LONG after the event, William A. Whitehead recalled how, through the 1845 founding of a historical society for New Jersey, he penetrated a circle of “several prominent gentlemen … whom I had never met before.”1 By many standards, Whitehead would have been regarded as an interloper.
The men who gathered in Trenton that February worked predominantly in New Jersey, in the ministry, government, medicine or the law, whereas Whitehead had toiled for most of his adult life outside the state, in the worldlier spheres of banking and finance. Several of the founders called Princeton, Rutgers or another college their alma mater, in contrast with Whitehead whose formal schooling had ended at age thirteen. He was also among the youngest of the 88 original members, and the second youngest of its first officers: those making up the Society’s founding leadership were, on average, fifteen or more years his senior at the time of their election.
Yet there was no denying Whitehead a seat in such company. His efforts had brought the legislature closer than ever to authorizing and funding a census of New Jersey colonial records in British archives. He was already known for his scholarship on the state’s early history, having authored dozens of articles for the Newark Daily Advertiser, though always over the mysterious initials “G.P.” The manuscript of his work East Jersey under the Proprietary Governments circulated among his fellow historians, and would become the first book published under the Society’s auspices.
The inauguration of the Society in the state capital and early participation by government officials bound it from birth to New Jersey’s political apparatus. The current governor and two of his predecessors, together with five current, future or former congressmen, figured among the founders. The original membership also included five justices–present or future–of the state Supreme Court, among whom was the current Chief Justice. Others in the group, such as William B. Kinney, the Advertiser’s publisher-editor, and William Whitehead himself, enjoyed family or business ties with members of the state’s political élite.
Although a smaller initial meeting had taken place on 6 February, it was three weeks later that the Society adopted a structure and chose its leadership. The minutes of the 27th show that an ad hoc committee, appointed at the earlier meeting, brought forward a draft constitution, which, upon consideration “article by article,” was approved “as altered and amended” on the same day.2
No record exists of any debate on the constitution. It comprised only nine brief articles, most of the organizational details to be elaborated later in the by-laws. In the course of a few hours, to use Whitehead’s phrase, “the organization was perfected.”3 The thorny question of where the Society’s collections should be housed was left to another day. The election of officers and of an executive committee seems to have been at least as perfunctory a process. All the candidates nominated were unanimously approved, with Whitehead elevated to the post of corresponding secretary, a title he would hold for the rest of his life.
To the minds of many present, the constitutional “deliberations” at Trenton on 27 February would have evoked, if only faintly, yet another meeting in that city the previous year, convened to revise the constitution of the state. New Jersey’s original constitution had been hurriedly passed in 1776, with no mechanism for amending it, but sentiment in favor of a new charter was weak.
Nevertheless, a convention was called and delegates gathered for that purpose from all of New Jersey’s nineteen counties. Developed over six weeks in May and June 1844 and ratified by popular referendum in August, the document they drew up was a mere six months old at the time the Historical Society was formed. A core group of individuals were involved in both enterprises: ten of the Society’s original members had been delegates to the constitutional convention, and three of the ten were members of the committee of five that produced the Society’s draft constitution taken up the next year.
Of the 58 Jerseymen who met to frame the state constitution, none immersed himself more fully in the debates than the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, Joseph Coerten Hornblower. Born in Belleville in 1777, Hornblower had grown to maturity with the state and the nation. One of the oldest delegates, he seems to have far exceeded the rest in industry and intensity of interest.
Hornblower, however, lacked the ability to lead his fellow delegates out of a forest of constitutional contradictions. In the same document that gave New Jersey its first bill of “rights and privileges,” the convention enshrined a 24-year-old ban on voting by all but its white male citizens. The 1844 Constitution further proclaimed all men “free and independent,” but was not explicit about the continued existence of slavery in the state. Despite Hornblower’s deeply held belief that the “free and independent” clause was tantamount to abolition, the framers sidestepped this and other divisive questions, and the Chief Justice was powerless to prevent them.
The following winter, Hornblower lent his patronage to the idea of forming a historical society. His unanimous selection as the organization’s first president recognized that contribution, but also revealed the likely resistance of Society members to any semblance of firm leadership. His frail health and the demands of the bench kept Hornblower away from many meetings, and when permitted to preside his contributions were more quietly inspirational: recollections from boyhood of the nation’s Revolutionary leaders, or of a New Jersey that was long past.4
But time would stand still for neither the fledgling Historical Society nor the venerable Chief Justice. A small number of antislavery activists filed suit to challenge the new Constitution’s refusal of suffrage to Black citizens, and to test the application of its “free and independent” clause to the institution of slavery. What would be commonly termed the New Jersey Slave Case came before Hornblower and his associate justices in May 1845.
This bold effort to construe the Constitution as ending involuntary servitude in the state secured only one favorable vote: that of the Chief Justice. In the words of the New Jersey Anti-Slavery Society, Hornblower alone “gave his voice in favour of liberty.”5 Because his opinion was delivered “verbally” and never published,6 we can’t know what arguments on the antislavery side held sway with him. The majority view, that the Constitution left slavery intact in New Jersey, was set out in two opinions written by his colleagues that borrowed extensively from the arguments of the defense attorneys. One of these, Joseph P. Bradley, had recently been elected with Hornblower an officer of the newly formed Historical Society, and a few months before had married Mary Hornblower, the Chief Justice’s youngest daughter.
Born in 1813 into a humble farming family in the countryside near Albany, New York, Bradley’s meager beginnings were an impetus for relentless self-improvement. He was an inveterate polymath, voracious for learning, thorough and unfailingly analytical. He entered the study of law while working in the Newark custom house, and was counsel and a director for a number of New Jersey corporations, including its most powerful, the Camden and Amboy Railroad.
Standing before Hornblower’s bench, Bradley contended that the Constitution safeguarded a slaveholder’s property rights and not any supposed rights of the enslaved. Many years later, after war had achieved what the Constitution could not, Bradley was named by President Grant to the nation’s highest court. The logic he espoused from that bench would have all too baleful consequences for emancipated slaves and their descendants.
Neither Hornblower nor Bradley had so profound an impact on the Historical Society as William Whitehead, but both left their mark upon it, and many of their papers were entrusted to its care. Their separate histories can’t be told without recourse to its own, obliging us to consider in what ways–and at what cost–such organizations are “perfected,” and how in the future they can be made “more perfect” still.
Copyright © 2021-2023 Gregory J. Guderian
 “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830” (typed transcript of unpublished memoir) 53.
 “Board minutes and committee reports, 1845-1879,” New Jersey Historical Society Records, Manuscript Group 1258, Box A1; “Proceedings of meetings at Trenton to organize the Society, January and February, 1845,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society [ser. 1] 1:1 (1845) 1-2. Although the initial meeting took place in February, its assignment to January in the printed Proceedings is perpetuated in many places–even, apparently, in Whitehead’s own memoir; see “Childhood and youth” 53.
 “Childhood and youth” 53.
 “Proceedings of meeting at Newark, May 17, 1849,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society [ser. 1] 4:1 (1849) 6; “Proceedings of meeting at Trenton, January 15th, 1852,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society [ser. 1] 6:2 (1852) 51-52.
 “Seventh annual report of the New Jersey Anti-Slavery Society,” The New Jersey freeman 2:9 (February 1846) 1:2-3.
 “The New Jersey Slave Case,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 19 July 1845 2:5. The draft of a letter from Hornblower to Boston publishers William Crosby and H. P. Nichols, dated 24 March 1851, makes plain that Hornblower’s opinion in the case was founded on a belief that “under the new Constitution of this State, (in the formation of which I had a part as a member of the Convention that framed it) slavery had ceased to exist in New Jersey.” Manuscript Group 10, Hornblower Family Collection, New Jersey Historical Society, Box 3, Folder 6.