By Dan Linke
Since tomorrow is Presidents Day, we wanted to take the opportunity to share some of Princeton University’s many connections to the presidents of the United States. We note that of the 43 men who have served as America’s presidents, we have confirmed that at least 26 and possibly as many as 30 have visited Princeton at some point, with eleven gracing campus while serving as the nation’s chief executive.
George Washington, whose birthday is at the origins of Presidents’ Day, passed through Princeton twice in 1773, led the Continental Army at the Battle of Princeton in 1777, and later regularly visited Nassau Hall when the Continental Congress met there from July through November 1783. (Thomas Jefferson, then a delegate from Virginia, attended as well.) It was in Old Nassau that Washington tendered his resignation as Commander of the Continental Army, once the peace treaty with Britain was received. The University exuberantly observed his birthday throughout the 19th century and that celebration morphed into what is now Alumni Day.
James Madison, Class of 1771, lived and studied in Nassau Hall while he was a student, but there is no record of his visiting Princeton while president. Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train passed through Princeton in April 1865, where a large number of students reverently stood. Similarly, sixteen years later, students lined the railroad tracks with flowers when James Garfield’s funeral train passed through after his death in Elberon, NJ.
The first sitting president to come to campus was John Tyler, who visited Princeton when passing through town June 12, 1843 to visit Robert F. Stockton on his way to Boston. Though he did not know it since he would not marry his second wife until the following year, two of his future brother-in-laws were Princeton alumni. (David and Alexander Gardiner, Classes of 1836 and 1837, respectively). Three sitting 19th century presidents came to Princeton for Commencement: Ulysses S. Grant (1871), Rutherford B. Hayes (1878) and Chester A. Arthur (1884), who received an honorary degree.
President Grover Cleveland was a special guest of honor at the University’s Sesquicentennial (1896) and liked Princeton so much he moved here after his second term in the White House ended. He became involved in University governance, in particular, the nascent Graduate School—with Cleveland Tower named in his honor—and his stay became permanent when he was buried in the Princeton cemetery.
The visit of President William Howard Taft was captured on film, the earliest in the Archives, when he attended John Grier Hibben’s inauguration as Princeton president in 1912. The newsreel also includes video of Woodrow Wilson coming back to Princeton to vote during his presidency. Of course, Woodrow Wilson had the longest association with Princeton of any man to occupy the Oval Office, as student (1876-79), professor (1890-1902), and University president (1902-1910). After becoming U.S. President, Wilson also returned to attend his 35th Reunion in 1914.
The University’s Bicentennial (1947) occasioned a presidential trifecta, when sitting President Harry S. Truman was joined by former president Herbert Hoover (who had received an honorary degree at Commencement in 1917) and future president Dwight D. Eisenhower. The signed photo of the three is one of the Library’s prized possessions.
This blog has covered John F. Kennedy’s time on campus as a student, and three of his successors visited while serving as U.S. President: Lyndon B. Johnson to dedicate Robinson Hall; George H. W. Bush to dedicate Fischer-Bendheim in 1991; and Bill Clinton, who appeared twice, in 1996 and 2000. Jimmy Carter also made his first visit to Princeton just last year.
While Barack Obama has not yet graced campus with his presence, we can hope that the First Lady, a member of the Princeton Class of 1985, may convince him to tour at some point.
March 16, 2015 update: The Daily Princetonian digital archives continues to inform us of Princeton’s rich history. From our latest This Week in Princeton History, we learn that Jimmy Carter visited campus shortly after leaving the White House in March 1981. The chart above has been amended to reflect this; it originally listed 2014 as the date of his first visit.
February 16, 2016 update: Thanks to our readers (see comments below) who pointed out that George H. W. Bush had visited Princeton while playing baseball for Yale in the 1940s and his son George W. Bush also visited Princeton for a football game in 1967, we have again amended the chart above.
December 7, 2020 update: George H. W. Bush visited Princeton during his vice presidency in 1987 for a conference on “Leadership in the Modern Presidency.”