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.
Though almost all sources are in agreement that Hamilton commanded artillery at the battle, no contemporary accounts directly tie him to the cannonball that shot through Nassau Hall. As the final stage of one of the Revolution’s shortest encounters, the Nassau Hall incident rarely merits more than a sentence or two, even in works which are dedicated to the Battle of Princeton. Somewhat more interesting however is the fate of the frame in which the portrait of King George II sat. In 1783 the Trustees minutes record the following:
“The Board, being desirous to give some testimony of their high respect for the character of his excellency general Washington, who has so auspiciously conducted the armies of America. Resolved, that the Rev’d Dr’s Witherspoon, Rodgers, and Jones, be a committee to wait upon his Excellency to request him to sit for his picture to be taken by Mr. Charles Wilson Peale of Philadelphia – And, ordered that his portrait, when finished be placed in the hall of the college in the room of the picture of the late king of Great Britain, which was torn away from the American artillery in the battle of Princeton.” Peale’s fee was paid for by a donation of 50 guineas which Washington himself had donated to the Trustees “as a testimony of his respect for the college.” The resulting work is, of course, “George Washington at the Battle of Princeton.” Among Princeton’s most prized possessions, the original hung in Nassau Hall’s faculty room before it was moved to the Art Museum in 2006 and replaced with the related painting, also by Charles Willson Pearle, depicting “George Washington after the Battle of Princeton.”
Though with the resources presently available, the story is impossible to fully confirm or refute, more than one Princetonian has chosen to embrace it as a sign of Princeton’s commitment to the early American cause. At the dedication of the Princeton Battle Monument in June of 1922, President Warren G. Harding was on hand to oversee the ceremonies and to receive an honorary degree. The New York Times of the next day reports the following exchange:
“In the afternoon on the steps of Nassau Hall, where the honorary degree was awarded, President John Grier Hibben reminded Mr. Harding that he was standing in front of a building that in 1783 was the capital of a new nation. President Harding replied that if it wasn’t true that Alexander Hamilton trained his guns on the building during the battle because a portrait of George II was within, it should be, and that as an adopted alumnus of the University he would accept the story as fact.”