Princeton’s Nassau Hall

My friend and I stopped in Princeton, New Jersey, for ice cream on the way back to Philly. We’d been to the newly opened Duke Farms, the historic estate of the Duke family (Doris Duke, Duke University, J.B. Duke) in Hillsborough, New Jersey. It is now a nature preserve for hiking and biking with messages of environmental stewardship amidst vestiges of decayed opulence (mansion ruins, crumbling fountains, occasional sculptures). We walked about seven miles on a hot day and were underwhelmed with the lack of color and variety. The Duke mansion is not even included in the public area.

I had not been to Princeton in many years. After eating a great chocolate peanut butter ice cream cone, I took a quick walk to Nassau Hall, the “old main” of Princeton University, one of only nine colleges chartered in the colonies before the American Revolution. It is the oldest building on campus and was the largest building in New Jersey and one of the largest in the colonies when it was built in 1754. Appropriately, it is covered with ivy (well half of it), and over the years has served many functions for the College of New Jersey (later Princeton in 1896). The building was named to honor the memory of King William III of the house of Nassau.

During the course of the Revolutionary War, the Hall served as both barracks and hospital and both British and American forces occupied it for periods.  It suffered battle damage when the Americans fired on it to flush out British soldiers who had sought refuge inside during the Battle of Princeton January 3, 1777. A popular story from the event says that a stray cannon ball fired by the American troops decapitated a portrait of King George II and the frame was later used for a portrait of George Washington. Not sure if there is historical evidence to document the story.

For four months in 1783, Nassau Hall was capital of the country. The United States Congress met there before moving to Annapolis, Maryland.  It was in Nassau Hall that Congress heard the official word that the peace treaty confirming independence had been signed with Great Britain.

Nassau Hall is a survivor – it was gutted by fire twice in 1802 and 1855 and rebuilt. Over the years it became synonymous with the university. In 1859 the school’s alma mater debuted, a tribute to Nassau Hall. The original lyrics of the song’s first verse and refrain are:

Tune every heart and every voice,

Bid every care withdraw;
Let all with one accord rejoice,
In praise of Old Nassau.
In praise of Old Nassau my boys,
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
Her sons will give, while they shall live,
Three cheers for Old Nassau.

Presidents Madison and Wilson walked its halls. The first ever commemorative stamp issued on color paper by the U.S. Postal Service featured Nassau Hall. In 1960 the venerable building was finally declared an official national landmark.

For more historical information about Nassau Hall:

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
This entry was posted in 18th century, 19th century, American Revolution, city/town and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Princeton’s Nassau Hall

  1. Allison says:

    Nice stamp reference!

Have you visited this place? Share your experience.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s