Try, try again

Sleigh racing in 19th-century Newark.

MORE ancient and enduring than New Jersey’s status as a Revolutionary battleground has been its contest for self-definition. The state is often coarsely cast as suffering a kind of bipolar disorder, forever torn between the megacities it faces across its two frontier rivers. The nature of that struggle is of course far more complex, variously experienced over three and a half centuries of existence. In the decade of the 1840s, when William A. Whitehead returned to make his native state a permanent home, the drama of New Jersey’s identity played out in at least three arenas: its school law, its constitution, and the annals of its colonial past.

For a half century, the state of New Jersey left the education of children largely to parents, churches and schools set up by private initiative. In 1817 a young politician of Perth Amboy, whose daughter Margaret would grow up to be Whitehead’s spouse, persuaded his fellow assemblymen to convert the windfall from a sale of bank stock into a “Fund for the Support of Free Schools.” A victory for the progress of education in the state, James Parker’s plan was by no means secure or universally effective. Parker and others had to fight on continuously to expand the fund and prevent its being raided for other purposes. And yet, many localities in the state evinced little or no interest in schools sustained by public money.

The public or “common school” movement gained urgency in the 1830s, not least in response to the changing complexion of New Jersey’s population. The tide of immigrants from Ireland and continental Europe, mostly poor, Catholic and having little formal schooling or experience of republican government, filled many in the Protestant establishment with alarm. Skeptical of the allegiances and religious sympathies of these newcomers, leading citizens rallied behind public schools as an instrument of assimilation organized and regulated by the state.

By the time New Jersey moved to replace its original 1776 constitution–then the oldest state charter still in force–a deeper commitment to common schools prevailed. The 1844 constitution strictly barred the legislature from tapping into the school fund, “or any part thereof, for any other purpose, under any pretence whatever.”1 Nonetheless, dissatisfaction with the defects of common schools persisted, and became better organized both locally and statewide.

The Society of Teachers and Friends of Education called a convention for 5 February 1845, summoning representatives from all parts of New Jersey to the capital of Trenton to press for a thorough overhaul of the present system.2 At a January “meeting for education” in Newark chaired by New Jersey Chief Justice Joseph C. Hornblower, seventy-nine men from Essex County were selected to attend the February convention. William A. Whitehead was among their number.3

John Romeyn Brodhead was appointed by the State of New York to obtain copies of colonial documents in Europe.

Another, much younger movement was advancing in step with that for school reform: the campaign to recover the state’s documentary heritage from archives abroad. Whitehead in 1841 had made a private gesture to this end, inquiring after any New Jersey records that could have come under the gaze of Jared Sparks during his much publicized forays into foreign repositories.4 Whitehead also followed with keen interest the overseas missions of other states, particularly New York, whose historical society in 1839 had garnered legislative approval and funding to appoint John Romeyn Brodhead its agent in the archives of England, France and The Netherlands.

In January 1843 William Paterson, another young assemblyman from Perth Amboy, proposed creation of a special committee to make contact with Brodhead while he remained in England, to discover what materials were there for the early history of New Jersey, and to determine the probable cost of copying them. The Newark Daily Advertiser urged adoption of this measure, “for the present is a most favorable opportunity for making the proposed enquiries.” But while it “met with approbation in all quarters,” the resolution never advanced.5

If Whitehead had thought the proposal would succeed on its own merits, he was a year older and wiser when Paterson reintroduced it the following January. This time, the committee was not only appointed, but was equipped with a detailed report on the character of New Jersey’s colonial documents. “Surely,” the report stated, “it is not only proper but it should also be the pride of New Jersey to emulate the examples of her sister States.” The Assembly was urged to act before Brodhead concluded his work in Europe: “the appointment of a special agent to carry out the views of the legislature, and the consequent increased expense, may be avoided by securing his services…”6

The report noted, further, that the lack of a historical society for New Jersey was “perhaps a matter of regret.” Such an organization, had it existed, could have already initiated a survey of documents in foreign archives, started to collect materials of value, or at least given earlier impetus for legislative action: “but even if there had been such an institution,” the report went on, “its efforts would have been useless and unavailing, without the aid and assistance of the State.”

The committee admitted that, in the absence of a historical society, it had relied on the services of “a citizen of this State, who has devoted much time and industry to the examination of the history of New Jersey, and to whose researches the committee are indebted for whatever of interest or value is embodied in this report.” Although signed only by the four committee members, the document in its wording and tenor bears all the hallmarks of Whitehead’s cogent thinking.7

Despite Whitehead’s strenuous efforts on the committee’s behalf, the resolutions failed. A Trenton correspondent for the Daily Advertiser vilified the assemblymen who voted them down, blaming “the selfish and narrow-minded fears of party politicians” for a result “derogatory to the honor and character of the State, and to the judgment and feeling of those true Jerseymen who are proud of their ancestors,” men who acted “with a boldness and courage of which their descendants cannot boast….”8 More disheartening than the initial defeat, a motion at the beginning of February to suspend the rules and reconsider the resolutions was lost by just one vote.9

In the course of these events, Whitehead had taken up the pen once more, this time to counsel against too zealous a campaign to collect transcriptions of foreign documents. While sure of the need to obtain “definite information as to the number and character of the papers,” he cautioned that a commitment to employing an overseas agent and a large-scale program of indiscriminate copying would likely prove costly, and produce unnecessary duplicates of materials already in the state’s hands.  He advised, rather, that New Jersey apply to other states for relevant documents, and seek out family papers then languishing in the “garrets and lumber rooms” of “descendants of many distinguished Jerseymen.”

Whitehead also revisited the idea of a historical society for New Jersey. While it would be gratifying to see his native state join the twenty-one others that had organized such bodies, he doubted that such a venture “could be conducted with the spirit which alone ensures success.” The numbers of prospective members in any one town or city, he felt, were insufficient to sustain and nurture it. If a society did materialize it could, “if thought advisable,” serve as the repository for such documents as had been collected. But the foremost responsibility for gathering these materials, in Whitehead’s view, lay with the people’s representatives in the state legislature.10

Nicholas Murray, a leader in the creation of a historical society for New Jersey.

In fact, the movement to form a historical society of New Jersey was already underway. While the idea was hardly a new one and its realization seen by many as long overdue, the immediate impulse for its founding in February 1845 seems to have originated with two Presbyterian ministers: Daniel V. McLean of Freehold, and Nicholas Murray of Elizabethtown.11 Before Whitehead’s measured thoughts on the matter could find their way into print, the Advertiser published a call, to “all those friendly to the formation of a New Jersey Historical Society,” to meet in Trenton on the 6th of February, the day after the convention on common schools.

The sponsors of the call avowed that their objective and the meeting itself were thoughtfully designed to suit the schedules of busy men:

Hurried and eager as our people ever are in the pursuit of present objects, they can give but little time to the recollections of the past, and are prone to forget the solemn lessons of their own history. Hence the necessity of the organization now proposed.

The time named for the organization it will be observed is favorable to the object, which may be thus accomplished without the trouble and expense of a general meeting for the purpose.12

The invitation in the Advertiser was subscribed by McLean, Murray, Joseph Hornblower, William Pennington and Joseph P. Bradley. All but McLean hailed from Essex County. Whitehead was only indirectly associated with the plan, if at all. The common schools convention, at which his attendance and that of many others was already arranged, would guarantee a respectable turnout for a historical society meeting, while the prestige of those who had signed the invitation would, in Whitehead’s judgment, ensure its success. Still, he hoped “that this certainty may not prevent our legislators from doing what is now expected of them.”13

Trenton City Hall, where the New Jersey Historical Society was organized on 27 February 1845.

He would have to adjust his expectations, but so would everyone who counted on large assemblies in Trenton on the 5th and 6th of February. On the last night of a January so mild that according to Whitehead’s monthly weather review “old Winter seemed to have abdicated his throne in favor of spring,” the temperature in Newark plummeted to 8 degrees. Following three more days of bitter cold, a powerful nor’easter buried northern New Jersey beneath two feet of drifting snow.14 For several days after, railroad connections were severed with the rest of the state, and Newark’s streets rang with the cheery jingling of sleigh bells.15

The common schools convention opened in Trenton as planned, though with much reduced attendance, as did the first meeting of the Historical Society the next day. But one session, one institution, or even one century couldn’t suffice for the challenges facing these gatherings. Each adjourned after achieving only a few modest goals, to convene again in three weeks with many more present, and William Whitehead ready to take his part.

Copyright © 2021-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Constitution of 1844, Article IV, Section 7, Clause 6.

[2] Sentinel of freedom (Newark, N.J.) 10 December 1844 2:6.

[3] “Meeting for education,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 15 January 1845 2:3.

[4] “I have been struck with the paucity of the original materials existing among us,” Whitehead wrote. W. A. Whitehead to Jared Sparks, 7 May 1841, Jared Sparks Letterbooks, MS Sparks 153, Houghton Library, Harvard University. For more on Sparks, see the preceding post “Lights and shadows.”

[5] “New Jersey colonial records,” Newark daily advertiser 6 February 1843.02.06 2:1; Sentinel of freedom 7 February 1843 2:4. “New Jersey colonial records,” Newark daily advertiser 11 February 1843 2:1; Sentinel of freedom 14 February 1843 2:1. Newark daily advertiser 28 March 1843 2:1.

[6] Legislature of New Jersey, “Report on New Jersey colonial records,” Newark daily advertiser 17 January 1844 2:5-6; Sentinel of freedom 23 January 1844 4:2-3. The report was reprinted in William A. Whitehead, ed. An analytical index to the colonial documents of New Jersey, in the state paper offices of England, compiled by Henry Stevens (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 5. New York 1858) vii-xii.

[7] The Newark papers added a footnote: “The Committee doubtless refer to Wm. A. Whitehead, Esq. of this city–who has rendered distinguished services in this department of American history.”

[8] “Colonial Records,” Newark daily advertiser 22 January 1844 2:2; Sentinel of freedom 23 January 1844 2:4.

[9] Newark daily advertiser 3 February 1844 2:2; Sentinel of freedom 6 February 1844 2:? “Legislature of New Jersey,” Newark daily advertiser 3 February 1844 2:3.

[10] G.P., “New Jersey history,” Newark daily advertiser 30 January 1845 2:3.

[11] At the 6 February meeting, to an audience much diminished by the nor’easter of the 4th and 5th, Ewing’s Eli F. Cooley praised his fellow pastor Daniel McLean for having “originated the project.” The remark was reported in a Trenton newspaper and repeated in the Newark Advertiser: “New Jersey Historical Society,” Newark daily advertiser 8 February 1845 2:2. The report of this initial meeting later printed in the Proceedings of the Society (where it is erroneously dated to 13 January) credits “gentlemen of Monmouth County” with choosing the occasion of the common schools meeting to launch the venture: Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society [ser. 1,] 1 (1845-1846) 1. But judging by a letter to the publisher of the Advertiser, Nicholas Murray may have played an even more prominent role. Murray wrote enthusiastically of the common schools convention as the ideal gathering of “the mind and enterprise of our State,” and pledged to “see that delegates are appointed to consult as to a Historical Society.” Nicholas Murray to William B. Kinney, Manuscript Group 388, Nicholas Murray Papers, New Jersey Historical Society. The date on the letter of 24 January 1845 may pertain only to its postscript: the body of the letter was presumably composed before delegates were chosen.

[12] Newark daily advertiser 28 January 1845 2:2.

[13] G.P., “New Jersey history.”

[14] “Review of the weather for January 1845,” Newark daily advertiser 1 February 1845 2:3. “Review of the weather for February, 1845,” Newark daily advertiser 1 March 1845 2:5.

[15] “The great snow storm,” Newark daily advertiser 5 February 1845 2:2. “The storm–roads, &c.” Newark daily advertiser 6 February 1845 2:1.

Images: 1) Cyrus Durand Chapman, High Street: the winter speed-way, March 1st, 1890. New Jersey Fine Prints, Special Collections, Newark Public Library, Newark, N.J. 2) Brodhead: Daguerreotype portrait (London: Mayall, 1848) via The 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop. 3) Nicholas Murray: [Charles Robson, ed.] The biographical encyclopaedia of New Jersey of the nineteenth century (Philadelphia 1877) facing p.90. 4) Trenton City Hall: photograph courtesy Trenton Free Public Library.

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