The Mather Sundial, photographed in 2016
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Danielle Alio

It feels like years since it’s been here: Here comes the sun. — George Harrison, 1969

It is always an intimidating honor to begin a column with mention of the recent P-rade — during which we hope no alums nor children were caught unawares and bricked into some new campus edifice under construction — and focus upfront on the seemingly eternal Joe Schein ’37 and his weapon of choice, the Class of 1923 Cane symbolizing the eldest returning alum in the march. At 108 years old, he’s an expert, as this was his eighth outing as tigerfamilias. I will admit, however, that this year struck me a bit differently because of the incidental contrast to another rarefied ceremonial parade, held three weeks prior, in conjunction with the London coronation of King Charles III, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and … well, you get the idea. The similarities of Charles’ scepter and carriage with Joe’s cane and golf cart were impossible to miss, at least if you ignore the varying insurance premiums.

This in turn brought to mind the differing tastes between the two old allies, tea-crazy Britain and the coffee-addled United States. The singular P-rade aside (trust me, the only time you will ever see that phrase here), Americans’ preference in public celebration tends to be flavored differently from your typical royal investiture pageant. Mardi Gras in New Orleans comes to mind, or the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in New York City. Even the most formally and intricately choreographed celebration in this country, the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, is focused on floral abundance rather than pillaged jewels of Empire.

I don’t mean to be a killjoy here — those Anglophiles in the audience certainly deserve a show every 70 years or so to keep spirits up and knock spirits down — but we Americans did fight a fairly serious and hugely influential war against these folks. And of course Princeton was a pivotal part of that war, and got pretty badly beaten up by the British for our troubles. Just to show they weren’t an easy out, the Brits came back in 1814 and burned more stuff down, disturbing the tranquil domesticity of Dolley Madison s’1771 at the White House, among many others. So the question arises: How did we get from that to the cordial and strategically significant buddyship of the 20th century?

And, hey, what’s with the sundial?

The fascinating part of the answer is that it actually involves two rather separate questions whose answers finally conjoin in the dedication of the aforesaid Mather Sundial on McCosh Green in 1907. But in this story we need to start at the beginning and establish prime causes, then advance along our two paths to the ceremony. 

The beginning, of course, is the establishment of the College of New Jersey in 1746, a Presbyterian-flavored response to problems with the New England Congregationalists, but even more with the Anglicans (a la the college of William & Mary) who tended to run their educational faculties directly and by fiat. This was a reflection of the home kingdom at the time, where the Anglican Church had throttled both the teaching and studying at Oxford and Cambridge following the Restoration at the beginning of the 18th century. To be blunt, if you weren’t a sworn Anglican, you were out. The curriculum was narrow, rote, almost devoid of the sciences, and heavy on the ecclesiastical Greek and Latin. 

In the spirit of our old, old friend, The Law of Unintended Consequences, this contributed to two huge movements in British education. The first, as you can easily guess, was the creation of independent centers of learning by everyone else — principally independent protestants — referred to as dissenting academies, which provided study without legally approved degrees, although persecuted at various points by agents of the state. The second was the resulting home of the revolutionary Enlightenment in the four great Scots universities away from the influence of the Anglicans. And so, first by American adherents, and then by direct import of John Witherspoon (educated at Edinburgh) from Paisley in 1768, the College followed the philosophy of the Scots and the teaching model of the dissenters. In the academic world, substantial change takes place glacially, as we’ve noted before, and the College still felt compelled to do exactly the same thing — bringing in Edinburgh-educated James McCosh —  precisely 100 years later. 

But before we go further along the educational path, let’s step onto the second — economics. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the American Revolution in which Witherspoon and his adherents so enthusiastically toiled was an economic battle, although stupid Royal policy and the controlling efforts of the Anglicans in the U.S. exacerbated things. After the country gained its independence, things never had a chance to normalize before the French Revolution and its surrounding unrest panicked the royal establishments throughout Europe, egging them into odd behavior against not only the various groups controlling France, but its perceived friends. Events (and the Jeffersonians) caused suspicion to fall on the U.S. as it got its act together in the 1790s, and the Napoleonic Wars then dislocated everything. British-American relations hit bottom in the War of 1812, but after Waterloo in 1815 things changed. The Industrial Revolution drove British demand for American cotton and other raw goods for its factories, and by 1850, 40% of U.S. imports and 50% of its exports were with Britain. 

The British had the sense not to recognize the Confederacy during the Civil War, and were subsequently able to negotiate sticky issues with America, including reparations for ships it had built for the South, Canadian borders, and Central American canal rights, even as bilateral trade increased to dominate relations. The Great Rapprochement (it even had a name) beginning in 1895 led Britain to back the U.S. in the Spanish-American War, and in turn it led to American support of Britain in World War I. It only remained for George Bernard Shaw to comment famously that Britain and the U.S. were two great countries divided by a common language, and for Leonard Jerome 1839’s grandson, Winston Churchill, to memorialize the “special relationship” in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s. 

Meanwhile, back on campus, two events in the early 19th century lit a fire under Oxbridge and the Anglicans. The first was the design by Wilhelm von Humboldt of the Prussian university model, put into play at the University of Berlin in 1810, just as British-American relations collapsed. Emphasizing graduate studies and research, it left rote learning by the curbside. Then in 1839, a British royal charter was granted to the University of London, which then had the right to grant degrees to anybody, including non-Anglicans. Along with the Scots and Irish universities, this exerted immediate pressure on Oxbridge to modernize. In 1850, Parliament formed a committee to investigate major governance changes and removal of religious limitations, as it had in 1772 and 1834. This time, however, the 1854 Oxford University Act resulted in the doors being thrown open, and Oxbridge began to move back to global relevance. Between 1868-88 (when McCosh was college president here) they bolstered faculty and students, beginning to reestablish eminence. While European faculty at Princeton had earlier come from the Prussian model — such as Karl Langlotz and General Joseph Kargé — by 1914 Oxford’s poet Alfred Noyes also graced the faculty at Presbyterian-heritage Princeton.

One of those instrumental in the rebirth of the English universities was Sir William Mather, who as an industrialist, member of Parliament and governor of Victoria University developed and supported advanced methods including standardized testing, apprenticeships and the eight-hour day, plus investigating and supporting technological studies in Britain and the U.S. In keeping with the Great Rapprochement, Princeton in 1905 awarded him a highly symbolic honorary degree, citing his efforts as “ameliorator of the physical and moral condition of the working man; promoter of knowledge, justice and peace.” This so pleased the ardent internationalist that he felt compelled to respond with a symbolic gift to Old Nassau. With such transatlantic outreach as the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford already in place, Mather decided that alignment with the oldest English traditions would be apropos, and chose the Turnbull sundial, a timely 16th century column in Oxford’s Corpus Christi college, as the model. It is an incredibly complex piece of craftsmanship, with each of the 27 (!) working timepieces on the original duplicated, meaning each had to be recalibrated for the change in latitude. Since this was 1905, not 1581, the practical need was negligible, even less than the under-construction Loch Carnegie. But on Oct. 31, 1907, complete with 50-page dedication program, Princeton accepted the Mather Sundial from the British ambassador to embody British-American harmony, complementing the new adjacent McCosh Hall. PAW pronounced the gift “interesting.”

And now since 2001, staring across the green to the column has been the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only college president signatory to the Declaration of Independence, during whose entire lifetime Oxford was but a scholarly backwater of the detested Anglicans and their king. Politics, economics, religion, and the inexorable progression of the sun certainly do make strange bedfellows.