JOURNEYS INTO NEW JERSEY
We take Trenton as our capital as a given. But it was not always that way.
As in our nation's history, Philadelphia and New York were national capitals before Washington D.C. Similarly, New Jersey had a number of capitals before Trenton.
Not too long ago, we described how for many years as a colony New Jersey had been divided between East Jersey and West Jersey. Each had its respective capital – Perth Amboy for the east and Burlington for West Jersey. Even after the colony was united into one by the British, the two capitals endured until 1776.
But there were others. Elizabeth is described as having been New Jersey's first capital. Governor Phillip Carteret made Elizabethtown the capital of the province of New Jersey and the first legislature met here on May 30, 1668.
In Elizabeth, almost four centuries later, signs of the early New Jersey capital can still be seen around town: Places such as Boxwood Hall, Bonnell House and the Belcher-Ogden Mansion.And then there is the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth. Organized in 1664, is the oldest English-speaking congregation in New Jersey. "Old First" has been in continuous operation at the site for 346 years, and the historic burial ground contains over 2,350 graves, including those of early patriots, educators and political leaders. The site is registered on the national and state Registers of Historic Places.
The current structure on Broad Street is the third church on the site. Built of brick and sandstone between 1783 and 1793, the exterior is essentially unchanged since its construction. Like many Presbyterian churches in New Jersey, the church was originally congregational; by 1715 or so, however, it has been affiliated with the Presbytery of Philadelphia.
The capital presence can also be felt in Perth Amboy and Burlington.
A few of the buildings from this early period can still be seen today. Most notably, the Proprietary House, the home of William Franklin, the last Royal Governor of New Jersey and estranged son of Benjamin Franklin, still stands in the waterfront area of the city.
Other early architectural examples include the Kearny Cottage (moved from its original location), and St. Peter's Church. St. Peter's is surrounded by a graveyard of early inhabitants and displays a collection of incredible stained-glass windows. In addition to the religious scenes these windows portray, early depictions of New Jersey receiving her charter and a meeting between William Franklin and his father, Ben, are also included. Perth Amboy's city hall, first built as a courthouse in 1685, survived major fires in 1731 and 1764 and is the oldest city hall in continuous use in the United States.
In Burlington, many institutions established in the 18th century continue to function in the 21st century, such as Old St. Mary's, which remains the oldest Episcopal church in Burlington and New Jersey, as well as the Library Company of Burlington. Organized in 1757 as a "free" library open to the public as well as members, today it endures as the oldest continuously operating library in New Jersey.
Architecturally, one of the oldest buildings in Burlington comes from the period when the community was a capital. Known as the Revell House, this property was originally built in 1685 for George Hutchinson and it stood on East Pearl Street. It was soon purchased by Thomas Revell, one of the original European settlers. Local tradition associates this house with young Ben Franklin who received gingerbread as he was en route from Boston to Philadelphia. In the early 19th century the house was purchased by the Annis Stockton Chapter of the DAR to become their clubhouse. The Colonial Burlington Foundation acquired and restored it in the 1950s.
As for Trenton, as a community it dates back at least to June 3, 1719, when mention was made of a constable being appointed for Trenton, while the area was still part of Hunterdon County. But it did not become New Jersey's capital until 1790.
The town adopted the name "Trent-towne", after William Trent, one of its leading landholders who purchased much of the surrounding land from a local family. This name later was shortened to "Trenton".
During the American Revolution, the city was the site of George Washington's 's first military victory. On December 26, 1776, Washington and his army, after crossing the icy Delaware River to Trenton, defeated the Hessian troops garrisoned there in what became known as the Battle of Trenton. After the war, Trenton was briefly the national capital of the United States in November and December of 1784 (following Princeton's reign as national capital in 1783). The city was considered as a permanent capital for the new country, but the southern states favored a location south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Trenton became the state capital in 1790, but prior to that year the Legislature often met here. The town was incorporated in 1792.
Today, New Jersey's capital continues to be Trenton, but the governor's official residence has been in Princeton since 1945, when Morven in the borough became the first Governor's Mansion. It was later replaced by the larger Drumthwacket, a colonial mansion located in the township. Morven became a museum property of the New Jersey Historical Society.