Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
by Gregg Lange '70

February 14, 2007:

Happy 275th, Father of our Country
How celebrating Washington became a ‘three-ring circus’

By Gregg Lange ’70


25th August 1783

“I now return to you, Gentlemen, my thanks for your benevolent wishes, and make it my earnest prayer to Heaven, that every temporal and divine Blessing may be bestowed on the inhabitants of Princeton, on the Neighborhood, and on the President and Faculty of the College of New-Jersey, and that the usefulness of this institution, in promoting the Interests of Religion and Learning, may be universally extended.”

I am, Gent’n, &c,
G. Washington


You have to hand it to Big Daddy George – he sure did have a way with a Grand Gesture.

But there also must have been a hefty dose of practicality in someone who had transcended seven years of war with the greatest military power on earth. The above blandishments, offered to the locals upon his visit to the Continental Congress – meeting at Nassau (not Belcher) Hall in 1783 – assured him a cushy local estate to stay in for a few months, and probably some high-quality oats for ol’ Dobbin, too. He certainly wasn’t going to get it from Congress, which was in Princeton only to avoid the war veterans in Philadelphia trying to collect their back wages.

Perhaps Big Daddy, who was famed as selfless for not submitting personal expenses, was more interested in being seen as magnanimous than in carrying overdue invoices to Congress for years in his QuickBooks files. Speaking of practical, you’ll notice in his Princeton greeting he doesn’t even mention the students, perhaps in the belief they had little to do with “promoting the interests of Religion and Learning.”

As if to prove him right, the eventual celebration of his birthday at Princeton became a sort of three-ring circus populated almost solely by the undergrads. Then, in the same way the alumni horned in on Commencement and created Reunions, they imposed themselves on Washington’s birthday and created Alumni Day. Here are the highlights:

Only 11 years after Big Daddy’s lovefest with Congress and the College in Princeton, the 1794 minutes of the Cliosophic Society note: “The Birthday of the President of the United States was celebrated by an oration by Brother Gamma” (actually Henry Kollock 1794, in a fraternal foreshadowing of Brother Flounder in Animal House).

Through the 19th century Washington’s birthday, celebrated always on Feb. 22 except when it fell on a Sunday, took its place beside July 4 as one of the two great secular national holidays, with copious bands, speeches, and blowing things up. By 1873 the College festivities had migrated to the Chapel, complete with organ and Glee Club, and included a stirring oration from each of the four classes. By 1886, it included the “Presentation of Trophies to the Champion Foot-ball team by the Senior Orator.”

In 1889, a local journalist noted that “Princeton College in accordance with time-honored tradition, celebrated Washington’s birthday in a fitting manner,” to include the morning orations, an athletic exhibition (wrestling, track and field, gymnastics) in the afternoon, and a class-versus-class debate (“Resolved that the annexation of Canada would be detrimental to the United States”) in the evening. The oratory program had evolved into the equivalent of a rock concert; the freshmen got there early and loosed a live goose on the upperclassmen prior to the festivities, with much name-calling and cheering on all sides. Remember now, this was in the Chapel.

Meanwhile, the climactic senior oration had taken a left turn over the years, and in 1889 carried the title “George Washington Esq. His Views on Base-ball with Especial Reference to the Double Umpire System.” This florid tradition probably reached its zenith in 1895 with John S. Frame 1895’s memorable excursis on “George Washington’s Innate Antipathy to the University of Pennsylvania Analogically Deduced from the Aesthetic, Analytic, and Dialectic Transcendentalism of Kant.” Pete Carril would have been proud, especially since the gathering mercifully had been relocated to the college gym. Sadly, no text of the oration remains – not that it can’t be vividly inferred.

The Alumni Association later created Alumni Day on Lincoln’s birthday in 1915 for what PAW called “an intellectual pilgrimage” to Princeton during the college term, presumably as distinct from the frivolity of Reunions. The event then somewhat suspiciously shifted the next year to the highly intellectual milieu of – yep, Washington’s birthday.

The high-water mark of the holiday in the national consciousness took place on Washington’s 200th birthday in 1932. Princeton actually celebrated for nine months, featuring a program of 20 historic tableaux vivant at McCarter Theatre that included Belcher, the Battle of Princeton, the 1783 Princeton visit, and Big Daddy’s ne’er-do-well ward George Washington Parke Custis 1799, plus a huge July 4 extravaganza in Palmer Stadium. On Feb. 22 itself the undergrads still had their program, but the now-traditional Alumni Association meeting followed even before lunch, ushered in by a 21-gun artillery salute on the playing fields. The alumni lunch was in Madison Hall, with the “ladies” invited to lunch in Prospect by Mrs. Hibben.

And while the raucous undergrad celebration eventually morphed into Dinky-tipping and the Nude Olympics and Newman’s Day, Alumni Day remained on Washington’s Birthday until 1955, when it moved to the nearest Saturday to Feb. 22. So we still return to campus in the sleet each winter to a festooned Jadwin Gym, blissfully unaware of our great debt to Big Daddy, the cheapskate Continental Congress, and most certainly the Aesthetic, Analytic, and Dialectic Transcendentalism of Kant. P

Lange '70Gregg Lange '70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.