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Oil painting, painter unknown.
A Governor in Skirts

From Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, January 1965

by Arthur D. Pierce
Author of Iron in the Pines and Smugglers' Woods, among other studies of New Jersey history, and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society.

This Web Version, COPYRIGHT 2004 GET NJ

STRIDING along the ramparts of Fort Anne in New York was a strange figure in feminine attire. Some believed rumors that it was Queen Anne herself : the gown, from a distance, seemed sufficiently resplendent. It was not the Queen, however. It was not even a woman. It was the first royal governor of New Jersey: Lord Cornbury, less elegantly know as Edward Hyde.

This preposterous parading, together with the character and conduct of the parader, was to have far-reaching effects upon New Jersey. It was to undermine faith in royal rule from its very beginning. It was to encourage public habits and attitudes which eventually would lead to revolution. Anne and the Georgian kings who succeeded her were remote enough physically; when most of their appointed governors inspired intermittent nausea, hostility and disrespect over the years, the British Throne itself became an increasingly fragile symbol of authority.

The "Jarzies" had long been a rambunctious colony. Scandalous trafficking in real estate, with countless land titles clouded as a result, had bred serious and frequent conflict. Riots and clubbings were common. In a junior-size rebellion against the Proprietary Government, rowdy crowds had brought that government, for a time, to a virtual standstill.

One of the'; worst riots took place when an erstwhile confrere of Captain Kidd, Moses Butterworth by name, was brought to trial in Middletown on March 25, 1701. In the midst of the judicial proceedings, conducted by the Proprietors' Governor, Andrew Hamilton, one Samuel Willit strode into the courtroom, cried that the Governor had no right to hold court, and that he, Willit, was going to halt the trial. The man was as good as his word.

To start, he sent a drummer into the courtroom. He "beat upon his drum & several of ye Company came up with their armes & Clubs which together with ye Drum beating continually made such a noise (notwithstanding open proclamations to be silent and keep ye Kings peace) that the Court could not examine ye prisoner at the Barr." When the mob had grown to "betwixt thirty and forty men ... Benjamin Borden & Richard Borden attempted to rescue ye prisoner." The rescue proved successful but in the fracas both Bordens were wounded, and as a consequence the mob seized the Governor, the Justices, the Attorney General and even the court clerk, all of whom were kept as prisoners for five days, until recovery of the Borden brothers was assured.

This is only one sample of the anarchy which prevailed in New Jersey at the dawn of the eighteenth century. It is not surprising, therefore, that law-abiding citizens cheered news that the British Crown was taking over the government from the Proprietors. The Proprietors would retain most of their special privileges and political power. Yet, even so, it seemed that any change must be for the better, and there was special public pleasure when it was announced that Queen Anne had chosen her own cousin to be the colony's first royal ruler. True, New Jersey was to share him with New York, but at last - so people thought - there would be royal authority to command public respect and restore public order.

It is not difficult, then, to imagine the general dismay after the Queen's kinsman arrived and began marching upon the ramparts in women's clothes, "drawing a world of spectators about him and consequently as many censures for exposing himself in such a manner on all the great Holidays and even in an hour or two after going to the Communion."

Cornbury actually appeared in women's attire at his wife's funeral. Lewis Morris wrote that "half his time is spent that way." Some said - charitably - that Cornbury was drunk. Others said - even more charitably - that he wore his queenly attire as a symbol of the throne. Some made rather different comments. And even after Cornbury had been thrown out of office, an Anglican clergyman noted that he "continued to dress himself in Women's cloths, but now after the Dutch manner."

Serious as this was in weakening respect for royal authority, still worse was Cornbury's arrogant and unscrupulous conduct as Governor. Cornbury not only attempted to rule New Jersey in spare time, with his left hand: the palm of that hand was forever itching. During his first months in office Cornbury was taking bribes from both political factions; but after he had been bought, of course, he did not stay bought.

One cynical aspect of Cornbury's character was his exploitation of religion for his private purposes. By oath a member of the Church of England, he nevertheless "subscribed to several churches" but could not be induced to contribute "even a farthing" to any of them. Brutal in his methods, he raised high the Anglican banner to justify his arrest and jailing, in i7o7, of the Rev. Francis Makemie, a distinguished Presbyterian clergyman. Cornbury assailed Makemie as "a Jack of all Trades, a Preacher, a Doctor of Physick, a Merchant, Attorney ... and worst of all, a disturber of Governments." Makemie's offense? Preaching in a private home "in as publick a manner as possible." It took Makemie six months to win freedom from imprisonment through the courts.

Cornbury was equally ruthless with the Anglicans when it suited his purposes. That same year he threw into prison the Rev. Thorowgood Moore, rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Burlington. Moore was seized by the Burlington sheriff, taken to Perth Amboy, forced aboard Cornbury's barge, and carried to New York where he was imprisoned in Fort Anne. Moore's offense? He had refused communion to Cornbury's aide, Lt. Governor Ingoldsby, who was notoriously immoral and profane and as corrupt as the Governor himself. The persecuted Moore managed to escape from Fort Anne with the help of a fellow missionary, Rev. John Brooke; but while returning to England to protest the goings-on in New Jersey, both men were lost at sea.

Cornbury's political methods were equally crude. At first he sought to curry favor with the popularly-elected Assembly, but soon was double-crossing the members. He tried persecuting the Quakers. Soon all groups detested him, and his Council had as little time for him as the Assembly. Perhaps it is not surprising that during his five years in office only nine laws were passed, and six of these were vetoed in London.

Despite Cornbury's income from corruption, he fell deep in debt. His obligations were variously estimated at from eight to ten thousand pounds, and he appeared to owe everybody. Following his dismissal, Cornbury was arrested in New York on the plea of a creditor. He was able to depart for England only because the convenient death of his father provided him with an earldom, which brought him automatic freedom from prosecution. Lewis Morris, bitter foe of Cornbury, summed up this first experiment in royal rule with the comment that "in New Jersey the inhabitants have reason to grieve that such a person as Lord Cornbury was born."

Clearly, Queen Anne had not honored the colony by naming her kinsman Governor. Yet after his return to England she made him a Privy Councillor, gave him lodgings in Somerset House, and granted him a pension of two hundred pounds a year. Meanwhile, all his debts in America remained unpaid.


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