One If By Land, Two If By Sea: The Aesthetics of Princeton Part IX

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…

He said to his friend, “If the British march By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,– One, if by land, and two, if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be…”

–”Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Alas, Paul Revere did not ride through Princeton, New Jersey. If I wanted to live in that part of history, I would have to attend that despicable college whose name begins with an “H.” Fortunately, Princeton does have a rich Revolutionary history and can even claim that it was the capital of the United States for a time (Ha! Take that Harvard and Yale). Most of this history centers around Nassau Hall.

Nassau was the original university building. Built in 1756, it was the largest academic edifice in the colonies for a time. James Madison, Aaron Burr, and Oliver Ellsworth attended classes in it. British and American forces used it during the war. A battle occurred near Princeton. The Americans won (USA! USA! USA!). According to Wikipedia, it was the American’s capitol during the time period of July to October 1783 when soldiers in the army were threatening to stage a coup d’etat. The University records state that, “Here Congress congratulated George Washington on his successful termination of the war, received the news of the signing of the definitive treaty of peace with Great Britain, and welcomed the first foreign minister—from the Netherlands—accredited to the United States.” Today, the building is used primarily for administrative purposes.

Very few students go into Nassau Hall and an even smaller number leave it alive. Like the principal’s office, this is a place where students only go if they have done something really good or really bad. I rolled up my sleeves and walked in through the front door. Upon entering, I walked into a large room that memorializes students who lost their lives while serving in the military. At the back are two immense doors that are locked closed. They block the entrance to a large room behind them. I wonder what is in there. The Internet says that it leads to the “faculty room.” I will believe it when I see it. I wandered down some corridors, noting the historic brick floors and white walls. The stairs are obviously original, displaying the irregular colonial cut.


I went to two other colonial houses. One is the University president’s house. Great Uncle Sam lived here and allegedly planted the “Stamp Act” sycamore trees in the front lawn.

These buildings are just one more element of the Princeton experience. They remind me of the importance that this institution had in the establishing of the United States and our need to uphold this legacy.