Friday, March 2, 2012

Visiting Princeton in Elizabeth

If you happen to get called for jury duty in Union County, be sure to check out Princeton University while you're there. You'll be walking in the footsteps of some of our most notable early Americans.

No, they haven't moved the county courthouse. It's still in Elizabeth, the county seat. The very seeds of one of America's nine colonial colleges were originally planted there, beside the First Presbyterian Church on what's now Broad Street. A marker commemorating the spot is planted squarely on the outside wall of the parish house, site of the original school building.

Colleges at the time were vastly different than they are today; the students were younger and primarily studied for the ministry. Jonathan Dickenson, the pastor at First Presbyterian, helped establish the College of New Jersey in October 1746 as an alternative to the less enlightened religious philosophy being taught at Yale. With his death the following year, the presidency of the school shifted to the Reverend Aaron Burr, father of the more famous man with the same name. He moved the school to Newark and eventually to Princeton, whose remote location he felt would provide little distraction from his students' scholarship.

Though The College of New Jersey had a brief stay in Elizabeth, the town's educational heritage had a major impact on American independence. The Parish House I mentioned earlier was built on the site of Elizabethtown Academy, which educated Revolutionary-era notables including Alexander Hamilton and his future nemesis, the younger Aaron Burr.

Hamilton made quite an impression on attorney and future New Jersey Governor William Livingston, who invited the student to live at Liberty Hall just a few miles away. The contacts the future Treasury Secretary made through Livingston were the foundation for his future accomplishments. He even established his reputation as a ladies man by wooing one of the venerable three graces, the beautiful and coquettish Catharine Livingston.

The Academy didn't survive the war, as many students joined Hamilton and some of the faculty in joining the Continental Army. The building itself, converted to a storehouse, was burned by the British in 1780.

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