Beginning around 1875, and for more than half a century thereafter, the renowned American sculptor Daniel Chester French produced many of the country’s most significant pieces of architectural sculpture—from the bronze doors of the Boston Public Library to the colossal statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. French’s first design for Princeton was this pair of figural works flanking the entrance of Palmer Physical Laboratory, now the University’s Frist Campus Center. The sculptures appropriately depict two important early American physicists: Benjamin Franklin, at left, and Joseph Henry on the right. Although Franklin had little connection to Princeton other than his son William’s service as trustee while governor of New Jersey, Joseph Henry’s involvement here was considerable: during his tenure as professor of natural philosophy, beginning in 1832, he pioneered the development of the telegraph—years before the better-known refinements of Samuel Morse. Henry left Princeton in 1846 to become the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution but maintained his affiliation through years of service as a trustee. In 1853 he declined the board’s invitation to become Princeton’s tenth president.
Art and Slavery at Princeton
Early in his career Franklin owned several slaves as personal servants, and his newspaper regularly ran notices advertising the sale of slaves. After a trip to Europe in 1785, however, Franklin returned home with drastically changed views on slavery. He began publishing pamphlets condemning slavery and, over the course of his career, gradually became known as a vocal abolitionist, serving as president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Franklin believed that the slave trade should be abolished and that slaves already in the country should be freed and integrated into American society. To demonstrate his commitment, he eventually freed his own slaves.