This blog includes text and images drawn from historical sources that may contain material that is offensive or harmful. We strive to accurately represent the past while being sensitive to the needs and concerns of our audience. If you have any feedback to share on this topic, please either comment on a relevant post, or use our Ask Us form to contact us.

My Travels with Darley

By Dan Linke

Last July, I spent an hour with Darley Newman, a PBS travel documentarian who has one of the most enviable jobs in the world.  She was in Princeton filming “New Jersey: Revolutionary Road Trip” for her Travels with Darley series, and her producer had reached out to me earlier to ask if I would be willing to talk about Nassau Hall and its role in the Battle of Princeton on camera.  Once assured that she had obtained permission from the University’s Communications Office to film on campus, I agreed.

William Tennant, “A North-West Prospect of Nassau Hall with a Front View of the President’s House in New Jersey,” 1764. Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177), Box 2, Folder 5.

It was a typical muggy New Jersey July morning when we met outside Nassau Hall, and we started by shooting B Roll footage before heading inside to the Faculty Room to discuss the alleged decapitation of the portrait of George II.  I had prepared myself by reviewing a number of sources, with one of the best being David Hackett Fischer ’58’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Washington’s Crossing.  Darley asked me questions—sometimes the same question but just in a different spot within the room—and I managed to answer most of them without flubbing my response.

I noted that the first mention of the destruction of the painting occurs in the Board of Trustees minutes, six years after the event when they commissioned George Washington’s portrait. The painting was paid for by a donation of 50 guineas that Washington himself had donated “as a testimony of his respect for the college.”

The Board, being desirous to give some testimony of their high respect for the character of his excellency general Washington, who has so auspiciously conducted the armies of America. Resolved, that the Rev’d Dr’s Witherspoon, Rodgers, and Jones, be a committee to wait upon his Excellency to request him to sit for his picture to be taken by Mr. Charles Wilson [sic] Peale of Philadelphia – And, ordered that his portrait, when finished be placed in the hall of the college in the room of the picture of the late king of Great Britain, which was torn away from the American artillery in the battle of Princeton.  

Page 236 (emphasis added)
Darley Newman with Dan Linke below Charles Willson Peale’s “George Washington after the Battle of Princeton” (1779-1782).

The resulting work was, of course, “George Washington at the Battle of Princeton,” and James Steward, the Princeton University Art Museum Director, immediately follows me in the program and eloquently explains the painting’s importance. The University owns two versions, with the original that hung in Nassau Hall for two centuries now in the Art Museum, and “George Washington after the Battle of Princeton” now hanging in the Faculty Room.

Of course, in current lore, a cannonball removes George II’s painted visage, but the first mention of the painting’s decapitation isn’t until almost 125 years later. William S. Stryker in his 1898 The Battles of Trenton and Princeton writes: “Captain Hamilton’s light battery was then run up on the campus, and a warning six-pound shot was sent into the building. Tradition says the ball entered the front of the chapel, now the Geological Museum, and singular to relate passed through the head of the portrait of King George the Second.” In Fischer’s book, he notes this uncertainty and suggests another possibility: that American soldiers attacked the painting after liberating Nassau Hall, a hypothesis supported only by many other examples of victorious soldiers committing acts of vandalism against symbols of their enemies.  Another possibility is the subsequent occupying American soldiers who were known to have damaged the Rittenhouse Orrery. One historian described these Colonial soldiers as “more like a swarm of vandals than the defenders of liberty.”

American soldiers looting the Rittenhouse Orrery. Drawing by Gillett Griffin. Princeton University Library Records (AC123), Box 302.

Whatever the cause, there is a larger point, and one that may in its essential truth reinforce the symbolism attached to the cannonball tale.  After the Battle of Princeton, the British were forced to rethink their assumptions about their military superiority.  They had hoped to quickly end the American Rebellion—remember the Declaration of Independence had been signed only half a year earlier, and since August, the Red Coats had easily rolled back the Continental Army from New York, pushing them across New Jersey.  But in Princeton, they had been outgeneraled by Washington and outfought by American troops. Instead of quickly putting down the rebellion, they would have to fight four more years, and ultimately, because the French assisted the Americans, sign a peace treaty that granted the United States its freedom. Therefore, the destruction of George II’s portrait, whatever the cause, was portentous of what was to come for the British crown in the Colonies. Or as Darley notes, at Princeton, we swapped a King George for a President George—a pretty good trade!

The Princeton Tiger toasts George Washington on the program for the Washington's Birthday Exercises, 1901
The Princeton Tiger toasts George Washington on the program for the Washington’s Birthday Exercises, 1901. Washington’s Birthday Celebration Records (AC200), Box 1.

We then went outside to look at the southwestern wall of the building where a cannonball allegedly dented the building, but the evidence for this—other than the indentation itself—is scantier than the decapitation lore.  University Facilities staff periodically cut the ivy away from the spot so you can look for it yourself—on the main wall of the second floor, close to the intersection with the Faculty Room wall.

Finally, though I had been filmed for various University videos in the past, I am always a little nervous whenever a camera is rolling and capturing every utterance, even though Darley turned out to be a sparkly, down-to-Earth person—who you see in her programs is who she is.  An irony here is that I co-authored an article for archivists about how to work with the media, including tips about what to do while on camera—though I credit my award-winning filmmaker friend Travis Williams for most of that wisdom.

Dan Linke and Darley Newman with a camerman near Chancellor Green Hall. Photo by Mimi Omiecinski.

However, what Travis and I wrote in our article was true here: when archivists are asked to appear on camera, it is usually by people who want to make you look good—it’s not an antagonistic interview.  And Darley and her crew did use only good bits, so I am pleased with not only my part, but the entire episode, which also features many other people and sites that Princeton locals will recognize.

The episode premieres Wednesday, March 6 at 8:30pm on PBS stations, but as the saying goes: check your local listings.

For Further Reading:

Armstrong, April C. “A Brief History of the Architecture of Nassau Hall.”

Brennan, Daniel. “Alexander Hamilton Shooting the Cannonball that Destroys the Portrait of King George.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.