no fear that a polite knock on the door would announce a visit from the president or a tutor. They did not knock; they stamped their feet on the floor outside the door.
The colonial students had to toe the line. According to college rules:
None of the students shall play at cards, or dice, or any other unlawful game…. No jumping, hollaring, or boisterous noise shall be suffered in the college at any time, or walking in the gallery in the time of study. No member of college shall wear his hat in the college at any time, or appear in the dining room at meal time, or in the hall in any public meeting, or knowingly in the presence of the superiority of the college, without an upper garment, and having shoes and stockings tight. Every scholar shall rise up and make obeisance [bow] when the President goes in or out of the hall, or enters the pulpit on days of religious worship. Every Freshman sent of an errand shall go and do it faithfully, and make a quick return. Every scholar in college shall keep his hat off about ten rods to the President, and five to the Tutors.
The students and tutors ate their meals together in the dining hall in the basement, "arranged according to rank and seniority." A quotation, apparently from a student’s letter, says that the college enjoyed "almost all the variety of fish and flesh the country here affords, and sometimes pyes." Waiters attended to the needs of the students and the quantities usually were not limited. A later president of the college, who had been a student in the 1780s reported, "[N]o luxurious dainties, or costly delicacies, can be looked for among the viands of a college, where health and economy are alone consulted in the furniture of the tables."
Tea and coffee were served with breakfast, and small beer or cider with the noontime meal. At supper, they drank milk, or sometimes chocolate. Occasionally, the students were allowed "a dish of tea" in their rooms in the evening. The final exams each year were attended by the trustees, who dined with the students. One scholar reported that this meant "punch or ham and green peas or other delicacies might be added to the menu."
During John McMillan’s first year, the faculty consisted of just President Witherspoon and two tutors. Both tutors remained throughout John McMillan’s time as a student (he graduated in 1772). Samuel Stanhope Smith, mentioned previously, left a year after McMillan, having been licensed by the Presbyterian Church. He returned to Princeton in 1779 as a professor and remained to be Witherspoon’s son-in-law and successor as president. The other tutor, Richard Devens, was from Massachusetts and had graduated in the Class of 1767. An 1872 biographical catalog says of Devens, "In 1770 he was appointed tutor in the College, where he remained until 1774, when in consequence of too close and intense application to his studies, he became insane."
In 1771, William C. Houston, a 1768 graduate, was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural History. He remained until 1783, during which time he studied law, was admitted to the bar, and served in the Continental Congress.
A college education of the time included a heavy load of classical studies: Greek and Latin. These were not in themselves particularly useful, but they were the mark of an educated person and were believed to train the mind to think. The two major methods of teaching were through recitation and by lecture. The freshman year was devoted to recitations in Latin and Greek, as well as rhetoric. John McMillan would have been examined on these subjects when he applied for admission. He had mastered them at Pequea, so he was allowed to skip the freshman year and enter as a sophomore.
The sophomores continued the study of languages, and also studies geography, philosophy, and math. Since the professor of mathematics and natural history (science) was not present when John McMillan was a sophomore, he would have recited to the tutors, Samuel Smith and Richard Devens.
President Witherspoon principally taught the juniors and seniors. Both received his lectures on Chronology and History and those on Composition, Taste, and Criticism, so a student was exposed to the same subject matter twice. He also taught courses in Moral Philosophy and Divinity. All were lecture courses for which there were no textbooks. The students were expected to take down the lectures word for word.
Since John McMillan and many of his classmates went on to teach, it is likely that much of Witherspoon’s material was passed on to another generation. Indeed, who is to say that Dr. Witherspoon did not get his material the same way.
The course in Divinity is easily misinterpreted. Witherspoon was President and Professor of Divinity and Moral Philosophy. We think of Divinity as sectarian and Theology the study of religion in a non-sectarian way.
But Ashbel Green, a later president of the college wrote in 1822: "[A]lthough the college was founded by the exertions and influence of Presbyterians, it never was intended to be an institution in which the pupils of that sect should be more favoured than those of any other…, [and] it is believed that, from the foundation of the college to the present hour, there has not been a discourse delivered that could, with any show of justice, be denominated sectarian. So far as the author may be allowed to judge, he can most unreservedly declare that he has never heard one…. In forming . . . a course for the instruction of youth in this college in the principals and doctrines of religion, the greatest care has always been taken to make it, and to keep it, as free as possible from sectarian peculiarities."
This attitude was continued at Canonsburg Academy and Jefferson College. John McMillan preferred a place on the faculty to one on the Board of Trustees. Accordingly he was, for many years, Professor of Divinity and Vice-President of the college. This has been misconstrued to mean the college included a Presbyterian seminary and John McMillan prepared his students for the ministry there. He may well have taught Theology; if so it was probably from John Witherspoon’s lectures, but Jefferson College was no more a sectarian institution than Princeton was.
John McMillan’s manuscript dispenses with his time at Princeton in six sentences. All he mentioned was his religious experience at a time when a religious revival swept the campus, engulfing, by McMillan’s count, all but two or three. He says nothing about the college, the faculty, or his fellow students. Until the Revolutionary War, students who were preparing for the ministry, principally Presbyterian, were in the majority. A historian of the college commented that "on the whole the students [of this time] were a sober lot, many of whom were assisted through college by the fund for pious youths."
There are indications that at Princeton John McMillan was soberer than most. Nearly all the students joined a literary society, the Cliosophic or the American Whig, where they honed their oratorical and literary talents. The high point of the college literary exercises was at commencement, held the last Wednesday in September. The night before graduation, the students of the lower classes competed for prizes in literary exercises as "[r]eading the English language with propriety and grace, and being able to answer all questions on its orthography and grammar," and the same in Latin and Greek. There also were competitions in speaking Latin and orations in English. The college graduates in the audience decided the winners by ballot. The following day, the graduating seniors and those receiving master’s degrees had their chance to show off, but there were no prizes.
The term, sober, brings to mind a receipt that has survived from a Commencement dinner dated September 27, 1771, the year before McMillan graduated (see Figure 1). The dinner for 37 people (there were 12 graduates) was paid by the college treasurer, Jonathan Sergeant. To accompany the 37 dinners were 23 bottles of wine. It must have been pretty good wine because it cost more than the dinners. But that wasn’t all. They had 8 bottles of porter, 6 bottles of beer, 3 double bowls of punch, 3 bowls of toddy, and the final item was "Tea for 13 Gentlemen."
Another difference from today was the use of ghostwritten work at literary performances. One such ghostwriter was a local lawyer who had graduated in 1763, William Paterson. He was not one of the sober ones, judging from some of his work that has survived. This excerpt is from a poem, "The Belle of Princeton: Peggy Stockton," that was read in the Cliosophic Literary Society in 1772. The Smith he wrote about is Samuel Stanhope Smith of Pequea. It probably is not coincidental that Smith was a member of the rival society, the Whigs.
Tutor Smith, a lyer so grand
Treads not upon this classic land;
Tutor Smith, so won’drous civil
Compound odd of Saint & Devil.
This Smith a parson too, alas!
He more resembles for an ass.
. . .
He looks demure as any nun,
Tho’ meanest fellow under sun.
. . .
Proud of his beauty too; I swear
He is all lovely & all fair;
Proud of his manners, ‘tis most true
(We must e’en give the dev’l his due)
In manners he excels; he came
From Pequea, land of wond’rous fame,
Where learning, wit & genius shine,
Ecce Signum. I am divine!
There is no evidence that McMillan took part in literary society activities or the writing of doggerel. This may be related to what his biographer, Leake, wrote about his timidity. All but 6 of the 24 in the Class of 1772 did join one of the literary societies, the only real college activity other than meals, chapel, and classes. Two of the six became physicians; the other four (including McMillan) were preparing for the Presbyterian ministry.
McMillan would have had his time on stage, though. Each evening, two or three students from the lower classes were required to present an oration from the stage in Prayer Hall immediately after the evening worship service. President Witherspoon, in McMillan’s senior year, said that this gave the students "by early habit, presence of mind, with proper pronunciation and gesture in public speaking." The seniors gave more elaborate performances "every five or six weeks…to which all persons of any note in the neighborhood [were] invited."
College Mates
Let’s look at some of John McMillan’s fellow-students that he didn’t see fit to mention in his account of his college days. The time period in which he attended is significant; it was just a few years before the Revolutionary War. As would be expected, concepts such as liberty and rights, particularly as related to the colonies’ relationship with England, were important topics of discussion. The college was considered to be a focus of discontent. Even though he had been in the American colonies just a few years, President Witherspoon was described as an "earnest rebel." The same source commented that "the Trustees were all of them rebels and supporters of the Confederation."
Ashbel Green, later president of the college and a student in the closing years of the war, noted that the college was accused by British adherents as being "a nursery of principles to which they were hostile, [and] they certainly did not make it without cause…. [T]he American revolution had no warmer, or more active, or more united friends, than the pupils and officers of Nassau-Hall." The biographies of the graduates in 1771 through 1773 do not indicate that any was a Tory.
Many followed up their college-boy ranting with active participation in the war. The heavy concentration of ministerial candidates meant that a number of the Nassau Hall graduates became chaplains, but there were also quite a few who served under arms. Most were officers, but others, like John McMillan, served as undistinguished privates in militia units.
Gunning Bedford, of Philadelphia, was a 29-year-old lawyer in 1775 when the Continental Congress appointed him deputy muster-master-general of the Continental Army. The following year he was promoted, but his time in the office with the grand name was short. He challenged a congressman to a duel. For this effrontery, he received a formal reprimand by congress, and he and the Continental Army parted ways.
McMillan’s classmates William Bradford and Aaron Burr also quickly reached high rank. Both achieved much greater fame after the war. In Burr’s case, the word would be infamy. Early in the war, Bradford wrote to Burr, "I have thrown away my books and taken up the sword …. I reflect that I am following the path that many of the sons of Nassau Hall … have trod with so much honor." By 1777 he received the appointment of deputy commissary general of musters and congress commissioned him a lieutenant colonel. Poor health cut short his military career in 1778.
Aaron Burr, the son of the president of Princeton who moved with the college to Princeton, began his military career by joining George Washington’s army in Massachusetts with a letter from John Hancock. A biographer described his military career as "a proclivity toward self-destruction and a catlike instinct for survival." The diminutive Burr won admiration for heroism on the Quebec expedition and was made aide-de-camp to General Washington. He found the duty boring and his commander uninspiring, and it didn’t take long to get transferred to another command and another retreat, as a major on Gen. Israel Putnam’s staff. He served heroically under fire and capably as an administrator. However, like his friend Bradford, poor health cut short his military career—that and not so cordial relations with the commander in chief. He, like Bradford, returned to law and government.
  Morgan Lewis of the Class of 1773 was the son of a signer of the Declaration of independence. He had studied law under John Jay and served as major of Jay’s New York regiment. He was promoted to colonel as a quartermaster. He returned to law after the war, then to politics. In 1804, when Vice President Aaron Burr ran for governor of New York, the Republicans nominated Lewis, who won. He was commissioned a brigadier general in the War of 1812, but illness compounded by questionable competence caused him to step down. He was active well into the 1830s and was a founder of the college that became New York University. He succeeded Albert Gallatin as chairman of the board.
Philip Morin Freneau, poet of the revolution, while a student at Princeton was a leading participant in what was called the Paper War between the two literary societies in 1771. While others assailed the rival Cliosophians in good humor, Freneau is described as being "vicious to the point of cruelty." In the years following graduation he turned the aim of his pen toward the British. His war service began in a New Jersey militia unit in which he saw action and was promoted to sergeant. He then went to sea as master of a sloop and then served on a privateer, where he was wounded during an exchange of gunfire with an English vessel. He recovered and continued having his patriotic pieces published. His last active participation in the war was in 1780 when he was sailing from the West Indies to Philadelphia on a privateer that was captured by the English. He was confined on a prison ship in the Hudson River, a horrible experience, from which he escaped in six weeks. His experiences were sufficient to supply material for an important piece of wartime propaganda, "The British Prison Ship."
Harrison, Princetonians: 1769-1775, 150-152.
A number of McMillan’s schoolmates became physicians and saw service as military surgeons. Charles McKnight enlisted in the Continental Army before he finished his medical studies. His service was primarily administrative, and he rose to the equivalent of a full colonel. He organized the evacuation of the sick and wounded from Valley Forge, then went back to Princeton where Nassau Hall had been turned into a military hospital and the interior of the building virtually destroyed by the troops. He ended the war as one of the senior officers of the Hospital Department of the army.
Hugh Hodge and several other military surgeons were captured in November 1776 in New York. There was no Geneva Convention, and chivalry was far in the past (if it ever existed). There was not even any common decency. For six weeks the physicians were prevented from treating the sick and injured. Then, they were permitted very scant supplies. The physicians were released on parole (the promise they would not rejoin the army) within a few months.
A few of McMillan’s schoolmates who became army chaplains were of the Holy Joe variety—their faith obscured common sense. Samuel Spring was one such Zealot. He volunteered to be chaplain of Benedict Arnold’s brigade on its invasion of Canada. Even during the subsequent retreat, he saw to it that the troops were drummed to prayer meeting, where he railed against obscure theological deviations that most of the troops knew nothing about, and they didn’t care.
The pontificating padre had them called out no matter how tired they were or what else needed doing. He preached and he prayed, and then he preached some more. At one point he took leave to recover from arthritis (he would have been about 37 years old) and the troops celebrated his absence. When he returned, whatever hold he had on the commanding officer was lost and within a month the troops got rid of their over-zealous chaplain for good.
McMillan’s classmate, John DeBow, was another chaplain short on judgment. Like McMillan, he did not belong to a literary society and he did not speak at commencement. DeBow was sent to North Carolina on a missionary assignment and while there was chaplain to a militia unit that won an important victory. He saw fit to preach a thanksgiving sermon in which he gave all the credit for the victory to the Almighty. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any left over for the colonel who had led the attack.
Another of John McMillan classmates, Moses Allen, also was a chaplain in the South. The name is familiar because it is the name of one of McMillan’s sons-in-law. This one was no relation, as far as is known. He studied for the ministry after graduation and the beginning of the war found him in Georgia, where he whipped up a revolutionary fervor from the pulpit. This did not please the Loyalists, of which there were quite a few in his neighborhood.
Allen joined the militia forces as chaplain and took part in a number of ill-conceived and unfortunate campaigns. He was captured at the Battle of Savannah, and though most of the captured officers were released on parole, Allen was considered a particularly odious traitor and confined on a prison ship. Like Freneau, he endured just six weeks of harsh treatment and starvation, but his escape was unsuccessful and he drowned. The captain of the prison ship would not allow him to be buried, and his body was thrown into the swamp.
A different sort of imprisonment was the lot of Stephen Cooke, who studied medicine in Philadelphia and probably was captured while a ship’s surgeon. He was imprisoned on a ship near New York City, but was transferred to Bermuda. There he met the daughter of a British judge who had resigned from his seat on the bench in protest to his government’s policies regarding the American colonies. Presumably Cooke was still a prisoner when he and Catherine Esten were wed. He remained in Bermuda after the war, though he and his family later moved back to the United States.

Western Pennsylvania

John McMillan did not go to Bermuda; he ended up in the wilderness of Western Pennsylvania. Neither he nor any of his schoolmates started there, as until 1768, Pennsylvania law forbade settlement. John McMillan first traveled over the mountains in 1775 as a missionary, sent by the Presbyterian Church.
One of McMillan’s classmates, Philip Fithian of New Jersey, after an unhappy year as a tutor to a Virginia family, was licensed as a Presbyterian minister. Within a few weeks, to protest the Stamp Act, he was part of a mob that burned crates of English tea, and then he began his missionary tour. For three months he traveled through Maryland, Western Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania. It was not a pleasant time for him. He detested the filth and the crude settlers of the frontier. Worse, he was deathly afraid of Indians in any situation.
After returning to New Jersey and marrying, he cut short another missionary tour to join the army as a chaplain. Within a few months, he was in New York with a retreating army, preaching and visiting the sick and wounded in field hospitals. Disease was everywhere and the Rev. Mr. Fithian was not immune. He died and was buried in an unmarked grave less than three months after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
William Linn also had first-hand experience with Indians. He was raised near Shippensburg, and when he was three years old an Indian attack drove his family to a fort. His mother died there. He was a schoolmate of John McMillan’s at Pequea and preceded him to Princeton by a few months. Unlike McMillan, William Linn entered into the literary competitions at college. He was licensed early in 1775, and at the same time as Philip Fithian did a missionary tour through Western Pennsylvania, joined the army as a Presbyterian chaplain, and served in New York. He was more fortunate than his schoolmate, as he lived through the experience.
Like John McMillan, Linn made a contribution to higher education. He was a founding trustee of Dickinson College in 1783. Renowned for his oratory, within a few years he was in New York as a Reformed Dutch minister. There he became chaplain of the U. S. House of Representatives and a trustee of Queen’s College, now Rutgers. In 1793 he was a member of a committee that conferred with representatives from Princeton about a merger of the two colleges. Ultimately, the Queen’s College trustees decided against merger, 8-9, with Linn voting against the union with his alma mater.
John McMillan was the only minister of the three Princeton classes who settled in Western Pennsylvania after being sent there on a missionary journey. Several others came and stayed for other reasons. Two such transplants had been members of the Class of 1773. Both were older than McMillan, which was not unusual for students preparing for the ministry.
Thaddeus Dod was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1740. His family’s poverty prevented him from attending school regularly, but he was self-taught to the extent that he was able to teach school and earn money to further his education. With the help of the Fund for Pious Youth, he entered the sophomore class at the age of 31. He joined a literary society and was chosen to take part in a debate at Commencement. He was assigned to speak against the proposition, "Matter is not in any Sense infinitely divisible." This was long before molecules and atoms were known.
He was married six months after graduation, which caused quite a stir among a group of remarkable people. The news was conveyed from the president of the college, who within a few years would be a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of Continental Congress, to a man who later would become attorney general of the United States, who discussed the event by letter with a future president of the United States.
Those are some high-powered people discussing the marriage of a thin, beady-eyed candidate for the ministry. The discussion, however, was the timing and circumstances of the marriage. One wrote that Dod "was a father before he was a husband" and "it was the Girl’s friends that forced the Old fellow’s head in the noose." A letter came back from Virginia commenting that the writer was surprised at his "old friend … the old monk." Another schoolmate commented on the absurdity of such a thing, but in a letter to Aaron Burr confirmed that it was true because his brother was married to the woman’s sister.
Dod finished his education just before the Revolutionary War and in 1777 went west with his wife and two children along with two brothers and their families. Leaving them in the relatively safer area east of the Monongahela River (in present West Virginia), he pressed on to Ten-Mile where a number of acquaintances from New Jersey had settled.
The following year he brought his family to Ten-Mile, but one child had died in the meantime. In addition to his church, he started an academy in a log building the author of Old Redstone described as being larger than any of the dwelling houses in the area. There Dod resumed being a teacher. He was a very good classical scholar, and an outstanding mathematician.
Thaddeus Dod seems to have had the knack of being remembered, mentioned in dispatches, as it were. Many years after he graduated, a man named Albert B. Dod applied for a position at Princeton. A member of the board of trustees and a chief justice of the state supreme court told the applicant that he would support him because his former schoolmate, Thaddeus Dod, had been a brilliant mathematician, a trait that must go along with the name. Maybe so, as Albert Dod became a renowned teacher.
John McMillan, Joseph Smith, and Thaddeus Dod each had an academy. Dod was the outstanding scholar and the most experienced teacher. He is said to have closed his school in the fall of 1785. The task of serving a congregation and teaching was too much. Smith and McMillan had been charter trustees of a failed Pittsburgh Academy, and all three were on the board of Washington Academy, chartered in 1787. The academy opened in 1789 with Thaddeus Dod as its teacher, a position he held for more than a year. He died in 1793, and John McMillan conducted his funeral. Even in death he continued to be connected with the famous. His widow married James Foster of Canonsburg, grandfather of composer Stephen Foster.
The other Western Pennsylvania minister-teacher was James Dunlap, born in Chester County about 1744. He was a member of the American Whig Society and participated in a debate, in Latin, against John Witherspoon, a classmate and the president’s son. He returned to Princeton as a tutor in 1775 but left the following year when the college was closed because of the war. He probably was studying for the ministry under Witherspoon. In 1782, he was installed as pastor of two churches in Fayette County.
He became a trustee of Canonsburg Academy, certainly because of John McMillan, and was on the original board of Jefferson College. When the college’s first principal died, John McMillan filled in, but called upon is old schoolmate to assume the presidency.
James Dunlap was about sixty years old and had left Princeton long before, but like the other frontier pastors had been training men for the ministry. He was said to have committed large amounts of classical text to memory and would listen to students’ recitations while pacing to and fro with his hands behind his back. Unfortunately, Dunlap "was a very sensitive man," as Joseph Smith described him, "easily wounded, and apt to take offense."
Money was tight, and Jefferson College did not pay their principal well. Joseph Smith described Dunlap’s time as principal as one of "pinching poverty." Worse, he got it into his head that his pay was low because the trustees did not appreciate him. He repeatedly threatened to resign but backed down when he conferred with the trustees. Finally, in April 1811, the board responded not by negotiation, but by accepting his resignation. McMillan’s part in this is not recorded, but he assumed Dunlap’s administrative duties until a new principal was found.
John Black, Princeton 1771, was a charter trustee of both Dickinson and Jefferson Colleges. He came to Western Pennsylvania late in life, as a supply to churches in Westmoreland County. The early part of his career, some twenty years, was as pastor of a church near Gettysburg.
There is no telling if the good Rev. Black was at that commencement banquet, but it was intoxicating drink that drove him from his church and brought him West. In his case, though, he wasn’t doing the drinking. He preached against it. And he preached some more. He berated his congregation, and he drew up a pledge that he expected them to sign. Only three did. He had the wind in his temperance banner, but he was supplying all the wind. It carried him right out of his pulpit and he never had another church.

John McMillan
A few years before John Black lost his battle with intoxicating spirits, whiskey had been the vehicle of a veritable Princeton reunion in Western Pennsylvania. The occasion was the 1794 rebellion against what Judge Addison termed, "a law odious and opposed," the excise tax on whiskey. John McMillan and the other ministers preached against the insurrectionists and urged compliance with the law.
One of the leading personalities and a chronicler of the affair (though his account is self-serving) had graduated in the class ahead of McMillan. His name was Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and he and McMillan both had attended John Blair’s school at Fagg’s Manor. Like most of the immigrants from Ireland, his family was poor and he had to scratch and claw for his education. He was brilliant, a literary light who with Freneau wrote what may have been the first novel written in America. He also wrote essays and orations for his schoolmates, which may well have helped finance his college studies.
Brackenridge graduated at the top of his class and remained to study theology under John Witherspoon. After a few years teaching, he was licensed by the Presbyterian Church and joined the army as a chaplain. He didn’t last long, though—as a chaplain, a minister, or a Presbyterian. He studied law in Annapolis then went to Philadelphia to found the United States Magazine. He lost interest in this, too.
Brackenridge then turned West to achieve fame and fortune. He claimed, late in life, that he thought his chances would be much better in Pittsburgh because Philadelphia was already crowded with prominent men. True or not, he soon became a big fish in a small pond. He built a successful law practice and was elected to the state legislature. His personality remained mercurial, and nobody really trusted him. Of his former calling, he is reputed to have said, "Wherever priests come, they make trouble."
John McMillan didn’t have much time for Brackenridge. He couldn’t accept his abandonment of the faith and that he had "learned to swear." Brackenridge was well equipped with people who didn’t care for him. His political enemies tried to get him arrested for his activities during the Whiskey Rebellion, when he seemingly had a foot in each camp.
A biographer, Richard Harrison, sums up Brackenridge’s personality by saying, "Brackenridge had a reputation for slovenliness, eccentricity, and drunkenness that undoubtedly had some basis in fact." Stories tell of his taking off his boots and trying cases in his bare feet; he didn’t wear socks. Despite his shortcomings, he was appointed to the bench. On one occasion, an acquaintance in a buggy while riding through a rainstorm saw a strange figure on horseback approach, wearing only his hat and boots. It was Judge Brackenridge; he explained that he was keeping his clothes dry under the saddle.
The other visitors at the time of the Whiskey Insurrection included the Federal Commissioners—William Bradford, Casper Yates, and Senator James Ross—who met with a committee of Westerners that included Hugh Henry Brackenridge. Two of the commissioners were well known to both John McMillan and Hugh Henry Brackenridge. Attorney General William Bradford was John McMillan’s classmate and a close friend and literary society collaborator of Brackenridge. James Ross was a Pittsburgh lawyer who had both studied under John McMillan and taught in his school.
Other schoolmates followed with what was called the Watermelon Army, the militia units called up to federal service to put down what was feared would become an armed conflict. President George Washington was with the army as far as Bedford, where he appointed Henry Lee, Governor of Virginia, to lead the expedition with the rank of major general. Although Lee was a member of an aristocratic Anglican family of Virginia, he was John McMillan’s school mate. President Witherspoon had visited Virginia and made an impression upon the Lee family and others. As a consequence, the Lee sons went to Princeton rather than William and Mary.
Henry had been a good student and won a pre-commencement contest for translating Latin and a received the third place prize for reading Latin and Greek. At his commencement he spoke on "Liberal Arts." A classmate reported, "Lee was stiff with lace, gold lace."
In the Revolution, his skill and daring in command of dragoons specializing in small unit operations earned him a medal from the Continental Congress and the nickname, Lighthorse Harry. After the war he entered politics and the Whiskey Insurrection occurred in the final year of his three-year term as governor. Actually, his term expired while he was in the field, but he remained with the troops, commanding by order of George Washington.
When he got to Pittsburgh, he went to the house appropriated as his headquarters. The arrogance that characterized much that was done by the federal forces had made it seem proper to force one of the miserable rebels to host the commanding officer. The house chosen was that of Hugh Henry Brackenridge. Imagine Henry Lee’s embarrassment at finding that he was to impose upon a man who had been a fellow-member of the college elite at Princeton. With a profuse apology to Mrs. Brackenridge he withdrew and found other quarters.
Also with the Watermelon Army was Franklin Davenport, a relative of Benjamin Franklin. His father had been a clerk in the Pennsylvania Indian commission and a tavern keeper, but he moved to New Jersey where his cousin, the royal governor, appointed him to several offices. The son was a member of the Class of 1773, but left school without graduating. He studied law and possibly because of his indoctrination at Princeton, parted ways with his loyalist cousin and rose to regimental quartermaster in the New Jersey militia. As such, he assisted in procuring boats for Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. After the war, he built a flourishing law practice, dabbled in politics, and remained active in the militia.
When Davenport’s militia regiment was called up for service in Western Pennsylvania, it must have been an inconvenience to him, but he was discharged as a colonel on Christmas Day. He was promoted to brigadier general during the War of 1812 and later rose to major general. Following his excursion into Western Pennsylvania, he served in both the U. S. House of Representatives and the U. S. Senate.
And what did John McMillan write in his reminiscences about the Whiskey Insurrection and his schoolmates that took part? Nothing. Not a word has been found to indicate that McMillan even went to Pittsburgh to see his old friends, nor have any of them except Brackenridge mentioned McMillan.
John McMillan must have told "I remember him when…" stories about his very famous schoolmates: Revolutionary War officers, literary giants, legislators, governors, and jurists. Two of the most diminutive of his college mates were particularly important. His classmate Aaron Burr became vice-president under Thomas Jefferson in an election that went to the House of Representatives. In those times, the runner-up in the presidential election became vice-president.
The other luminary was elected president, James Madison, known as "Jemmy" in college. Like Henry Lee, he had been sent to Princeton rather than William and Mary. In his case, it was because his tutor on the plantation was an alumnus. With Brackenridge and Bradford, Madison was in the forefront of the Paper War between the literary societies, reportedly contributing "lusty, ribald doggerel." A small, sickly man with a soft voice, because of illness he was the only member of his class who did not perform at commencement. A Princeton historian commented that Dolly did him a world of good.
And what of John McMillan? He knew a number of very important men, most now forgotten by the general public, but well known in their time. But it seems that the only ones he had continued relationships with were fellow Presbyterian ministers. He would have gotten John Watson into Princeton through his old friend and teacher, Samuel Stanhope Smith, who was president of the college at the time. He called on other ministers to serve Jefferson College in various ways.
Apparently John McMillan’s world encompassed little beyond the Presbyterian Church and the education of its ministers. He attended three of the most important schools of their time, but he mentions only religious anecdotes in his memoirs. He wasn’t even sure how many children had died before his father made his pact with God. It’s too bad he didn’t see fit to write more. However, if McMillan was one of those boring students who spent all their time reading the Bible, maybe he wouldn’t have had any interesting stories to tell.