I gave this lecture at the Cumberland County Historical Society in Greenwich on February 3, 2019:
I must have missed this from two weeks ago, but the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education unanimously voted to change the name of John Witherspoon Middle School because the Presbyterian minister, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and former president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton (now Princeton University) owned slaves.
Marissa Michaels has it covered at The Daily Princetonian. She also reports on an attempt to remove the Witherspoon statue from the campus of Princeton University. Here is a taste of her piece:
Their petition — which has garnered 1,558 signatures — reads, “In the midst of the ongoing support of the Black Lives Matter movement, this has created the opportune moment for John Witherspoon Middle School to rid itself of its slave-owning and anti-abolitionist namesake … This change is imperative, as the school’s name and Witherspoon’s legacy creates a hostile environment for both the middle school and district’s racially diverse student body.”
A full letter to the Board, which includes alumni testimony, outlines the reasons for the Witherspoon name removal, citing the Princeton & Slavery Project. Witherspoon, the University’s sixth president (1768–94), owned slaves, as did his children. In 1790, Witherspoon and the majority of a New Jersey Board voted against helping to abolish slavery, believing it was “already dying out.” Slavery in New Jersey, however, continued until the end of the Civil War.
Witherspoon’s legacy has also sparked debate at the institution over which he once presided. An early-July open letter signed by over 350 University faculty members called on Nassau Hall to remove a campus statue of Witherspoon. When asked about the letter then, University Spokesperson Ben Chang said the administration was “currently reviewing these and other suggestions for change that have been made by members of our community” as part of a process laid out in June.
In a controversial response, classics professor Joshua Katz wrote, “Since I don’t care for this statue or its placement in front of the building in which I have my office, I would not be sad if it were moved away—but emphatically not because of Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was a major figure in Princeton and American history with a complex relationship to slavery.”
My take on this story is similar to what I wrote about the removal of the George Whitefield statue at the University of Pennsylvania.
If Princeton University does decide to remove the Witherspoon statue, we should not interpret the decision as “erasing history.” We will still talk about Witherspoon. In fact, he features quite prominently in my uncompleted book manuscript (very) tentatively titled, “God in the Crossroads: The American Revolution in New Jersey.”
In a September 24, 1755 letter to New Jersey governor Jonathan Belcher, the trustees of the College of New Jersey at Princeton wrote,
By the Skill and Prudence of the Measures pursued in your Administration (thro’ the Smiles of Heaven) Harmony, good Order, and Tranquility is restored in a Province, which before your Accession, was unhappily distracted with Animosities, Tumilts, and general Disorder.
Belcher, an evangelical (New Light) governor, was a great defender of the college. He granted the college its second charter (after its first charter was contested by New Jersey Anglicans) and served as chair of the Board of Trustees. He was influential in moving the college from Newark, New Jersey to Princeton and donated his large library to the school.
Belcher was also celebrated in New Jersey for bringing a temporary end to some of the social unrest over property rights that wracked the colony in the 1730s and 1740s. His enlightened evangelicalism also brought renewed unity to the religious life of a colony divided over the First Great Awakening. His efforts in leading the New Jersey through the early years of the French and Indian War made these unification efforts possible.
Belcher responded to the letter of the Princeton trustees:
When I first had the Honour of his Majesty’s appointing me Governor in his Plantations (now nineteen Years ago), I determined, as far as it would consist with his Majesty’s Honour and Interest, and with the Welfare of his People, to look upon Moderation, as a wise Temperament for the easy and happy Administration of Government: And this I believe has greatly contributed to the present Peace and Tranquility of this Province, after the many Tumults and Riots it had been groaning under for a long Time before my Arrivals.”
The Princeton trustees wanted to name their newly constructed building at Princeton “Belcher Hall,” but the governor refused to lend his name to it. Instead, he recommended the name “Nassau Hall” after the “House of Nassau,” the
great Deliverer of the British Nation, from those two monstrous Furies–Popery and Slavery. And who, for the better Establishment of the true Religion and of English Liberty, brought forward an Act in the British Parliament for securing the Crown of Great Britain, to the present Royal Family, whereby we are not become happy, under the best of Kings, in the full Enjoyment of English Liberty and Property.
To His Excellency Jonathan Belcher, Esq; captain general, and governor in chief of the province of Nova-Caesarea, or New-Jersey, chancellor, and vice-admiral in the same. An address from the trustees of the College of New-Jersey (September 24, 1755).
I continue to plug away on my history of the American Revolution in New Jersey. This piece encouraged me to keep forging ahead. Here is a taste of Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times‘ piece “On the Trail of America’s First Women to Vote“:
“The New Jersey exception,” as it’s sometimes called, has been puzzled over by historians, who have debated whether it represented a deliberate, widespread experiment in gender equality, or an accidental legal loophole whose importance was greatly exaggerated by the era’s partisan press.
But curiously, there has been little to no direct evidence that more than a handful of women had actually cast ballots — until now.
After scouring archives and historical societies across New Jersey, researchers at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia have located poll lists showing that women really did vote in significant numbers before the right was taken away.
The newly surfaced documents, which will be featured in an exhibition opening in August cheekily titled “When Women Lost the Vote,” may seem to speak to a hyperlocal story.
But the discoveries, the curators say, shed fresh light onto the moment when the meaning of the Revolution’s ideas was being worked out on the ground, in elections that had more than a little resemblance to the messy, partisan and sometimes chaotic ones we know today.
Read the entire piece here.
New Jersey’s revolutionary-era governor William Livingston was constantly on the run during the war. Here, for example, is historian James Gigantino on Livingston during the British occupation of New Jersey in 1776:
Livingston’s whereabouts from mid-December to early January remain unknown; not known even if he remained alive, John Hancock addressed a late December letter to “Governor Livingston or the present Executive power in New Jersey.”
Livingston managed to survive several assassination plots. His home in Elizabeth-Town (Liberty Hall) was damaged by the British. And he was forced to move his family back and forth between Liberty Hall and Parsippany.
Here is Gigantino again:
Livingston had good reason to request personal protection. British troops attacked Elizabethtown in February 1779 with the intention of capturing or assassinating him at Liberty Hall. Finding only his wife and daughters, they hoped to seize the governor’s papers, but the quick-witted Livingston women instead proffered a pile of old law papers and correspondence from a recently captured British ship….Apparently , the governor agreed that a strong “conspiracy against me” had formed in Essex [County, New Jersey]. After the summer of 1779 and until the end of the war, he never returned for significant periods to Liberty Hall. He believed that both he and his wife had to accept the inevitability that the British would burn their home and that the couple should “prepare ourselves to bear it with Christian fortitude.”
This is the context for understanding a letter that I read over the weekend. A twenty-six-year-old British spy (and a former member of the Elizabeth-Town militia) named John Cunningham wrote the February 26, 1780 letter to William Tryon, the loyalist governor of New York. It contained intelligence on the Continental Army. Here is a relevant taste:
The Assembly is now sitting in Mount Holly in West Jersey. It is hard to say where Governor Livingston is to be found….In general the old County man may be said to be disgusted…They openly say the country has been cheated by the cry of Liberty, and that it is all a Delusion….Dr. Witherspoon is turned out the Congress–Mr. Livingston the state Governor less and less tolerated. He is called Cruel and miserly & cowardly both by Whigs and Tories. He is universally spurned at for dodging up and down the Country and shunning his own house where he leaves one of his daughters almost always alone.
According to Cunningham, things were not going very well in New Jersey in the winter of 1780. Earlier in the letter he discusses the dire conditions among the Continental Army at Morristown and notes that the people of Morristown are tired of having the army in town.
Source: (CO 5/1110 The British Nation Archives, Adam Matthew Database).
In 2013 I did some consulting for a non-profit organization affiliated with the historic First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, New Jersey. My team conducted research on James Caldwell, the revolutionary-era pastor of the church. You can read about our work here and here and here. Some of you will also remember my January 2014 writing binge related to this project. Somewhere on a flash drive I have that 40,000 word report. I am sure some of it will eventually make its way into my current book project on the American Revolution in New Jersey.
I was thus pleased to see that the church, the burial ground, and the neighboring academy building (which sits on the site of the school where both Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton studied before they went to Princeton and Kings College respectively) will be commemorated with a historical marker. Here is a taste of a piece at Yahoo:
The story of the City of Elizabeth’s deep Revolutionary War heritage is now being told by two interpretive signs located outdoors on the campus of the historic First Presbyterian Church and burial grounds on Broad Street.
The signage will be unveiled on Monday, Nov. 4th, 2019 at 11am by representatives from the City of Elizabeth, The Elizabeth Destination Marketing Organization [EDMO], the Greater Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads of the American Revolution, and the Snyder Academy.
The Elizabeth markers are a vital part of the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association’s statewide signage program to create a recognizable brand for more than 200 sites that tell the story of New Jersey’s crucial role in the war for independence. Featuring the six-pointed star used in the original United States flag, the signs are designed to make it easier for residents and heritage tourists to locate key Revolutionary-era historic sites and learn more about the state’s deep Revolutionary War heritage.
“New Jersey saw more battles and skirmishes during the American Revolution than anyplace else, and families were deeply affected by the many years of conflict that took place at their front door,” said Janice Selinger, executive director of Crossroads of the American Revolution. “Crossroads is proud to highlight the many contributions of Elizabeth’s Revolutionary notables, especially as we work towards attracting more heritage travelers to discover the state’s contributions during the commemoration of the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026.”
“As the first capital of New Jersey and home to our first Governor, Elizabeth has played a vital role in our state’s and nation’s past,” said Mayor J. Christian Bollwage. “Now residents and visitors can learn about Elizabeth’s deep ties with the Revolutionary War through these informative signs and what better place to do so than in front of the City’s First Presbyterian Church, where the first Colonial Assembly met in 1668.”
Read the entire article here.
Here is the press release:
UNION, N.J., Oct. 24, 2019 /PRNewswire/ — Liberty Hall Museum, Inc., the organization devoted to the preservation and protection of New Jersey’s first Governor’s house, announced today that Rachael Goldberg has been named as Executive Director.
Rachael is a long-term employee, who has served in a number of capacities at the Museum. Her new responsibility now will be to provide direction as the Museum strengthens its unique school program and looks for ways and means to encourage repeat visitors.
John Kean, President of the Museum said, “We are particularly fortunate to be able to promote someone within our organization who has such exceptional qualifications.”
Rachael began working for the Museum more than 10 years ago and has served in a number of different assignments. She is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island where she earned her degree in History. She holds a Master’s Degree in American History from Monmouth University, as well as a certificate in historic preservation from Drew University.
Liberty Hall was the home of New Jersey’s first elected Governor, William Livingston. Built in 1772, on the eve of the American Revolution, and passed down through seven generations of the Livingston and Kean families, Liberty Hall has been a silent witness to more than 200 years of American history.
The Livingston/Kean family has produced governors, senators, congressmen and captains of industry. No less accomplished were the ladies of Liberty Hall.
A chronicle of New Jersey and American history, as glimpsed through the experiences of one family, this Victorian-style mansion is a treasure trove of historic riches.
This is of interest to me for two reasons:
If you are an artist who is interested in American history you may want to read this article.
The New Jersey Historical Commission and Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area are looking for a new logo as they prepare to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution.
Here is a taste:
William Livingston (1723-1790) was a prominent Whig lawyer, prolific writer on behalf of the cause of liberty, member of the Continental Congress, and the governor of New Jersey during the American Revolution. His personal papers are widely accessible to historians. It is thus surprising that until James Gigantino’s William Livingston’s American Revolution, the only biography of Livingston was James Sedgwick’s hagiographical A Memoir of the Life of William Livingston, published in 1833.
Read the entire review here.
Earlier today I was reading the Journal of the Votes and Proceedings of the Convention of New Jersey (Burlington, NJ: Isaac Collins, 1776). This is essentially the minutes of the New Jersey Provincial Congress) in the weeks leading up to and following the Declaration of Independence. (The NJ Provincial Congress is the body that sent delegates to the Continental Congress, endorsed independence, and wrote the New Jersey State Constitution)
On July 1, 1776, the minutes state:
Whereas by a regulation of the late Congress the several committees in this colony were authorized and directed to disarm all the non-associators and persons notoriously disaffected within their bounds. And whereas it appears that the said regulations hath not been carried into effect in some parts of the colony; and it being absolutely necessary, in the present dangerous state of publick affairs when arms are much wanted for the publick defense, that it should be instantly executed. That the several colonels in this colony do, without delay, proceed to disarm all such persons within their districts, whose religious principles will not permit them to bear arms; and likewise all such as have hitherto refused and still do refuse to bear arms; that the arms so taken be appraised by some indifferent person or persons; that the said colonels give vouchers for the same, and that the appraisement and receipt be left in the hands of the person disarmed. (Italic mine).
For those blog readers who know a thing or two about the American Revolution, have you ever seen a case in which a state legislature (or some other body, such as a local committee of safety) confiscates guns from those with a religious conviction against bearing arms (in this case, New Jersey Quakers)? And if you have seen something like this before, were they reimbursed with vouchers or something similar?
I am reading Mark Lender’s and Garry Stone’s outstanding book Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). In 2017, the book was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.
In the authors’ discussion of Brigadier General Charles Scott’s march through Princeton on June 24, 1778, they write:
As it marched, Scott’s column found the public enthusiastic about the unfolding campaign; there was a perception that affairs were building toward a climax. As the troops passed through Princeton–a town that suffered its share of pillage in 1776 and 1777–residents gave the soldiery a warm welcome. As Private Joseph Plumb recalled, they dealt out ‘”toddy” to the men as they marched by, “which caused the detachment to move slowly at this place.” Cheerful young ladies watched “the noble exhibition of a thousand half-starved and three-quarters naked soldiers pass in review.” In this, the private’s memory lapsed a bit: the troops were actually in reasonably good condition. But he remembered the “ladies” well enough. “I declare that I never before or since saw more beauty,” he wrote. “They were all beautiful.” With sectional loyalty, the Connecticut soldier allowed that “Yankee ladies” were perhaps smarter, but he insisted that “New Jersey and Pennsylvania ladies” were “handsome, the most so of any in the United States.” We can never know if his comrades shared his infatuation, but his paean to the Princeton belles suggests that on that evening, they were as much concerned with Venus as with Mars.”
Lender and Stone source this paragraph with footnote 54. Here is what that footnote says:
J.P. Martin, Yankee Doodle, 123. Joseph Plumb Martin’s rhapsody on Jersey girls predates that of Tom Waits by two centures. And for those mystified by the reference, Tom Waits released the popular song “Jersey Girl” in 1980 on his Heartattack and Vine album; the Bruce Springsteen cover of 1981 made it even more popular. Waits was clearly of the same opinion as Private Martin.
To fellow Jersey boys Lender and Stone: Thanks for making my Saturday afternoon with that footnote!
“Down the shore everything’s all right.”
Jim Gigantino is Associate Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. This interview is based on his new book William Livingston’s American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write William Livingston’s American Revolution?
JG: In my first book, The Ragged Road to Abolition, I stumbled on William Livingston, specifically his interactions as a quasi-abolitionist and his wartime leadership in New Jersey in its relation to sustaining slavery. What stunned me about him was that he had a vast collection of papers, was a member of the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention, and a governor in a state central to the Revolution for fifteen years and no one had ever written a book about his relationship with the country’s founding since the 1830s. When I was thinking about a second project, Livingston kept coming into my head so I figured I should listen to him!
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of William Livingston’s American Revolution?
JG: William Livingston’s American Revolution explores how New Jerseyans experienced the American Revolution and managed a state government on the war’s front lines. It illustrates the operations of revolutionary era governments and those who guided the day-to-day operations, administrators, like Livingston, who served as the principal conduits between the local wartime situation and the national demands placed on the states.
JF: Why do we need to read William Livingston’s American Revolution?
JG: If you want to see how the war was prosecuted at the ground level, then this book is for you. As a wartime bureaucrat, Livingston played a pivotal role in a pivotal place, prosecuting the war on a daily basis for eight years. He is the perfect example of a second-tier founding father, those who actually administered the nitty gritty of the war. Through Livingston’s life and political career, we can examine the complex nature of the conflict and the choice to wage it, the constant battle over loyalty on the home front, the limits of patriot governance under fire, and the ways in which wartime experiences affected the creation of the Constitution.
JF: What courses do you teach at the University of Arkansas?
JG: Well, right now, I do not teach much of anything since after three years as our department’s Associate Chair & Director of Graduate Studies, I assumed the role of Department Chair this past July. In the spring, I will get back into the classroom teaching a survey course but most of my courses are mainly upper-level Colonial America and Revolutionary America courses. I also teach the first half of African American history when I have a free spot but with these administrative duties, that unfortunately is getting less and less often.
JF: What is your next project?
JG: I am working on a project tentatively titled 1804: The Year that Changed America. Through five interconnected vignettes (beginning of gradual abolition in the North, the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis & Clark’s Expedition, Haitian Independence, and the burning of the USS Philadelphia in the Barbary Coast War), 1804 illustrates how specific events in a single year influenced the course of American history. Each vignette explores one of three themes set into motion in 1804: sectional antagonism that culminated in the American Civil War, the destruction of Native American power in North America, and the economic and political expansion of American power globally. The book will integrate all of them into a single narrative that illustrates the domestic and international pressures that transformed how Americans saw themselves and their place in the world. It is still in its early stages but it has been exciting to explore a whole host of issues I have not touched for quite some time.
JF: Thanks, Jim!
Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell tells the story of Dr. James Thacher at the Battle of Springfield, New Jersey in June 1780. As someone who has written a bit about homesickness, I was attracted to this part of Bell’s post (and Thacher’s diary):
As for other soldiers, Thacher noted another curious condition:
Our troops in camp are in general healthy, but we are troubled with many perplexing instances of indisposition, occasioned by absence from home, called by Dr. [William] Cullen nostalgia, or home sickness. This complaint is frequent among the militia, and recruits from New England. They become dull and melancholy, with loss of appetite, restless nights, and great weakness. In some instances they become so hypochondriacal as to be proper subjects for the hospital. This disease is in many instances cured by the raillery of the old soldiers, but is generally suspended by a constant and active engagement of the mind, as by the drill exercise, camp discipline, and by uncommon anxiety, occasioned by the prospect of a battle.
As at summer camp, staying busy helped alleviate homesickness. As did the prospect of being hit, or even nearly hit, with a cannon ball.
Read the entire post here. I am hoping to include Thacher’s account of the Revolutionary War in Springfield in my current project on New Jersey and the American Revolution.