In 1783 Princeton was a small town, even by colonial standards, with about 60 to 80 dwellings and 300 residents, and its College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, was also small potatoes, graduating only 14 students with three additional nongrads. Both town and college were hotbeds of patriot sentiment at a time when most of New Jersey was overwhelmed by Loyalism.
Despite its underwhelming size, Princeton was easily accessible by stagecoach from Philadelphia and from the Jersey shore, and Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress and a trustee of the college, had close family ties in town. So when a contingent of unpaid American soldiers called the Pennsylvania Line (Continental Army units recruited in Pennsylvania) marched on the Congress in Philadelphia in June, 1783, Boudinot suggested removal to Princeton, where Nassau Hall was the largest college building in the colonies. The more pragmatic alternative of Annapolis — a state capital with sufficient inns and meeting spaces — lost out because Maryland had only one representative at the Congress rather than the required two.
The Congress met in Princeton from the end of June to the beginning of November. To celebrate the 225th anniversary of its tenure in New Jersey, Martha Wolf, executive director of Morven Museum and Garden, spearheaded a multi-institutional planning process that produced a series of events and a historical exhibit to recreate those months in 1783. The events kick off with a Fourth of July Jubilee at Morven, open to the public. For an overview of all the events planned for the 225th anniversary, see companion story "Total Immersion: See, Smell, Hear, Touch, and Taste 1783." Please note that the print version of this story contains an error: Rockingham State Historic Site is having tours but not additional events this weekend. Visit www.revolutionaryprinceton.org to find Rockingham events associated with Princeton 1783.
Wolf wanted to maximize the visitor experience by connecting an exhibit at Morven — “Picturing Princeton 1783: The Nation’s Capital” — with other sites important to the period, including Rockingham State Historic Site in Rocky Hill, Nassau Hall of Princeton University, Bainbridge House of the Historical Society of Princeton, and Princeton Battlefield and the Thomas Clarke House. “What inspired me to try to get institutions to cooperate is the fact that Morven is a small museum but Princeton is a big experience,” says Wolf. “I felt that if people come to Morven, they should also go to Princeton.”
Nina Mitchell Wells, New Jersey secretary of state and honorary chair of the 1783 committee, speaking at the formal opening of the exhibit in May, said the planning for the four-month series of events took two years and was the product of a robust public-private partnership: “It is not just a history lesson but a wonderful example of how a community can come together to produce a wonderful tourism event.”
At the opening celebration Wells also placed the event in the context of tourism in New Jersey, which contributes about $38 billion to the state’s economy. Heritage tourism in New Jersey grew $4.2 million between 2006 and 2007, she reported, and per square mile New Jersey has more historical venues than any other state in the country. (See Life in the Fast Lane for information on Princeton Chamber’s new grant.)
Although the historical impact of the Congress’s time in Princeton was negligible, this snippet of history and the events precipitating it offer a lens on the struggles of the new nation.
John Murrin, emeritus professor of history at Princeton University, explains that by June, 1783, the war was over and the United States had negotiated a preliminary treaty with Britain. “You’d think it would be moment of high exaltation,” he says. The fighting had stopped, and it was clear England was going to grant independence to the colonies. But the Continental Congress was incredibly weak, and heavy war expenses and the absence of Atlantic commerce during the war had decimated the economy — leaving the Congress at the mercy of the states, which were also hurting.
This lack of money created one of the Congress’s biggest problems — its inability to pay the soldiers who had fought with the Continental Army. “My sympathies are with the soldiers,” says Murrin, “most of whom had not been paid in a couple of years.” When the Pennsylvania Line decided to march on the State House (now known as Independence Hall) to claim the wages they had been promised, the army had already seen a series of mutinies and Congress decided to relocate.
Murrin majored in political science at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, thinking he was going to become a lawyer. Although he found both history and literature courses to be fascinating, he made a strategic decision to turn aside from English. “I decided I had a tin ear in poetry and shouldn’t go to graduate school in English,” he says. Instead he got a doctorate in history at Yale University and taught for 10 years at Washington University in St. Louis before coming to Princeton in 1973. His areas of expertise are colonial, revolutionary, and early republic history.
Murrin’s mother was a stay-at-home mom who raised four children, and his father was in the grain business in Minneapolis, ending his career as secretary for the small family business where he worked. His father did not finish high school because he had to quit to support his younger siblings after his mother died. “He never wanted people to know that,” says Murrin. Although his father started as an office boy, he rose in the ranks and his employers offered to send him to the University of Minnesota — but he declined the opportunity because he did not want to admit he didn’t have a high school diploma.
According to Murrin, when the troops arrived in Philadelphia in 1782, the Pennsylvania Council, the plural executive that governed the state, was meeting on the second floor and the Continental Congress on the first. The Pennsylvania soldiers ignored the government of the United States and instead demanded to be paid by the state of Pennsylvania. Insulted at this disdain for the nation’s governing body, Boudinot called for an emergency session of the Congress to meet that Saturday.
Except for an occasional insult, the soldiers ignored the Congress, but Boudinot sent a written statement to John Dickinson, the president of the Council and a well-known revolutionary leader, asking Pennsylvania to summon its militia to protect the Congress from soldiers in arms.
Dickinson refused, reasoning that the soldiers had not harmed property or person. He was concerned that if he did call the militia, it might side with the soldiers, and if it sided with the Congress, the likely outcome was serious violence. “The Congress was trying to maintain its dignity but it had no clout,” says Murrin. So Boudinot decided that the only honorable response was for the Congress to leave Philadelphia, at least until the city calmed down.
Boudinot requested safe haven from William Livingston, governor of New Jersey, who wrote back that, if the Congress deigned to honor the state with its presence, “I make not the least doubt that the Citizens of New Jersey will cheerfully turn out to repel any violence that may be attempted against them.”
Despite some claims of “salubrious air,” a plus for people worried about fevers, Princeton had little to offer the Congress in terms of accommodations. Even though only 30-odd members were here at any one time, with Congress unable to muster a quorum until July, the town also had to house the streams of officials, couriers, and foreign dignitaries arriving three times a week by stagecoach.
James Madison delayed his move from Philadelphia to Princeton for a month because he could not find a decent place to stay, finally finding a room so small that when he wrote his elbows would bang against the walls.
Even Nassau Hall turned out to be an imperfect meeting place, although spacious enough. Charles Thomson, secretary of the Congress from 1774 to 1789, wrote in a letter about his first entry into the building: “It had the effect of raising my mortification & disgust at the situation of Congress to the highest degree. For as I was led along the entry I passed by the chambers of the students, from whence in the sultry heats of the day issued warm steams from the beds foul linen & dirty lodgings of the boys. I found the members [of Congress] extremely out of humour & dissatisfied with their situation.”
Elias Boudinot fared much better because he stayed with his sister, Annis Boudinot Stockton, the widow of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton, who lived at Morven — the most spacious and elegant dwelling in Princeton at the time.
Annis Boudinot Stockton was a poet, and Elias lived a long life and came to be known as America’s first philanthropist. During the war he spent several years as an officer of the American republic and went to New York regularly to check on how the Brits were treating American prisoners of war — most of whom were jailed in the hulls of ships that could no longer sail and given minimal food. Conditions were wretched, with fecal matter all over. “Boudinot did the best he could to make their situation at least acceptable,” says Murrin, “and that was the start of his career as a philanthropist.” Boudinot was also one of the responsible parties in provoking the Missouri crisis, starting in 1819, about whether Missouri should come into the union as a slave state.
Another substantial residence in Princeton was Prospect (an older building than the one that now houses the Princeton faculty club), a plantation house owned by Colonel George Morgan, a merchant and Indian trader. One room of the exhibit at Morven features three American Indian boys who lived in Morgan’s house and were preparing to enroll in the College of New Jersey; they apparently petitioned the Congress to let them return home. Another larger building was Tusculum, the summer home and farm where John Witherspoon entertained, purchased in 1996 by Avril and Tom Moore, who worked with restoration architect Jeffrey Clark (the house was later featured in a segment on HGTV and it is now for sale).
A large celebration was planned for Independence Day in 1783. Orations were given by two students, one by Ashbel Green for the Whig Society on the “Superiority of the Republican Form of Government” and one by Gilbert Snowden for Clio. A student at the college reported “punch, then a banquet with many toasts” and another “firing of cannon — throwing rockets — fireworks — eating and drinking, etc. The day terminated as usual, some were drunken and all were tired.” Thomson offered a more sober version that included rain, a dinner delay, and fizzled fireworks.
Social life in town improved when Washington arrived in August at Rockingham to consult with the Congress on what kind of military establishment would be appropriate after independence. There were elegant dinners, and Charles Wilson Peale came to town to paint his famous portrait of George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, with Nassau Hall in the background. The original painting hangs in Nassau Hall’s faculty room and a copy hangs in the Morven exhibit.
The September graduation of the College of New Jersey was a big event, one that histories of the university report as the most distinguished gathering of guests for a Princeton graduation. One of the delegates to the Congress, James Madison, was an alumus from the Class of 1771, but Hamilton, the other prominent member of the Congress, was denied admission by John Witherspoon because he had sought junior-class standing; he went to what is now Columbia instead.
Despite the social whirlwind that descended on the small town of Princeton, the more sophisticated urbanites in the Congress could barely tolerate its isolation. A Connecticut delegate observed, “Some are under necessity to go to Philadelphia once or twice a fortnight to breath in polite air. The country so badly agrees with these sublime and delicate constitutions that it is to be feared that many of them will contract a rusticity that can never be wholly purged off.”
The potency of the Continental Congresses changed over time. The first Continental Congress in 1774 had no real legitimacy, and its actions included issuing written statements and petitions to the king for a redress of grievances and listing acts of Parliament that needed to be repealed. Instead of granting the Congress’s requests, Parliament apologized, at the same time hiring Hessian mercenaries to fight the king’s subjects in America. As the crisis mounted in 1774 and 1775, the states increased their support for this governing body by recognizing and participating in it.
A second Congress was to meet in May, 1775, if the grievances had not been redressed, but the war began with battles in Lexington and Concord in April, 1775. The second Congress organized the defense of the colonies and sat until 1781, when the Articles of Confederation were ratified.
Because each colony had wanted to maintain its individuality and was leery of central control, this weaker central government — lacking the power to tax or regulate trade, except with the Indians — was supported by the antifederalists.
Ambitious people were not very interested in sitting in the Congress, and its quality dropped sharply during the war. But in 1780 its stature rose as the country faced a huge crisis. Charleston, South Carolina, fell when 5,000 armed Americans surrendered to the British. General Horatio Gates — known as the hero of Saratoga instead of the real hero, Benedict Arnold — fought the British in a major battle at Camden, on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina, and his army was wiped out. By the end of the summer of 1780, all of the Continentals in the South had been destroyed by the British.
In 1781, the Congress was starting to look increasingly like a feeble legislature, with the creation of four executive departments — finance, war, marine, and foreign affairs — with corresponding secretaries. In actuality, though, it was a legislature that couldn’t get anything done, and a contemporary letter suggested it might as well have been occupied by “imbeciles,” given how little it was accomplishing.
Similarly, during its months in Princeton, the Congress accomplished little. The Congress needed the approval of nine states for important business matters and seven for routine matters. The Pennsylvania and Maryland delegates left Princeton when a motion to return to Philadelphia failed, and the Congress ended up with delegates from only 10 states in total, because the Georgia delegation never even made it to Princeton.
The Congress did discuss a peacetime military establishment, the payment and demobilization of the Continental Army, and the location of a permanent national capital, but resolved none of these questions. It managed to ratify a commercial treaty with Sweden, welcomed a Dutch representative a few days before it left town, and greeted George Washington and his small military entourage.
On November 1 an officer arrived with a copy of the completed Treaty of Paris, which conceded American independence, establishing the boundaries of the new nation and the importance of the Mississippi River in commerce. It also specified American fishing rights in certain international waters and required Americans to return confiscated British properties.
Arriving just two days before Congress was scheduled to leave Princeton, the treaty could not be ratified because there was not a quorum of nine states present. On November 3 the Congress elected a new president, Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, and it met for the last time in Princeton on November 4, the day Thomas Jefferson finally arrived to represent Virginia.
The Congress adjourned to Annapolis, where the treaty was finally ratified. But the government was so broke it did not have the money to pay a courier to bring the news of the official ratification back to Europe and had to borrow money from France and hire a British ship to ferry the document. “It was not a moment of supreme glory in the United States,” says Murrin.
The Congresses meeting between 1774 and 1789 could boast only one big accomplishment beyond conducting a successful war against England. They established the Northwest Territories, characterized by religious liberty and the banning of slavery forever, and created the mechanism by which portions of the territories could eventually become states.
“The Continental Congress was an improvised government,” says Murrin. It never passed a law but instead issued resolves and ordinances. But there were always voices claiming that if the country were to remain the United States of America, it would need a stronger central government, with the power to tax and regulate trade, a bicameral legislature, and a single executive.
Murrin is a bit of a naysayer on the status of Princeton during the four-month period in 1783. “The executive departments remained in Philadelphia, so I am reluctant to say the capital was in Princeton,” he says. “It is more accurate to say that they did not have a capital.
But the events in Philadelphia that precipitated the move did represent the first major confrontation between the Congress and a state government. The soldiers’ demands, combined with the flight of Congress, had the opposite effect, says Murrin — putting off any effective attempt to strengthen the central government for nearly four years.
A letter that Thomson, secretary of the Congress from 1774 to 1789, sent to his wife, Hannah, gives a sense of where the new country found itself at this juncture. He wrote: “The common danger which has hitherto held these states together being now removed, I see local prejudices, passions, and views already beginning to operate with all their force. And I confess I have my fears, that the predictions of our enemies will be found true, that on the removal of common danger our confederacy & union will be a rope of sand.”