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A school and a nation, coming of age together

Princeton was in the nation's service decades before there was even a nation.

The University celebrated its 250th birthday seven years ago. In February 1996, the University kicked off its anniversary celebration with great fanfare. Parties around the world, campus-wide celebrations and gatherings, fund-raising drives, new teaching programs and even mountain climbing marked the 16-month anniversary period. On Oct. 25, 1996, the University commemorated its official beginning with a special Charter Day convocation.


Princeton was chartered in 1746 as the College of New Jersey — the fifth college to be set up in the American colonies — through the efforts of seven Presbyterian followers of the Great Awakening, including six disaffected Yalies. The seventh was a Harvardian.

Classes began in Elizabethtown at the home of the first president, Jonathan Dickinson. After moving to Newark and selecting Aaron Burr Sr. as its president, the young college sought a permanent home.

New Brunswick put in a bid, but "the promised land at Princetown" proved more appealing.

Nassau Hall was constructed on its four-and-a-half-acre site between 1754 and 1756, though work continued on the building through 1762. When dedicating the half-built edifice in 1756, the trustees suggested the name Belcher Hall, in honor of the New Jersey royal governor who had granted the college its second charter in 1748.

But Belcher, with modesty unusual for a Harvard man, declined the honor, thereby earning the eternal gratitude of generations of Princetonians.

Belcher suggested the building be dedicated "to the illustrious memory of King William III of England, Prince of Orange-Nassau, the royal house of Holland."



In 1758, the trustees called Jonathan Edwards — the eminent leader of the Great Awakening — to the presidency. Edwards was reluctant, complaining of "a constitution peculiarly unhappy, attended with flaccid solids, vapid, sizy and scarce fluids and a low tide of spirits." He finally assented — but died of smallpox five weeks after his inauguration.

The college lived on, however, and produced many leaders of the American Revolution. The war itself had a very direct impact on Princeton.

Following George Washington's surprise attack at Trenton on Christmas Eve 1776, his troops pressed on toward Princeton. Leading his forces up what is now Mercer Street, the American commander ousted retreating British troops from Nassau Hall when Alexander Hamilton's artillery crew sent a cannonball crashing through a window — reportedly destroying a portrait of King George II.

Rumor has it, however, that Hamilton — who had been rejected by Princeton — turned his cannons on Old Nassau for personal reasons.


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The College of New Jersey's chief contributions to the revolutionary era were to the political, rather than the military leadership.

James Madison, Class of 1771, led a sizeable Princeton contingent at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He drafted much of the Constitution and wrote some of the famous Federalist Papers, which were instrumental in garnering support for the new Constitution's ratification.

He and William Paterson 1763, later a New Jersey governor, senator and U.S. Supreme Court justice, negotiated the famous Great Compromise, providing the basis of the government's legislature with two houses.

The College of New Jersey attracted more students each year. Toward the end of the century. Nassau Hall was gutted by fire in 1802, but was rebuilt with little alteration under the direction of Benjamin Latrobe, later the architect of the Capitol in Washington. The original walls still stand.

Hotbed of activism

In an era of student rowdiness throughout the young republic, Princeton was no exception. Tensions between faculty and students mounted, and riotous scholars took possession of the college briefly in 1816.

This disturbance was scarcely quelled when one Sunday in 1817, students nailed shut all the entrances to "Old North," as Nassau Hall was then called, and sealed the doors of their tutors' rooms.

Largely because of the conservative ideological implications of Princeton's Presbyterianism, the college avoided serious debate over slavery.

After the attack on Fort Sumter, Southern students left the college in droves — many of them to fight and die in Confederate gray.

There was no lack of patriotic valor on the Northern side either. One Unionist hoisted the stars and stripes over Nassau Hall's cupola in April 1861, only to have the faculty remove the flag as a violation of the college's policy of neutrality.

The trustees adopted orange as the official color of the college, taking it from the royal colors of the house of Orange and Nassau. A prominent faculty member pleaded on both historical and aesthetic grounds that blue should be the college's second color, but students already unofficially had adopted black.

The years around the turn of the century saw many changes. The College of New Jersey marked its sesquicentennial by officially changing its name to Princeton University in 1896, though it had always been popularly known as Princeton College. Woodrow Wilson 1879 delivered the keynote address, in which he first used the now-legendary phrase "Princeton in the nation's service."

The graduate school became a separate unit in 1901, and in the process, the nation's history was affected in the most unexpected of ways. Then-University president Wilson and his nemesis Andrew West, dean of the graduate school, quarreled bitterly over where the Graduate College should be placed.

West won, and graduate students to this day must walk nearly a mile to Firestone library from West's chosen location.

Wilson, who was opposed by West in his attempts to establish residential colleges and change the eating club structure, was eventually "kicked upstairs" by West and his supporters when Wilson was convinced to run for governor of New Jersey in 1910. The rest is history.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the nation went through a period of great unrest, and Princeton students were among those who contributed to the uproar.

In the late 1960s, students became intensely concerned with national and world issues as riots and protests erupted in response to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

On Jan. 11, 1969, the University Board of Trustees voted 24-8 to approve the education of women "in principle."

The decision was implemented with a rapidity quite unusual for Princeton, and that September, 101 female freshmen moved into Pyne Hall.

Feb. 15, 1989, about 100 students held a sit-in in Nassau Hall to demand administrative response to student issues such as eating disorders, minority affairs and alleged recruiting discrimination by the CIA. The sit-in led to a "Day of Dialogue," during which students held forums to discuss such issues with faculty and administrators. Students were encouraged to skip classes to attend the discussions.

Another change in the fabric of University life was prompted by the lawsuit of Sally Frank '80 against the three-remaining all-male eating clubs and the University.

As a result of her suit, the graduate board of Cottage Club voted to admit women to the 100-year-old club in 1986, and Ivy Club and Tiger Inn opened their doors to women in 1990 and 1991, respectively.

In the 1990s up to the present, Princeton has continued its push toward increasing diversity within its student body and faculty.

At the 250th Anniversary celebration in 1996, the motto "In the Nation's Service" was amended to include a more global approach with the addendum, "And In the Service of All Nations."

The Wythes plan, approved by the trustees in 2000, called for the first significant increase in the student body since coeducation, adding 500 students by 2008 and building a sixth residential college.