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Princeton,  240 Years Ago

George Washington (1732-1799) in front of Nassau Hall by Edward Percy Moran. (Wikimedia Commons)

From “An Obscure Village” to “The Capital of America”

By Wendy Greenberg

Some 240 years ago, on June 30, 1783, Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson described Princeton in a letter to his wife: “With respect to situation, convenience, and pleasure I do not know a more agreeable spot in America.”

A few months later he second-guessed championing Princeton as the new home of Congress. On October 16, he wrote, “I begin to be afraid we shall be tied down for the winter to this uncomfortable village.”

In the months in between, Princeton enjoyed a fleeting moment in the limelight as the nation’s capital, and despite a shortage of housing, a hot summer, and the lack of city conveniences, the town secured a place in history.

As Princetonians rose to the challenges of accommodating and feeding Confederation Congress delegates and guests, they enjoyed the A-list of visitors, which included George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson albeit for one night on November 4, after Congress had adjourned, according to a 1983 New York Times article quoting The Papers of Thomas Jefferson).

It was in Princeton, which was still battle-scarred, where Congress learned that the Treaty of Paris had been signed, which officially ended the American Revolution.

Thomson’s letters to his wife in the book Congress at Princeton: Being the Letters of Charles Thomson to Hannah Thomson, June-October 1783, edited by Eugene R. Sheridan and John M. Murrin, help bring the period to life. (Princeton University Library acquired the letters in 1983 and they were published by Friends of the Princeton University Library in 1985.)

Thomson’s letters and other accounts show that all in all, it was an exciting time in Princeton. Annis Stockton, the recent widow of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton, and hostess at their Morven home, missed the whirlwind social life when Congress adjourned. In a letter to delegate Jacob Read, dated February 7-12, 1784, she speculated about the departure of Benjamin Hawkins from Congress, and chastised members of Congress for indulging in some gambling. She wrote, “… and give me all the tete, a tete, of Anapolis, I hope you will get the fever and ague in the Spring and be shaken into a remembrance of the hights of Princeton, or those above the sweet banks of Delaware you were all a parcel of scurvy fellows for leaving of us…”

Clearly, she missed the company. “Sent just a few months after they adjourned from Princeton, I think the letter really demonstrates how much those few months meant to Annis and Princeton,” says Elizabeth Allan, deputy director and curator at Morven, which holds the letter. “She is eager to get the latest news and misses having the members of Congress around.

“The summer and fall of 1783 presents a fun-to-imagine moment in history where Princeton served as the backdrop to an unsettled chapter in the fledgling nation’s history,” says Allan. “To the delight of some, and the frustration of others, the small town did its best to rise to the occasion by housing and entertaining members of Congress through the hot summer months.  We know that Annis Boudinot Stockton relished the role of hostess at Morven during the period — gaining a front row seat to the politics of the day.”

Annis Stockton wasn’t the only one who was impressed. Student Ashbel Green, who later became the eighth president of Princeton University, wrote to his father on July 5, 1783: “The pace of things is inconceivably altered in Princeton within a fortnight…. From a little obscure village, we have become the capital of America! Instead of almost total silence in town, nothing is to be seen or heard but the passing and rattling of wagons, coaches, and chairs or the crying about of pineapples, oranges, lemons, and every luxurious article both foreign and domestic.” (The letter is quoted in several articles and books, including Varnum Lansing Collins’ Continental Congress at Princeton, published by The University Library at Princeton in 1908.)

Historian Stephanie Schwartz, curator of collections and research at the Historical Society of Princeton, feels that the four months that Princeton was capital of the U.S. was an honor. “It adds a layer to Princeton history,” she says. “Maybe it wasn’t as remarkable as it seems, given that so many towns served as the capital during this time, but it still feels pretty special.”

The Battle of Princeton, January 2–3, 1777. (Wikipedia)

Prequel and Beginning

Princeton was one of eight U.S. capitals before Washington, D.C., although technically some were capitals of the colonies. Congress met in Philadelphia (several times); Baltimore; New York City; Lancaster, Pa.; York, Pa.; Annapolis, Md. (directly after Princeton); and Trenton (in the French Arms Tavern which stood at what is now Warren and State streets).

Princeton history enthusiast Barry Singer, who leads walking tours for the Princeton Historical Society, and offers talks, including on Princeton as the nation’s capital, says that “like any good story, this has a beginning, middle, and end — even a prequel. In the middle are Princetonians.”

Many of the original letters and documents are attributed in a booklet published by Morven Museum & Garden, Princeton 1783, The Nation’s Capital by former Morven curator Anne Gossen, which was published for the 225th anniversary of Princeton as the nation’s capital (and is available through Morven).

Following the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in September 1774, many delegates to the second Continental Congress, which convened in May 1775, had only recently heard about the April 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord. The Congress of the Confederation (under the Articles of Confederation, ratified by all 13 states in 1781) met from 1781 to 1789, including in Princeton, following the American Revolution.

“When the war ended in 1781,” says Singer, “the country entered into a perilous time. The states did not want to give power to the federal government. They had just overthrown an oppressor. Some say Congress moved to try to call attention to the lack of power.”

In a 1983 article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, historian and author Constance Escher (referencing the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University) explains that Congress had proponents of strong state governments and those favoring a stronger federal government. Meanwhile, soldiers, who were tired and had not been paid, decided to demonstrate at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on June 21, expecting to find it empty. But soldiers and Congressmen came face to face, because of a special meeting, describes Escher, author of She Calls Herself Betsey Stockton: The Illustrated Odyssey of a Princeton Slave.

Enter Elias Boudinot IV, 10th president of Congress, who strongly pitched Princeton as a safer place for Congress to meet. Boudinot was no stranger to Princeton. His sister, Annis Stockton, was conveniently living at Morven. Boudinot himself was married to Hannah Stockton, Richard’s sister.

Boudinot, who had previously lived in Princeton, served as a trustee of the College of New Jersey (which became Princeton University) from 1772 to 1821. His portrait by Charles Wilson Peale hangs in the Princeton University Art Museum. The Morven booklet notes that Boudinot’s father’s silversmith shop was also the Princeton post office. Fellow signer John Witherspoon was president of the college. Later director of the U.S. Mint, Boudinot, according to the Morven booklet, was “a prominent philanthropist, and an outspoken advocate of Native American rights.”

He set off on June 24, 1783 for Princeton, which had already been a major player in the American Revolution, as the Battle of Princeton helped turn the tide.

A 1760 engraving of Nassau Hall. (Wikipedia)

The Logistics

Philadelphia was then the country’s largest, most cosmopolitan center, wrote Escher in her 1983 article, “When Princeton was the Nation’s Capital.” “Princeton was too small and too rural to fulfill Congress’s needs, let alone suit its tastes,” she wrote. “Princeton was a war-ravaged village of only 50 to 60 houses and not more than 300 people.”

“Princeton was a small rural college town,” says Singer. The main meeting place for Congress was Nassau Hall, built in 1756, which stood in a grassy field with the Maclean House to its left, and was the largest stone building in the colonies, according to Princeton University’s Princetoniana website. Then-College Vice President Samuel Stanhope Smith presented to Congress a letter on June 26, 1783 offering a hall, library room, or other places for the comfort of the Congress, and Congress accepted on July 2.

Thomson’s first impression of Nassau Hall was disappointment, as he wrote on June 30, “ … as I was led along the entry I passed by the chambers of the students, from whence in the sultry heat of the day issued warm steams from the beds, foul linen & dirty lodgings of the boys. I found the members extremely out of humour and dissatisfied with their situation. They are quartered upon the inhabitants who have put themselves to great inconveniencies to receive them into their houses & furnish them with lodgings, but who are not in a situation to board them.”

The town itself “had a general store, a goldsmith, a dry goods, and clothing merchant, a saddle and harness maker, a shoemaker, a weaver, two tailors, a tannery, and a coach painter who also made chairs. A Presbyterian Church and Quaker Meeting House provided public space,” according to the Morven booklet. “As the halfway stop for the frequent stagecoaches between Philadelphia and New York, Princeton supplied several taverns and inns but lacked the rental houses and expensive goods Congressmen expected.”

View of Nassau Hall, Princeton, 1860. (Library of Congress)

Thomson was said to have stayed at Prospect House, then the home of Col. George Morgan. He complained about the food in his letters: “I have the honor of breakfasting at my lodging, of eating stinking fish and half baked bread and drinking if I please abominable wine at a dirty tavern.”

The housing situation was no better. Thomson wrote on July 4, “You will readily judge what probability there is of finding accommodations in Princeton, when I inform you that it is a small scattered village consisting of about 50 houses most of them low wooden buildings, several of them tumbling to pieces and some new and unfinished….”

Boudinot did much better at Morven. “Town merchants such as Thomas Stockton sought delicacies. His account for President Boudinot included bulk quantities of lamb, veal, sugar, butter, limes spirits, and beer and other foods,” according to the Morven account. Thomson described Morven as “the place where Boudinot keeps his court.”

Town residents offered rooms, but the accommodations were cramped, according to Madison’s and Jefferson’s letters, which are online through the National Archives (and in the multi-volume The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton University Press). On August 31, Jefferson asked for “a tolerable birth [sic] wherever they are? At room to myself, if it be but a barrack, is indispensable.” On September 20, Madison wrote, “I am obliged to write in a position that scarcely admits the use of any of my limbs: Mr. Jones [Virginia delegate Joseph Jones] and myself being lodged in a room not 10 square feet and without a single accommodation for writing.”

Hamilton stayed at The Barracks, a stone house on Edgehill Street owned by Richard Stockton’s father and grandfather. The Barracks also housed Madison, according to the Historical Society of Princeton.

Some stayed at the Bainbridge House. Witherspoon moved to Tusculum Farm on Cherry Hill Road. John Adams passed through and stayed at a tavern. As delegates found what they could, Thomson wrote that the Maryland delegates stayed “about a mile distant on the road to Brunswick. The rest are scattered up and down the village.”

To compound the situation, a heatwave overtook the area that summer. Thomson wrote on July 25 that “the weather was so extremely hot that the passengers suffered greatly. Some of the horses dropped down and died and the rest came in excessively jaded. It was the same with the stages from Elizabethtown, which were obliged to leave the passengers on the road, some of whom walked into this town through the broiling sun and fresh horses were sent to bring in the others.”

George Washington by John Trumbull (1780). (Wikipedia)

The A-list

Later that summer Congress requested the presence of George Washington to discuss a peacetime military presence in anticipation of a signed treaty to end the war. Washington moved into Rockingham House near Rocky Hill on August 23, which would be his last wartime headquarters. Vacant at the time, Rockingham was able to accommodate Washington’s wife, guards, aides, and servants, according to Morven’s record, which noted, “For his remaining three months in Princeton, Washington entertained many dignitaries including his friend Robert Morris, Secretary of Finance; Major General Friedrich von Steuben; and the Chevalier de la Luzerne, the French minister.”

On August 25, escorted by a small troop of cavalry, Washington rode up Nassau Street to the cheers from the sidelines for an official thank you, the Morven booklet notes. While in Princeton, one of the college trustees requested he sit for a portrait with Nassau Hall in the background. That portrait by Charles Wilson Peale is in the Princeton University Art Museum collection.

College commencement on September 24 at the First Presbyterian Church (now Nassau Presbyterian Church) was quite the affair. “Delegates to Congress, George Washington and officers, and foreign luminaires crowded the small campus church. Among the audience were seven signers of the Declaration of Independence, eleven future signers of the Constitution, and two future U.S. presidents,” according to the Morven booklet.

Annis Stockton was a bit of a celebrity in her own right, for her prolific poetry. According to the Mount Vernon library, “She wrote poems to then-Continental Army Commander General George Washington regarding his bravery and leadership and through this became a frequent correspondent to Washington as he ascended to the presidency.”

Washington’s thank you gift to Princeton links past to present. Mimi Omiecinski, operator of Princeton Tours, who makes local history her specialty, points out a hedge behind Maclean House with a marker that says, “These English Boxwood plants were grown from George Washington’s hedges planted November 1798 on his Mount Vernon Estate.”

Omiecinski also recommends visitors take a look at a plaque at the University’s FitzRandolph Gate that notes: “Meeting Place of Congress, Capitol of the United States, 30 June-4 November 1783.”

FitzRandolph Gate inscription. (Wikipedia)

What Congress Accomplished in Princeton

Despite the challenges, Congress’s stay in Princeton was of some significance. While in Princeton, Sweden was the first neutral European county to formally recognize the new nation, as a treaty of commerce was concluded on September 25. And, on October 31, 1783, Dutch Republic Ambassador Pieter Johan Van Berckel presented his credentials to Congress. A Madison letter indicates Congress was somewhat embarrassed having to receive him ‘in an obscure village … and without a Minister of Foreign Affairs,” but it was in Princeton that Congress entertained the first foreign dignitary.

In Princeton, Congress issued a proclamation forbidding American citizens to settle on any western land claimed by Native Americans unless they gave explicit permission. Also, Congress voted that lands to the west would eventually be divided into separate states, laying the foundation for future states that would be equal to the original 13.

Most significant, Congress was in Princeton when the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, which recognized the new nation’s independence. According to the Morven booklet, news of the signing reached Congress on the final day of its session at Princeton. Congress adjourned on November 4, to meet again in Annapolis on November 26. While in Princeton, Congress debated where to set up a permanent capital, and compromised with Trenton half the year, and Annapolis half the year. But eventually many questioned the wisdom of always moving. Congress moved to New York City until 1790. A site was selected on the banks of the Potomac, and in the interim, Congress met back in Philadelphia until the new capital was ready in the year 1800.

Princeton returned to its former status, but possibly forever changed. Thomson, dining with Boudinot at Morven said that “the people had exerted themselves and put themselves to inconveniences to accommodate the members but it was a burden they could not bear long.”

“It feels almost like a blip that people don’t know, and it shocks people when they learn about it,” says Schwartz of the Historical Society. “It’s a source of pride for Princetonians today. I think it is another thing that enriches Princeton’s importance in national history, that it had the honor of being the capital for a short time.”

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