Today, the New Jersey State Quarter Coin remembers when several Princeton students began a riot on January 19, 1817.
In the book, The Life of the Rev. Ashbel Green, D. D. LL.D., published in 1849, a letter written by him provided insights into the students’ rebellion and the outcome:
The trait in the character of our departed friend, of which I speak, was severely tried by the rebellion that most unexpectedly occurred among the students in 1817.
In a letter addressed to me, Princeton, February 7, 1817, it is thus described:
“My dear brother—I received your favor of yesterday by post, and I thank you for it.
“My trials, in consequence of the late riots, have, indeed, been great. But the same good God who has led me and sustained me my lifelong until now, has, in this late emergency, sustained me beyond all my hopes. It is truly a good thing to have a God to go to. He is, verily, a very present help in time of trouble. So I have found him. I hope that you, and my other praying friends, do not forget me.
“Nothing was ever more unlooked for than the late explosion. A week before it happened, I verily believed that the College was never in a more prosperous state, except that we had no revival of religion.
“But many were not only praying for that, but expecting it; and, in point of perfect order, even the winter that we had the revival, was not so satisfactory.
“It was in these circumstances that the dark and diabolical plot was ripening. All the complaints that they now affect to make about grievances, are a mere pretense. Some of them have not the shadow of truth to support them, and none have more than the shadow.
“They have been hunted up and fixed on since, and a little before the riots, in order to have something to say to their parents and the public.
“No, my dear sir, the real cause was, a deep and deadly hatred to our whole system in the ringleaders and planners of the plot. Concealing this, they worked on individuals as occasion served.
“Was there a student who was a bad scholar, and in danger of being turned back, he was taken in to avoid that disgrace. Was there one who loved dissipation, he was persuaded to join, in hope of compelling us to relax our discipline. Was there one who was known to be profane and a hater of all religious exercises, he was made a party, in expectation of being delivered from what he hated. Had a student been reproved personally, he was persuaded to enlist, that he might have vengeance. Was there a class that thought their lessons were too long, all in it who hated study, and all who had not the best talents were urged to resist, under the idea that they were oppressed.
“It is only wonderful that, considering their art and address, they did not seduce more; for, after all, their corps did not exceed thirty out of more than one hundred and thirty, of which the College consisted.
“If the orderly students had known their strength, they would have turned them out of the house themselves.
“But no man knew his fellow, nor how far the defection had extended, such had been the secrecy of the transaction; and the rioters were doubly and trebly armed beforehand, they had a pistol, a dirk, and a sword-cane. This enabled them to keep possession of the house for thirty-six hours.
“To have obtained it by force would, in all probability, have been attended by the shedding of blood; and I rejoice that it was not attempted.
“I gradually drew off the virtuous students; and then the rioters, when they found they were likely to be left alone, were panic-struck, and got out of the house as fast as they possibly could.
“We seized seven, and have bound them over for trial under bail of five hundred dollars each.
“It is a matter much to be regretted that #### and #### escaped.
“Except during the thirty-six hours I have mentioned, the discipline of the College was maintained perfectly.
“It is now quite as strict as it ever was; and, with the divine assistance, it shall remain so.
“But, my dear sir, it must at last remain with the Board of Trustees whether they will maintain this system or not; and I am by no means clear whether a number of them will not wish and endeavor to relax it.
“Of one thing, however, I am confident, and that is, that no relaxation whatever, short of allowing every student to be as vicious as he pleases, and as idle, too, will give satisfaction.
“Any system whatever which requires study, order, morals, and reverence for religion, will be offensive to these licentious youth, even though an angel administered it; nay, it would be the more offensive on that very account, because the administration would be perfect; for in proportion to its being perfect must be the offence.
The high reputation of the College at the time the riot broke out, is an undeniable proof that the public sentiment favored the administration which had preceded it.
“We had as many students as the College could hold, and a number of applications lying over till the next session.
“What will be the influence of this occurrence, time will decide.
“It is mortifying to me that a rebellion should have happened under my administration. But what community or what administration can plead an exemption?
“You know that Washington’s administration was not free from it; nay, we know that there was a rebellion in heaven itself.”
The New Jersey State Quarter Coin shows with an image of Ashbel Green, the President of Princeton during the student rebellion begun January 19, 1817.