Does Princeton Have a Mandatory Swim Test?

Dear Mr. Mudd,

Is it true that Princeton has a mandatory swim test for freshmen? Furthermore, was this test instituted after the drowning death of an alumnus, whose parents gave the university a pool on the condition that all students were trained to swim to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again?

New Students Card for William Humphreys ‘1928
Historical Subject File, Box 122, Folder 7

Princeton did indeed have a swim test, but this test was not instituted because of the death of an alumnus. It is, however, easy to see why this story would develop and create a lasting legend.

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History of Opening Exercises

Dear Mr. Mudd,

What is the history of Princeton’s Opening Exercises, and how long have they been held at the Chapel?

1986 Opening Exercises, Office of Communications Records, Box 172

Pursuant to your question on when Opening Exercises began and how long the ceremony has been held in the Chapel, the earliest documented “opening exercise” I could find was in 1802, held in Nassau Hall. There is a newspaper clipping to that effect in Historical Subject Files, Box 312. I also checked the index to Trustees Minutes but did not see anything there.

The first time the gathering is referred to as “opening exercises” is in 1904. It was previously referred to in the General Catalogue as an assembly.

Opening Exercises have been held in the University Chapel since 1929. After Nassau Hall, they were held in Marquand Chapel. After Marquand burned, they were held in Alexander Hall until the completion of the University Chapel.

Opening Exercises Procession at Marquand Chapel,
Historical Photograph Collection: Grounds & Buildings, Box MP29


Christie Lutz

Did Julia Child’s Father Attend Princeton?

Dear Dr. Mudd,

In reading a biography of Julia Child, I noticed her father attended Princeton. Can you tell me any more details?

With the release of Nora Ephron’s new film, Julie and Julia, Julia Child, the doyenne of television cooking shows, is receiving a lot of buzz, and her life and legend have been discovered by a new generation of cooks. A search of our collections confirmed that her father, John McWilliams, Jr. Class of 1901, attended Princeton, and also revealed that three of her cousins, Charles “Mac” McWilliams ’29, John P. McWilliams II ’31, and J. Alexander McWilliams ’35 attended as well.

Julia Child’s father John McWilliams ‘1901

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R. H. Rose campus stereograph series

Below is the text of an email exchange between University Archivist Dan Linke and David Nathan ’90 concerning a portion of the Archives’ stereograph collection.

Hi Dan,

Here’s a listing with all the information I obtained yesterday, faithfully transcribed from the backs of the Historical Photograph Collection: Stereographs Series, circa 1869-1880. The only thing I omitted is a font issue — some titles appeared in all caps — and the repeating information about “College of New Jersey”, “R.H. Rose”, etc. Any idea where I might look for the missing cards?


David L. Nathan, M.D.

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How Many Buildings are on Campus?

Question: How many buildings does Princeton University consist of?


This question comes up frequently. In this case, the context and research purpose are as important as the question. What does the patron consider a building? Buildings on the main campus, on the Forrestal Campus, or buildings that the University owns in general?

Because of these qualifiers, there is significant discrepancy among published numbers.

Mudd’s own FAQ page gives 324 as of 2000; the Princeton Weekly Bulletin states 160 (on campus) and 220 (off campus) for 2004; and the Princeton Profile ( lists 180 as of 2009.

These discrepancies can be explained by two main factors: 1) change over time and 2) counting methods.

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What materials on the 1896 Olympics do you have?

There are a number of collections at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library which document Princeton’s connection to the Olympic movement of the late 19th century, as well as several related resources in the Manuscript Division at Firestone. What follows is a list of our major holdings which relate in some way to the topic, with links to finding aids and catalog records wherever possible. It is by no means exhaustive; however it should prove a useful starting point for research.

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Do you have a copy of “An Address for All Occasions?”

This question came from two different inquirers, one being the Library of Congress. On National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition (Saturday, January 26, 2008), Scott Simon read something he called “A Timeless Political Speech.” You can listen to it at the Weekend Edition Saturday page of NPR’s web site. Simon said it was written by Andrew Parker Nevin, Princeton Class of 1895, and that it was printed in the Oct. 28, 1905 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

However, the citation given with the story was wrong. In A. Parker Nevin’s alumni file I was able to find a copy of “An Address for All Occasions” which was published in the PAW of 14 August 1936 on page 9. The editorial comment on the top of the page describes this printing as “resurrecting” the speech, so I assume it was printed in some earlier PAW or Princeton-based publication, but I was unable to find any other evidence of the first publication. Another note in Nevin’s alumni file said that it was published some time after his death in 1926. An online search suggests to me that it may have also been published in Harper’s in December 1951 as well. (Read the full text by clicking on the image here to open the image in a new window.) I listened to part of the NPR story while reading along with the speech in the 1936 PAW. It is not exactly word-for-word, but is definitely the same speech.


Jennifer M. Cole

Did Aaron Burr, Jr. argue against dueling?

Question: Did Aaron Burr, Jr. take part in a Whig or Clio debate in which he argued against dueling? What information on Aaron Burr, Jr. exists within university records?

There is nothing in the records of either organization, in early University records, or in Burr’s memoirs that would confirm that such a debate took place. The records of Clio debate topics begin in 1792, Whig in 1802; unfortunately any records of earlier debate topics would have been destroyed in the 1802 Nassau Hall fire. The records of the University actually contain very little original material pertaining to Aaron Burr Jr. ‘1772, at least partially as a result of the aforementioned Nassau Hall fire. Most significantly, he is listed several times in the minutes of the Trustees among the graduates of the Class of 1772. From other sources such as the Pennsylvania Chronicle, we know that he delivered several orations at commencements while he was a student. Other Aaron Burr primary sources held by the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections are gathered in two collections held by the Manuscripts Division:

Aaron Burr (1756-1836) Collection

Fuller Collection of Aaron Burr (1756-1836)

The University Archives also holds a sizable alumni file for Burr which contains clippings and some early reference correspondence between researchers and various University secretaries about his life, focusing mainly on his affairs after leaving the College of New Jersey. The file also contains reproductions of several paintings, engravings, and sketches of Burr. James Madison’s alumni file contains a similar folder of portraits.

Yours sincerely,

Daniel Brennan

Did James Madison suffer a nervous collapse due to the intensity of his studies?

Question: While at Princeton, did James Madison suffer a nervous collapse due to the intensity of his studies?

The story of Madison’s supposed nervous collapse in the days before commencement and its place in Princeton lore are primarily the result of a brief note in MacLean’s “History of the College of New Jersey” which states that at commencement in 1771, “Mr. James Madison was excused from taking part in the exercises.” Many other sources which discuss the young Madison as a student attribute the very same statement to a commencement program, however if such a document exists it is not in the holdings of the University Archives. The closest such resource is a handwritten reproduction of an article from the “Pennsylvania Chronicle” documenting the event in Commencement Records, which lists Madison among the graduates but makes no mention as to whether he was present or not.

Nonetheless, in Madison’s “Autobiography” (actually an untitled manuscript written/dictated at the age of 80) he writes that “His very infirm health, had been occasioned not a little by a doubled labor, in which he was joined by fellow student Jos. Ross, in accomplishing the studies of two years within one…” At some point later historians must have made the connection between this passage and MacLean’s note that he missed commencement. Note that in his correspondence as a student (compiled in the Papers of James Madison) the young statesman makes no mention whatsoever of these health troubles or of missing commencement, although later in life he did suffer from periodic bouts of an unknown malady which some historians suspect may have been epilepsy (as discussed in the Madison biographies of Ralph Ketcham and Irving Brant).

Yours sincerely,

Daniel Brennan

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