Nassau Hall, Princeton, New Jersey


Where the College of New Jersey, as Princeton University was officially known until 1896, erected its first building at Princeton, the far-sighted trustees arranged what was long ago the largest stone structure in the Colonies. The records of early travellers on the road between Philadelphia and New York tell of their amazement at the wonderful building.

In 1756 the college abandoned its rooms in the First Presbyterian Church of Newark, New Jersey, and occupied the ambitious quarters in Princeton, which had cost about £2,900.

Originally the halls extended from end to end of Nassau Hall, a distance of one hundred and seventy-five feet. These long, brick-paved halls afforded students inclined to mischief wonderful opportunity to make life miserable ,for the tutors who were charged with their oversight. ” Rolling heated cannon balls, to tempt zealous but unwary tutors, was a perennial joy,” writes Varnum Lansing Collins, in his book, ” Prince-ton.” Then he adds the statement that at a later epoch there were wild scenes, ” when a jackass or a calf was dragged rebelliously up the narrow iron staircase, to be pitted in frenzied races with the model locomotive purloined from the college museum,”

There was no provision for lighting the long halls, so the rollicking students were accustomed to fix candles to the walls with handfuls of mud. When a tutor was heard approaching, the candles would be blown out and he would be foiled in his attempt to identify the of-fenders. Sometimes barricades of cordwood were built hastily on the stairs or across the entrance to one of the halls.

In vain the authorities tried to correct these abuses by the passage of strict regulations. ” No jumping or hollowing or any boisterous Noise shall be suffered, nor walking in the gallery in the time of Study,” was a regulation which could be made known far more easily than it could be enforced. Lest there be breaches of decorum inside the rooms, tutors were directed to make at least three trips a day to the quarters of the students, to see that they were ” diligent at the proper Business.” They were to announce their coming to a room ” by a stamp, which signal no scholar shall imitate on penalty of five shillings.” Should the occupant of the room re-fuse to open the door, the tutor had authority to break in. At a later date, students in Nassau Hall liked to have double doors to their rooms, so that the obnoxious tutor might be hindered in his efforts to force an en-trance, long enough to give them opportunity to hide all evidence of wrongdoing.

In 1760 a code of ” orders and customs ” was issued by the authority of President Aaron Burr. One of the most astounding directions in this code was that ” Every Freshman sent on an errand shall go and do it faith-fully and make quick return.” Other rules, as indicated in Mr. Collins’ book, concerned deportment, and demanded constant deference to superiors. ” Students are to keep their hats off ‘ about ten rods to the President and about five to the tutors;’ they must ‘ rise up and make obeisance ‘ when the President enters or leaves the prayer hall, and when he mounts into the pulpit on Sundays. When walking with a superior, an inferior `shall give him the highest place.’ When first coming into the presence of a superior, or speaking to him, inferiors `shall respect by pulling their Hats;’ if overtaking or meeting a superior on the stairs, he ` shall stop, giving him the banister side;’ when entering a superior’s, ` or even an equal’s’ room, they must knock; if called or spoken to by a superior, they must ` give a direct, pertinent answer concluding with sir;’ they are to treat strangers and townspeople ‘ with all proper complaisance and good manners;’ and they are forbidden to address any one by a nickname.”

Evidently rules like these helped to make good patriots, for Princeton students were among the most sturdy adherents of the Colonists’ cause. In September, 1770, the entire graduating class wore American cloth, as a protest against Great Britain’s unjust taxation measures.

In January, 1774, the students broke into the college storeroom and carried the winter’s supply of tea to a bonfire in front of Nassau Hall. While the tea burned the college bell tolled and the students—in the words written home to a parent by one of them—made ” many spirited resolves.”

The spirited students were jubilant on the evening of July 9, 1776, when the news of the Declaration of Independence was read in Princeton. Nassau Hall was illuminated and the whole town rejoiced that President Witherspoon, as a member of the Continental Congress, had been a signer of the document.

In November, 1776, the students who had not enlisted in the army were sent from the town just in time to escape the British, who took possession of the building and used it as barracks and hospital. Early in the morning of January 3, 1777, the British held the building. After the battle Washington’s troops took possession, but abandoned it almost at once. At evening the British were once more in control. Soon they hurried on to New Brunswick. The next occupants were the soldiers of General Putnam, who found room here for a hospital, a barracks, and a military prison. They found that during the battle of Princeton a round shot had struck the portrait of George II in the prayer hall.

After the British left Princeton College classes were continued in the President’s house, and it was 1782 before a serious attempt was made to reoccupy Nassau Hall, which was found to be ” mostly bare partition walls and heaps of fallen plaster.”

A year later, when temporary repairs had been made, the Continental Congress, which had been besieged by a company of troops who were insistent in their demands for overdue pay, made its way to Princeton. From June to November the sessions were held in Nassau Hall. Commencement day came during the sessions and Congress sat, with Washington, on the platform. On that occasion Washington gave fifty pounds to the college. This sum was paid to Charles Wilson Peale for a portrait of the donor, which was placed in the frame from which the portrait of George II had been shot more than seven years before.

Congress was still in session at Nassau Hall when, in October, the first authentic news came of the signing of the Definitive Treaty of Peace with Great Britain.

A few weeks later the college was left to its sedate ways. Never since then has it witnessed such stirring events. But the experiences of the years from 1776 to 1784 had made Nassau Hall one of the nation’s picturesque monuments.