Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Summer Reading

With the pandemic still restricting travel plans, one’s wanderlust can be eased by adding Weir Farm National Historic Site (Arcadia Publishing) to their summer reading list. The book was written by the artist Xiomaro, who is currently creating a photographic collection for Morristown National Historical Park.  The author uses his photographs – rare, up-close, nationally exhibited images that go beyond the stanchions – to take readers through a journey to explore Connecticut’s first national park (and the only one dedicated to painting).  Weir Farm was the home of Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919), a leading innovator of American Impressionism.  Xiomaro’s work has been described by The New York Times as “unorthodox…photographs, commissioned as artworks rather than as mundane documentation” with a “focus on striking details.” His book is available at, which also offers a free preview.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Gibbons v. Ogden

Not too long-ago Morristown National Historical Park received a volume of New Jersey state laws dating from the late eighteenth century. The book, a generous donation from a law firm that was going to “recycle” it, happened to have a signature on the title page, an owner’s mark, perhaps of pride. The name written over two hundred years ago was Aaron Ogden (1756-1839). For many, which included me at first (and apparently including the staff at the unnamed law firm), this name held no significance or relevance at all. Unfortunately, he is someone who has been forgotten by time and does not receive as much attention as other people from the Founding Era such as George Washington or Alexander Hamilton. But at one-point Ogden took his former business partner, Thomas Gibbons, to the United States Supreme Court over the issue of interstate commerce. (Ogden’s long career included being a soldier in the American Revolution, a lawyer, the fifth governor of New Jersey, and a US Senator from New Jersey.)

Aaron Ogden

There are two major people to know about in the history-making legal case involving Ogden: Aaron Ogden and Thomas Gibbons. Aaron Ogden, as we mentioned before, is forgotten in history textbooks although he has an impressive background. He was a native resident of Elizabethtown, now known as Elizabeth. Significantly, his extensive financial interests included the lucrative new industry of steamboat ferries.[1]


Thomas Gibbons
Thomas Gibbons (1757-1826) had a different background when contrasted with his counterpart. He was born in Georgia as the son of a wealthy rice plantation owner. Trained in the law as was Ogden, Gibbons had a different allegiance during the American Revolution. Although the Gibbons family overall favored the American cause, Thomas himself was a loyalist, and often defended the property rights of other loyalists in the Savannah, Georgia area.  After the war, Gibbons, secure in his fortune, purchased a summer home in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. It was during this time that Gibbons first met Aaron Ogden. At the time, both men were successful lawyers and businessmen who saw expanding opportunities in the New York area. In 1811 he moved his family permanently from Georgia to Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was drawn by the economic potential of northern New Jersey and because of his reputation in Georgia which was making life somewhat complicated—this included his having been a loyalist, being a duelist, as well as the rumors of having helped to rig a congressional election.[2] As the nineteenth century dawned the American future looked, if not bright, at least welcoming. Around the same time that Gibbons and Ogden had met and become business partners, there was a very large monopoly set in place that would impact them both in profound ways a decade later.
Founding Father Robert Livingston (1746-1813), of the powerful Livingston family, and inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815) had contrived to collaborate on steamboat transportation, a method of travel that Livingston had managed to secure a monopoly on in the early nineteenth century from New York state. Livingston used his political influence and family connections in New York to allow for looser monopoly laws, where he served as Chancellor from 1777-1801. Soon after gaining his steamboat license he quickly turned it into a monopoly for steam transport on the waterways in and around New York state. 
In 1807, under Fulton’s design and Livingston’s financial input, the first steamboat, North River, made its maiden voyage from Battery Park in Manhattan to Clermont, the Livingston family manse. The 120-mile journey, while proving the validity of steam power, did encounter engine troubles during their 24-hour journey. The next day they steamed trouble free from Clermont to Albany in a record 8 hours. Livingston and Fulton had proven the power of the steamboat to everyone along the Hudson River.
Fulton and Livingston became wealthy through their steamboat ferry and transportation business. For reference, Livingston and Fulton charged $7 per passenger—which added up quickly. As this bonanza accumulated it swiftly generated competitors. However, Livingston, and now Fulton, had a monopoly within New York waters and they successfully sued multiple potential competitors. Robert Livingston would pass away in 1813 leaving just Robert Fulton to manage the partnership (Fulton himself would pass away in 1815).[3]
Enter the Aaron Ogden and Thomas Gibbons partnership. After Ogden had finished serving as Governor of New Jersey in 1813, he sought a second term but lost in his bid for reelection. He turned his full attention to his business interests, especially the lucrative ferry service then existing and sought to form a partnership with fellow Revolutionary War veteran and politician Jonathan Dayton (1760-1824). Dayton’s shares in an already existing partnership which Dayton and Ogden had previously formed had been secretly sold to Thomas Gibbons in 1813. This came as a complete shock to Ogden since Gibbons and he did not have a formal business partnership at that point. Although, they did have a bit of history before Gibbons bought into the partnership with Ogden. They were both part of the upper-class in Elizabeth. Gibbons would ride around town in a luxurious two-horse coach and manage a popular tavern known as Union Hotel while also investing in Elizabeth financial establishments. The two of them did have a bit of a legal background together too, such as in 1803 when Ogden and Gibbons won a land dispute in state court. On a personal note, the two often dined at each other's homes.

There had been troublesome times for the two of them. Gibbons gave away half his shares in their partnership, which included waterfront property and several sloops, to his daughter Ann; she was married to John M. Trumbull, whose uncle was the famous painter, John Trumbull, of a prominent family in Connecticut. Ogden was not aware of the transfer. Ann and John had been married since 1810. John was the black sheep of the family due to most of his family being successful where he has been living off of his family’s wealth. Trumbull wanted these lucrative shares in order to live up to his name and status as a Trumbull. Even with the shares, he was forced to petition for an act of insolvency to the Connecticut General Assembly in August 1814.[4] Trumbull insisted that Gibbons leave Ann one-third of his estate in his will and wanted Ann to sue her father if he would not. Gibbons would end up rewriting his lease agreement with Ogden to make sure that Trumbull would get less money, however this did make Ogden uneasy. As the year’s progressed, relations between Ogden, Gibbons, and Trumbull were worsened. Trumbull sought to lower the lease rates and Ogden threatened to divide up the business. Gibbons was disgusted by this and demanded Ogden buy him out the business to which Ogden refused. Next, Gibbons would send a petition to the New Jersey legislature that had the purpose to publicly humiliate Ogden by accusing him of cheating Ann Trumbull out of her share of the business.[5]

Ogden’s start in the steamboat business came about by developing his own version of the steam engine and owning plants to produce it. In 1804 he hired Daniel Dod, an inventor from Connecticut, to build a steam engine factory along with his own steam engines. The steam engine was different from the Fulton engine; furthermore, Dod possessed several federal patents that would prove useful in any potential legal battle with Fulton.

In addition to picking up passengers between New Brunswick and New York City, Ogden had hoped to petition Livingston and Fulton to pick up supplies on his dock during trips between New Brunswick and New York City. Fulton agreed but asked for a fee that Ogden could never pay.[6] Ogden then petitioned the partnership to give him a license to operate steamboats in New York waters right before 1811. During this time, he was still partnered with Dayton.

To put pressure on Fulton, Ogden went to the New Jersey state legislature to discuss his grievances in January of 1811. As governor, he was uniquely positioned to leverage the legislature. They came to the conclusion, “the citizens of New-Jersey have a full and equal right to navigate and to have and use boats upon all the waters lying between the States of New-Jersey and New-York.”
[7]  To combat the New York monopoly legislation, New Jersey agreed that steamboats registered in New York would be seized upon entering New Jersey waters. This was different than New York’s laws due to New Jersey taking heed to the limited federal regulations there were at the time. At the time, states were making intra-state commerce decisions without factoring in the inter-state aspects. Essentially, Ogden was committed to putting a boat in New York waters but not allow a New York boat in New Jersey waters. This was all a result of the loose federal oversight of interstate commerce. After much pressure and tougher laws from the New Jersey legislature, he was steaming his boat into New York waters in defiance of New York law. His first vessel, the Sea Horse, was completed in 1811 and could make nine miles an hour.[8]

Against this backdrop, Ogden and Fulton were still going to court against each other. Ogden would continue to challenge the New York monopoly that Livingston and Fulton had created. In return, they would challenge him on his New Jersey monopoly, each one finding different ways to ferry people back and forth once they reached state waters. Eventually Aaron Ogden and John R. Livingston, heir to Robert Livingston’s share of the company, came to an agreement after battling in the New Jersey state house. Ogden could operate steamboats from Elizabethtown to New York City for ten years starting in May 1814 in exchange for $600 annually and sharing his wharf in New York City.
[9] This would later lead to Ogden and the Livingston’s settling out patents and debts for the Livingston-Fulton agreement, which Ogden would benefit from.[10] In 1815, Ogden would purchase a license from the Livingston-Fulton monopoly to operate his steamboats. After being in Trenton in February of 1815, Fulton, on his way back home to New York City stopped in Jersey City to see the construction of his new steamer. To save time he and his party decided to cross the frozen Hudson River by foot. His friend fell through the ice and into the freezing water. Fulton jumped in to save him and as a result he developed pneumonia and ultimately died on February 23, 1815.

Eventually, arguments between Ogden and Gibbons became public. The two partners did not forget each other's past in the Revolution and used it to slander one another—one a patriot and one a loyalist. The two men were bent on discrediting each other. Ogden would have Gibbons arrested on a nonpayment of a note aboard the
Sea Horse, Ogden’s own vessel, in a highly public fashion.

Relations between the Trumbull’s and Gibbons were also disintegrating. Thomas Gibbons’ wife, Ann, came back to Elizabethtown to defend her interest. When she arrived, Gibbons, enraged, forced her out of the house. This would lead her seek information on obtaining a divorce from Richard Stockton and Aaron Ogden. They both knew that a divorce procedure would publicly humiliate Gibbons.
[11] Gibbons, true to his dueling past, issued a response to Ogden. On July 16th, 1816, Gibbons would post a printed notice on the door of Ogden’s home challenging him to a duel for the interference that he had done to Gibbons' family. Ogden in turn, declined the challenge for a duel, issued a public apology and filed trespassing charges against Gibbons who would escape arrest by a timely vacation to Saratoga Springs, New York. From there he headed to Boston and printed scandalous pamphlets that were designed to destroy the reputation of his enemies; he had fifty copies to distribute to family and friends and would only stop if Ann was to drop her divorce plans, which she agreed to. Gibbons would now focus his anger on Ogden and had the intentions to take him to court over his monopoly rights.[12]  
In July of 1817 Gibbons finally started operating his own steamboat business to rival Ogden. He constructed a landing near Elizabethtown and subcontracted to another business to transfer passengers from Staten Island to his vessels before heading to New Jersey ports. He purchased a steamboat by the name of
Mouse of the Mountain. Most importantly he hired a young captain by the name of Cornelius Vanderbilt to pilot his ship. The two of them would immediately create a profitable business together.[13]

In 1818, Gibbons and Vanderbilt would start to run direct services to New York City on Gibbons’ steamboat the Bellona to cut even more into Ogden’s profits. This would cause Ogden to file a motion in the New York courts for operating in New York waters on October 20th, 1818. Gibbons had planned exactly for this to open a pathway to the U.S Court of Appeals and then to the Supreme Court. Gibbons would be given the opportunity by John R. Livingston to join in on their monopoly, but Gibbons would not want it, he would rather go to court against Ogden. Chancellor Kent of New York ruled in favor of Ogden and barred Gibbons from operating in New York waters on May 3, 1819. Chancellor Kent had been hearing steamboat cases since the days of Livingston and Fulton and was well acquainted with the case law. He served as Chief Justice of the New York Supreme court from 1804-1814 and then Chancellor from 1814-1823. He was very influential in the path the New York steamboat monopoly had taken.  That path opened the way for Gibbons bringing the case to the Supreme Court as Gibbons did have a federal coasting license. Interesting enough, during this time Gibbons and Ogden came to an uneasy truce where Ogden would ferry passengers from New York to Elizabethtown and then Gibbons would ferry them to New Brunswick.[14]
Once again, Ogden and Gibbons would find themselves in court together—on opposite sides. Gibbons would be contesting Ogden’s monopoly rights in the New York courts and presenting that his federal coasting license was valid for commerce in New York waters, but New York did not interpret it that way. Rather, they held state laws were greater than federal laws when it came to commerce. Finally, in September of 1821, Gibbons' appeal reached the Supreme Court but was dismissed since the 1819 case of Gibbons v. Ogden never reached a verdict by Chancellor Kent. By this time Gibbons had brought Daniel Webster on as his attorney for the case. On January 17, 1822 Gibbons would be met with defeat in the New York courts. Now the Supreme Court could take up Gibbons v. Ogden.[15]
A lot would happen between January 1822 and February 1824 when the Supreme Court was finally able to take up the case. Chief Justice John Marshall’s court had ruled on a number of landmark cases previous to this, with the most memorable of them being McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819.

On February 4, 1824, a large crowd gathered in the courtroom as the case
Gibbons v. Ogden was finally being heard. Webster, Gibbons’ attorney, opened his argument by asking if New York had the right to create a monopoly? Would this conflict with federal laws? He also said that the framers of the Constitution never meant to give states the power to regulate commerce. Ogden’s attorneys, Samuel Southard and Joseph Hopkinson, argued that the Tenth Amendment allowed state laws to be struck down only if they were totally contradictory to federal interests and that the monopoly did not violate any federal commerce power. Oakley also said that the framers meant to regulate trade for taxation purposes, not to control travel and commerce between states. The oral arguments would go on for days until February 9. Both Gibbons’ and Ogden’s attorneys had produced every major argument that could be mustered. This was very much an argument of states’ rights on Ogden’s behalf. [16] During this time in the Republic, the Supreme Court was in a period where State’s Rights were being argued and decided upon—usually to the disadvantage of the states. Gibbons saw his ownership of a federal coasting license as a way to bring the matter to the Supreme Court as an issue of federalism.

On March 2nd, Chief Justice Marshall issued a verdict on the case. Marshall would cite Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution which states Congress has the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, several states, and Indian tribes. He also went on to define commerce as commercial intercourse between nations and parts of nations, thus navigation would be commerce. That would pertain to both cargo and passengers. He ruled that Gibbons’ federal coasting license permitted him to operate his boats in New York waters. Ogden was defeated after trying so hard to bust a monopoly and then join in on it.

The Mansion at Florham, Fairleigh Dickinson University.
This reason this case had become so prominent an issue was the immediate money at stake but more importantly the potential money involved. It was obvious that steamboats were to become a lucrative business far beyond what they already were. Today the manifestations of this nearly two century old decision can be seen very close to the Morristown National Historical Park.
Mead Hall, Drew University.
Gibbons would end up building a mansion shortly after his victory in Madison, New Jersey. This building stands today as Mead Hall, on the campus of Drew University. Cornelius Vanderbilt would go on to become a transportation tycoon and make the Vanderbilt name synonymous with extravagant family wealth. On the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University sits the mansion called Florham. It was built by a granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Florence Vanderbilt Twombly.


Cox, Thomas H. Gibbons v. Ogden, Law, and Society in the Early Republic. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009. Accessed April 16, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Baker, Leonard. John Marshall: A Life in Law. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Baxter, Maurice Glen. The Steamboat Monopoly. Gibbons v. Ogden, 1824. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.


Supreme Court Historical Society at

Papers of John Marshall Digital Edition

[1] Maurice Glen. Baxter. The Steamboat Monopoly. Gibbons v. Ogden, 1824 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 25.
[2]Thomas H. Cox Gibbons v. Ogden, Law, and Society in the Early Republic. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009, 69-71
[3] Law and Society, 38-39.
[4] Law and Society, 72.
[5] Ibid, 73.
[6] Law and Society, 71.
[7] Ibid, 72.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Law and Society, 78.
[10] Ibid, 88.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Law and Sociert.89
[13] Ibid, 90.
[14] Law and Society, 94.
[15] Ibid, 117
[16] Law and Society, 130-134
[17] Steamboat Monopoly, 49-52.

This blog post by Brian Csobor, spring intern from Rutgers University. 

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Daniel Shays and His Rebellion

There are no known illustrations of Daniel Shays.
This rendition is from Bickerstaff’s
Genuine Boston Almanac (Boston) - 1787.
Captain Shays’ image appears on the left.
PART 1 - What was Shays’ Rebellion and Why is it Important?

In 2006, The History Channel released a DVD series entitled ‘Ten Days that Unexpectedly Changed America’. Episode 10 focused on Shays’ Rebellion in Springfield, Massachusetts, which took place on January 25, 1787 at the US Arsenal there. Thousands of residents, mostly farmers from the western part of the state, attempted to seize the arsenal and then march to Boston to overthrow a government that had seized the property of indebted farmers. [i]

How could this happen in Massachusetts which had led the protest against the British, and the War for Independence? Historically, why does this Rebellion become so important? The immediate issue focused on attempts in Massachusetts to retire their Revolutionary War debt. Farmers who had fought in the American Revolution had been ‘paid’ for their service, if at all, by Continental dollars and financial bonds and notes which had become increasingly worthless. Over time, the notes had been purchased at fractional values from these veterans/farmers by financial speculators near Boston.

In Massachusetts, Governor James Bowdoin had a personal stake in having bonds and notes owned by financial speculators bought by the state at face value plus 6% interest. The purchase cost would be paid for by harsh increases in property taxes in gold and silver, not paper currency.[ii] Farmers and artisans were left in a bad position as they were mired in personal debt, oppressed by heavy taxes levied on behalf of these wealthy speculators who controlled the state debt.[iii]

Beginning in 1786, crowds of debt ridden farmers who called themselves ‘Regulators’ after protestors from the colonial Carolinas in the 1760s,  began to shut down some state courts in counties in Western Massachusetts to prevent these courts from seizing their lands to pay the taxes.[iv]  Without legislative approval, Governor Bowdoin on January 4 called for the establishment of a privately funded militia to stop the protest.  The protest became militant in January 1787 when Daniels Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran from Massachusetts, and others led a group of protesters to the arsenal at Springfield. On January 25, 1787 a brief confrontation led to the death of 4 protestors and injuries to others. The regulators dispersed and the rebellion was over.[v] The rebellion ended in a whimper and was named Shays Rebellion by its opponents after who they considered the leader of the rebellion, even though other leaders were more proactive. In its aftermath, trials in Massachusetts led to hundreds of indictments and 18 death sentences, which resulted in only 2 hangings. Four thousand confessions and promises of loyalty helped return the state to more normalcy.[vi] Governor Bowdoin was voted out of office in a landslide election won by John Hancock. Hancock was wealthy but popular. The direct tax which hurt farmers was replaced by one which affected speculators and the tax on farmland was reduced dramatically.[vii]

So why is it so important? Shays Rebellion caused panic and dismay in Massachusetts and other states, in the opinions of many leaders of the Continental Congress and other Founding Fathers. It was an important catalyst which led to the Constitutional Convention which convened in May, 1787 to address the limitations of the Articles of Confederation. In the opinions of many, the Central Government needed to be stronger, to address problems like the public debt that Massachusetts sought to address. [viii]

Saturday, March 21, 2020

COVID-19 Park Closure

Effective immediately, all Morristown National Historical Park site locations and grounds are closed.

Morristown National Historical Park (NHP), in response to State of New Jersey’s Executive Order 107 issued on March 21st directing all residents to stay at home until further notice to curb the spread of COVID-19, is announcing that all park gates providing access to the grounds and trails at Jockey Hollow Area (including restroom facilities), Fort Nonsense Area, and the New Jersey Brigade/Cross Estate Area are closed until the Executive Order is lifted.

🚫Washington’s Headquarters Museum and the Ford Mansion remain closed.

🚫Jockey Hollow Visitor Center and Wick House remain closed.

🚫All visitor access gates to the Jockey Hollow Area and restrooms will remain closed.

🚫All visitor access gates to Fort Nonsense Area will remain closed.

🚫All visitor access gates to the New Jersey Brigade/Cross Estate Area will remain closed.

The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners at Morristown NHP is our number one priority. The National Park Service (NPS) is working with federal, state, and local authorities to closely monitor COVID-19. The National Park Service (NPS) encourages all visitors to park lands to adhere to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local public health authorities to protect visitors and employees. #covid19 #nj #coronavirus #parkclosure #morristownnhpclosed #stayathomeorder #stayhomesavelives .

Please check our park website for the latest updates: and stay tuned for virtual museum features next week! .

[Image Description: This post features a closeup image of a skeleton keyhole at the historic Ford Mansion. 📸 Sarah Minegar].

Friday, March 13, 2020

Meet the Intern: Brian Csobor

Brian Csobor is a recent addition to the Culture Resources Division as an intern. He joined us in February of 2020 for his spring semester. He is junior at Rutgers University New Brunswick studying both history and political science. Brian attended Middlesex County College before transferring to Rutgers where he earned an AA in history. Here at MNHP he is researching the 1824 Supreme Court case of Gibbons v. Ogden. In doing so he hopes to gain an understanding of  legal history and what it takes to be involved with public history. To help with his project he will be using letters and books and from the Lloyd W. Smith rare book collection here at the park

Welcome Brian!

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Meet the Teachers: Lauren Canonico and Mike Collins

Mike and Lauren examine documents in the research room.

Our current volunteer corps in Cultural Resources includes two teachers!

Lauren Canonico joined the Cultural Resources Division in October 2019. While she is raising two daughters and is on hiatus from the classroom she believes her volunteering is a perfect way to stay close to history and learn more about the behind the scenes workings of a museum.  Lauren was a Social Studies teacher for the North Hunterdon - Voorhees Regional High School District for five years, during which time she taught U.S. History, economics, and geography.

Lauren and Mike pull manuscripts in the stacks.
Mike Collins spent most of his professional career in the corporate world, but in 2009 retired to complete his certification as a High School Social Studies teacher. After some long term assignments in Hunterdon County, including Voorhees High School where Mike and Lauren were colleagues. Mike came to Livingston High School in 2013 and retired after 5 years in June 2018. During that time he joined his U.S. History colleagues who brought students to MNHP. As he began his Chapter 3, becoming a volunteer with us in September 2018 was a great fit. In his first year here Mike was very active in expanding the number of teachers and supervisors who utilize our Museum and Library.

Working together, Lauren and Mike have identified a number of initiatives where they can work independently but also draw upon each other’s educational perspectives. Currently they are leveraging their relationships with Hunterdon County Schools to expand our on-site and remote use of Museum and Library assets, especially with the Lloyd W Smith Collection of artifacts and documents. Lauren is also taking the lead with creating a more streamlined teacher portal on the MNHP Website. Mike is looking to expand featured manuscripts accessible for middle school and high school teachers on our blogpost. He is currently researching a complete set of documents related to Shays Rebellion and its impact on the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  They are also developing curatorial skills – Lauren with the scrapbook series of the Lloyd W Smith Collection and Mike with the extensive Cobb Family Collection.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Save the Date: What Freedom Looks Like: Anchoring African American Identities in Morris County from 1600 to 2020


What Freedom Looks Like: Anchoring African American Identities in Morris County from 1600 to 2020

Join us for a poignant discussion inspired by the traveling exhibit on view next at the Morris Museum: The Ties That Bind: How Race Relations Shaped Morris County, 1600-2018.

As a companion dialogue to the exhibit, this discussion will represent what is hoped would be the start of future dialogues around the inspiration generated by the exhibit. Curated by the Reverend Dr. Sidney S. Williams of the Bethel Church of Morristown, this dialogue will bring together some of the scholars that worked with Pastor Williams to develop this long neglected overview of Morristown and Morris County history.

Like any community, Morristown has multiple layers of unique, yet intersected, conduits of history. Not always pleasant, this history is nonetheless who we are today; but it does not have to define who we are tomorrow. While Morristown has almost exclusively been lodged in the community memory as a Revolutionary War camp, it goes without saying it was, and is, far more than just one story.

Real people, real lives, real stories. Please join us as we begin what we hope will be a journey of resilience and reconciliation to remember, eulogize, and even resurrect these people of the past who so eloquently helped shape, as a community, the Morristown we call home.

🔔When: Sunday, February, 9, 2020 -- 2:00 PM

🔔Where: Bickford Theater

                 Morris Museum 
                 6 Normandy Heights Rd
                 Morristown, NJ 07960

Sponsoring Organizations:
Bethel AME Church of Morristown
Morris Museum
Morristown National Historical Park 
New Jersey Council for The Humanities
New Jersey Historical Commission

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Treasures From the Vault: Phillis Wheatley

Features the title pages, the left, an engraving
of Wheatley at her writing desk. Poems on
Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.”
 MORR 9321

Last year, the park recovered a special document from its archival collection – a rare, first-edition copy of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). This edition is particularly special because it bears the signature of the author, famed poet, Phillis Wheatley. In October, the curatorial staff presented this special document in collaboration with Maestro Robert Butts of the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey, who arranged music inspired by the collection. It is our goal to continue to work with this historic document and develop programming around it. To do so, we must imagine ways that the park can engage this piece in an ethical way that is in-keeping with contemporary scholarship on race, slavery, and Wheatley herself.

Some readers may know Wheatley from their middle school history textbook, some may have read her in a college literature course, others – perhaps many – may not have heard of her at all. Unfortunately, we are taught too little of Phillis Wheatley, only given short biographical sketches. These biographies are usually told in four parts: She came to America as a slave, was far more educated than her African peers, became a published poet, and was “kindly” emancipated by her masters. We are taught that she was the first published African American poet, that she was uncommonly brilliant, that she proved her brilliance to a jury of Boston’s greatest minds, and that she met George Washington. Of those, we can only be sure of two things: that she was undoubtedly incredibly well-educated and intelligent, and that she was the first published African America writer. Although we celebrate Washington a great deal here in Morristown, their meeting is actually unverified. Upon reflection, however, it is clear that this story is not very reflective of her life, or of the dynamic, three-dimensional person that she certainly was. Phillis Wheatley’s life and works are by far richer and more complicated than we are ever taught.

Wheatley's signature close up.

So, then, how are we supposed to know Wheatley? How do we listen to the silences of her story and reimagine the depth of her character? This is a question that is of vital importance to historians, particularly in regard to the lives of the millions of enslaved Africans whose voices and stories are irretrievably lost. In Wheatley’s case, we are fortunate that she left behind her poetry and an assortment of letters, which document many of her thoughts, although these are scattered and hard to come by. However, having documentation of her life does not mean that she was an exception to the mass erasure of black voices. We are left with only pieces to a puzzle that we must reassemble and reimagine what belongs in the empty spaces.[1]  

We should start with one troubling fact: we do not know her name. We know her as Phillis Wheatley, of course, but this was not the name that she was born with. Her entire identity was supplied to her by slavery: she was named after the ship that brought her – the Phillis – and the family that enslaved her – the Wheatleys. Neither do we know where she was born and raised, how she came in the hands of European traders, what became of her family, or what her experience was during the Middle Passage.[2] The person that she had been, as with the majority of enslaved people, was completely erased. With the erasure of her past so too came the erasure of the person she could have been, had she remained in her homeland.

Just by reading schoolbook biographies, we know little of her life as a child in the Wheatley household, like why the Wheatleys supplied her with such an extensive education and what their bonds of affection were. Even after decades of study, no historian can truly answer why the Wheatleys were so protective and affectionate to Phillis or why they even brought her home to begin with. Their objective, after all, was to obtain a servant and a small sickly child like Phillis was not a usual candidate.[3] The closest thing we have to an answer to this question is speculation that the child they first encountered may have reminded them of their youngest daughter, recently deceased, who was about the same age. Still, despite their undoubtable affection for Phillis, they did exploit her talents as she grew older.[4]

Boston was different than the slave society of the South, and enslaved people were allowed to be baptized, marry, and become literate – but only at the discretion of their “masters.” Slaves in New England lived in much closer proximity to their masters, which might have afforded a marginally higher level of material comfort but came with the expense of constant surveillance and increased vulnerability to abuse. The Wheatley’s owned a significant amount of property, including other slaves. They were unique in this regard as only 3% of Bostonians held all of the slaves in the city. Phillis was not permitted to interact with other black servants, and certainly not any others that may have been in the area.[5] In fact, a man of African descent also enslaved by the Wheatleys, was punished for merely sitting next to her. Yet, Phillis was not equal to the Wheatleys’ white high society peers and though she socialized with them, she was known to sit at separate tables. Aside from her close relationship with the Wheatleys, Phillis had a secluded adolescence.[6]

Within four years of her arrival in Boston, by the age of eleven, Phillis was literate in the English language and began her first attempts at writing verse. She was educated by Susannah and perhaps went to school with Mary, her daughter. Her proximity to a vibrant religious community also exposed her to literacy. In New England Congregationalism, literacy was encouraged as a path to religious conversion and salvation. The Wheatleys were enthusiastically religious and their wealth and social status brought them in close contact with high-ranking religious leaders. As a child and young adult, Phillis attended sermons by a great number of preachers, many of whom she later established correspondence with. Phillis’s keen intellect and elite education was a novelty to the Boston literati and the Wheatleys took advantage of this novelty, using Phillis to demonstrate their piety, charity, and successful effort to convert a slave in in their household – further reinforcing their choice to sponsor her education. She was published for the first time by age 13, and internationally known by the age of 17.[7]

It is clear, though, that Phillis’ religious beliefs were earnest and sincere. Religion was, naturally, the core subject matter of her poetry and defined most of her intellectual relationships and literary career. Phillis’s poems were not merely the musings of a religious woman and reading her poetry solely in this context only skims the surface of her true skill. Rather, her poems were rebellious, subversive, and cleverly coded to avoid reprisal. Indeed, she wrote poems directed to those of a higher station than she and presumed to teach them about life and religion. And she did – as her poetry enjoyed increased popularity she was sought after for commissions. More important, perhaps, is Wheatley’s use of religious rhetoric to address the subjects of race, slavery, and freedom – which were controversial topics for even white writers to address, much less the enslaved themselves. She used her poetry to remind her almost entirely white audience that enslaved Africans were just as able and worthy of redemption as themselves. Biblical struggles for freedom, the importance of endurance for victory, faith as armor, and the heroism of marginalized characters are all devices she used that highlight a preoccupation with the oppressive nature of slavery and a desire to engage with it. She also employed the language of the Revolution to address the increasingly challenged place of slavery in the fight for political independence and she hoped to convince the political powers of the day that preserving a slave state contradicted their desire for freedom from Britain. Poetry was an important act of resistance for Wheatley that delivered a direct challenge to an oppressive system. [8] [9] [10] [11]

When Boston publishers refused to publish her first collection, she traveled with John’s son Nathaniel to London to make an appeal to British publishers. There, Phillis was a celebrity, hosted by English aristocracy, diplomats, and famous abolitionists. England, by this point, had also passed a landmark judicial decision against slaveholders – while slavery was still technically legal in Britain, slaveholders did not have the right to coercively transport them in England or to the colonies. This meant that enslaved people could legally emancipate themselves by leaving their master on British soil. Phillis certainly knew this, as she was personally acquainted with the architect of the ruling, yet she chose to return to Boston as an enslaved woman. She was manumitted shortly after her publication, and it is possible that she leveraged her powerful connections to guarantee her freedom upon return to Boston.[12] [13]

Phillis’s adult life, lived as a free woman, is another poignant silence in her biography – very little is known about the time following her release from the Wheatley household. We know that, despite her international fame, she was unable to publish a second volume of her poetry. The Revolutionary War and the economic depression that followed significantly disrupted her network of readers and supporters. Yet, she continued to write poetry, publish in broadsides, and maintain her correspondences with notable people of the day. We also know that she married a man named John Peters. Peters was an unusually educated black entrepreneur with many inconsistently successful business ventures. Money was tight for the couple for many years and Peters did not obtain his fortune until years after Phillis’s death. Phillis Wheatley died in 1784 with no living children. Unfortunately, many of her personal papers have been lost to time, including a number of her poems.[14]

Listening to the silences of her later life is an ongoing task. A scarcity of documents compounds the difficulty of getting to know the adult Phillis. This is a job for contemporary and future historians, but also for all of us here today. Phillis Wheatley was a woman of tremendous depth, whose story is rarely done justice. We should also use this as an opportunity to consider the silenced historical voices of the millions of other enslaved African Americans who are not the subjects of scrutinized biography. It is my hope, however, that our ongoing project will be a small – but improved – step in the right direction.

[1] Robert Kendrick, “Phillis Wheatley and the Ethics of Interpretation,” Cultural Critique 38 (1997), 39-64.
[2] Vincent Caretta, “Phillis Wheatley: Researching a Life,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 43.3 (2015), 65 – 66.
[3] Eleanor Smith, “Phillis Wheatley: A Black Perspective,” The Journal of Negro Education 43.3 (1974), 401 – 402.
[4] Vincent Caretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 
[5] Eleanor Smith, “Phillis Wheatley: A Black Perspective,” 403.
[6] Vincent Caretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, 11 -27.
[7] Ibid., 28 – 42.
[8] Ibid., 68 – 93.
[9] Antonio T. Bly, “‘On Death’s Domain Intent I Fix My Eyes’: Text, Context, and Subtext in the Elegies of Phillis Wheatley,” Early American Literature 53.2 (2018), 317 – 341.
[10] James Edward Ford III, “The Difficult Miracle: Reading Phillis Wheatley against the Master’s Discourse,” The Centennial Review 18.3 (2018), 181 – 223.
[11] David Waldstreicher, “Ancients, Moderns, and Africans: Phillis Wheatley and the Politics of Empire and Slavery in the American Revolution,” Journal of the Early Republic (2017), 701 – 733.
[12] Vincent Caretta, “Phillis Wheatley: Researching a Life,” 66 -68.
[13] Henry Louis Gates, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (New York: Civitas Books), 17.
[14] Vincent Caretta, “Phillis Wheatley: Researching a Life,” 69 – 72.

This blog post by Amy Hester, Drew University.