Happy Birthday, Delaware Township

On February 22, 1838, the people who lived here in Delaware Township called themselves residents of Amwell Township. That’s what they had been ever since 1708 when Amwell Township was created at the behest of John Reading [a post about John Reading will be forthcoming].

Amwell was a huge township compared to the other towns in Hunterdon County, having 3 times as much territory and 3 times as great a population as the other towns. It consisted of present-day Raritan, Delaware, East and West Amwell, Lambertville, Stockton and Flemington.

Amwell residents assumed that their town would continue as it was until they read the Hunterdon Gazette and learned that on February 23, 1838, the state legislature had divided Amwell into three new townships, without bothering to get the opinion of its citizens.

The act followed by one day the creation of a new county called Mercer, which consisted of towns in old Hunterdon like Lawrence, Trenton, Ewing and Hopewell, and parts of Somerset, Burlington and Middlesex. It was named for Revolutionary War General Hugh Mercer, who died during the Battle of Princeton.

Much wheeling and dealing was required to establish this new county. Part of the deal was division of Hopewell between Mercer and Hunterdon, and the another part was division of Amwell into three new townships. The legislators even took it upon themselves to name the new towns: Raritan, Delaware and Amwell.

Because the news came so suddenly, it was not well received. People had been expecting the creation of the new county of Mercer for a few months. Meetings had been held for and against it, but by January 1838, it seemed clear that the new county bill would pass. In the elections of the previous fall, Whigs had gained control of the legislature, and they wanted more representation. The towns surrounding Trenton all had Whig tendencies, so it made sense to put them together into a new county.

Upper Hunterdon, that is, Hunterdon as it is today, was none too happy about that, being more agricultural and decidedly more Democratic. In that election in the fall of 1837, Hunterdon had split its vote between the two parties according to geography.  Five townships had voted for the Van Buren or “Caucus” ticket: Kingwood, Alexandria, Tewksbury, Reading and Amwell. By far the most Van Buren votes were cast in Amwell. The opposition Whig ticket won in Trenton, Ewing, Lawrence, Hopewell, Lebanon and Bethlehem.

So although it seems obvious and simple that the Whig towns could be formed into a new county, the problem was representation.

The constitution of 1776 was still in effect in 1838. It provided that there would be one member of Council from each county. So the new county would mean a new member of Council, who would almost certainly be a Whig.

But for the Assembly, the legislature would decide how many delegates each county could send, as long as there were no less than 39 members. Old Hunterdon had 5 members of Assembly. But when the new county was proposed, Hunterdon was to keep 5 members and Mercer would have 4. This did not sit well with some of the other counties. The new Hunterdon would have a population of about 24,000 people, which was said to entitle it to 4 members, and Mercer would be entitled to 3. But after negotiations, Hunterdon ended up with 3 and Mercer with 2, thereby maintaining the same number of members overall, and giving an advantage to Hunterdon.

On February 7th, the Hunterdon Gazette reported that the bill for a new county passed the Assembly. It included a controversial provision that divided Hopewell Township between Hunterdon and Mercer. On February 22, the bill passed the Council, but the member from old Hunterdon declined to attend the session.

This was a little surprising because the Hunterdon Council member was a Democrat, and, according to the New Jersey Gazette, the division of Hopewell was made at the request of “Van Buren men” in northern Hunterdon. Perhaps the problem was that this member of Council, Joseph Moore, happened to live in Hopewell. Joseph Moore must have felt just as divided as his township actually was. He was a Democrat, from a Whig township. Hopewell voted against him in 1837, giving him only 148 votes, while his opponent, Henry S. Hunt got 374. In Amwell, on the other hand, Moore got 730 votes while Hunt got only 486. It was Amwell that got Joseph Moore elected.

Meanwhile, the Hunterdon Gazette announced the following item:
“MORE DIVIDING– The legislature, in their wisdom, have deemed it proper to divide the township of Amwell into three—A line from the mouth of the Ellisocken to the York Road near Mount Airy, thence along said road to Greenville [Reaville] leaves Amwell to the south.–Then the road from Ringoes to Quakertown makes the line between the township of Delaware on the west and Raritan on the east of said road. So we are informed. And all done, not only without giving the people the trouble to petition for the measure, but without even letting them know that such a measure was necessary to their convenience. We like such promptness—it shows a going-ahead spirit.”

There is much more to this story. The law did not take effect until April 2, 1838. During the month of March, the people of Amwell had a chance to react, which they did. In a couple weeks, we’ll learn more about Joseph Moore and about how the residents of Amwell took the news.