Rally ’Round the Cannon Podcast

From the New South occupation of 1969 to the recent Nassau Hall sit-in, we take a brief look at student demonstrations at Princeton during the last half century. Also in this episode, Whig-Clio celebrates its 250th birthday, and Triangle marks 85 years at McCarter. If you have Princeton history topics that you would like to hear more about in a future episode, leave a comment below.

The Rally ’Round the Cannon podcast is also available on iTunes — click here to subscribe


BT: I’m Brett Tomlinson, digital editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

GL: And I’m Gregg Lange of the Great Class of 1970, who should know better.

BT: And this is the Rally ’Round the Cannon podcast, a podcast about Princeton’s history. Usually near the end of each episode I make an announcement that we’d love to hear from you, the listener. We’d love to get your questions or topics — things that we could be covering in future episodes. And I realize that not everyone listens to the very last second, so I thought this time I’d make the announcement up front. If you have a question for us, if you have a topic you’d like to hear more about, email us at paw@princeton.edu (or leave a comment below).

Gregg, the big news on campus last week was the student sit-in at Nassau Hall, and that was a protest that had quite a bit to do with history and legacy, but I wanted to talk with you about the history of protests like that — sit-ins, occupations. This was not the first time that this has happened at Nassau Hall, and it’s happened at other places on campus. What are some of the highlights of that history of student protest?

GL: Well, it starts at Princeton, in an organized way — there had been vigils and sit-ins of various sorts for literally hundreds of years, there were various things during the Civil War, as an example — but in an organized and more politicized way, it really starts as many of these things do during the ’60s. The initial ones were focused in part around the Institute for Defense Analyses, with which Princeton was participating directly at that point and which was physically located in what is now Von Neumann Hall, down on Prospect Avenue. It was a secret or partially secret military research operation in what is now part of the NSA research, and that was not looked kindly upon by the folks who objected to the Vietnam War. There were two major demonstrations held outside IDA plus a number of others. The final one, in the spring of 1970, was actually about as close to armed confrontation as there’s ever been on the Princeton campus, at least since the Battle of Princeton. The person responsible for defusing that situation and convincing the demonstrators, who were actually camping on the grounds, was Neil Rudenstine ’56, dean of students at that point, subsequently provost of Princeton and then president of Harvard later on. He very much defused that situation and I think changed the path of the University from then on. The University separated itself from IDA very soon thereafter. I actually wrote a column on that a couple years back.

The Nassau Hall sit-ins began partly around IDA, although not inside, but outside Nassau Hall. Nassau Hall is a very convenient place to demonstrate and of course very symbolic. The first takeover of Nassau Hall, if you will, happened in 1972 over Vietnam and the ROTC. And there were many policies set up that subsequently applied to other demonstrations, not to mention some sort of understood patterns, to include the fact that demonstrators at Princeton tend to behave rather “properly,” all things being considered and especially given some of the rhetoric involved. It’s been the case, ever since the demonstration at New South in 1969, where the Association of Black Collegians demonstrated against apartheid, and took over the administration building there. It’s become standard for everyone to clean up after themselves after a demonstration, and to leave the place cleaner than they found it. I haven’t read any asides as to whether that was the case this time, but I’ll bet this was somewhat similar.

Nassau Hall was occupied in ’72 for the first time; there were activities there again in 1978, again focusing around South Africa, apartheid, and divestment; some exterior demonstrations there in 1985; ’89 and ’90 there were back-to-back demonstrations, which in part addressed the new administration of President Harold Shapiro *64, and then the second in 1990 particularly to do with women’s health issues, which were under review and caused some controversy. The last takeover of Nassau Hall, prior to last week, was in 1995, having to do with the lack of diversity in the curriculum, focused primarily on Asian and Asian American history and courses, and Latino history and courses, all of which were beefed up as a result. The agreements after that takeover actually had a significant academic effect on the University.

There have also been sit-ins at Firestone, as well as New South and at IDA; a number of different demonstrations on Cannon Green, including one in conjunction with the external surrounding of Nassau Hall in 1985, at which Jesse Jackson appeared, over again South Africa, apartheid, and economic divestment. That was almost certainly the largest demonstration on campus, by a significant amount, since the end of the Vietnam War.

One thing that’s fascinating this time is that it has been a very long stretch between demonstrations — between 1995 and now. Twenty years is a long time. It’s fascinating to see how much in the pattern of previous demonstrations this fell, given that it’s been a full 20 years, which is of course a number of student generations, since the last one.

BT: We know that alumni certainly have opinions about the protests. PAW always welcomes letters. This has been the case in many stories in Princeton’s past, that alumni have shared their views in the pages of PAW and responded to other alumni. We invite you to write to PAW and keep that conversation going.

I wanted to highlight one thing from the Dec. 2 issue. We have a timeline of Whig-Clio, which is celebrating 250 years. It’s hard to imagine a student organization lasting 250 years, it’s pretty remarkable. Obviously it was not one organization at the beginning. Gregg, what stand out to you in terms of the role that Whig-Clio has played on the campus in these 250 years?  

GL: Well I think the main thing for people to consider today is that for well over a century, Whig and Clio really represented the guts of student extracurricular independence, if you will, at Princeton. There were no sports, until the late 19th century, that were seriously organized. As a matter of fact they were actually dissuaded for a while. There were no clubs, or fraternities, for the same period of time. They got perking along in roughly the same period of time that the varsity sports did. And for that period of about a century, whether you were a member of Whig or whether you were a member of Clio was very important. There was this constant rivalry, attempts to improve the supposed perception of each one on campus, vis a vis the other in recruiting freshmen. Really, there was very little political difference between them, but of course there was this constant rivalry – sort of like the difference between the colleges now. But it was a seriously consuming part of the University. They didn’t work on The Prince, they didn’t work on the radio station, they didn’t play sports, they didn’t go to the club: They went to Whig and Clio, right there on Cannon Green, and planned out all of the different activities, topics of the day and all the rest of this stuff that people would be actively involved in, with effectively no supervision from the faculty. So it became a core part of the ethos of the student experience, and you see letters and reminiscences that people write about these and you realize how crucial they were to people’s identity and what they considered to be their loyalty to Princeton.    

BT: Also in this issue, we have a new columnist on the back page this year, John Weeren, and he is uncovering some very neat stuff. The photo that goes with this column is fantastic. It shows Jimmy Stewart ’32 and Josh Logan ’31 in a rehearsal for a Triangle show. It talks about Triangle in 1930 when the group was opening up McCarter Theatre, and that in turn brings up the previous home of Triangle, the Casino. Gregg, I know that you’re very interested in the history of Triangle. Tell me a little about the Casino.

GL: It was built by the club, as was later McCarter. The show that John talks about is of course the first one staged at McCarter after their fundraising campaign of the late ’20s. The Casino was sort of thrown together in 1895 as an all-purpose structure. It wasn’t a theater in the meaningful sense of the word. One thing that’s striking and shows how little loved it was even in its own time: There are very few good pictures of the Casino anywhere. I just happen to know from conversations with the Archives over the years. Any shots that Princetonians have lurking around of the Casino, through their families — the archives would love to have because the images of it are really awful.

Anyway, it burned to the ground in 1924, on the site where McCarter is now, which was even more off the beaten path than it is today. Not only did nobody mourn it, but I think the rumors of somebody having torched it started almost immediately. There’s no evidence that I’ve ever heard of, but I think in retrospect, certainly everybody wishes they would have laid claim to torching it.

Even though they had to perform in Trenton for five or six years, which is like being exiled to Siberia for a campus group like Triangle, they got their fundraising together, including the huge sum at the time of a quarter of a million dollars from Thomas McCarter 1888, and put up McCarter Theatre, which has served both Triangle and the wider University wildly well ever since. It’s a beautiful space to this day, and of course now there’ll be even more stuff around there with the new arts center going up.

McCarter has made a huge, huge difference — and that’s even beyond Jimmy Stewart playing the accordion in “The Golden Dog.” (He did not, as he did in subsequent shows, dress in drag for that performance.) Not only was Josh Logan involved in that, the producer, but that also was Jose Ferrer’s freshman year. He happens to be one of my favorite trivia answers of all time: he’s the only person ever to win a Tony, an Oscar, and an Emmy for the same character. So you can win yourself a free drink at a party by using that one. Cyrano de Bergerac, identified for his entire life with Jose Ferrer ’33.

BT: Excellent – that is a good one. Gregg, I think we’ve reached the end of our time.

GL: I will say that, having already had a few people express surprise to me about some of Woodrow Wilson 1879’s beliefs, as a result of the demonstration last week: If this is surprising to you, you best do some reading up on it. Our friend Barksdale Maynard ’88 has written a good book on Wilson, not to mention Scott Berg ’71. Do some reading up on Woodrow Wilson. It’s an important thing for a Princetonian to do.

BT: Excellent advice. We’re off for a few weeks. We will be back in January, when the next issue of PAW is out. So happy holidays to all of our listeners.

GL: And very much the same from me.