Under the Ivy
by Gregg Lange '70
'70 in his annual P-rade appearance as Gov. Jonathan Belcher.
(Photo by Andrea Kane)
Gov. Jonathan Belcher
of New Jersey
October 25, 2006:
praise of Old Belcher
Celebrating an underappreciated Princeton icon
By Gregg Lange ’70
On campus, we are in the midst of celebrating a Princeton
icon so special that, while continually celebrated, it is still
underappreciated. (This is a rare combination; the norm in historical
circles is the reverse, the incessant overhyping of the relatively
trivial. Even Triangle cleverly noted this tendency in a long-ago
grandiose patriotic hymn to the memory of Warren G. Harding.)
I speak, of course, of Nassau Hall. State and U.S.
capitol, pivotal American battlefield, shrine of our war dead, launchpad
of our Commencements and stepsings and sit-ins, cauldron of our
faculty, edificial model for countless colleges elsewhere, focus
of the First Campus, home of the two George paintings, namesake
of a school song that doesn’t mention the name of the school
– it simply exudes respectful import. Perhaps only Yogi Berra
is more beloved and simultaneously more underrated.
So we don’t really need to dwell on it here.
You can go to princeton.edu and read anecdotes about Nassau Hall
until you’re ready to come back for your 50th reunion. Good
ones, written by actual writers, mostly. And then there are the
books: Probably as a result of both its photogenic qualities and
far, far too many alumni publishers, there have been enough coffee-table
tomes on Nassau Hall to drive Starbucks prices up 20 or 30 cents.
Accordingly, I’m going to invoke the Five-Book Rule: If there
have been five or more books written on a historical topic, you
won’t read about it here. There are too many important underreported
recollections, and too few columns, to allow the luxury. Why five,
you ask? Well, it lets me hang onto my 20th-reunion beer can while
counting, for one thing, and for another, history is distressingly
arbitrary at times. Why is an Ode to Warren G. Harding so much funnier
than an Ode to Millard Fillmore? Is it the “G”? Go figure.
So we won’t dwell on Nassau Hall, despite its
pedigree and its BCQ.* Instead, we point to the seminal question:
Why name the preeminent academic building in the Western Hemisphere
after a guy 5,000 miles away who had been dead for 54 years? The
answer lies in the modesty of our honoree for today, His Excellency
the Royal Governor of New Jersey, Jonathan Belcher h’1748
honorary classmate ’70.
A colonial administrator whose colorful Massachusetts
past included a Harvard degree and allegations of bribery, possibly
unrelated, Belcher arrived on the scene in bucolic New Jersey (this
really was a long time back) just as the furor over the
College’s original 1746 charter reached a fever pitch. Whether
or not to tweak his New England nemeses is unclear, but he became
an instant partisan of the fragile College, issuing an unassailable
new charter and donating his personal library in 1748, and in return
receiving its first honorary degree.
When it later needed breathing room, he suggested
Princeton as the ideal location. The trustees not only took him
up on that idea, but declared the intention to name the resulting
grand college building Belcher Hall in his everlasting honor. Perhaps
he grasped the inherent PR problems (Sir Toby Belch was already
an established image), or perhaps he really had a thing for King
William III of Britain, but selfless Jonny B. countered with the
proposal of “Nassau Hall.” Now, here’s a potential
honorand who had been dead since he fell off his horse in 1702,
whose House of Orange-Nassau was kaput, who already had half a college
in Virginia named for him, who never even heard of the Great Awakening
that gave rise to the College of New Jersey. Fabulous choice.
A cynic might wonder if it was intended for the trustees
to respond, “Now, selfless Jonny B., that’s very royal
and all that, but by rights it really must be Belcher Hall.”
Well, they didn’t, and the result is multitudinous coffee
table books that don’t mention the name Belcher. Hence we
honor him here, in Celebration of 250 Years of Not Belcher Hall.
Tune ev’ry heart and ev’ry voice,
Bid ev’ry care withdraw.
We’ll celebrate a Noble Choice:
Jon Belcher’s in the PAW!
*Oddly, the “Bicenquinquagenary” publicity
that roared through campus 10 years ago in honor of the University’s
250th anniversary thus has far been eerily absent in regard to Old
Nassau. In 1996, the official moment of BCQ oversaturation was reached
when the bottled water on campus started showing up with “BCQ”
– and no other text – on it.
*Oddly, the “Bicenquinquagenary” publicity that roared
through campus 10 years ago in honor of the University’s 250th anniversary
thus far has been eerily absent in regard to Old Nassau. In 1996, the official
moment of BCQ oversaturation was reached when the bottled water on campus started
showing up with “BCQ” – and no other text – on it. Neither
the “BCQ” nor the “Quadramillenniel” camp has yet been
heard from this time around.
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