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Washington’s Birthday at Princeton

Generally ignored or barely noted by Princetonians today, Washington’s Birthday was one of the most important campus events during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The day was marked in a variety of ways such as athletic contests, musical entertainment, and plays. The celebration was capped off by an oratorical contest, where each class selected a representative to compete for a cash prize, usually sponsored by the Nassau Literary Magazine.

1897 Washington's Birthday Program
Cover of the 1897 Washington’s Birthday Program,
Washington’s Birthday Celebration Records

The character of the holiday’s celebration changed significantly over time. The first Princeton observance of the first president’s birthday was noted in the February 1794 minutes of the Cliosophic Society. Clio’s observation of the occasion included an oration by Brother Gamma, a.k.a. Henry Kollock ’1794, which includes few details other than that it was received “to the great satisfaction of all.” The tradition seems to have been revived decades later, as the Archives’ Washington’s Birthday Celebration Records (AC200) contain event programs from the years 1873 to 1909.


Washington’s Birthday Parade, 1889
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series, Box SP1

For much of its lifespan, the celebration appears to have been raucous, emphasizing a spirit of class rivalry, especially between freshmen and sophomores. Inter-class hazing was frequent, and an element of humor permeated each program, especially in the oration delivered by the senior class speaker, who was permitted to digress from the patriotic speeches expected of the other three classes.

According to Princeton University Secretary Varnum Lansing Collins (Princeton, pp. 386-387), Washington’s Birthday eventually evolved into an "almost painfully solemn" occasion, one that lost its burlesque spirit and class rivalry. This shift in tone may have been influenced by the introduction of the Class of 1876 Memorial Prize for Debate, which sought to supplant the orations with a debate focused on politics. James McCosh announced that the ‘1876 Debate would replace the Washington’s Birthday exercises, though it failed to do so for several years.

Why Washington’s Birthday achieved prominence on campus is unclear, but Washington’s connections to Old Nassau are beyond doubt. As a general, his military accomplishments at the Battle of Princeton are well known, as is his attendance, along with the rest of Congress, at the Commencement of 1783. Peale’s famous portrait of the first President was commissioned by the College of New Jersey’s Board of Trustees, and several of Washington’s relatives, including his adopted son George Washington Parke Custis (non-graduate ‘1799), were Princetonians. Washington was also a College of New Jersey donor, giving 50 guineas to the College to help repair Nassau Hall’s war damage. President Washington’s esteem for Princeton is perhaps best shown in his advice to Custis: “No college has turned out better scholars or more estimable characters than Nassau.”

With the increase in solemnity came a decrease in the student body’s interest, as Washington’s Birthday festivities faded away in the early 1900s. The closest thing to a modern celebration of this event is Alumni Day, held since 1915 on the Saturday closest to the first President’s birthday.


1900 Washington’s Birthday Program
Washington’s Birthday Records, AC200

Princeton’s observance of Washington’s Birthday had two last notable peaks. The celebration of 1932 marked the bicentennial of the first president’s birth, and local committees across across the nation held events. Princeton’s committee, chaired by Alexander Phillips and Varnum Lansing Collins, oversaw an especially festive campus celebration. Notable events included a twenty-one gun salute fired by the batteries of the Princeton Field Artillery Unit and the publication of a special Washington focused supplement of the Daily Princetonian.

The 1946 celebration, however, served as more than a presidential party. As the University approached its bicentennial, this occasion featured Princeton’s first post-war commencement, an oration by honorary degree recipient John Foster Dulles, and the dedication of Princeton’s World War II Memorial Book.

Readers interested in learning more about Washington’s Birthday at Princeton may wish to consult the following materials:

“Alumni Day 2010.” Princeton University Alumni Association, 2010.

“By the Numbers: Alumni Day.” Princeton Weekly Bulletin, February 21, 2005.

“Celebration of General Washington’s Birthday.” The Morning Ray. Windsor, Vermont, May 22, 1792. Accessed via America’s Historical Newspapers.

“Cliosophic Society Records, Box 1.” Princeton, N.J. Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Princeton University Archives.

Collins, Varnum Lansing. Princeton. American College and University Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1914.

Custis, George Washington Parke, Mary Custis Lee,, and Benson J. Lossing. Recollections and private memoirs of Washington by his adopted son George Washington with a memoir of the author by his daughter; and illustrative and explanatory notes by Benson J. Loosing. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860.

Daily Princetonian Editorial Board. “—” The Daily Princetonian. Princeton, N.J., October 25, 1886.

“Freshmen Here Formerly Led Life Of Excit

ement.” The Daily Princetonian. Princeton, N.J., January 29, 1919.

“Here and There.” The Princetonian. Princeton, NJ, March 12, 1886.

“Historical Subject Files, boxes 99, 313, 356.” Princeton, N.J. Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Princeton University Archives.

“John Foster Dulles Papers, box 293.” Princeton, N.J. Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Public Policy Papers.

“Lynde Prize Debate.” The Daily Princetonian. Princeton, N.J., June 23, 1886.

Norris, Edwin Mark. The story of Princeton. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, and company, 1917.

“Notebook.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, 20002/ /13 3, .

Presbrey, Frank, and James Hugh Moffatt. Athletics at Princeton: a history. New York: Frank Presbrey Company, 1901.

“Princeton University in the American Revolution,” February 24, 2010.

Students of Yale College, Yale. “Editor’s Table.” The Yale Literary Magazine, March 1872.

The Students of Harvard University. “Epitome of College News.” The Crimson 39 (January 20, 1883): 118.

“Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box 58: Kollock ‘1794, and Box 62: Custis ‘1799.” Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Archives, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.

“Washington’s Birthday at Princeton.” Trenton Evening Times. Trenton, NJ, February 23, 1888.

“Washington’s Birthday Celebration Records.” Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Archives, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.

“When Washington’s Son Was at Princeton.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, March 2, 1901.

-John DeLooper

Jimmy Lu ‘2013 and Liz Parsons ‘2011 contributed to the research of this article.

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