Having found myself accidentally “collecting” the graves of American presidents, last year I decided to turn it into a purposeful assignment. Unlike my mission to visit each of the 50 united states, however, this is a much more relaxed and less driven bucket list. I am certain I will never visit all of the graves but it gives me inspiration for trips and gives me another excuse (as if I needed one) to explore cemeteries.
This presidential graves project is why my husband and I took a day trip to Princeton, New Jersey. The teenagers elected to stay home. Our destination was Princeton Cemetery, established in 1757 and filled with notable people, including almost all of the deceased presidents of Princeton University. Knowing these facts, my husband was anticipating a very long walk and an arduous task in finding the graves we were interested in. He was relieved, therefore, to see how compact the cemetery is and delighted when he saw there was a map available in a kiosk at the entrance. It took us no time at all to find the graves – just as well because it was perishingly cold.
The president who was the focus of my trip was Grover Cleveland, notable for being the only American president (thus far, at least) to have served two non-consecutive terms. Another tidbit about Cleveland is that, rather than being conscripted during the Civil War, he opted to pay a substitute to serve in his stead. Thankfully George Benninsky survived the conflict. He was also the only president (so far) to get married while in office. His wife and oldest daughter are buried alongside him. The latter – Ruth who died in childhood – was purportedly the inspiration for the Baby Ruth chocolate bar though timelines suggest it was actually named for the legendary baseball player, Babe Ruth.
Among the other historic graves we sought out, we visited the grave of Aaron Burr. Burr, of course, was a prominent participant in the Revolution, a Senator, and served as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson. Obviously nowadays he is most (in)famous for killing Alexander Hamilton during a duel. Possibly more scandalous, however, was his involvement in a complicated conspiracy that led to him being tried and acquitted of treason.
I also visited the grave of John Witherspoon. Like me, he was born in Scotland and emigrated to America well into adulthood. Witherspoon was a president of Princeton but he is probably more notable as being a Founding Father and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.
After our cemetery wanderings, a short walk took us to the centre of the campus of Princeton University. I have never visited an Ivy League university before so perhaps this will be the start of another collection – but probably not. Talking of which, I had never actually thought to look into the origins of the term “Ivy League”. I had assumed it was something to do with the progeny of colonial families being in with the roots, maybe something about social climbing being like ivy on walls, or maybe just a reference to the very old buildings of such colleges being covered in ivy. Turns out it is because of the tradition of each graduating class planting ivy around the institution’s buildings.
I enjoyed wandering around all the buildings because I just like architecture (just as appreciation, not as one of the many things I research and read about). The focal building of our excursion, however, was Nassau Hall. It was built in 1756 making it the oldest of the University’s buildings and, at the time, the largest building in the entire of New Jersey. When the Congress of Confederation had to leave Philadelphia in 1783, they reconvened in Nassau Hall and that made it the nation’s Capitol for four months. I had read that it was possible to still see the pock-marks of canon strikes that the building received during the Battle of Princeton but between all the ivy and my eyesight I was unable to spot any signs of damage.
The majority of buildings were closed to visitors because of it being a federal holiday (Martin Luther King Jr Day) but we were able to get out of the biting cold by entering the Chapel. The word “chapel” led me to believe it would be a more modest building but it was vast enough to be a cathedral. The light was hitting the windows beautifully, highlighting both the stained glass and dappling the walls with wonderful colours. It was a very pleasant space full of wonderfully crafted stone- and woodwork.
We would both like to return to Princeton as it looks to be an interesting town with further opportunities for exploration – but with milder temperatures.
And I have now visited ten presidential graves.