6 - Hillfield & the New Constitution
Given the predominance of Quakerism at its inception, New Jersey has enjoyed a particularly ignominious place among the original thirteen states regarding matters of race. New Jersey’s first state constitution, adopted in a desperate effort to protect itself following George Washington’s 1776 defeat in New York, had granted the vote to all free citizens who met the property requirements, including blacks. That codicil, however, would fall by the wayside in 1807 when, for the sake of party politics, the Republican state government passed a bill restricting the vote to free white males. It had passed a law of gradual emancipation as early as 1804, but slaves were kept as late as 1865. New Jersey did not even ratify the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments until the 1870’s. At a time when every northern state was hurling itself toward the end of “the peculiar institution,” New Jersey notoriously dragged its feet. One of its most intolerable episodes occurred with the adoption of New Jersey’s new constitution in 1844.
For years the manufacturers in the north of the state and the farmers in the south had choked within the stranglehold New Jersey’s railroad interests held over the powerful state legislature. At that point the state’s constitution bore little resemblance to its national counterpart. The divisions between branches of government were amorphous if not wholly absent, and it lacked a bill of rights. But what most galled the rich and wannabe-powerful was that New Jersey’s governor, a then practically impotent figure, was elected by the state legislature, not its citizenry. New Jersey’s most wealthy and ambitious had been spoiling for a greater say in how the state was governed, and Hillfield soon found itself a key player in the adoption of a new and controversial state constitution.
Hillfieldian Hugh Giggley was at that time one of the most powerful men in South Jersey. He had built his initial wealth in farming, but soon branched into transportation, owning or at least possessing a controlling interest in many steamboat and ferry operations running between the state interior and Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. Subsequently he was instrumental in greatly expanding New Jersey’s system of canals, which made transporting his own crops even more economical. These investments brought him untold wealth, but they also brought him into direct competition with the railroad interests in North Jersey. Already established as the transportation method of the age, the railroads had coffers deep enough to stymie Giggley’s efforts to create one all-encompassing concern dedicated to off-land travel. Giggley watched as the railroads employed nothing short of sabotage and intimidation to scare off his investors, and with the majority of New Jersey’s Whig legislature stuffed deep in their pockets, they remained immune from prosecution.
Hugh Giggley may not have been able to identify the direction in which the winds of change were blowing, but that did not stop him dreaming on a large scale, and he now dreamed of unseating the railroad interests’ control of the Whig government. Constitution reform had been a topic of debate for several years, but was always neglected in the hands of the Whigs. Giggley knew that reform was necessary to wrest control away from the railroad tycoons, and he enjoined his fellow wealthy farmers to marshal the political forces at their disposal. They shared his sentiments, but they knew any chance of reform would be futile and potentially disastrous without public support. When the Broad Seal War broke in 1838, Giggley recognized it as the opportunity to galvanize public disgust with the Whigs.
The Broad Seal War was the popular term designated to the controversy surrounding the 1838 election to the U.S. Congress. Following the election, both the Whig and Democratic commissions applied for admission to Congress, but then-governor William Pennington – a Whig – determined the Democratic commissions null and void. Everyone knew that the Whigs had rigged the election, but it remained unproven until Giggley sprang into action. In December of 1839 two men employed by the county clerks offices in Middlesex and Cumberland counties presented a number of returns that had been obviously ignored by the county clerks. These returns gave the Democrats a majority in the House of Representatives. The two men were Hugo von Daniken and Cotswallop Strange. Von Daniken had family employed by Abraham Browning on his Cherry Hill Farm, and several members of Strange’s family were employed at the Crippled Bear Farm owned by Linus Braggart. Both Browning and Braggart were well known friends of Hugh Giggley.
The outcry over the fraudulent election was more than Giggley and company could have hoped for. The next state elections saw the Democrats seize control of the state legislature. Giggley was even able to place his own Democratic waterboy, Daniel Haines, in the governor’s office. Drafting a new constitution became the state government’s first order of business. But the people of New Jersey paid a horrific price.
Over the years, the Whigs had managed to control the state through more than just the war chests of the railroad interests. They had appealed directly to the hearts and minds of New Jersey’s underprivileged inhabitants: women, blacks, and immigrants. As previously stated, the Republicans of the first decade of the nineteenth century had managed to rob these people of the few rights allowed them by the standing constitution. The Democrats of the 1840’s found themselves in opposition to those same beleaguered people and made it clear to Giggley and his cohorts that there would be no quid pro quo in Trenton unless the women, blacks, and immigrants were allowed to be constitutionally disenfranchised. And so, when the state constitution of 1844 was adopted, those people were rendered as powerless as ever.
The irony, of course, is that Hugh Giggley and his compatriots were impelled by their disgust with corruption, and subsequently bequeathed to New Jersey a state so corrupt it long enjoyed the dubious distinction of being, “the Georgia of the North.” It was a distinction it would have to endure until long after the Civil War.
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