Commentary

The Fourth of July is a call to stewardship

July 4, 2023 7:55 am

General Hugh Mercer, for whom Mercer County is named, died in the Thomas Clarke House after getting wounded during the Battle of Princeton in 1777. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo/New Jersey Monitor)

What word do you think of when it comes to the Fourth of July? For me it’s not celebration or liberty – although those are certainly important – but stewardship. Independence Day most reminds me of the responsibility we have to preserve and to perfect the unique experiment that is the United States of America. And this requires us to be stewards of an authentic history of the sacrifices necessary to build our nation.

When it comes to the American Revolution, New Jersey has not been a particularly good steward of its own legacy. Massachusetts, for example, has built its identity around its role as the Revolution’s powder keg – including an official state holiday – even though the major conflict there lasted only one year. New Jersey, on the other hand, has not invested in similar branding of its contributions to our country’s founding – even though our state was the literal crossroads of the American Revolution from November 1776 when Lord Cornwallis chased after a humiliated rebel force to October 1783 when Congress, meeting in Princeton, received word that the Treaty of Paris had been signed. New Jersey would suffer more battles and skirmishes throughout the war than any other state and George Washington would spend more time headquartered here than any other state.

In the early years of the Republic, most Americans – let alone residents of our own state – knew about the pivotal role New Jersey played in winning independence, specifically Washington’s Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River and the ensuing battles in Trenton and Princeton. In 1861, then President-elect Abraham Lincoln, in a speech to the New Jersey Legislature, said one of the first books he read as a child was about Washington’s life. Among those stories, he said, “… none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton … more than any single revolutionary event.”

Lincoln was not alone. These events, known collectively as the Ten Crucial Days, were embedded in the American consciousness during the first century of our country’s existence. Today, however, just one-third of Americans consider New Jersey to be one of the more significant states in the Revolution, ranking behind not only Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, but Delaware too! That last one is probably because those folks believe it’s where Washington crossed the river. Awareness is not much better here in the Garden State. Only 1 in 4 New Jerseyans can name Trenton as the place where the Hessians were defeated after that famous crossing.

Over the years, the actions of concerned citizens saved many key historic sites from development or demolition when the state would not. One of those, Washington’s headquarters in Morristown, became part of the nation’s first designated National Historical Park. New Jersey’s state government eventually took some of the other rescued sites under its wing. Unfortunately, the state has not been as faithful a steward of its revolutionary legacy as it could have been.

While periodic investments have been made in recent years — such as a new visitor center at Monmouth Battlefield ten years ago and another about to be built at Washington Crossing — other sites remain far from visitor-ready — including Princeton Battlefield, various Washington headquarters buildings, and Proprietary House, the only actual Royal Governor residence still standing in the country. Many of these places suffer from decades of deferred maintenance and all of them lack the staffing and programming necessary to put them on a par with similar historic attractions in other states. Last year, the Murphy administration made an unprecedented investment of $25 million to address some of the overdue capital needs at these state-owned treasures. Still, more needs to be done for state government to meet the obligation it made when it agreed to be the steward of these nationally important historic resources.

New Jersey residents and corporate citizens also have a role to play in that stewardship. With the nation’s 250th birthday just three years away, New Jersey – with its soon-to-be spiffed up state historic sites – needs to proclaim from the rooftops that this is where the American Revolution happened. The state’s official commemorative effort, RevolutionNJ, is making plans for programs and events to mark New Jersey’s contribution to the founding of our country. Crossroads of the American National Heritage Area is rolling out signs and markers so you know you are somewhere special and is also telling diverse stories via an expanding series of American Revolution driving tours that put you on the same roads and byways as those who fought in and lived through the conflict.

Contributions of money, time, and talent are needed to make sure the eyes of the world are on New Jersey when 2026 rolls around. Together we can be the stewards of this amazing legacy created by our Garden State neighbors 250 years ago.

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Patrick Murray
Patrick Murray

Patrick Murray is the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and a long-time board member of Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area.

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