In June of 1783, the Revolutionary War with England was drawing to a close. Although America had gained its independence as a self-governing nation, there were numerous revolts instigated by soldiers that did not receive their back pay from the government. As such, the Second Continental Congress and its members, fearing for their safety, moved from Philadelphia to Princeton under the protection of New Jersey officials. Elias Boudinot, the president of the Congress, considered the location because he was a trustee of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University), a former town resident, and his older sister, Annis Stockton, resided there. At the time, the war-ravaged village had a population of 300 people and 60 homes so finding accommodations for the delegates were either scarce or scattered. Boudinot presumably stayed at Morven, the name of his sister’s estate. Built by Richard Stockton, one of the signers of Declaration of Independence, the pleasant surroundings of the grounds offered inspiration for his widow as she was credited to be one of the most prolific female poetry writers of her day. Boudinot knew the property well since he had married to Stockton’s younger sister, Hannah.
Dutifully taking care of government matters while waiting for the terms of the Treaty of Paris to be finalized with Great Britain, Congress sent word to General George Washington a month later at his military encampment in Newburgh, NY formally recognizing his service to the country as well as obtaining advice on peacetime military initiatives. Humbled by the accolades, another month would pass before he could make the journey to Princeton to speak with the delegates. Accompanying him would be three aides-de-camps, a small guard of 12- 24 officers including dragoons, several domestic staff members, and his faithful servant, Billy Lee.
Discovering the same dilemma with a lack of accommodations, Washington and his entourage sought out to rent a farm four miles away from a widow named Margaret Berrien. As the property was for sale, she agreed to rent her home and its furnishings on a monthly basis. Washington and his immediate staff stayed in residence for two and half months while his remaining officers boarded at nearby taverns in Rocky Hill and Kingston. The spacious farm, referred to as Rockingham, encompassed over 300 acres of farmland and fruit orchards bordering along the Millstone River. It was here that Washington frequently received visitors such as Elias Boudinot, Annis Stockton, Benjamin Rush, Robert Morris, James Madison, Generals Nathaniel Greene and Benjamin Lincoln, and Thomas Paine. Martha Washington also joined her husband but left for Mount Vernon in early October due to illness. During this time, they sat for portraits conducted by William Dunlap and Joseph Wright. Wright, travelling on horseback from Bordentown, utilized various artistic expressions including painting, sculpture, plaster, and engraving. When his mother Patience Wright heard about these meaningful encounters from her home in England, she wrote to General Washington with gratitude in her heart following his arrival home to Virginia. It is interesting to note that five of Wright’s painted portraits of Washington are known to exist. Also, one of his plaster life profiles is on display at Mount Vernon.
When Washington learned that Thomas Paine settled in Bordentown, he wrote a letter on September 10th congratulating him for his patriotic endeavors along with the request to visit him at Rockingham. Paine obliged. By the time that he arrived in early November, the Treaty of Paris was officially signed, effectively ending the Revolutionary War. Washington had his composed his Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States to be read to the army at West Point. This was a ground-breaking moment in world history since military commanders hardly ever transferred their reign of power back to the hands of government. Washington never wanted to be a monarch but rather return to private life as a farmer. Another significant event that occurred at Rockingham was when Washington, Paine, General Lincoln, and four other men boarded a scow on the Millstone River and poked holes in the sediment with long poles to see if microbes released combustible gas on the surface of the water causing flashes of light. Their recorded observation during this phenomenon, known as “swamp gas,” is considered the first science experiment in the country. Years later, Paine delivered a speech claiming a correlation between swamp gas and yellow fever.
On November 10th, Washington and his entourage left the country side of Rocky Hill and returned to New York to oversee the disbandment of the army before the formal resignation of his commission. Congress also left Princeton and the college building of Nassau Hall which suffered more damage during the war than any other educational institution. Day after day, the delegates would see the scars of conflict imbedded in the walls as they assembled in the second floor library to discuss important issues. It was a daily reminder that freedom comes at a price.
As the sun rose with the establishment of our own functioning government, it was setting on those individuals from Bordentown that helped the patriotic cause. In 1786, Patience Wright, always yearning to return to America, dies a week after suffering from injuries received in a fall at her London home. In 1788, Joseph Borden III succumbs to his war wounds and dies at age 33. His father, Colonel Joseph Borden Jr. mourns his loss and dies in 1791, the same year as his famous son-in-law, Francis Hopkinson dies. Three years later, his son, Joseph, marries Emily Mifflin, the daughter of Thomas Mifflin, the first governor of Pennsylvania. Thomas McKean, the son-in-law of Joseph Borden, becomes the second governor of Pennsylvania in 1799. Joseph Wright, the son of Patience, reaches his zenith as the first designer of the Liberty Cap coins and first draftsman of the Philadelphia Mint in 1792 but dies tragically a year later at age 37 in a Yellow Fever epidemic that swept through the city. In Bordentown, the aftermath of war weighed heavily on Thomas Paine as he decides not to live in his newly built home but rather allows a widow to stay there rent free. Later he rents it to a ship captain and his wife. When his close friend, Colonel Joseph Kirkbride passes away in 1804, his desire is drained to the point of abandoning his home. A decade earlier while imprisoned in France for expressing his radical views, he publicly blames President Washington for his incarceration and ends their friendship. Paine’s popularity plummets with his pamphlet, The Age of Reason and becomes an outcast. He dies in poverty in 1809.
Bordentown and the country had seen its share of joy and anguish along the pathways to independence. Individuals that walked these pathways were spiritually and morally guided to the crossroads of their destiny where they either succeeded or failed. Several of the names mentioned here are the ones that we know. But thousands of others will never be known to history. As the dawn of the 19th century approached, new characters would emerge at the crossroads. Some would lead to Bordentown. After all, the slogan for the municipality emphasizes “the heart of New Jersey.”