Joseph was born to physician Joseph and homemaker Rachel Harker Caldwell, April 21, 1773, in Lamington, New Jersey. His paternal grandfather had emigrated from Ulster in the north of Ireland to New Jersey; his mother’s father was a Presbyterian minister and her grandfather, surnamed Lovel, was a Huguenot refugee from France. Joseph had commenced the practice of medicine in Lamington when he and Rachel were married. Two days before Joseph was born his father died from a ruptured blood vessel in his lung. The injury had occurred when he overstressed himself by helping some men lift a millstone. Rachel was left with little money to care for Joseph, his older brother Samuel, and possibly a girl, the middle child, who would die or had died at an early age. Samuel, was almost to the day four years older than Joseph.

During many of Joseph’s growing-up years the family moved several times because of their financial situation, which was further complicated by the general instability and dangers caused by the Revolutionary War. He lived with his mother part of the time and with his Grandmother Harker at other times. His grandmother, after Rev. Harker died, had continued to live on their farm. During this time, Joseph’s mother moved from Elizabethtown, New York, to Amwell in New Jersey, then to Newton followed by Trenton. Sometimes Joseph was with her, but other times he was not. The move to Trenton provided some stability for the household and nine-year-old Joseph enjoyed life along the Delaware River. He described the setting of his house as “exceedingly pleasant on elevated ground at the southern end of town” (Autobiography, 13). He remembered that during the Revolution some French troops spent a winter in the field across from his house and during the nights he could hear shouted communications among the sentinels. Joseph said of his mother and grandmother that they “were ever faithful in giving me all the instruction in their power, and especially in training me in the knowledge of God, of the scriptures.” (11) The Caldwell family’s next move was to Bristol on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. Joseph attended a school in Bristol which he found particularly beneficial because of the knowledge, concern, and skill of the teacher. The devoted teacher kindled in young Caldwell an interest in mathematics which would continue throughout his life.

The family’s next move returned Joseph to New Jersey where he found his best opportunities for continuing his education. Because of Joseph’s capabilities and keen interest in reading, his mother had been encouraged to send him to the grammar school at Nassau Hall in Princeton which was overseen by John Witherspoon. The Caldwells’ shortage of funds was such that he had difficulty obtaining a Latin grammar until a fellow student gave Joseph his extra copy which was tattered but serviceable. But Joseph could not complete his studies, because once again, the family had to move, this time to Newark. He did not find his new school’s master, Dr. McWhorter, as capable and challenging as in the Princeton school. He was an enthusiastic student who preferred studying to games and recreation, but when the family once again had to move, this time to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, his interest in education faded and he became ambivalent towards his studies. For about two years his lessons stumbled along until John Witherspoon came through town on his way to New York. Rachel, Joseph’s mother, had a conversation with Dr. Witherspoon in which he encouraged her to send the boy back to Princeton. But there was a problem, of course, the money. After several months trying to resolve the funding shortage and his mother encouraging Joseph towards apprenticing as a printer, Dr. Witherspoon came through with the resources to bring Caldwell to Princeton for college studies.

Joseph Caldwell was fourteen years old when he arrived in Princeton in the spring of 1787. After a positive interview with Samuel S. Smith—who would go on to succeed John Witherspoon in the presidency of Princeton College—his anticipation and excitement turned to mortification when Dr. Witherspoon’s examination found him deficient. Joseph had to enter the senior class of the grammar school before he could become a college student. Caldwell respectfully protested and asked for a chance to try college studies, but Professor Witherspoon did not yield. Joseph would complete his studies in 1791, and regardless of the remedial work he found so distasteful, as Caldwell said in his autobiography, “As it was, I graduated under nineteen years of age. Of what importance was it to finish an education sooner?” (28) With no immediate prospects for employment, he idled his time away until he became a teacher in a local small school for a time, then he moved to Elizabethtown for a better opportunity as an assistant teacher in a larger school.

At some point during his college studies, Caldwell had come to believe he was called to the ministry. While teaching school in Elizabethtown, he pursued theological study with the pastor of the Presbyterian Church, Rev. David Austin. A controversial man, Austin, would in a few years leave the Presbyterian Church because of his eccentric eschatological views and millennial obsessions. In April 1795, young Caldwell became a tutor in Princeton College, and continued there for about a year. On September 22, 1796, he was licensed to preach the gospel by the Presbytery of New Brunswick.

In the summer of 1796, Caldwell’s college friend, Charles Harris, asked him to be his successor as professor of mathematics in the University of North Carolina. Harris had agreed to serve a year in the position when the university opened in 1795. Caldwell accepted the offer and after years of transitioning from one place to the next, he made his last move when he travelled by buggy to Chapel Hill arriving October 31, 1796. Harris and Caldwell worked together until Harris resigned in 1797, left his friend in charge, and then pursued the study of law. However, it must have been a disconcerting situation for Caldwell because the school was struggling. The university lacked a definitive curriculum, needed discipline, lacked qualified staff, was minimally funded, and the facilities had much to be desired. The university board was in charge of creating a state controlled public institution. The first state institution was the University of Georgia, which had been chartered in 1785. Starting a university was not an easy job, and the problems faced by the University of North Carolina were similar to those experienced by Moses Waddel when he arrived at the University of Georgia thirty-four years after it opened.

Joseph Caldwell’s work in Chapel Hill continued for nearly forty years with the last years seeing decreased duties as his health declined. He was Professor of Mathematics Caldwell until 1804 when he added to his duties the responsibility of the first presidency of the university. With respect to his church work, in 1810, the Presbytery of Orange overtured the Synod of North Carolina for permission to ordain Caldwell. He did not have a call, but he did supply pulpits as he could and the relationship of teacher to student was viewed as a pastoral ministry. The synod complied and he was ordained the next year. Rev. Caldwell continued teaching, administrating, fund raising, and other duties until 1812 when he resigned the presidency to dedicate himself fully to teaching. But his successor as president, Robert Chapman, resigned after only four years, so Caldwell again served in the presidency and continued until his death. His contributions to the growth and development of the University of North Carolina were many. For example, under his leadership the first educational observatory in the United States was constructed at Chapel Hill, the library developed considerably, the campus was expanded, and most importantly there was some stability. Even though his series of articles in a newspaper calling for the construction of a railroad in North Carolina from the mountains to the coast may seem unrelated to the university, the development of railroads would provide improved accessibility to Chapel Hill and growth for the university. As W. H. Foote stated in Sketches of North Carolina, “for forty years the history of the man is the history of the University, and the history of the university is the history of the man.” (534)

Joseph Caldwell died January 27, 1835, and he was buried in the cemetery of the university campus. He was married first to Susan Rowan of Fayetteville in 1804, but after just a few years she and her newborn infant died. In 1809, he married the second time to a widow named Helen Hogg Hooper. At the time of their marriage, she had three sons, but Helen and Joseph did not have any children together.

Dr. Caldwell was recognized nationwide for his educational and ministerial work. He was an active churchman participating in Orange Presbytery meetings and those of the Synod of North Carolina. He was the moderator of the synod meeting in Fayetteville in 1818. He served on committees in both judicatories. In 1816, the degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred upon him by the College of New Jersey (Princeton), and at the college’s neighbor, Princeton Seminary, he was a director, 1820-1829.

His publications include some selected sermons in pamphlets, his massive, A Compendious System of Elementary Geometry, in Seven Books, to Which an Eighth is Annexed, Containing Such Other Propositions as are Elementary, Among Which are a Few that are Necessary, Beyond those of the System, to the more Advanced Parts of the Mathematics, which was self-published in Philadelphia, 1822. He also published in one of the Raleigh newspapers a series of articles, called “Letters of Carlton,” which were designed to awaken a spirit of internal improvement in the State of North Carolina and included his appeals for a railroad mentioned previously in this article.

One final thought about Joseph Caldwell comes from a letter about him included in Sprague’s Annals. The letter was written by a University of North Carolina professor, Shepherd Kollock, who was the brother of pastor Henry Kollock of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah. The professorship which Shepherd eventually accepted had been offered to him by Dr. Caldwell, but he initially was inclined to refuse the opportunity. The following is what Shepherd Kollock said in recounting his conversation with Caldwell regarding the teaching opportunity.

I frankly told him that, at first view, I was disinclined to do so; not merely on account of my youth and inexperience, but also because my preferences were for the pastoral office, and because I was licensed to preach. He, at once, replied, “That is what we want—more preaching on the Sabbath and in the week; and if a small congregation in the country be united to the college pulpit, you may, with a good conscience, secure the end of your education and licensure.” He then proceeded to speak for some time on the absolute necessity of religion in the government of a college, observing that, without such influence, literary institutions must sooner or later become the fountains of corruption; that nothing so effectually as this imposes a check upon youthful folly and wickedness; that without religious principles, no system of discipline, however wisely formed, or faithfully executed, can save an institution from moral deterioration, or prevent the highest talents or the richest attainments from being perverted to the worst of purposes—every seat of science should therefore be the seat of Christian piety. These remarks, coming from one who had been more than twenty years connected with a college, made an impression on me that was never lost. One of the trustees informed me that about a week after this, Dr. Caldwell addressed the Board on this subject, and spoke an hour, in a manner most convincing and persuasive. He concluded his address in this manner—”Let the Gospel be fully preached at your seat of learning, by any faithful minister of any denomination—I will add, even ‘through strife and envy,’ and, like the great Apostle, ‘I will rejoice.’” After the professorship was established, I accepted the office—influenced chiefly by his arguments, and entered upon my duties—I gave instruction in rhetoric and logic, and devoted much of my time to the appropriate work of a minister.

It seems that things have changed over the course of the last two centuries.


Sources—Autobiography and Biography of Rev. Joseph Caldwell, D.D., LL.D., First President of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: John R. Neatherly Printer, 1860. W. H. Foote, Sketches of North Carolina, Historical and Biographical, New York: Robert Carter, 1846, chapter 36, “University of North Carolina and the Rev. Joseph Caldwell, D.D.,” pages 527-57. W. B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit, Vol. 4, New York: Robert Carter, 1858. Princetonians, 1791-1794, A Biographical Dictionary, J. Jefferson Looney and Ruth L. Woodward, 1991. Minutes of both Orange Presbytery and the Synod of North Carolina of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).