Princeton University in the American Revolution


In 1776, Princeton University was officially known as the College of New Jersey. It had been chartered 30 years before by the governor of the province in the name of King George II "for the Education of Youth in the Learned Languages and in the Liberal Arts and Sciences." The charter was issued to a self-perpetuating board of trustees who were acting in behalf of the evangelical or New Light wing of the Presbyterian Church, but the College had no legal or constitutional identification with that denomination. Its doors were to be open to all students, "any different sentiments in religion notwithstanding." The announced purpose of the founders was to train men who would become "ornaments of the State as well as the Church." It was the fourth college to be established in British North America, after Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale, in that order.

The College was originally located in Elizabeth, where its first president, the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, was also pastor of the town's Presbyterian church. When Dickinson died within a few months after the opening of the College in May 1747, the trustees were fortunate in persuading Reverend Aaron Burr, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Newark, to accept the presidency. The College moved to Newark in the fall of 1747, and there in the next year a class of six young men became the first to graduate.

The College Moves to Princeton

In the fall of 1756, Burr brought the College to Princeton. One of the largest buildings constructed in colonial America stood ready to receive the students and their tutors. Built of native stone on land donated by Nathaniel FitzRandolph, and with funds collected partly in Great Britain, it was named Nassau Hall at the suggestion of Gov. Jonathan Belcher, a special friend of the College, in testimony of the "Honour we retain, in this remote Part of the Globe, to the immortal Memory" of William III, king of England and prince of Orange, who was "of the illustrious House of Nassau." Until the beginning of the 19th century, Nassau Hall housed all the functions of the College. It also provided an increasingly popular designation for the College itself, perhaps because the institution was so fully identified with the building, perhaps because the official name of the College somehow lacked appeal, as is suggested by the popular usage of Princeton College through many years before the trustees in 1896 adopted the name of Princeton University.

Revolutionary War Years

The president of the College at the time of the Revolution was John Witherspoon, eminent Scottish divine who held the office from 1768 to his death in 1794. Witherspoon was the only ordained clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, and for six years thereafter he was an active and influential member of the Continental Congress. During the war years he found it difficult, and at times impossible, to keep the College in session. The graduating Class of 1776 had 27 members, the five classes immediately following a grand total of 30. For much of the time, Nassau Hall was used as a barracks or hospital by troops, either British or American. As the Battle of Princeton drew to its close on Jan. 3, 1777, British soldiers attempted a last stand within its walls, but American artillery fire helped persuade them instead to surrender. Tradition has it that a cannon ball fired by a battery commanded by Alexander Hamilton decapitated a portrait of King George II, leaving the frame intact for later use in hanging a portrait of George Washington. Whatever the fact, the damage done to the building by the war was extensive and costly.

Continental Congress

Nassau Hall was the scene also of important political gatherings. It was there that the first legislature of the State of New Jersey convened, and there that William Livingston, the state's first governor, was inducted into office. There, too, the Continental Congress, having fled mutinous troops in Philadelphia, sat from July to November of 1783, presumably on most occasions in the library located on the second floor at the front and center of the building. It was during this session that the Congress, its members including six alumni of Nassau Hall, received notification that the peace treaty giving final recognition to the nation's independence had been signed. Among the dignitaries present for part or all of the session, the chief was Washington, who on Aug. 26 accepted in person the congratulations of the Congress "on the success of a war" in which he had "acted so conspicuous a part." Washington attended the commencement exercises on Sept. 24, when the graduation of 14 seniors gave evidence that the College was beginning a slow recovery from the effects of war.

To help the struggling college, the general made a contribution of 50 guineas. The trustees responded by requesting that he sit for a portrait by Charles Willson Peale — a portrait that remains in the University's art collection.