1776 Reenactments

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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the December 4, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Many Colors of History

It is just about time to commemorate one of New Jersey’s

finest hours: George Washington’s guerilla foray across the ice-choked

Delaware, and the patriots’ stunning triumphs at Trenton and Princeton.

Those battles helped ensure the success of the American Revolution

— which was, in turn, just the dramatic climax of a colonial saga

in which vigorous British-Americans yearned to breathe free and bring

liberty and justice to all.

Right? Hardly.

"That patriotic paradigm gets narrated as if its the whole story

of early American history, but it’s not," said Alan Taylor, a

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of American history at

University of California, Davis. In a phone interview, Taylor argues

that if we continue to focus only on selective bits of early British-American

history, we fail to see the people and institutions that created the

American Revolution in their proper context.

"You’re not seeing a continent being colonized by highly competitive

empires," he continues. "You’re not seeing native peoples

as anything but an enemy of British-Americans, and you’re not looking

at the people — such as African-Americans — who aren’t allowed

to participate in the Revolution’s benefits."

Taylor, who is 47 with a Ph.D. from Brandeis University, won both

the Bancroft and the Pulitzer Prizes in 1996 for his book "William

Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American

Republic." In 2001, he published "American Colonies: The Settling

of North America" (Viking/Penguin), a lauded account of America’s

settling and colonization. He is also the keynote speaker at the New

Jersey Historical Commission’s annual conference entitled "The

People of Colonial and Revolutionary New Jersey," which takes

place in Trenton on Saturday, December 7.

In "American Colonies," Taylor points out that early American

history was driven as much by grim realities as redemptive ones. "More

than minor aberrations," he writes in the book, "Indian deaths

and African slaves were fundamental to colonization." With its

volatile mix of white, brown, and black peoples, colonial America

replaced the European class system with a strict hierarchy of race.

That may have given more economic opportunity to the common (white)

man, but his gain came at the expense of others. (British law, which

replaced more inclusive Dutch practices in the middle colonies, effectively

shut women out of independent commerce and inheritance.)

Taylor’s picture of colonization is a tangled mass of cultural, ethnic,

and religious groups and conflicts. Colonial America saw a dramatic

shift in immigration between the 17th and 18th centuries, he says.

The immigrants who came in the 1600s were overwhelmingly English.

In the 1700s, however, the English became an immigrant minority among

larger numbers of Germans and Scotch-Irish — and an even larger

group of African-Americans coming as slaves.

That influx stressed many colonies set up, Taylor says, "to attract

people of a particular religious persuasion — and not attract

others." All settlers faced harsh conditions as they turned forests

into farms with hand tools and wrought an astonishingly rapid ecological

transformation, introducing new animals — especially cattle —

and grasses (as well as weeds) from Europe.

New Jersey was first part of New Netherland, which was conquered by

the British in 1664. It was then divided into East and West Jersey

before being united as a royal colony in 1701. Colonies that were

settled relatively late — such as West Jersey and Pennsylvania

— had several advantages over earlier ones, Taylor says: Settlers

already had an established market, particularly in the West Indies,

for farm goods.

And Europeans emigrating here at the end of the 1600s

were "the unwitting beneficiaries of a great tragedy among Indian

peoples," Taylor says. By then, the population of the Delaware

Indians had been decimated by as much as 80 percent due to diseases,

such as smallpox, introduced by Europeans.

"The survivors are shellshocked by this demographic disaster,

and they have Indian enemies to the North," he adds. "The

Delaware Indians were at first eager to have colonial friends they

could sell land to and trade with."

David S. Cohen, director of the New Jersey Historical Commission’s

ethnic history program, embellishes the tale of New Jersey’s settlement;

at the December 7 conference, his lecture entitled "The Mid Atlantic

Colonies: Cradle of American Pluralism" will follow Taylor’s.

Cohen says that the diversity which defines the mid-Atlantic colonies

began when the region was first (if only sparsely) settled as part

of New Netherland. The Dutch colony was motivated more by mercantile

than religious fervor, and tolerated — in addition to Dutch Reformed

settlers, many of whom stayed under British rule — New England

Puritans, German Lutherans, English Quakers, and Jews from Holland.

That fundamental diversity accelerated when the mid-Atlantic got settled

as English colonies under Catholic kings.

"The Stuart kings pushed tolerance in contrast to the established

Church of England," Cohen says. They founded the Catholic colony

of Maryland, as well as the Quaker colonies of Pennsylvania and West

Jersey — which in turn invited the full range of German sects

and Scotch-Irish.

"The middle colonies become the most ethnically diverse on the

continent," Cohen says. "That’s why I call them the cradle

of pluralism — but it wasn’t a peaceful cradle by any means."

Ethnic tensions got roiled by a religious upheaval in the 1740s known

as the Great Awakening. The movement caused a schism in several Protestant

denominations between "New Light" revivalists, who favored

a more spontaneous evangelicalism, and conservative practitioners

who wanted to cleave to more orthodox forms of worship. (By the time

of the Revolution, that religious schism had become political: Many

patriots were New Lighters, Cohen says, while loyalists tended to

be religious conservatives.)

For the first time, the Great Awakening leads to a blurring —

Cohen calls it an "Americanization" — of longstanding

ethnic denominational differences. Gilbert Tennent, for instance,

the pastor of New Brunswick’s First Presbyterian Church, starts to

preach the same message as Theodore Frelinghuysen, a leading

Dutch Reformed minister in New Jersey.

They want to turn out more New Light ministers, leading the Tennent

family to found the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University,

while Frelinghuysen’s affiliates establish Queens College, later Rutgers


And New Lighters push to convert Indians and African-Americans —

a move that doesn’t "necessarily make those groups culturally

similar," Cohen says. "If anything, religious conversion often

leads to a kind of Christian moral outrage."

One example is Teedyuscung, a Christian convert who Cohen says was

as pivotal a leader to the Delaware Indians as George Washington was

to the colonials. By the mid-1700s, Delaware tribes were being regularly

cheated out of and pushed off land in New Jersey and Pennsylvania,

and Teedyuscung "was very outspoken in asserting their complaints

against Europeans."

Despite what Cohen calls the Indians’ "brilliant diplomacy"

of trying to play different settler and Indian groups off of each

other, "they were outmanned and didn’t have the power to counteract

the forces pushing on them." By the American Revolution, the Lenni

Lenape had been driven into what would become the states of Ohio,

Indiana, and Illinois, and 50 years later were west of the Mississippi.

"Their remnants are now primarily in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and

Canada," Cohen says, noting that a descendant is now trying to

revive the language, known now only to a handful of speakers.

The Revolution also posed a tremendous dilemma for African-Americans.

"Why should they fight," Cohen asks, "for the people who

enslaved them?" African-Americans could enlist as substitutes

for patriots and were promised their freedom if they did, though many

found themselves enslaved again after the war.

Others decided to fight instead for the British, another

part of the story that Cohen says hasn’t been fully told. A former

slave named Colonel Tye, for instance, fought on the side of the British

at the Battle of Monmouth — and then led a group of African-American

guerillas who raided patriot farms. After the Revolution, New Jersey

adopted a system of gradual abolition, eventually freeing all children

born to slaves after 1804.

Among all the colonies, Cohen asserts, those in the middle are the

least understood and appreciated, with some historians even arguing

that they don’t constitute a distinct region with a shared identity.

But Cohen disagrees.

"New Englanders define America in terms of their individualism,

while Westerners think the frontier gave America its character,"

he says. "The South claims the first generation of American leaders,

but the mid-Atlantic gave America its pluralism. The region is tied

together by history, and we should stop having this inferiority complex

about it."

With its diverse ethnic and intellectual heritage, the mid-Atlantic

produced many leaders of the abolition and suffrage movements. And

its legacy of pluralism, Cohen states, is just as important as representative

democracy in ensuring America’s survival.

"The fact that such a large country had so many ‘factions,’ as

James Madison called them, means that no one group can totally dominate

for long," Cohen says. America’s constant balancing act keeps

the country from splitting apart like other nations with ethnic and

religious factions, such as the former Yugoslavia.

"Diversity is our strength — but it’s not a simplistic process,"

Cohen says. "American democracy continues to rely on shifts and

balances, and our history has never been a simple one of progress."

— Phyllis Maguire

The People of Colonial and Revolutionary New Jersey, New

Jersey Historical Commission , Trenton War Memorial, 609-984-3458.

Annual conference features Alan Taylor and David Cohen, plus lunch

and a choice of afternoon workshops and tours. $30 (includes lunch);

$25 for students and seniors. By reservation. Also see www.newjerseyhistory.org.

Saturday, December 7, 8:30 a.m.

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1776 Reenactments

Monroe Crossing Reenactment, Coryell’s Ferry Militia,

South Main Street to Ferry Street, New Hope, 215-862-2050. A colonial

dress commemoration of Lieutenant James Monroe’s troop crossing of

the Delaware on Christmas Day 1776. Monroe, who became fifth president

of the United States, led his men in a mission to keep enemy soldiers

from calling for backup when General Washington’s troops engaged them

in battle. Free. Saturday, December 14, noon.

Washington’s Crossing, Washington Crossing Historic

Park , Routes 32 and 532, Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, 215-493-4076.

Annual reenactment marking the 226th anniversary of George Washington’s

Crossing of the Delaware. Visitors Center opens at 11 a.m. The parade

and river crossing begin at 1 p.m. Free. Wednesday, December 25.

For the 2002 commemoration, a conflict has broken out between the

Historic Park and the citizen’s group that stages this re-enactment.

Confirm ahead that the crossing will take place.

Battles of Trenton Celebration, Old Barracks Museum,

Barrack Street, Trenton, 609-396-1776. The annual celebration of the

Battles of Trenton, fought December 26, 1776, and January 2, 1777,

representing George Washington’s first victories in winning independence

for America. Free. Saturday, December 28, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Ten Crucial Days Celebration Weekend, Battle of Princeton,

Princeton Battlefield State Park, 609-777-1770. The 226th anniversary

of the Battle of Princeton commemorated with battlefield tours and

period demonstrations. Free. Sunday, December 29, noon.

Other Lectures

Michael Zuckerman, David Library of the American Revolution,

1201 River Road, Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, 215-493-6776.

"A Tale of Two Citizens: Rich and Poor in Early America" presented

by historian Michael Zuckerman. Free. Sunday, December 8, 3 p.m.

Women of the Revolution, Buccleuch Mansion, Easton

Avenue, Buccleuch Park, New Brunswick, 732-745-5094. Meet Martha Washington

portrayed by Pat Jordan of the American Historical Theater. Free.

Sunday, December 15, 3 p.m.

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