Before the Revolution
Located along a stagecoach route on the King's Highway (now Route 27) between New York and Philadelphia, Princeton was in an ideal spot to receive the latest news during Colonial times. The College of New Jersey (renamed Princeton University in 1896) was established in Princeton in 1754 and attracted the "best and brightest" in the colonies. College students, encouraged by such notable patriots as Rev. John Witherspoon and Richard Stockton, expressed strong pro-American sentiments and participated in anti-government activities including protests against the Stamp Act, a tea burning on campus inspired by the Boston Tea Party, and the burning of an effigy of the Loyalist governor of Massachusetts. When news reached Princeton on July 9, 1776 of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, students gathered in a grand celebration in front of Nassau Hall and proclaimed "under a triple volley of musketry, and universal acclamation for the prosperity of the United States, with the greatest decorum" (Norris, p.86).
By November 1776, a number of students had left the college in order to join the Continental army or had joined local militias. Witherspoon, who had returned to Princeton briefly from his political duties in Philadelphia, gathered the remaining students and formally disbanded the college. Within a month, British troops would occupy Princeton and use Nassau Hall as their barracks. While in Princeton, the British took revenge on patriot leaders Richard Stockton and John Witherspoon for their disloyalty to the crown, ransacking their homes and burning or stealing their possessions. Stockton and his family barely escaped with their lives; however, on November 30th, 1776, Richard Stockton was captured and taken to New York where he was harshly treated. Stockton was eventually released, but not before his heath had been ruined.
Nassau Hall in the Revolution
Princeton has a rich collection of historic sites relating to the American Revolution. One of the most important sites is Princeton University’s first building, Nassau Hall. Built in 1756, it was one of the largest academic buildings in the colonies. During the Revolution, it was occupied at different times by both British and American troops. The building served as a both American and British headquarters, barracks, a hospital and even a military prison.
On the day of the Battle of Princeton, Nassau Hall changed hands three times. 200 British soldiers barricaded themselves into the building after being routed from the battlefield, prompting Washington’s artillery to shell Nassau Hall. Nassau Hall still bears the visible scars of that day in the form of a dent where a cannonball glanced off of the south side of the building A cannonball smashed through a window and “decapitated” the portrait of King George II hanging in the Prayer Hall. Taken as a bad omen, the British regulars within soon surrendered to the American forces.
Nassau Hall in 1764
In 1784 the college commissioned a portrait of Washington from Charles Wilson Peale, a Philadelphia militia member who fought at the Battle of Princeton. The portrait “George Washington at the Battle of Princeton” depicts Washington with raised sword and a dying General Mercer in the foreground with the battle raging behind them. In an ironic twist, the portrait was mounted in the same gilt frame that once held the ruined portrait of King George II. A second portrait, shown here, depicts "George Washington after the Battle of Princeton" resting his hand on a captured cannon with British soldiers retreating toward Nassau Hall in the distance.
Princeton served as the capital of the United States when the Continental Congress met in Nassau Hall’s library room between June 26 and November 4, 1783. Congress evacuated Philadelphia in June 1783 due to protests staged by Pennsylvania troops who had been waiting for a years’ worth of back pay. It was while Congress was meeting in Princeton that word came that the Treaty of Paris had been accepted, officially ending the war.
Washington was a frequent visitor to Princeton at while Congress was in session, renting the nearby Rockingham estate for his entourage and was soon joined by his wife Martha. Washington composed his farewell letter to his troops while at Rockingham. After the war, Washington visited Princeton numerous times, including a night in 1789 as he was traveling to New York to take oath of President. Washington was welcomed as a guest in several residences that still stand today, including the Maclean House, Morven, and Tusculum.
Notable Princeton Figures of the Colonial Era
Princeton was a "seedbed" of Revolutionary activity; numerous alumnus of the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) played a leading role in the establishment of the United States of America: 27 Princeton graduates were members of the Continental Congress, 25 were members of the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention, and 2 graduates were signers of the Declaration of Independence. Some important individuals associated with the colonial period of Princeton include the following:
Aaron Burr was Continental army officer, the third Vice President of the U.S. under Thomas Jefferson, and notorious for killing political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel. He was an alumnus of the College of New Jersey, class of 1772. Burr's mother, Esther Edwards, was the daughter of Reverend Jonathan Edwards, President of the College of New Jersey. Burr is buried in Princeton Cemetery alongside his father, Reverend Aaron Burr Sr, one of the founders of the College of New Jersey.
Reverend Jonathan Edwards was one of America's greatest theologians and revivalists; he served for a short time as the third president of the College of New Jersey. He died of smallpox, which he contracted after receiving an experimental smallpox vaccine. He is buried in Princeton Cemetery. His daughter Esther Edwards was the mother of Vice-President Aaron Burr.
Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee was military leader, a delegate to the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the ninth Governor of Virginia. He was an alumnus of the College of New Jersey, class of 1773. Lee was present at Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown. Henry was the father of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
James Madison, fourth President of the U.S. and framer of the Constitution, is known as the "Father of the Bill of Rights" for drafting the first 10 amendments to the Constitution As Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State, Madison supervised the Louisiana Purchase. He was an alumnus of the College of New Jersey, class of 1771.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, pioneering doctor, was surgeon general of the Continental Army and tended to General Hugh Mercer after the Battle of Princeton. Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an alumnus of the College of New Jersey, class of 1760. Rush was the son-in-law of Richard Stockton III.
Richard Stockton III was a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was a member of the College of New Jersey's first graduating class, the class of 1748. He and his wife hosted many important people at their home Morven, including George Washington. Richard is buried in an unknown grave at the Stony Brook Quaker Meeting House cemetery.
Annis Boudinot Stockon was the wife of Richard Stockton III. She was a talented writer, whose poems were among the first ever published by an American woman. Annis is remembered for her bravery in preventing the capture of the papers belonging to the Wigg Society, even as her home was being ransacked by the British. She became a friend to George Washington, who was a fan of her writing, and maintained frequent correspondence with him. Her daughter Julia was the first wife of Dr. Benjamin Rush. Annis was the sister of Elias Boudinot, President of the Continental Congress and signer of the Treaty of Paris. In an interesting coincidence, Elias Boudinot was married to Richard Stockton's younger sister, Hannah Stockton.
Reverend Doctor John Witherspoon, a noted clergyman, was president of the College of New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. He was delate to the New Jersey Provincial Congress, a member of Continental Congress, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon is buried in Princeton Cemetery.
Witherspoon's home, Tusculum
Epicenter of Revolution. (2014). Retrieved August 21, 2014, from http://nj.gov/counties/mercer/about/history/revolution.html
“From George Washington to Annis Boudinot Stockton, 31 August 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives. Source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 6,1 January 1788 – 23 September 1788, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997, pp. 496–498. Retrieved August 22, 2014 from http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0442
Historical Society of Princeton, Historic People. (2012, January 1). Retrieved August 22, 2014, from http://www.princetonhistory.org/collections/historic-people.cfma
Norris, E. (1917). Princeton's part in the making of the nation. In The story of Princeton (pp. 70-88). Boston: Little, Brown, and company. Retrieved August 19, 2014, from http://books.google.com
Portraits of a president: Video feature. (2014, March 24). Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://www.princeton.edu/research/news/features/a/?id=12211
Princeton Cemetery of the Nassau Presbyterian Church. (n.d.) Retrieved August 21, 2014, from http://www.princetonol.com/groups/cemetery/index.html
Princeton University, Princeton's History. (2014). Retrieved August 21, 2014, from http://www.princeton.edu/main/about/history/
Sherman, W. (n.d.). The poetry of Annis Boudinot Stockton and Susanna Rowson. Retrieved August 22, 2014, from https://archive.org/details/AnnisStocktonAndSusannaRowson