Kidder’s ‘Revolutionary Princeton’ explores the lifetime of a spot
“Around 9 a.m., on bitterly cold Friday, January 3rd, 1777, the terrible sounds of musket and cannon fire made by several thousand soldiers finally subsided and became further away,” begins William (Larry) Kidder in his new book Revolutionary Princeton 1774-1783: The Biography of an American City.
The Ewing resident leads the reader further into the house on what is now the Princeton Battlefield and opens the door to history.
Here we meet the 34-year-old farmer Thomas Clarke, his 24-year-old sister Sarah, their 28-year-old enslaved wife Susannah and the 19-year-old French Huguenot farm worker David de la Force.
“Following their farmer’s routine, they had woken early to begin their chores on that bitter cold morning when they unexpectedly heard and saw a long line of American continental soldiers and militiamen marching along the untracked dirt road at the front of theirs House. As they watched, several hundred soldiers turned left from the column and marched over stubble and winter wheat sprouts in their frozen farm fields and the adjoining icy farmland and bare orchard of their 41-year-old brother William.
“These peaceful Quakers watched in horror as an intense battle flared up as these American troops encountered some 500 British troops approaching them from the Princeton-Trenton post road.
“The resulting fight ended in less than an hour, but the fighting near their homes had been very intense and the occasional British bullet struck a wall while they crouched inside. As the sounds of battle grew further and further away, Thomas and Sarah’s great relief suddenly turned into shocked sadness when several American soldiers came to their door with wounded, heavily bleeding men, including one identified as a senior officer.
“The peaceful Quaker siblings housed these injured men in their home because they knew that there must be more wounded and dead in their fields outside.”
This is just one of the vibrant moments Kidder brings to life in this 384-page book that brings Princeton history to life.
It also contains some important observations and harsh realities.
Take, for example, Kidder’s survey of the Quakers in the region who “lived comfortably but did not show grand houses, expensive furniture or other signs of prosperity”.
But, like others in the British colonies, they employed identified servants and owned enslaved individuals, though some members sought to abolish the practice.
“West Jersey Quakers’ concern about the ethics of slavery first emerged in 1688 when the Quakers of Germantown, Pennsylvania, petitioned against slavery,” writes Kidder.
“The debate led to increasing abolitionist statements, protests and actions, including among Quakers in the Princeton area. Quakers manumed many slaves in the 1770s, including those at Princeton. “
However, Kidder points out that “while the early residents of Stony Brook were mostly Quakers, Presbyterianism reigned supreme as the population grew throughout the region. The Presbyterians were not strongly against slavery at the time, and some Quakers may have converted to escape criticism of owning slaves.
Commenting on the enslaved people in the Princeton area, Presbyterian Reverend John Witherspoon, president of Princeton College, a slave owner, remarked, rather casually, if not defensively, that negroes are extraordinarily well used, fed and clothed by free individuals of daily work. ‘”
It is such social and personal conflicts that draw the reader into the minds of the people who created our region and nation.
The book lit its flint in 1774 when “many Princeton residents, like many people in the 13 British North American colonies, became increasingly concerned about the actions of the distant British Parliament that were affecting their lives.
“However, the resulting protests fell under the heading of news rather than something that people were actively involved in. The rising tide of protests against these acts reached high water levels on December 13, 1773, when protesters expressed their disgust for a small tea tax and destroyed a shipment in Boston Harbor. “
Then, as Kidder relates so sharply: “One night in late January, a few days after Paul Revere drove through Princeton and spread the news of the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor, students at the College of New Jersey protested the tea import tax themselves . Several boys broke into the college steward’s storeroom, pulled out the winter supply of tea, and then went from room to room removing all of the privately owned tea.
“They destroyed tea in a campfire in the courtyard outside Nassau Hall while they rang the school bell and made ‘many spirited resolutions.’ Other students enthusiastically burned the portraits of Massachusetts Governor Hutchinson “amid the repeated acclamations of a great crowd”.
“Not everyone in the village agreed with the boys’ actions, and feelings flared on both sides. Host William Hick, whose inn was across from the college, attracted attention by making pro-government remarks that others in the assembled crowd found disgusting. College senior Samuel Leake was so emotionally trapped that he somehow insulted a college trustee, possibly local attorney Richard Stockton, who stopped by and calmly tried to get the “seditious trial” off.
“After that, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that ‘we heard from Princeton, New Jersey that college officials and students had unanimously agreed not to drink TEA.'”
Kidder’s hilarious mix of American personalities like Paul Revere with the everyday details of colonial Princeton intervenes and quickly reminds us of the region’s placement as a crossroads for travel on the east coast and the crossroads of revolution.
Here is another example of the many prominent historical figures that need to be mentioned – and a Princeton tavern that was known to locals until the late 20th century: “Before the Continental Congress came together, 39-year-old John made himself up Adams set off from New on the way to Braunschweig in a carriage that was skilfully pulled by four horses. With him in the vehicle were his older cousin Samuel Adams, Thomas Cushing, and Robert Treat Paine, the Massachusetts delegates to the upcoming Continental Congress, and their four servants.
“After a harrowing, dusty drive of about 15 miles on the bumpy Post Road, sometimes referred to as King’s Highway or Upper Road, which connects New York and Philadelphia, they entered the pretty village of Princeton around noon.
“Your driver stopped the car in front of 38-year-old Jacob Hyer’s tavern and proudly displayed a picture of the literary character Hudibras on his sign. This inn stood very close to the massive Nassau Hall, built of light brown locally quarried sandstone, which housed the College of New Jersey.
“Presbyterians brought the college to town in 1757, and Jacob humorously named his tavern Hudibras, after the title character in Samuel Butler’s 1663 mock hero poem that mocked religious dissidents like the Presbyterians of ‘New Light’.”
However, it is Kidder’s ability to transport the reader into the uncertain times of the era and the difficult daily challenges people faced that make the book more than just a telling of familiar story.
As the author noted at the beginning of his “1781” chapter, “American morale had hit another low point as (the year) began to unfold. The continuing drag on of the inconclusive war had caused or exacerbated many problems, including the devaluation of the currency and efforts by the loyalists to disrupt the revolution. The 13 new states had not even come together to ratify the articles of the confederation. “
“Princeton saw the revolution and war as a diverse community trying to deal with events beyond its control,” writes Kidder at the end of his book.
Then he sums up his life’s work and the importance of learning history: “In many ways they were like us today, and understanding their struggles in the 18th century can help us understand our struggles today.”