James Manning was born October 22, 1738 in Piscataway, New Jersey. In 1762, he graduated from the College of New Jersey (Princeton University), and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1763. That same year he was sent by the Philadelphia Association of Baptist Churches to Rhode Island for the purpose of establishing a college to be principally under the direction of the Baptists.
Rhode Island College (renamed Brown University in 1804) was granted a charter on March 3, 1764, and Manning became its first president when it opened the next year. He served as the College's only professor until 1767, when the increase in students presented the need for an additional instructor. In 1769 President Manning presided over the first Commencement, at which time seven students received the degree of Bachelor of Arts and 21 honorary degrees were conferred.
In 1770, Manning oversaw the move of the College from Warren, RI to Providence. It was during his presidency, from 1776 to 1782, that the College Edifice (University Hall) was occupied by American and French troops as a barracks and hospital. When the war was over, the College reopened, poor, with few students and a damaged building. Manning guided the College through the difficult post-Revolution period, and manifested a multiplicity of talents during his tenure -- lecturing, preaching, taking on boarders, even "making thirty two Rods of Stone wall on the College Land." 165 men graduated during his presidency, which ended upon his death in 1791.