Nassau Hall, Princeton, N.J.
June 30, 1783Nov. 4, 1783

Following Robert Livingston’s resignation as Secretary for Foreign Affairs in June 1783, the President of Congress acted as Secretary for Foreign Affairs ad interim until March 1784.1 During this time, the papers of the Department of Foreign Affairs remained locked, sealed, and inaccessible, and foreign relations were managed wholly by Congress, upon reports of special committees.2 The buildings used by Congress during this period were, therefore, the buildings in which foreign policy was managed.

A northwest prospect of Nassau Hall, in New Jersey

From June 30 to November 4, 1783, Congress met in Nassau Hall in Princeton, New Jersey.3 Congress moved there to flee from mutinous troops.4 Since October 1781 when Cornwallis had surrendered his army at Yorktown, Americans had been waiting impatiently for the signing of a peace treaty with Great Britain. As the months passed and the peace negotiations dragged on, the army became increasingly restless, weary of the long war, and impatient with the unfulfillеd promises of Congress for back pаy. On June 20 troops surrounded the Statehouse in Philadelphia, where Congress was meeting in an attempt to satisfy their grievances.

Although there were no violent incidents, and the mutiny quickly subsided, Congress felt insulted by the event and unsupported by the government of Pennsylvania, which was apparently unwilling or unable to provide protection. A resolution was passed directing Congress “to me (on Thursday next at Trenton Princeton, in New Jersey, in order that further and more effectual measures may be taken for suppressing the present revolt, and maintaining the dignity and authority of the United States.”5

The President of Congress, Elias Boudinot, adjourned the Congress [Page 9] on June 24 and ordered it to reassemble in Princeton on June 26. It actually convened on June 30, 1783.6

Princeton may have been chosen by President Boudinot because he was a native of Princeton, his wife was from a prominent Princeton family, Princeton was located approximately midway between New York and Philadelphia, and Boudinot was a Trustee of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).7 Princeton may also have been chosen because it had a building large enough in which the Congress could meet.

Nassau Hall, the principle building of the College, had been erected in 1754-1756. It was the largest academic building in the colonies. The following is a description of Nassau Hall based upon the earliest known illustration, which was printed in the New American Magazine in 1760:8

“There are three flat-arched doors on the north side giving access by a flight of steps to the three separate entries (an entry refers here to the hallway on each floor running the full length of the building). At the center is a projecting section of five bays surmounted by a pediment with circular windows, and other decorations. The only ornamental feature above the cornice, is the cupola, standing somewhat higher than the twelve fireplace chimneys. Beyond these there are no features of distinction.

“The simple interior design is shown in the plan, where a central corridor provided communication with the students’ chambers and recitation rooms, the entrances, and the common prayer hall; and on the second floor, with the library over the central north entrance. The prayer hall was two stories high, measured 32 by 40 feet, and had a balcony at the north end which could be reached from the second-story entry. Partially below ground level, though dimly lighted by windows, was the cellar, which served as kitchen, dining area (beneath the prayer hall), and storeroom. In all there were probably forty rooms for the students, not including those added later in the cellar when a moat was dug to allow additional light and air into that dungeon.”

For its regular sessions, Congress met in the college library room, which was over the main entrance. For ceremonial occasions, it adjourned to the prayer hall or chapel on the main floor.

One such ceremonial event took place on October 31, 1783, when Peter John van Berckel presented his credentials to Congress as the minister representing the Netherlands. Congress was at first embarrassed, as reflected in a letter from Madison, because of having to receive him “in an obscure village... and without a Minister of F[oreign] A[ffairs].” 9 After extensive preparations, however, the event was a success, facilitated perhaps by information provided just prior to the ceremony that the treaty between the United States and Great Britain had been signed on September 3.

Congress had been in Princeton for only four months when it adjourned on November 4 to meet at Annapolis on November 26. Its stay in Princeton had been brief and very little of great importance had been decided while it was there. Attendance in Congress was often very low, “much of the time no more than six states represented.”10

Nassau Hall remains today as one of the main buildings on the campus of Princeton University. The interior of the building was destroyed by fire in 1802 and again in 1855, but in each case the original walls remained. These two restorations, 1802 and 1855, as well as subsequent minor alterations changed the building only slightly from its original construction in 1756 to the present-day appearance.

  1. Burnett, Letters, VII, 192. According to Gaillard Hunt, “Lewis R. Morris, the first Under-Secretary of the Department, had been left by Livingston in charge of the Department’s business, but Congress gave him no authority to act, so he soon left the office.” (Hunt, op. cit., p. 40.)
  2. Burnett, op. cit., pp. 269-270, 461; Journal, XXVI, 49-50, 64-65, 104-105.
  3. There is evidence to suggest that of its first three sessions (June 30, July 1 am 2), Congress met at a house owned by Colonel George Morgan, called “Prospect,” See Varnum Lansing Collins, The Continents Congress At Princeton (Princeton, 1908) pp. 43, 57-58.
  4. Burnett, The Continental Congress pp. 576-580. A primary source for information about the Congress in Princeton was Gary B. Nash, “... and Distinguished Guests”—The Continental Congress at Princeton, 1783 (Princeton, 1962).
  5. Journals, XXIV, 410.
  6. Burnett, Letters, VII, 195-6; Journals,, 411.
  7. Nash, op. cit., p. 7.
  8. Paul Norton and Robert C. Smith, “Nassau Hall—Architecture”, in Nassau Hall, 1756-1956—Bicentennial Convocation, September 23, 1956 (condensation of Henry L. Savage, ed., Nassau Halls, 1756-1956, published by Princeton University, September 22, 1956, and reprinted from The Princeton Alumni Weekly of September 12, 1956).
  9. Burnett, The Continental Congress, op. cit., p. 587.
  10. Ibid., p. 580.