George Washington

Charles Willson Peale, American, 1741–1827 "George Washington at the Battle of Princeton," 1784. Oil on canvas. Princeton University, commissioned by the Trustees.

Charles Willson Peale, American, 1741–1827 "George Washington at the Battle of Princeton," 1784. Oil on canvas. Princeton University, commissioned by the Trustees. Photo: Bruce M. White

George Washington figures memorably in Princeton's early history.

He made two visits to Princeton that played vital roles in the unfolding narrative of the young college. The first was on January 3, 1777, at the Battle of Princeton, when Washington launched an attack that drove the British from their garrison in Nassau Hall. The decisive victory left enduring marks: Washington's artillery scarred Nassau Hall — one cannonball gouge is still visible on the south wall — and destroyed a portrait of George II hanging in the Faculty Room.

The second visit was more peaceful. In 1783 Washington was invited to Princeton by the Continental Congress, then housed in Nassau Hall for the several months that Princeton was the seat of American government. It was here, during Washington's visit, that Congress received news of the signed peace treaty and the nation's official independence. Washington was personally congratulated by Congress.  Princeton's trustees, also wishing to honor the war hero, engaged Charles Willson Peale to paint his portrait. Peale was an apt choice. Not only had he already painted several portraits of Washington, but also he had participated in the Battle of Princeton that became the painting's dramatic backdrop.

The result was "George Washington at the Battle of Princeton," one of the University's great treasures. First installed in Nassau Hall's Faculty Room, it is now prominently displayed in the Princeton University Art Museum, where it hangs in the same gilded frame that once held the ill-fated portrait of George II.

Washington was a generous supporter of Princeton, and the University regularly celebrated his birthday. In 1783 he donated 50 guineas as "a testimony of his respect," essentially covering the cost of his own portrait. Years later he wrote, "no college has turned out better scholars or more estimable characters than Nassau."