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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.
"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
"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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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