Daily Archives: May 18, 2006

Item of the Day: Even More Weld’s Travels (1800)

Full Title: Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797.

Etching: A north-west prospect of Nassau Hall with front view of the President’s House in New Jersey, 1764. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

[En route to New York and Canada, Isaac Weld stopped briefly at the College of New Jersey. (In 1896 the name was changed to Princeton University.) Nassau Hall, built in 1756 had been the largest stone edifice in the colonies and housed the entire college. When Weld visited in 1795, the college was an institution in transition. The newly appointed president, Samuel Stanhope Smith, aimed to implement the vision of his father-in-law and predecessor, John Witherspoon, who died in 1794. Under Witherspoon’s leadership the college had begun to shift away from its strict theological moorings by offering a more expansive curriculum of law and science in addition to religion. Witherspoon and Smith wanted to build their school into the nation’s leading institution of higher education by providing a diverse liberal arts foundation for enlightened men interested in a life of public service. The orrery Weld refers to here was a “mechanical planetarium” designed by Philadelphia clockmaker and astronomer David Rittenhouse and was used to demonstrate the motions of the planets. When the Academy at Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) decided Rittenhouse’s creation was overpriced, Witherspoon bought the device for £416 in 1769. He considered it one of the college’s most prized possessions and a necessary prerequisite for any serious natural philosophy or science curriculum. Weld dryly comments on the orerry’s poor condition but fails to note that it was damaged when Nassau Hall was occupied by the Continental Army during the pivotal Battle of Princeton in January 1777. Nassau Hall still bears the scars of damage sustained by a British cannonball during that battle.]

Twelve miles from Trenton, stands Princeton, a neat town, containing about eighty dwellings in one long street. Here is a large college, held in much repute by the neighbouring states. The number of students amounts to upwards of seventy; from their appearance, however, and the course of studies they seem to be engaged in, like all the other American colleges I ever saw, it better deserves the title of a grammar school than a college. The library, which we were shewn, is most wretched, consisting, for the most part, of old theological books, not even arranged with any regularity. An orrery, contrived by Mr. Rittenhouse, whose talents as so much boasted of by his countrymen, stands at the end of the apartment, but it is quite out of repair, as well as a few detached parts of a philosophical apparatus, enclosed in the same glass case. At the opposite end of the room, are two small cupboards, which are shewn as the museum. These contain a couple of small stuffed alligators, and a few singular fishes, in a miserable state of preservation, the skins of them being tattered in innumerable places, from their being repeatedly tossed about. The building is very plain, and of stone; it is one hundred and eighty feet in front, and four stories high.


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Filed under 1800's, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Travel