Paul Cox

Surely no Princeton graduation has rivaled the one of September 1783. On the stage with the students that day were seven signers of the Declaration of Independence and 11 future signers of the Constitution. But the most famous guest of all was commander-in-chief George Washington.

On that day 230 years ago, Congress was in session at Nassau Hall, having fled Philadelphia when ex-soldiers revolted, demanding back pay. Legislators met in the college library upstairs, hastening through the halls to avoid the stench of the student rooms — as the secretary of Congress complained: “Warm steams from the beds, foul linen & dirty lodgings of the boys.” 

College president John Witherspoon was an ardent patriot, and at the graduation ceremony at First Presbyterian, his students gave fiery speeches. A British officer who was secretly present deplored the pointed address on “Was Brutus Justified in Killing Caesar?”: “I thought I saw Washington’s face clouded” with the guilt of leading a rebellion, he reported to his superiors. Valedictorian and future college president Ashbel Green 1783 gave a speech fulsomely praising Washington. “The General coloured as I addressed him,” Green recalled. “The next day he met me, stopped, and took me by the hand and complimented me on my address. ... After walking and conversing with me for a few minutes, he requested me to present his best wishes for their success in life to my classmates and then went to the committee room of Congress.”  

Washington gave 50 guineas to the college, which in turn commissioned the famous Battle of Princeton portrait of him from artist Charles Willson Peale. The general wrote to his adopted son that “no college has turned out better scholars or more estimable characters than Nassau,” and later he enrolled the boy.

More on The Weekly Blog: View the original record of Washington’s gift, from the University Archives.