Colonial re-enactors who retrace George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River and the pivotal Battles of Trenton each Christmas will sometimes tell the story of a British spy named Moses Doan.
One way to begin the conversation is by asking local history buffs what they know about loyalist sentiments in Pennsylvania and New Jersey at the time of the American Revolution. In many respects, the political divisions evident during the colonial period were not so different from that of today.
“You had people who were loyalists, you had people who were patriots; you had people who were neutral and then you had folks who played both sides,” Ray Helge, a resident of Monroe Township, N.J. explained, just prior to taking part in the re-enactment ceremony marking the first battle of Trenton. “In fact, there were probably more men serving in the Loyalist Brigade in New Jersey than there were in the Continental Army.”
[sharequote align="center"]Every successful revolution is beset with setbacks along the way.[/sharequote]
The Doan family members, and other loyalists, had good reason to believe something was up on their side of the Delaware River in Bucks County, Pa. in 1776. That’s where Washington’s Continental Army had retreated after a series of defeats. One version of events has Moses Doan finding a way to cross the Delaware by horseback and then riding all the way into Trenton where he attempted to warn Johann Rall, the Hessian commander, of an impending attack.
“I don’t know if the story was ever quite proven," said Jim Carlucci one of the re-enactors who took part in the “living history” exercises in Trenton on the Saturday after Christmas. “But I think some form of it is probably true. You have to remember the Hessians and the British thought the war was over and that the Continentals had been defeated.”
While Washington was preparing to cross the Delaware on Christmas Day 1776, Rall was attending a party in Trenton at the home of a prominent merchant named Abraham Hunt. Contrary to popular myth, Rall, and the 1,400 Hessians under his command in Trenton, were not drunk. But for a whole set of reasons, they were not expecting a major assault and were caught by surprise when the Continental Army rolled into town and set up their cannons.
This famous painting shows General George Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas Day 1776 to surprise the British and Hessian troops in Trenton, New Jersey. (Photo Credit: www.pbs.org)
“As the story is told, Doan arrived in town and attempted to get word to Rall who was playing cards inside the Hunt home at the time,” Carlucci explained. “Doan was denied entry, but he did write a note that was passed to Rall who never read it, but put it into a shirt pocket. That note was supposedly found on Rall the next day after he was fatally wounded in the battle.”
Washington’s army managed to cross the Delaware Christmas night, but it look 10 hours according to historical records. The snow, sleet and large chunks of ice in the river obstructed Washington’s path to New Jersey. The original plan called for multiple crossings along the Delaware and for an assault against the Hessians to begin at daybreak. The ice prevented Gen. John Cadwalader and Gen. James Ewing from organizing separate crossings from points in Pennsylvania that were more directly across from Trenton. After marching for nine miles and making land in what is now Titusville, N.J., Washington did not arrive in Trenton until about 8 a.m. on Christmas day.
“Washington was so very fortunate in so many ways,” David Emerson, a re-enactor who played the Trenton town crier during the battle re-enactments, observed. “The weather was just horrible that day and there typically was not any fighting during the winter months in that era given all the logistical challenges. But it was the snow, sleet and ice that ultimately helped Washington’s cause.”
Rall did send out a patrol that was supposed to go out for 10 miles, but turned back after just two because of the weather conditions. “If the patrol went just one mile further, it would have encountered Washington’s army,” said Emerson, who is active with History on the Hoof. “Then, who knows what might have happened.”
The Progressive Counterrevolution
Visitors to Trenton who toured the Old Barracks Museum, where some of the Hessians were based during the first Battle of Trenton, could not help but notice that the New Jersey Division of Taxation sits just across the street. This unfortunate juxtaposition says a lot about the prominent role New Jersey played in the revolution and the anti-constitutional progressive influences that have taken hold since that time.
The preserved Hessian Barracks sit in the shadow of the current New Jersey Division of Taxation building. (Photo Courtesy of Author)
“We are a different country in some ways today because we became a world power,” Mark Hurwitz, a past commander of the Brigade of the American Revolution, said after serving as a narrator for the re-enactment. “We were fighting for the right to tax ourselves and to have a more representative government rather than a parliamentary system.”
The phrase “no taxation without representation,” which colonists invoked to summarize their grievances against the British Parliament, has been expressed with renewed vigor in recent years by disaffected New Jersey residents.
“I don’t feel too represented by the people in office right now,” Michael MacKinney of Martinsville, N.J., observed on Christmas Day a short distance from where re-enactors staged the crossing of the Delaware. “In fact, I’m not sure anyone I’ve ever voted for in New Jersey has been elected.”
Even if they were, the sad truth is that MacKinney’s preferred choices for public office would be largely subservient to union leaders and activist judges who have been calling the shots in New Jersey at the expense of self-government over the past few decades. As much as contemporary New Jersey residents celebrate the “Spirit of 1776,” they live in a world re-created by one of their own.
President Woodrow Wilson. (Photo Credit: www.whitehouse.gov)
That would be Woodrow Wilson who served as president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey before becoming president of the United States in 1913. Wilson was the first national leader who openly attacked the ideals of the American founding period. His progressive counter-revolution put all of its faith into unelected bureaucracies and professional politicians as opposed to “We the People.”
Wilson’s progressive politics became further entrenched in the 1970s and 1980s when the New Jersey Supreme Court interjected itself into education policy. Under the Abbott v. Burke rulings, state taxpayers have been coerced into spending millions of dollars on urban school districts without a straight up and down vote in the state legislature. For this, they can thank William Brennan who served as a New Jersey Supreme Court justice before he was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court. During his time on the bench, Brennan championed the idea of a “living constitution” that can be molded and reshaped to fit the policy preferences of judges.
Brennan’s progressive vision comes with a hefty price tag. The state that once served as the platform for the critical battles fought against an abusive government now has the highest property taxes in the nation – averaging $7,300 per homeowner. New Jersey also has the highest per-pupil spending at $17,600 per student. But it does not have better schools.
The taxpayer dollars the Abbott rulings have funneled into the state’s dysfunctional education bureaucracy have only served to further empower the teachers’ unions; not parents or students. That may be why voters responded favorably when Chris Christie pledged to put the court back inside of a constitutional box when he ran for governor. Christie made good on that pledge in his first term when he refused to reappoint an activist judge. It was the first time in 63 years that a judge on the high court seeking tenure was denied.
Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signals second term as he stands with his wife, Mary Pat Christie, second right, and their children, Andrew, back right, Bridget, right, as they celebrate his election victory in Asbury Park, N.J., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, after defeating Democratic challenger Barbara Buono. Other Republican gubernatorial candidates did not fair as well. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Although Christie was re-elected by a wide margin in November, the early news in 2014 is not encouraging.
In a letter to lawmakers, the Republican governor announced that he would withdraw the name of one of his two nominees to the Supreme Court. Democrats who are in control of the state legislature have refused to give Christie’s judicial picks a confirmation hearing. State senators who benefit from the support of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) have a vested interest in keeping the seven-member court in activist hands.
Every successful revolution is beset with setbacks along the way.
That’s what John Godzieba told Christmas visitors gathered on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River after he arrived by boat playing the part of George Washington. The 61st annual re-enactment of the 1776 crossing took place in the midst of cold weather, high waters and brisk winds, but no ice.
“The Hessians and the British did not view Washington’s army as a threat,” said Godzieba, who is also president of the Friends of Washington Crossing Park’s board of directors. “The Hessians were concerned with the militias that had been attacking Hessian outposts. The Hessians had to sleep with their full equipment on. They were alert, but they were exhausted.”
The timeless significance of “Washington’s Crossing” was best captured by Kelly MacKinney, the eight-old daughter of the Martinsville resident who would like to see a more representative government came to power.
“Washington never would have become president if he did not make the crossing,” Kelly observed. “Isn’t that right?”
She is right.
Careful historians, like Kelly, who gaze back upon the present period will also note that Christie would not have become a national figure unless he challenged his state’s imperial judiciary and the recalcitrant leadership of the NJEA.
For the first time in 100 years, a New Jersey governor is a serious contender for the presidency with the critical difference that this one is challenging the progressive tide.
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