170 Years Ago, Delaware Twp. in the Midst of a Controversy

As you may recall from the previous episode, local newspapers announced to the residents of Hunterdon that about a third of the county would be taken away to form the new county of Mercer, and old Amwell Township would be divided into three new townships: Delaware, Raritan and Amwell. The new Amwell consisted of today’s East and West Amwell, along with Ringoes and Lambertville. Stockton was still a part of Delaware Township, and Flemington was still part of Raritan.1834 Map of Western NJ

So, what did people think about it? We can’t know what everyone thought, of course, but the letter-writers made themselves abundantly clear. Two letters appeared in the Hunterdon County Gazette for March 14th, 1838 that expressed the outrage felt by the “Citizens of Amwell.” One of them is too good to paraphrase:

“Mr. Editor: – ‘There is a time when forbearance ceases to be a virtue;’ – when the voice of public liberty cries for redress at the hands of an enlightened and generous community. That time has been ushered in at a moment when the rights of the people seemed secure and unassailable. The recent transactions of our state legislature, to whom we are accustomed to look for the preservation of those sacred bonds that hold us together, cannot evade the scrutinizing eye of public justice.

“It is well known that the divisions of the township of Amwell, marked out by a few designing and interested individuals, and ratified by our legislative body, is [sic] a vital thrust at the rights of the people, and as such must incur the indignant sentence of public disapprobation. If the hallowed principles upon which our government is founded are to be thus violated with impunity, and our necks to be fettered by the iron chains of a few would-be patriots, then good night to liberty.”

And further on, “We feel conscious that the sanctity of our authority has been treated with contempt, in the division of our town-ship; that our right of representation, which we claim as ‘inalienable,’ has been clandestinely embezzled by dishonest ‘men and measures,’ and our constituents gulled into enactments as pernicious as they were rash and precipitate.

“It is an injury to which we cannot tamely submit – we cannot submit to see our property and that of our neighbors depreciated, without an appeal to such means as will reinstate it to its original valuation. And how is this to be done? Is it to proceed demurely to organize ourselves in the respective townships in which we have been most strangely juggled together, and bow in servile submission to the legerdemain of tyrants in miniature? Or must not such pernicious enactments rather meet with their doom in the virtuous indignation of a free people, who are as incapable of servile sub-ordination as they are of political intrigue. [signed] CITIZENS OF AMWELL. Ringoes, March 6, 1838.”

This letter shows how much more literate the Citizens of Amwell were than we are today. The passion of this writer rings like a bell. It was the usual practice in those days for people writing to the editor of a newspaper to use a pseudonym. Perhaps it was because politics was so up close and personal then that people needed a little space to express their opinions.

Things would have been more interesting if the Hunterdon County Democrat had been in business, but that paper did not start publishing until September 1838, too late for this story. The Democrat was a very partisan paper, as its name suggests.  The Gazette, under editor Charles George, purported to be neutral, but George was in fact a Whig, and his sympathies showed in his editorial column. Had the Democrat been covering this issue, there might have been more fireworks in Hunterdon County.

Who were the Whigs and who were the Democrats? The Democratic Party came into being during the campaign of 1828 between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Both men had belonged to the old Republican party begun by Thomas Jefferson, but divisions had emerged over the years, which were embodied by the presidential candidates. Adams men called themselves National Republicans and Jackson men called themselves Democratic Republicans, which became shortened to Democrats by the 1830s. By the time Jackson won his second term in 1832, Adams’ National Republicans had faded away, but opposition to Jackson’s policies was still strong, led by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. In 1834, when Jackson was proposing radical economic policies, the opposition compared him to King George, and described themselves as defenders of liberty. They took the name “Whig” from the English party opposed to the Tories in 18th century England.

“New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries,” written by John P. Snyder, is the definitive work on New Jersey municipalities. It is an excellent book, but Mr. Snyder was in error when he wrote that Delaware was created by referendum on April 2, 1838. Surprised by that statement, I went to the State Archives to see if I could find evidence of a referendum. There was none, as the letter-writers to the Gazette make abundantly clear. The legislation simply states that the division would take effect “on and after the first Monday of April next” which was April 2, 1838.

The call for virtuous indignation by the Citizens of Amwell was answered by a “large and respectable gathering” that took place on March 15th at the tavern of William Yard in Ringoes. The Gazette published the report of the meeting and the resolutions that were voted on. John Barber of Delaware Township was chosen to be chairman of the meeting. He had been chosen as Moderator for Amwell Township’s last town meeting in 1837.

The secretary was Henry S. Hunt Esq., who had lost the election to the Council to Joseph Moore in October 1837. Joseph Moore was the member of Council who introduced the bill to divide Amwell Township. The Council was the equivalent of today’s State Senate. Each county got one member. Hunt had run as an anti-Caucus Democrat, and got a majority of votes in Moore’s home of Hopewell Twp. Moore, running as the regular Democrat, won in Amwell, which was Hunt’s home.

After officers were chosen, a committee was selected to compose “resolutions expressive of the sentiments of the meeting.” James J. Fisher of Delaware Twp. was a member, along with Elijah Wilson Esq. who lived in Raritan Twp. Wilson was a business partner with Henry H. Fisher of Delaware and in 1844 acquired the old Thatcher store across from the Township Hall in Sergeantsville in 1844. (This is the building just east of the store on the southeast corner of Sergeantsville’s main intersection, now owned by Gordon Darling.)

The resolutions stated in part: “when, without any note of warning, without even an intimation to the people– and with apparently a studied desire to avoid being known to the people– a few designing individuals, under pretense of representing our wishes and of obeying our call, have taken all power and all prerogative into their hands and induced a too confiding legislature to pass such enactments in opposition to our wishes and without our consent:  Therefore,

“1st.  Resolved, That by submitting quietly to such acts of usurpation, our rights as freemen are taken away–that they are a vital thrust at the sovereignty of the people–and are calculated to sap the foundation of the laws of the state, and to undermine the basis upon which our liberties rest.

“2nd.  Resolved.  That we seriously regret the manner in which our township has been divided by a recent law of the state, and think we can recognize a train of personal interests that have been engaged to deceive the legislature, in persons pledging themselves that the inhabitants of the township were in favor of a division when in fact we believe that not one in 100 of them knew that such a bill was before the House.

“3d.  Resolved.  That by thus treating us as slaves and bondsmen, and by thus invading and abasing [sic, abusing?] the inalienable right of every American patriot, we feel that the advocates of this political fraud, and the principle of the fraud itself, should receive the censure and disapprobation of every independent freedom-loving inhabitant of old Amwell.”

Fisher and Wilson, along with the other members of the committee, were all Whigs. The Whigs of Amwell were more upset about the division than the Democrats were. The division of Amwell was done to benefit Democrats rather than Whigs, who were only interested in the new county of Mercer. According to the editor of the New Jersey State Gazette, “the originators of this measure” belonged “to the Flemington coterie of caucus wire workers.” He was referring to the Flemington Caucus, the local organization of Democrats.

The Flemington Caucus was notorious in New Jersey for the way party leaders manipulated the outcome of the caucus process behind the scenes. They’d learned this from Martin Van Buren and his New York political machine. A “wire worker” was a politician who influences events behind the scenes [see footnote].

Democrats benefited by the division of Amwell when two Democratic townships (Delaware and Raritan) were created and most of the Whigs isolated in the new Amwell Township, which had the lowest population. Delaware certainly had some outspoken Whigs of its own, but in subsequent legislative elections, Delaware Township was the most Democratic of the three towns.  But even Amwell voted for Democratic candidates in 1839. President Van Buren, running for a second term in 1840, took all three towns, as well as the county and the state, but lost the nation to William Henry Harrison.

In the election for congress and the legislature held in the fall of 1838, Amwell gave a very slight majority to the Whig candidates for Assembly and to Charles George, who was running as a candidate for Council against Joseph Moore. Raritan gave Moore a 34-vote plurality, but Delaware Township voted 346 to 91 for Moore. The towns voted similarly for Congress: Delaware and Raritan voted solidly for the Democrats, and Amwell gave a slight plurality to the Whigs.

We are now deep into politics, which is where I will leave it until the next episode, when I’ll explore some more of the motivation behind the division, and Joseph Moore’s part in the scheme.

Footnote: The Oxford English Dictionary defines wire worker as an earlier synonym for “wire puller”, and “wire puller” as one who works secretly to further the interest of a person or party, esp. a politician or political agent who privately influences and directs others. Their first example of wire worker was dated 1835 from “Col. Crockett’s Tour” published in Philadelphia, referring to Martin Van Buren, and quoting a Congressman: “The little magician looks as innocent as a lamb, and I do believe he is the wire worker, the very mover and organ of all those high-handed and lawless measures.”