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Historic Houses

Where the first President of the United States and nearly all of his successors have dined

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

IN the main street of Princeton, formerly Prince Town, hidden somewhat by a Georgian garden and a row of catalpa-trees, is the well-preserved mansion of the Stockton family. Perhaps the greatest claim this house of many stories has on history is the fact that it was the shelter of Richard Stockton IV., known as " the Signer," and his charming, poetical wife, Anice Boudinot, the friend of Washington and the sister of the Hon. Elias Boudinot, of Elizabethtown and Philadelphia. Generations upon generations of college boys nurtured in Princeton's classic shades have learned to love the time-worn, venerable building, and almost every student of the university to-day knows its history.

Sweet "Emilia" and gallant "Lucius" – as the Stocktons signed themselves in the romantic fashion of the times in their faded but love-breathing epistles – lived a married life that was the prettiest of pastorals, as Marian Harland expresses it ; and looked at to-day through the long vista of years, they appear like two brightly colored and charming figures on a piece of old tapestry. Mrs. Stockton, being a poetess, was perhaps the most romantic of the pair, and her effusions still in existence teem with eighteenth-century sentimentality. One of her first recorded acts on her arrival at her husband's estate as a bride was the changing of the mansion's name from Constitution Hill to Morven, after one of the Poet Ossian's heroes. When at John Covenhoven's house, near Freehold, at the beginning of the war, she is said to have given voice to the remark, "that she would not weep though her whole library was destroyed, if her dear Young's I Night Thoughts' was saved intact." An amusing bit of Freehold gossip in connection with that visit is the tale that John Covenhoven's wife was not overpleased with her fair visitor, whose airs and graces exhibited before her John acted somewhat like a red flag waved before one of the most unruly of animals.

Princeton in the year 1776 was a very different place from the sequestered little hamlet to which Mr. President Burr had taken his seventy students from Newark to establish a new home for the college, where they would be safely away from "promiscuous converse with the world, the theatre of folly and dissipation." With its churches and fine residences and its wealthy inhabitants, including the Breezes, Stocktons, Randolphs, Bainbridges, Alexanders, Greenes, and many others, it was in a flourishing condition. As it was midway between New York and Philadelphia on the post-road, it was a usual stopping-place for travellers. The old Princeton Tavern and Withington's Inn at Kingston were always favorite resorts for the college boys and loitering-places during recesses. As a Princeton poet wrote:

Many a lazy, longing look is cast
To watch the weary post-boy travelling through
On horse's rump, his budget buckled fast;
With letters safe in leathern prison bent,
And wet from press, full many a packet sent.
At the sound of the horn, the signal of the near approach of a stage-coach, many a student smoothed his ruffles or fixed his cap and gown. Gallants were more gallant in those days, and maids more maidenly; old gentlemen and ladies used to sigh, but it is safe to say that the demure Quaker misses and fair Jersey belles enjoyed their few minutes' respite at Princeton, with the views of admiring college students, as much as modern belles enjoy their visits there to-day.

On the tidings of the approach of Cornwallis's army in 1776, the village of Princeton was thrown into a panic. Mrs. Stockton, at Morven, hastily buried her silver in her garden, hid in a tree-trunk important papers taken from Whig Hall, and started with her children and slaves for Freehold. She, like many another sad resident, had to leave her home and treasure almost entirely at the mercy of the British. Over at Nassau Hall, which came so near being Belcher Hall, the inmates cleared their desks and packed trunks and boxes to be in readiness to leave a loved alma mater. Joseph Clark, a Princeton student of the time, has given us a picture of the scene there in his unpublished journal.
The trustees of the College of New Jersey wanted to name the college building at Princeton Belcher Hall, in honor of Governor Belcher. But this good servant of his king declined the honor, asking that it be named Nassau Hall, to the immortal memory of the glorious King William III., who was a branch of the illustrious house of Nassau.

He writes:

On the 29th of November, 1776, New Jersey College, long the peaceful seat of science and haunt of the muses, was visited with the melancholy tidings of the approach of the enemy. This alarmed our fears and gave us reason to believe we must soon bid adieu to our peaceful Departments and break up, in the midst of our delightful studies, nor were we long held in suspense our worthy President deeply afflicted at this so solemn scene entered the Hall where the students were collected and in a very affecting manner informed us of the improbability of con- tinuing there longer in peace, & after giving us several suitable instructions & much good advice very affectingly bade us farewel.

Sollemnity & Distress appeared almost in every countenance, several students that had come 5 & 600 miles & just got letters in college were now obliged under every disadvantage to retire with their effects, or leave them behind, which several through the impossibility of getting a cariage at so confused a time were obliged to do, & lose them all as all hopes of continuing longer in peace at Nassau were now taken away I began to look out for some place where I might pursue my studies & as Mr. J. Johnson had spoke to me to teach his son I accordingly went there & agreed to stay with him till spring.

Next day I sent my Trunk & Desk to his house & settled all my business at college. On Sunday evening Gen. Washington retreated from Brunswick – I then went to Johnsons.

During the time Mrs. Stockton was forced to stay at Freehold, Morven was occupied by Lord Cornwallis and his officers. They wantonly destroyed its furnishings, even to some of the woodwork. Little Anice Stockton had good cause to hate "that ignoble lord," as she called him. On his surrender she published an ode of congratulation to General Washington in The New Jersey Gazette. He considered it such a choice exhibition of skill and taste that he wrote, "it afforded me a pleasure beyond power of utterance." Later, on the announcement of peace in 1783, she addressed another ode to him; and the letter he sent her from Rocky Hill, on its receipt, is considered the most charming and playful of any of his compositions.

Richard Stockton died in the year 1781, but Mrs. Stockton still lived on at Morven with his "dear memory." The beautiful letters he had penned her from London in a happy year were a great consolation then. In one in which he described the Queen's Birthnight Ball, he eulogized the loveliness of the Ladies Hamilton and Ancaster, and then told her that he "would rather ramble with her along the rivulets of Morven or Red Hill, and see the rural sports of the chaste little frogs." When she wearily gazed out of her windows she was no doubt cheered by the remembrance of what he had written of their garden.

General Washington often dined at Morven; and almost every President of the United States has shared its hospitality, giving it a unique position among the historic houses of America. Many of the Stockton family have been distinguished and added to its fame; but its most interesting occupants will always be the romantic Emilia" and gallant "Lucius."

Rocky Hill, Sept. 24th, 1783.
You apply to me, my dear madam, for absolution, as though I was your future confessor and as though you had committed a crime, great in itself, yet of the veneal class. You have reason good, for I find myself disposed to be a very indulgent ghostly advisor on this occasion, and notwithstanding you are the most offending soul alive (that is if it is a crime to write elegant poetry) yet if you will come and dine with me on Thursday, and go through the proper course of penance which shall be proscribed, I will strive hard to assist you in expiating these poetical trespasses on this side of purgatory – nay, more, if it rests with me to direct your future lubrications, I shall certainly urge you to a repetition of the same conduct, on purpose to show what an admirable knack you have at confession and reformation; and so without hesitation, I shall venture to recommend the muse not to be restrained by ill-grounded timidity, but to go on and prosper. You see, madam, when once the woman has tempted us, and we have tasted the forbidden fruit, there is no such thing as checking our appetite, whatever the consequences may be. You will, I dare say, recognize our being the genuine descendants of those who are reputed to be our progenitors. Before I come to the more serious conclusion of my letter, I must beg leave to say a word or two about these fine things you have been telling in such harmonious and beautiful numbers. Fiction is to be sure the very life and soul of poetry – all poets and poetesses have been indulged in the free and indisputable use of it – time, out of mind, and to oblige you to make such an excellent poem on such a subject without any materials but those of simple reality would be as cruel as the edict of Pharaoh, which compelled the children of Israel to manufacture bricks without the necessary ingredients. Thus are you sheltered under the authority of prescription, and I will not dare to charge you with an intentional breach of the rules of the decalogue in giving so bright a coloring to the services I have been enabled to render my country, though I am not conscious of deserving more at your hands than what the purest and most disinterested friendship has a right to claim; actuated by which you will permit me to thank you in the most affectionate manner for the kind wishes you have so happily expressed for me and the partner of my domestic enjoyments. Be assured we can never forget our friend at Morven, and that I am, my dear madam, with every sentiment of friendship and esteem, your most obedient and obliged servant.
  Mrs. Stockton. G. Washington.  

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