Alexander Hamilton’s connection to Princeton

Question: Is there any evidence about Alexander Hamilton’s potential admission to Princeton?

When discussing the cannonball legend, it has sometimes been suggested that Hamilton took a certain delight in firing on Old Nassau since he had been admitted to the college and then later denied entrance. The oldest reference to Hamilton’s alleged admission to Princeton is in the narrative of his life as told by Hercules Mulligan, a companion from his time at King’s College, which was later put to paper and printed in John C. Hamilton’s 1834 biography “The Life of Alexander Hamilton.” According to the story recounted by Mulligan, Hamilton met with John Witherspoon in September of 1772 and was granted admission to the College. The decision was then revoked by the Trustees on account of Hamilton’s desire to pursue his studies at an accelerated pace and earn his degree in less than four years. Mulligan reports that Hamilton was notified of the decision through a letter from Witherspoon; however if it ever existed this letter has never been recovered.

In addition to the lack of any source beyond that of Mulligan (a source which has sometimes proven quite unreliable in regards to other details of Hamilton’s life) there are several prevailing issues which cast doubt on the story. The first is that there was already a precedent in place at the College of New Jersey that allowed students to pursue accelerated studies, as James Madison and Aaron Burr had both been permitted to do so in preceding years. Second, if the matter was formally brought before the Trustees, ostensibly there would be some record of it in the Trustees’ minutes- however there is none. Finally, Hamilton’s close association with Trustees Elias Boudinot and William Livingston makes it seem unlikely that his own patrons would refuse him entry to the college on a technicality, particularly since they had allegedly arranged the meeting with Witherspoon in the first place. A useful exploration of these issues is found in James Thomas Flexner’s “The Young Hamilton.” Conversely, in “Alexander Hamilton: a Life” Willard Sterne Randall (under the assumption that Mulligan’s story is true) proposes that Witherspoon, aware of Hamilton’s illegitimate origins, refused him admission on those grounds. Witherspoon is known to have been particularly critical of Colonial Governor William Franklin (Benjamin Franklin’s half-son) for the very same reason, so it fits in that sense. The story about the Trustees which Hamilton then allegedly received was little more than a cover-up from Witherspoon.

In short however, there is no evidence in the records of Princeton University which confirms or even hints that Hamilton was ever granted admission to the University. But given what is known about the young Hamilton’s political attitudes, what is known about the administration of the College at the time, and the original source, the veracity of the story is questionable.

Yours sincerely,

Daniel Brennan

Alexander Hamilton shooting the cannonball that destroys the portrait of King George

Question: What book contains the first reference to Alexander Hamilton shooting the cannonball that crashes through Nassau Hall and destroys the portrait of King George?

According to a popular story told and retold over the years, during the Battle of Princeton young artillery commander Alexander Hamilton directed his cannons at the remaining redcoats who had holed up in Nassau Hall, and fired a shot straight through the window, neatly decapitating the portrait of King George II which hung in the room. The earliest available reference to Hamilton’s being behind the cannonball I have found is in Sir George Otto Trevelyan’s “The American Revolution” published in 1905. On page 137 of volume three he writes “Even in that quarter there was very little bloodshed, but some profanation; for young Alexander Hamilton, with the irreverence of a student fresh from a rival place of education, planted his guns on the sacred grass of the academical campus, and fired a six-pound shot which is said to have passed through the head of King George the Second’s portrait in the Chapel.” Trevelyan typically employs footnotes when drawing upon primary sources but there is none associated with this passage. When the story is referenced by later historians it almost always traces back to Trevelyan.

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First use of Houseparties term?

Question: Can you definitively document the first use of “Houseparties” as a term for the Spring club bacchanal?

Answer:Writing in the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1960, Brown Rolston 1910 makes the claim that “It was my section of the Cottage Club and that of Cap and Gown which started Houseparties. It took considerable argument and persuasion to get the college authorities to consent, but under the conditions of strict chaperonage they finally did. The girls stayed at the clubs and each club had a dance to which the girls and members of the other club were invited and a most enjoyable and respectable time was had by all. My mother and several other ladies were on guard but, as I said, the girls were ‘nice’ girls and were quite used to being chaperoned.”

If we take Rolston at his word, it would mean that houseparties originated with the Class of 1910. It’s worth noting however that since he is writing in 1960, Rolston is almost certainly using the term retroactively. While the events Rolston describes may match the definition of houseparties (at least by early 20th century standards) it seems unlikely that they were called that. The first time that the term actually appears in reference to a collective celebration at the clubs seems to be a brief mention in the Daily Princetonian in 1916. After this point it quickly enters the Princeton vernacular and by 1920 there is a “houseparties” issue of The Tiger.

There are two Prince articles which briefly discuss the origin of houseparties that one can review online, as they explain their evolution from smaller “tea parties.”

I hope that this information helps. I cannot find anything in any of our records which would indicate that 1908 was the first year of houseparties. Even if Brown Rolston was only a junior when the events he describes happened (it’s unclear if he was discussing his junior or senior year), then the date still would have been spring 1909. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do; I understand that bragging rights to a century of partying is on the line here.

Yours sincerely,

Daniel Brennan

Introducing Dear Mr. Mudd

The staff of the Mudd Manuscript Library answers over 2,000 e-mail inquiries a year, and those which should be of interest to a wider audience will be shared via this blog. This blog category is named Dear Mr. Mudd because in a few instances some of the e-mails sent to our general library account are addressed that way.