The arrival of John Witherspoon , an energetic Scots scholar recruited as President in 1768, marked a distinct upturn in the fortunes of the College. A good fund raiser -- then as now a requisite for Princeton Presidents -- Witherspoon soon placed the College on a firm financial footing. Witherspoon was equally successful as an educator, and he presided over the studies of some of the College's most notable graduates: James Madison , Aaron Burr, Jr. , Philip Freneau , and "Light-horse Harry" Lee , among others.
Surprisingly, during his 25 years as President, Witherspoon constructed no buildings. Of course, the period from 1768 to 1794 was filled with upheaval, some of it indirectly Witherspoon's doing. A great advocate of independence from Britain, Witherspoon had signed the Declaration of Independence and represented New Jersey in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1782.
Witherspoon could do little to protect his College from the depredations of
war, and the American Revolution treated Princeton cruelly. Troops, both
British and Continental, were quartered at various times in Nassau Hall,
and they ransacked the building and the library. Most calamitous of all was the damage sustained during the Battle of Princeton
on 3 January 1777.
Nassau Hall was the scene of a fierce rearguard fight with the retreating
British during the battle and it suffered severely. Colonel Alexander
Hamilton's battery of New York artillery caused the most spectacular
destruction, firing a cannonball that smashed through a window in the prayer
hall and destroyed a portrait of King George II. The soldiers also damaged the
Rittenhouse Orrery, the College's most important piece of scientific equipment.
A portrait of George Washington,
painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1784, was later mounted in the frame of the destroyed painting. It hangs in the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall today.
At the end of the war, Nassau Hall was in a sorry state. But by July 1783, parts of the building -- including the Prayer Hall and library -- had been sufficiently repaired to house, for four months, the Continental Congress, which brought such men as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the other statesmen of the age to Princeton.
But the famous company must have been of little solace to the beleaguered students of the College. With Witherspoon distracted by affairs of state and the College facilities badly damaged, student life in the early years of the Republic must have been bleak indeed.
Then as now, the food was a sore point. In 1782, for example, a young man named Peter Elmendorf wrote in his diary about the students' bill of fare: "We eat rye bread, half dough, and as black as it possibly can be, and oniony butter, and some times dry bread and thick coffee for breakfast, a little milk or cyder and bread, and sometimes meagre chocolate for supper, very indifferent dinners, such as lean tough boiled fresh beef with dry potatoes."
For students, the slow rebuilding from wartime damage must have been a continuing source of frustration. The College was still applying for war reparations from Congress as late as 1801.
Traveling through Princeton in 1798, an Englishman named Isaac Weld Jr. recorded his impressions of the post-Revolutionary Nassau Hall:
Here is a large college, held in much repute by the neighboring states. The
number of students amounts to upwards of seventy; from their appearance,
however, and the course of studies they seem to be engaged in, like all other
American colleges I ever saw, it better deserves the title of a grammar school
than a college. The library, which we were shewn, is most wretched, consisting
for the most part of old theological books, not even arranged with any
regularity. An orrery,
conceived of by Mr Rittenhouse whose talents are so much boasted of by his countrymen, stands at one end of the apartment, but it is quite out of repair, as well as a few detached parts of a philosophical apparatus enclosed in the same glass case...The building is very plain and of stone; it is one hundred and eighty feet in front and four stories high.
Today, of course, the University takes great pride in Princeton's role in the Revolution as a battleground. One of the legendary ghosts on the campus is that of a dying British soldier, who has been reportedly sighted in the basement of Holder Hall on several occasions; other Revolutionary ghosts purportedly haunt Nassau Hall itself. Generations of Orange Key guides have shown visitors the spot on the south wall of Nassau Hall where one of Hamilton's cannonballs struck the building. To this day, groundskeepers carefully trim a small circle in the ivy in that spot.