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Alexander Hamilton’s connection to Princeton

Question: Is there any evidence about Alexander Hamilton’s potential admission to Princeton?

When discussing the cannonball legend, it has sometimes been suggested that Hamilton took a certain delight in firing on Old Nassau since he had been admitted to the college and then later denied entrance. The oldest reference to Hamilton’s alleged admission to Princeton is in the narrative of his life as told by Hercules Mulligan, a companion from his time at King’s College, which was later put to paper and printed in John C. Hamilton’s 1834 biography “The Life of Alexander Hamilton.” According to the story recounted by Mulligan, Hamilton met with John Witherspoon in September of 1772 and was granted admission to the College. The decision was then revoked by the Trustees on account of Hamilton’s desire to pursue his studies at an accelerated pace and earn his degree in less than four years. Mulligan reports that Hamilton was notified of the decision through a letter from Witherspoon; however if it ever existed this letter has never been recovered.

In addition to the lack of any source beyond that of Mulligan (a source which has sometimes proven quite unreliable in regards to other details of Hamilton’s life) there are several prevailing issues which cast doubt on the story. The first is that there was already a precedent in place at the College of New Jersey that allowed students to pursue accelerated studies, as James Madison and Aaron Burr had both been permitted to do so in preceding years. Second, if the matter was formally brought before the Trustees, ostensibly there would be some record of it in the Trustees’ minutes- however there is none. Finally, Hamilton’s close association with Trustees Elias Boudinot and William Livingston makes it seem unlikely that his own patrons would refuse him entry to the college on a technicality, particularly since they had allegedly arranged the meeting with Witherspoon in the first place. A useful exploration of these issues is found in James Thomas Flexner’s “The Young Hamilton.” Conversely, in “Alexander Hamilton: a Life” Willard Sterne Randall (under the assumption that Mulligan’s story is true) proposes that Witherspoon, aware of Hamilton’s illegitimate origins, refused him admission on those grounds. Witherspoon is known to have been particularly critical of Colonial Governor William Franklin (Benjamin Franklin’s half-son) for the very same reason, so it fits in that sense. The story about the Trustees which Hamilton then allegedly received was little more than a cover-up from Witherspoon.

In short however, there is no evidence in the records of Princeton University which confirms or even hints that Hamilton was ever granted admission to the University. But given what is known about the young Hamilton’s political attitudes, what is known about the administration of the College at the time, and the original source, the veracity of the story is questionable.

Yours sincerely,

Daniel Brennan

3 responses to “Alexander Hamilton’s connection to Princeton”

  1. Why do you assume that a person’s political affiliation makes him less truthful, as per:

    “But given what is known about the young Hamilton’s political attitudes, what is known about the administration of the College at the time, and the original source, the veracity of the story is questionable.”


    Dear reader,

    As the author of the post I appreciate your question; however I fear that you may have misunderstood the implications of the quoted statement. To clarify, it is not Hamilton’s truthfulness that is called into doubt by his political stances, but rather the reliability of the passed down legend that he sought admission to Princeton.

    By his own admission, Hamilton lacked the revolutionary fervor of many of his “founding brothers” and instead favored a more moderate approach to political reformation for the colonies, particularly in his early years. By contrast, Princeton under the guidance of John Witherspoon had acquired a somewhat deserved reputation as a breeding ground of radical political sentiment. King’s College, his eventual destination, was headed by ardent Tory and loyalist to the crown Myles Cooper and therefore may have been a more politically attractive environment for the young Hamilton. It is clear that while attending King’s College his views on revolution evolved rapidly, but we must put ourselves in the shoes of Hamilton, just another 18/19 year old attempting to navigate the uncertain world of choosing a college like so many high school seniors today.

    So in piecing together the evidence that Hamilton may have sought admission to the College of New Jersey, his infant political leanings can be considered something of a strike against the credibility of Hercules Mulligan’s Princeton story, but certainly not against Hamilton himself in any way.

    Thank you for commenting. If interested, a fuller discussion of these topics can be found in Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton,” particularly Chapter 3 “The Collegian.”

    -Dan Brennan”

  2. Dear “Mr. Mulligan,”

    First and foremost, thank you for your comment. As a blog owner yourself, I’m sure you are aware that one of the unique aspects of blogging is that it opens the door to interaction between readers and writers, something we wholeheartedly encourage.

    My reasons for questioning certain aspects of Mulligan’s narrative are perhaps most effectively expressed by Hamilton biographer Nathan Schachner in an article published in The William & Mary Quarterly Vol. 4, No. 2 of April, 1947. In the article, titled “Alexander Hamilton as Viewed by His Friends: The Narratives of Robert Troup and Hercules Mulligan” Schachner points to several known historical inaccuracies in these two earliest Hamilton life stories. Though infrequently cited, the article is worth tracking down and can be found through JStor.

    In the case of Mulligan, who was clearly a close acquaintance of Hamilton and whose narrative (as channeled through John Hamilton) must be treated with a certain level of respect, the main source of suspicion is the amount of time that lapsed between many of the events he describes and the commitment of his recollections to paper. By the time that John Hamilton requested Mulligan provide him some documentation of Hamilton’s early years, Hamilton had long since passed into the realm of legend. Schachner’s suspicion, and one that I share, is that this colored his recollections considerably.

    In addition to these situational suspicions, when compared with primary sources such as records of the New York Provincial Congress (or the archives of the College of New Jersey, for that matter) one finds Mulligan’s narrative to contain a number of inaccuracies, chronological and otherwise.

    Of course, this is all open to debate and most modern Hamilton biographers such as Chernow and Randall choose to accept most if not all of Mulligan’s narrative as fact without any further inquiry. For their purposes, this is perfectly acceptable. However since Mulligan seems to be the original source of the story regarding Hamilton’s attempts to attend to the College of New Jersey, it is worth some closer scrutiny in this case, particularly when balanced against the lack of supporting documentation in the early archives of the College of New Jersey.

  3. Hello Mr. Brennan. Your blog is a terrific resource for confirming hearsay with the historical record. It has come in handy for my own personal research; thank you.

    In addition to thanking you for sharing your knowledge with the public, I also have a question about the remark you made concerning the accuracy of Mulligan’s narrative (for your information, my real name is not Hercules Mulligan; I just modeled my Internet name after him). I am curious as to why some historians have questioned its accuracy.

    If it is at all possible, do you think you can fill me in? Why is the accuracy of his narrative questioned? What is the evidence pro and con that it is reliable? And what is your own conclusion on the matter?

    I have been researching both Alexander Hamilton and Hercules Mulligan, and that is why I am curious. Any information you can provide me with, at your own convenience, is most appreciated.

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