This Week in Princeton History for September 28-October 4

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a crisis delays dorm heating, a yellow fever epidemic has interrupted campus operations, and more.

September 28, 1819—A visitor to Princeton’s Junior Orations observes that during one of the student speeches, the audience was in tears. The student spoke of the eloquence of the recently deceased college president, Samuel Stanhope Smith.

September 30, 1976—Due to the energy crisis, the University announces that it will not turn on heat in the dorms until October 11, despite overnight temperatures below 50 degrees.

Students could be seen bundling up indoors in the mid-1970s. Photo from 1978 Bric-a-Brac.

October 1, 1767—Robert Ogden brings a sample fire bucket to the Board of Trustees for consideration. They authorize the purchase of 60 of the buckets at a total cost of £36.

October 4, 1793—Boston’s American Apollo updates readers on the situation in Princeton: “According to reports from the Jersies, the students have quitted the college at Princeton, through an apprehension of the yellow fever spreading to that place. It is added, that the commencement, which is held annually on the last Wednesday in September, is postponed.”

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

Princeton’s “Saturnalia”: Commencement Prior to 1844

2020 brought changes to Princeton University’s academic calendar, some planned, and some in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. This shift to an earlier start and end of Princeton’s academic year is not its first. Its historically most drastic change in the calendar came about for a surprising reason: Moving Commencement from September to June in 1844 was intended to put an end to people staging what John Maclean called “a kind of saturnalia.”

For most of Princeton’s first century of operations, the academic year began six weeks after Commencement, held on the last Wednesday in September. If we followed this calendar today, classes would have started November 11. Students returned from their vacation for this “winter term,” which ran until April. Between this and the beginning of the “summer term,” students had another five-week vacation. They studied throughout the summer to be ready for Commencement in September.  The terms themselves were much longer than today’s, at about 19-21 weeks each, with recitations on Saturdays as well as throughout the week; mandatory attendance at chapel, religious lectures, and Bible classes on Sundays; and few breaks or holidays.

At the first Commencement of the College of New Jersey—as Princeton was then named, prior to its 1756 move from Newark and it’s 1896 transformation into a university—Governor Jonathan Belcher warned the president, Aaron Burr, to enforce “a wise Frugality” and avoid “the Too Common Extravagances and Debauchery” that tended to accompany Commencements. This first 1748 ceremony was serious and orderly, with speeches in Latin and prayer, but it didn’t take long for “Extravagances and Debauchery” to creep in.

John Beatty was awarded a Bachelor of Arts on September 27, 1769, but his diploma bears the date it was signed (October 5, 1769), rather than the date of the degree. Princeton University Diploma Collection (AC168), Box 2.

William R. Smith, Class of 1773, wrote to his friend Philip Vickers Fithian about the crowd at Commencement: “every mouse hole in the church was cram’d full.” Attendees were dressed in lace and a band from Philadelphia played. The presence of so many young women was highly distracting to Smith, who described it as “murder” for his “heart.” As time went on, more and more people would descend upon Princeton for Commencement, many of whom had no connection to the college and did not actually attend the ceremony. Because it was in the height of political campaign season, politicians took advantage of the crowds and showed up to give speeches. William Henry Harrison shook hands with throngs of supporters in 1836. Vendors set up booths along Nassau Street to sell drinks and snacks. Horses raced down Stockton Street. While graduates strained to hear their own ceremony above the din, a street festival drowned out the speakers.

The graduates had their own “Extravagances and Debauchery.” For a while, the Board of Trustees provided dinner to the students on the day of Commencement and ate in the refectory with them at a separate table. Guests and alumni were also present. In 1826, the Trustees directed the Steward “not to furnish the students with wine or ardent spirits in the Refectory on any occasion” and to stop offering the more elaborate dinner graduates expected for Commencement. The faculty thought this was not a wise decision and took up a collection among themselves to pay for the celebratory dinner, and thus the revelry continued on campus and off.

The center of student social life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was what is now named the Nassau Inn, but around the turn of the 19th century it was usually referred to simply as “Joline’s,” after its owner. John Joline hosted a Commencement Ball every year that attracted people from far and wide. John Melish passed through Princeton on Commencement Day in 1806 and stopped by the ballroom, where he met a woman from Savannah, Georgia, among other guests from significant distances away. He pronounced the attire of the women as “the indication of bad taste,” saying that students called the earrings they wore “Cupid’s chariot wheels.” Melish found the French cotillion music and dancing equally distasteful. Around 1807, William and Washington Irving and James Paulding joined in the festivities. Washington Irving wrote of encountering visitors from New York, Albany, and Philadelphia in Princeton. “Students got drunk as usual.” In 1821, Richard Stockton proposed to the Board of Trustees that they prohibit students from subscribing to public balls or dances, but this move was unsuccessful.

Problematic visitors invaded the campus itself during the ceremony. Campus buildings being empty of those affiliated with the college presented opportunity for thieves, who took what they pleased from dorm rooms. Merchants set up their booths not only on Nassau Street but also on the campus grounds and on the lawn in front of the Presbyterian church where the ceremony took place. John Maclean reported having seen, in his childhood, bull-baiting occurring on campus during the ceremony. “No permission was asked or deemed necessary by those engaged in this cruel sport.” In 1807, the Board of Trustees voted to ban hucksters from selling “liquor or other refreshment, on the day of commencement on the ground of the college…”

Meanwhile, violence broke out. It was a tradition for the Whig Society to invite a guest speaker during Commencement week, which served to fuel controversy. This became most fraught when Andrew Jackson rose to national prominence. Samuel Southard’s speech in 1827 provoked what the Trenton True American called “a number of acts of violence” when a fistfight turned into a full-on street brawl. “The presidential question in some aroused the parties and pushed them forward to pugilistic strife.” The concern over Southard’s appearance was that Southard, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1804, was Secretary of the Navy and Jackson supporters said he was shirking his duties by coming to Princeton on what they saw as an electioneering trip on behalf of the Whigs in the upcoming New Jersey elections. There were many who supported the Jacksonian movement who had come to town and the campaign seized the moment for an organizational meeting. Since too many were present to fit into the tavern selected for the gathering place, Jacksonians rushed the campus and held a boisterous rally under a tree. Some residents supportive of the Adams administration tried to invite Southard to dinner, but he declined. Despite this, some of the Jackson camp threatened that if Southard were to eat dinner in Princeton, “there will be such a Jackson Festival in the little Borough, as will make the old dead that sleep on the battlefield of Princeton, to move in their graves.”

The acrimony between Whigs and Democrats at Princeton’s Commencement was ongoing. In 1835, some were livid about Nicholas Biddle’s denunciation of Jackson’s supporters. Editorials in other states expressed outrage that Biddle (Class of 1801) had been given a platform to call Jackson supporters “degenerate children.” Biddle’s words were, in the estimation of some hearers, shockingly divisive.

It cannot be that our free nation can long endure the vulgar dominion of ignorance and profligacy. You will live to see the laws re-established—these banditti will be scourged back to their caverns—the penitentiary will reclaim its fugitives in office, and the only remembrance which history will preserve of them is the energy with which you resisted and defeated them.

There seemed to be no shortage of reasons for Princeton’s Commencement to cause widespread controversy. Racism and political divisions brought violence from the streets into the church where Commencement took place in 1836, when a former student giving his name as “Ancrum” assaulted a member of the audience after yelling racial slurs. This was most likely Thomas James Ancrum, Class of 1838, who had previously organized a lynch mob against a white abolitionist in Princeton and had been dismissed from the College. Ancrum’s target was a Black graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Theodore Sedgwick Wright. Newspapers across the north denounced this event as a “shameful outrage.”

James Carnahan, Princeton’s president, responded by attempting to minimize the situation, insinuating that Wright had provoked Ancrum by sitting down when others had to stand (“a respectable colored man of New York took a seat on a bench in one of the aisles, while many others unable to find seats, stood during the whole of the discourse”) and claimed that no one he spoke to afterward had seen any violence take place, nor heard any abusive language other than “Out with the negro” (Wright had reported a more offensive term being used, and that Ancrum had “kicked me in the most ruthless manner”). The Pennsylvania Freeman expressed dismay at Carnahan’s downplaying of the events. “We frankly, say, however, that we are at a loss to know which is the greater insult, the outcry and kicks of the southern youngster or the letter of Dr. Carnahan,” pointing out that Carnahan identified Wright only as “respectable,” not as a clergyman “every whit” as worthy of the title “Rev.” as Carnahan himself. The Freeman also took issue with the implications of Carnahan’s defense. “Are the public to understand it as a law of Nassau Hall, that ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ must not be seated in their chapel, even on a bench in the aisle, if they happen to be colored, however worthy or decent they may be, so long as any white men remain unaccommodated?” They pushed Carnahan to say so, if that is what he meant, and to post signs indicating such.

By 1843, Princeton’s Board of Trustees had had enough. In their meeting that September, they voted to move Commencement, as well as the entire academic calendar, up by three months, in the hopes that a June event would be more focused on the students themselves. More distance from elections would cut down on the politically contentious crowds, while holding the event at a time when fewer people would have the availability to travel would decrease the appeal for out-of-town visitors, since unlike the early fall, June was not a time of relative leisure for New Jersey farmers. The fact that the calendar Princeton adopted in the 1840s happened to closely conform to what became the standard “academic year” in the United States was mere coincidence.

 

Sources:

“All the Decency, &c. &c.” Times (Hartford, Connecticut) 21 December 1835.

Board of Trustees Records. (AC120)

Collins, Varnum Lansing. Princeton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1914.

Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal and Letters 1767-1774. Edited by John Rogers Williams. Princeton: The University Library, 1900.

Hageman, John Frelinghuysen. History of Princeton and Its Institutions. Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott, 1879.

Historic Princeton: The Story of a Revolutionary Town and Guide to Princeton University and Sundry Landmarks of Interest. Princeton: Princeton Municipal Improvement, Inc., 1940.

Irving, Washington. Salmagundi. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1860.

“Jackson Meeting at Princeton.” Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey) 10 October 1827.

Maclean, John. History of the College of New Jersey from Its Origins to the Commencement of 1854. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1879.

Melish, John. Travels in the United States of America, in the Years 1806 & 1807, and 1809, 1810, & 1811. Printed by the author, 1812.

Princeton University Commencement Records (AC115)

Princeton University Diploma Collection (AC138)

“Shameful Outrage at Princeton, N.J.” Pennsylvania Freeman (Philadelphia) 12 November 1836.

Wallace, George Riddle. Princeton Sketches: The Story of Nassau Hall. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894.

 

For further reading:

Yannielli, Joseph. “White Supremacy at the Commencement of 1836.” Princeton and Slavery website.

Debating Race at Princeton in the 1940s, Part I: Francis L. Broderick ’43

This is the first post in a two-part series examining Princeton University’s debates over admitting African Americans in the 1940s, which began in earnest partly due to the dedication of one undergraduate in the Class of 1943, Francis Lyons “Frank” Broderick.

By April C. Armstrong *14 and Dan Linke

Francis Lyons (“Frank”) Broderick, Class of 1943. Photo from 1943 Nassau Herald.

At first glance, Francis Lyons “Frank” Broderick ’43 looks like a typical mid-century Princetonian, not someone you’d expect to be at the center of a movement to upend his own institution’s admissions policies. His father was president of the East River Savings Bank in New York City, and the family lived on Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side. Broderick attended Phillips Academy and had two older brothers who both attended Princeton as well. What may have set him somewhat apart from many of his classmates is that he listed himself as Catholic and an Independent Democrat in the Nassau Herald at a time when the majority of Princeton undergraduates were Protestant and Republican. He was also the first student to graduate from Princeton’s then-fledgling interdisciplinary Program in American Civilization, and wrote in the preface to his senior thesis that English professor Willard Thorp *26’s edited two-volume set, American Issues, inspired him to look more closely at race in the United States. Continue reading

This Week in Princeton History for March 12-18

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Women Oriented Women are leaving stickers around campus to increase awareness of lesbianism, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter asks professors for advice, and more.

March 12, 1969—About 500 disgruntled alumni calling themselves Alumni Committee to Involve Ourselves Now (ACTION) announce a campaign to attempt to overturn the Board of Trustees’ decision to make Princeton coeducational.

Although a significant number of alumni opposed coeducation, not all were on the same page. Henry Lyttleton Savage of the Class of 1915 sent this postcard to ACTION, saying, “The Charter gives no support to any who oppose co-education. Its allusions are to ‘students’ and ‘youth.’ Those terms cover any change to co-education.” Alumni Association Records (AC048), Box 20.

Continue reading

This Week in Princeton History for January 15-21

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, students and guests attend the first art lecture, the Board of Trustees ends gender-based admissions quotas, and more.

January 15, 1877—Professor Edward Delano Lindsey gives the first lecture of a course in Art in the newly established Department of Art and Archaeology. The Nassau Literary Magazine observes, “Even the ladies were represented and proved by their attention and expressive countenances their appreciation of both lecturer and subject.”

January 16, 1813—Students successfully petition the faculty “to be allowed this day as a holy day [sic], for the purpose of spending it in the amusement of sleighing.”

January 19, 1974—The Board of Trustees votes to end an admissions policy that enforces quotas on the number of women who may be admitted to Princeton University, a policy originally intended to prevent a decline in the number of men admitted after the advent of coeducation.

This photo of a Princeton University classroom ca. 1975 was labeled “Coed classroom.” If you look closely, you will find a woman in this class (out of focus toward the left). Though Princeton began admitting women to all degree programs in 1969, it was some time before it felt fully coeducational to students, in part due to quotas that kept the ratio of men to women high. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP150, Image No. 4013.

Continue reading

This Week in Princeton History for June 26-July 2

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Board of Trustees expresses concern about vices on campus, a trek up Denali raises money for AIDS research, and more.

June 26, 1790—Having just returned from an evening at David Hamilton’s Tavern, four students put a calf in the pulpit of Nassau Hall as a prank, then flip the outhouse over.

June 28, 1848—The Board of Trustees, noting that “the vice of intemperance has prevailed among the students to an alarming degree,” directs the faculty to expel any student “who is ascertained to be in the habit of commonly using intoxicating drinks, or of frequenting taverns.”

Sketch by unknown author depicting students drinking at Princeton, “It’s a Way We Have at Old Nassau,” ca. 1863. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), MP159, Image No. 4395.

Continue reading

This Week in Princeton History for June 5-11

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Commencement is held without predicted problems, a senior praises William Howard Taft, and more.

June 5, 1978—Princeton University’s Board of Trustees votes to include coverage for abortion under the student health insurance plan.

This article by an anonymous female Princeton University student details her experiences with health care prior to the decision to cover abortion under the student health plan (Princeton Forerunner, November 30, 1976).

Continue reading

This Week in Princeton History for April 4-10

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Betty Friedan is on campus, the school chooses an official shade of orange, and more.

April 5, 1895—In a letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonian, the editorial board of the Nassau Lit defends their controversial decision to change the cover of the magazine for the first time in decades. In response to outcry from students and alumni, they will return to the original cover in May.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Continue reading

This Week in Princeton History for April 6-12

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Prohibition ends, the Board of Trustees urges parents not to send students money, and more.

April 6, 1771—The Rittenhouse Orrery, the most noted scientific instrument of its time, arrives in Nassau Hall, where it will prove to be a tourist attraction for travelers from across the world.

Orrery_Arrives_at_Nassau_Hall_AC123_Box_302

Gillett G. Griffin, pen and ink drawing of the Rittenhouse Orrery arriving at Nassau Hall, University Library Records (AC123), Box 302.

April 9, 1802—United States President Thomas Jefferson donates one hundred dollars toward the rebuilding of Nassau Hall after a devastating fire.
Continue reading

Behind the Scenes: Early Princeton University Trustee Minutes in High Resolution

The Princeton University Archives at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library is continually working to make more materials available in a digital format for ease of use and access.

A large scale project of both photographing and scanning the Trustee Minutes of the University has been an ongoing task.

2014-11-14 14.37.11Currently, the Board of Trustees Minutes. Volumes 1-8 are view able in high resolution in the Princeton University Digital Library (PUDL). Volumes 12-70 are viewable in PDF format on our Finding Aid website.

Recently, we asked the Princeton University Library Digital Studios to photograph the remaining Volumes 9-11, for addition to the PUDL and the Finding Aids.

We were lucky enough to visit the Digital Studios and see the digitization of the volumes in action. Digital Studio staff members use a number of digital cameras and lighting to achieve the best quality image.

photo%202 photo%205Images are fed to a local computer and continually checked by staff as they shoot.

photo%204

The entire process can take a few months to complete, from photograph to online availability.

We are happy to be able to share the process with you and look forward to announcing the final early volumes being available online soon.