Party Politics in 1803
Recently, my son, Ben Zimmer, sent me a clipping that a friend of his had found in the Trenton True American for March 7, 1803. This friend, Barry Popik, was researching the expression “Uncle Sam,” (see “New Light on “Uncle Sam”), and had found an instance of its use in this letter to the editor:
(This being 1803, all the s’s are written as f’s, which I will avoid in my transcription.)
In revolving this subject in my mind, the following train of elections and appointments have struck me as one proof of fact. Not having the minutes of the Joint-Meeting at hand, I give them from memory, and therefore not in due order of time.
1st. Elias Boudinot, who was always odious to the People of New-Jersey, was twice or thrice forced into the House of Representatives by Richard Stockton and his associates.
2nd. Elisha Boudinot, a wonderful wonder of wonders, was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court.
3d. Samuel Witham Stockton, who fled to Britain at the beginning of our Revolutionary war, was appointed, first, Clerk of Hunterdon, and then Secretary of State.
4th. Lucius Horatio Stockton, of the truth of whose oath God will judge, District Attorney, and afterwards, wonderful to tell, nominated as Secretary at War.
5th. Lucius Witham Stockton, the emptiest thing in the whole creation, first, Clerk of Hunterdon in the place of Uncle Sam, and then Captain of Horse.
6th. William Griffith, who married a cousin, and, by the bye, a Tory from his mother’s breast, first, Surrogate of Burlington, where he was a total stranger, then Elector of President, an appointment highly honorary and important, then, in preference to General Frelinghuysen whose name was mentioned to the President, a Judge of the Circuit Court of the United States.
7th. Richard Stockton, the Duke himself, once Senator, twice or thrice Elector of President, and at last condescended to be—GOVERNOR!
Let any one view all these appointments in one family in so short a time—let him consider the political character of that whole connection in our revolutionary war—let him consider the bitterness with which those have been traduced that dare to stand in their way, and let him consider the fitness, or rather the total unfitness of most of them for the offices to which they were appointed, and if he does not believe there is a secret influence arising from some private combination grasping at the whole power of the state, he must believe that miracles have not ceased.
[signed] A Middlesex Farmer.
Mr. Popik wondered whether that use of “Uncle Sam” referred to the common symbol of the United States or not. Ben, seeing the Hunterdon County connection, passed it on to me. I had to advise that in this case, “Uncle Sam” was just an uncle, not a symbol. Samuel Witham Stockton was in fact the uncle of Lucius Witham Stockton.
But I could not get that clipping out of my mind, especially when hearing about recent government appointments. So, I gave in and went to work on it.
The Stockton Family
First of all, there is no question that the Stockton family was prominent in what was Hunterdon County in 1800. At that time, Hunterdon included all of Mercer County, which means that the True American, published in Trenton, was a Hunterdon newspaper. In 1803, its publisher was James Jefferson Wilson, a very committed and influential Jeffersonian Republican. So, one would expect to see articles and letters that denigrated members of the Federalist party, the party that supported John Adams in the recent presidential contest against Thomas Jefferson.
And there was probably no family more committed to the Federalist cause than the Stocktons. Let’s take a look at this family, starting with John Stockton (1701 – 1758), owner of Morven in Princeton, NJ, and his wife Abigail Phillips (1708 – 1757). (To keep track of these Stocktons, see The Stockton Tree.)
The Older Generation
John & Abigail Stockton’s eldest son was Richard Stockton (1730-1781). In 1762, Richard Stockton married Annis Boudinot (1736-1801), daughter of Elias Boudinot (1706 – 1770), and sister of Elias Boudinot, Jr. (1740-1821), who married Hannah Stockton (1736-1808), Richard Stockton’s sister.
The Middlesex Farmer had nothing to say about this Richard, Sr., perhaps because he was a martyr to the Revolution. He had served in the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and was a prisoner of war. Apparently, that broke his spirit, because he then renounced the Revolution and was released after one month. He died soon afterwards.
Richard’s widow Annis was a woman of distinction, being a widely read poet and a friend of George Washington. She was only 44 years old when Richard died. Of her five children, only the eldest had reached adulthood.
Elias Boudinot, Jr. was the one whom the Middlesex Farmer thought “was always odious to the People of New-Jersey.” It would be more accurate to say odious to certain people of New Jersey. He served in the Continental Congress through 1784 and was one of the signers of the Treaty of Paris. He was a strong supporter of Alexander Hamilton and his policies, and served in the first three Congresses. I find it hard to believe that he was forced to do so by his brother-in-law.
Elisha Boudinot (1749-1819), brother of Elias, was the “wonderful wonder of wonders,” who served as an associate justice of the NJ Supreme Court from 1798 to 1804.1 Like his brother Elias, he was a fervent supporter of the Revolution and his home in Newark became a meeting place for leaders like Washington and Hamilton. Boudinot probably earned the ire of the Middlesex Farmer by his success as a land speculator and bank president.
Next comes Richard’s brother, Samuel Witham Stockton, who was living in London pursuing legal studies when the Revolution broke out. Middlesex Farmer claimed that Stockton “fled to Britain at the beginning of our Revolutionary war,” but that seems unlikely. Stockton served as American Commissioner to the courts of Austria and Prussia during the war and returned to New Jersey in 1779. In 1787 he was elected Secretary for New Jersey’s Convention to ratify the Constitution. Stockton was only 44 when he died in 1795 after being thrown from his carriage, leaving a widow and two under-age children.
The Younger Stocktons and Others
It is the next generation that had the Middlesex Farmer really worked up.
Lucius Horatio Stockton (1765-1835), son of Richard and Annis Boudinot Stockton, was a lawyer with a large law practice in Trenton. He never married and has been described as “eccentric and a strong political partisan of the Federal school,” which would explain the ire he got from our farmer friend. That nomination as Secretary of War was made by John Adams toward the end of his term as president. Because Jefferson did not approve, the nomination was later withdrawn.
Next comes Lucius Witham Stockton (1771-1808), son of Rev. Phillip Stockton and Katherine Cumming, making him a nephew of Richard and Annis Stockton, and of Samuel Witham Stockton. The Middlesex Farmer called him “the emptiest thing in the whole creation,” but after reading this incident in the Republican newspaper, the New Jersey State Gazette for October 13, 1795,2 I’d have to say he was anything but empty:
“To the Inhabitants of Hunterdon. Regarding Jacob Anderson & L. W. Stockton. We the subscribers having heard that misrepresentations had been made of a transaction between Lucius W. Stockton and Jacob Anderson Esq., high Sheriff of the County of Hunterdon, at Flemington on the 29th of September last, and having been personally present make the following statement thereof.
“Mr. Stockton on the day mentioned, in company with several gentlemen of the county, went to the court house to see a person who an hour before had been committed for debt and was lodged in the debtor’s room, but Mr. Anderson refused to allow Mr Stockton to see the prisoner. Anderson called Stockton a meddling fellow, and Stockton retorted that he, Anderson, was a scoundrel. A brief scuffle ensued, after which more words were exchanged in which Anderson charged that it was Stockton who was responsible for the court action which brought into question Anderson’s election and further that Stockton had written against him in the papers. Stockton said if he was concerned in the certiorari brought to set aside Anderson’s election, it was his duty; and so to writing in papers against Anderson, if any person had written improperly there was a mode of redress. Witness our hands this 9th day of October 1795. Daniel Pursell, Cornelius Coryell.
“Note. Mr. Anderson and Mr. Prall were both present during the foregoing transaction, but their being from home renders it impossible to obtain their statement.”
[from Stratford & Wilson] Joshua Anderson lost the election for Sheriff, held shortly after this incident.”
William Griffith was not directly related to the other Stocktons mentioned. However, his wife Abigail Hatfield (b. 1768) was the daughter of Abner Hatfield and Mary Boudinot, and therefore the granddaughter of Elias Boudinot and Mary Catherine Williams. Griffith practiced law in Burlington where his wife’s family lived, so he was not a total stranger there, even though he grew up in Bound Brook, Somerset County. Like Lucius Horatio Stockton, he received a nomination from President John Adams, this time to the US Circuit Court, in 1801, but left the bench a year later when the court was abolished under Jefferson’s administration (an act that would be scandalous today). Long after the Middlesex Farmer wrote his letter, Griffith was elected to the NJ General Assembly for two terms, 1818-19 and 1823-24.
And finally, as our “Farmer” wrote, Richard Stockton, “the Duke himself.” This Richard (1764-1828) was the second child of Richard Sr. and Annis Boudinot Stockton, and older brother of Lucius Horatio Stockton. His sister Julia married Dr. Benjamin Rush, sister Abigail married Robert Field and sister Mary married Rev. Andrew Hunter. Richard married Robert Field’s sister Mary Field; the couple had at least five children, including Commodore Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866) and Lt. Samuel Witham Stockton (1801-1836).
The Middlesex Farmer wrote that Richard Stockton “at last condescended to be—GOVERNOR!” Well, yes, he condescended, but he never got elected, so why was our farmer so exercised? Because it gave him a chance to denigrate the Federalists. Many of us are concerned about the level of discourse in politics today, but in fact there have been many times in our history when political invective was even more intense.3
One of those times was the late 18th-early 19th centuries, being the transition from the administration of John Adams to the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. But first a little background:
Federalists v. Republicans4
During the 1780s, when a new federal constitution was being considered, there were some who opposed it, fearing that it would centralize government too much. This inspired James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to write their Federalist papers defending the proposed constitution. They were quite convincing to residents of the Garden State, as New Jersey was unanimous in its approval, one of the very few times when New Jerseyans agreed about anything.
During the debate on the Constitution being a Federalist was a good thing. But as the 1790s wore on, and people adjusted to living under the new Constitution, those who were worried about creating a strong federal government became more concerned that power was being concentrated, on both the federal and state level, in the hands of the wealthy elite, leaving ordinary people unrepresented.
This led to the emergence of a group then known as “Anti-Federalists,” who eventually became identified as Democratic-Republicans, or simply Republicans. Toward the end of the 1790s, passions ran high and Republican rhetoric got intense. Federalists were viewed as tyrannical “Lawyers, Tories, British agents, Monarchists and Aristocrats.”5 It is true that Federalists tended to be members of the wealthy elite, a situation well documented by Rudolph and Margaret Pasler in their book The New Jersey Federalists.
Stockton v. Wilson
The anonymous “Middlesex Farmer” was clearly a passionate Jeffersonian Republican, ranting about a family of Federalists. An example of the attitudes held by Federalists toward Republicans is perfectly illustrated by an incident in which Robert Stockton confronted the future editor of the Trenton True American newspaper in 1800.
While working at a Delaware newspaper in 1800, this editor, James J. Wilson, made an apparently derogatory remark about Richard Stockton, “a young Federalist gentleman.”6 It must have been pretty offensive, because on the evening of the day that Wilson made his remark, Stockton showed up at the newspaper office with a whip in hand, intending to “chastise” Wilson.
In 1800, when a member of the gentry wished to rebuke an inferior, the common practice was to use a whip. When Wilson answered the door, the two men began trading insults, and quickly got into a scuffle. They had to be separated by Wilson’s employees, with Stockton yelling that Wilson was “a Damn’d Villain, a Damn’d Upstart, a Damn’d Coward.”
Later on, when Stockton refused to acknowledge Wilson’s apology, Wilson challenged Stockton to a duel, but of course, since Stockton did not consider Wilson to be his social equal, he again ignored him.
James Jefferson Wilson was already a confirmed Republican in 1800, but no doubt his opinions about Federalists were not improved by this incident.
In the 18th century, there were very few options for getting one’s opinions heard. Political groups needed to get their message out to large groups of people, and the only way to do that was with newspapers. As Jeffrey Pasley so ably shows in The Tyranny of Printers, newspapers often preceded the formation of a political party.
In New Jersey, Republicans in the northern part of the state were supported by the Newark newspaper, Centinel of Freedom. But central and south Jersey were without such an instrument, so Gov. Joseph Bloomfield prevailed upon two printers, Matthias Day and Jacob Mann, to set up a new newspaper in Trenton, called the True American.
In its first issue, Day & Mann published an article titled “Celebration of the 4th instant, by the Republican Citizens of Trenton.” The day referred to was not the 4th of July, but the 4th of March, the anniversary of Jefferson’s inauguration. As was typical for political celebrations at the time, after firing guns in salute to the president and vice president, the assembly “repaired” to a local inn to partake of “an elegant supper provided for the occasion,” followed by toasts.
One of those toasts was to “The state of New-Jersey,–May all its citizens become democrats, and all democrats continue the supporters of order and good government.”
Another toast was to “The late President of the United States [John Adams], whilst we revere his virtues we regret his errors.” And “May every future administration from the experience of the last, learn that the confidence of a free people is preferable to the alien or sedition laws.”
And finally, a toast that made me burst out laughing: “The American Fair [i.e., women], may the satellites of tyranny and aristocracy [i.e., the Federalists] never enjoy their smiles.”
James J. Wilson
James Jefferson Wilson joined the True American when he was only 21. That did not prevent him from taking over management of the paper and gradually forcing Day and Mann out. He was able to do this with money lent to him by Joseph Bloomfield and other Republicans.
Despite the importance of newspapers during this period, being a news publisher was not a lucrative occupation. The men who ran these papers needed extra income, and quite often that came from government jobs.
For instance, James J. Wilson was named Hunterdon County Surrogate (which at the time was a position more important than County Clerk), as well as Clerk to the State Assembly, and printer for the State of New Jersey. All these jobs were given to Wilson by Gov. Bloomfield.
The fact that this was common practice shows a certain amount of hypocrisy on the part of the Middlesex Farmer, who only disapproved of the practice when it was exercised by Federalists.
Wilson was not a temperate person. He saw society divided into two classes. On the one hand there were the Judges, Lawyers, Clergy and Merchants, whom he called “the most active enemies of our civil and religious beliefs,” and on the other, Farmers, Mechanics and Laborers.
In 1803, he wrote a disparaging article criticizing a Federalist celebration of the Fourth of July which angered some Federalist law and medical students so much, they dragged Wilson out of his office and beat him up.7 They probably knew that would not silence Wilson, but still thought they could ‘put him in his place.’
Despite this treatment, Wilson became so influential that he dominated the Republican party in Hunterdon County.8 Bloomfield was Wilson’s greatest supporter, and often invited him to dinner at his elegant mansion in Burlington. But despite his ambitions, Wilson could never convert himself into a member of the gentry, and was always awkward in those surroundings.
A common practice in pre-Revolutionary America was the use of aliases by contributors to newspapers.9 Most of the men who wrote letters to newspapers were educated elites who still subscribed to the notion that gentlemen did not partake in messy controversies or outwardly compete for office. In addition, being on the wrong side of a popular issue could result in serious bodily harm.
We tend to overlook the fact that during the period leading up to the Revolution, there was no such thing as press freedom. If you were a Loyalist attempting to get your point of view across, you would soon be silenced, sometimes violently. That situation continued after the Revolution, when those who opposed the federal Constitution were also effectively silenced.
But the educated elite had opinions like everyone else, perhaps more so, and thus it became common practice to use aliases, as the Middlesex Farmer did. What we can conclude from this is that our farmer was not a man of humble station, but probably an important Republican in Middlesex County, who was frustrated by the fact that his county remained strongly Federalist during these years.
The Constitution of New Jersey, passed at the outset of the Revolution, was designed to prevent any governor from dominating state government. Governors had very few powers in relation to the General Assembly. In fact, their terms were ridiculously short—only one year. And they were elected not by popular vote but by the two houses of the legislature in “Joint Meeting.”
In 1801, Richard Stockton ran for Governor as the Federalist candidate. Opposing him was his friend, Joseph Bloomfield, who had started out as a Federalist, but became a Jefferson supporter and ran as a Republican. In the legislative election that preceded the vote for governor, the Republicans had gained a majority in the Assembly. As a result, the governorship went to Bloomfield, who was the first Republican to serve as a New Jersey Governor.10
In 1802, things got a lot more interesting. Federalists regained some seats with the result that the legislature was deadlocked. Since they could not agree on who would be Governor, the position of Acting Governor went to the President of Council, who happened to be John Lambert, a Republican from Amwell Township.11
1802 turned out to be a last gasp for Federalists, at least until the War of 1812 when they made a brief comeback. The Republicans once again won the legislative elections in 1803 and put Joseph Bloomfield back into the governor’s seat.
Some of the legislative gains were made in Hunterdon County, although the parts of the county that today belong to Mercer County were held by the Federalists, i.e., Trenton, Maidenhead (now Lawrenceville), and Hopewell, as well as the township of Readington. The rest voted Republican.
The Middlesex Farmer’s letter was published on March 7, 1803, shortly after the Joint Meeting. He should have been delighted with the outcome. But instead, he launched a rant against a Federalist family that no longer had significant influence in the state.
He must have felt that the Federalists were still a threat to Republican success. He could not foresee that the Republicans would continue to win elections in New Jersey, with the brief exception of 1812, up until the party itself would be dissolved during the emergence of the Second American Party System under Andrew Jackson. Such is the life and death of American political parties.
Fee, Walter F. The Transition from Aristocracy to Democracy in New Jersey, 1789-1829. Somerville, NJ: Somerset Press Inc., 1933.
Link, Eugene P. Democratic-Republican Societies, 1790-1800. New York, 1942.
McCormick, Richard P. The History of Voting in New Jersey, A Study of the Development of Election Machinery, 1664-1911. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1953.
Pasler, Rudolph J. and Margaret C. The New Jersey Federalist; Rise and decline of the Federalist party in NJ from 1790 to 1820. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1975.
Pasley, Jeffrey L. “The Tyranny of Printers”: The Rise of Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville: Univ Press of Virginia, 2001.
Prince, Carl E. New Jersey’s Jeffersonian Republicans: The Genesis of an Early Party Machine, 1789-1817. Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1964.