Published: Sunday, July 03, 2011, 10:00 AM
WAYNE- Imagine trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle where the needed pieces were spread out in several different boxes. That was kind of like the task that confronted Bruce Spadaccini Jr. and Peter Blasevick. The two William Paterson University students, as part of a senior project, set out to discover why 90 men, elected to the Continental Congress more than 200 years ago, refused to serve.
It was like a mystery with few obvious clues and no straight answers. Spadaccini, a 21-year-old working toward a career in academia, and Blasevick, a 43-year-old looking to begin a career as a digital archivist, spent the spring semester researching at the Morristown National Historical Park. They poured over letters and personal documents from these men, some of which had not been looked at in more than a half century, said Jude Pfister, the historical park’s chief of cultural resources.
Most of the letters are mundane: chit chat about weddings, inquiries into the health of friends, recepits, but occasionally the writings demonstrate a prescient understanding of the historical tide sweeping over the nation.
"Now is the time for heroes," writes Connecticut’s James Hillhouse to Nathan Hale in March, 1774. "Now is the time for men to immortalize their names in the deliverance of their Country and grace the annals of America with their glorious deeds."
Elias Dayton, who was born in what is now Elizabeth, served as a colonel during the Revolution and was elected to congress in 1778, begged the Rev. James Caldwell to help clothe his "poor naked soldiers," in September 1776.
The bulk of the museum’s collection, Pfister said, came in 1933 from the Washington Association. Much of the archives came in 1957 from Lloyd W. Smith, a banker and collector, who helped preserve Jockey Hollow.
Unfortunately for the pair, none of the letters in the collection directly mention the congress or reasons for not attending. Instead, they had to build a context around letters.
William Paterson, the namesake of the college where the two men attended, was a successful lawyer and did not want to be pulled away from his responsibilities in New Jersey, said Spadaccini, who lives in Ringwood. Paterson would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
"At the time he had a huge practice, he declined to serve because he wanted to stay in New Jersey and help New Jersey," Spadaccini said.
George Mason, who took George Washington’s vacated seat in the Virginia legislature, was elected to the second Continental Congress in 1777 but declined to serve because of his responsibilities in Virginia, they deduced.
The undertaking, Blasevick and Spadaccini said, was a fascinating chance to probe into the nation’s first moments, and the men who brought it to life.
After a semester’s worth of work, the pair were not able to solve every mystery. Some of the delegates had too little information to make any kind of determination, they said, but just sorting through the reams of material provides an invaluable service to the library.
"When researchers come here, they will now have some idea of what is in this collection," Pfister said.
And the lesson may be that there are not always easy answers.
"History isn’t as simple as we like to make it," said Robert Wolk, the professor who oversaw the project. "That’s the bottom line."
*Permission to republish was kindly granted by the Star Ledger. Article by Dan Goldberg/Star Ledger. Photos by Jerry McCrea/Star Ledger. Article found HERE.
Read More about this project HERE.