This Week in Princeton History for September 17-23

In this week’s installment of our returning series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the campus remembers Aaron Burr, Nassau Hall celebrates its bicentennial, and more.

September 17, 1836—At Aaron Burr’s funeral in the College of New Jersey’s Chapel, College president James Carnahan is careful to avoid inflaming controversy. Burr’s connection to Princeton and his “honorable parentage” are both noted, but his public career is “delicately touched, with only such allusions to his duel with [Alexander] Hamilton as might be of service to the assembly without wounding the feelings of any.” After the closing prayers, the funeral procession buries Burr at the foot of his father’s grave in the cemetery on what will later be named Hamilton Avenue.

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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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