CHAPTER II. - MIDDLE COLONIES.

2. NEW JERSEY.

 

The first Committee of Safety of New Jersey was appointed at the August session of the Provincial Congress, 1775, just prior to its adjournment for a month. Eleven men were chosen, including the President and Vice-President of the Congress, the act stating simply that they should be a Committee of Safety during the recess, without further instruction or explanation.

The lower house of New Jersey’s regular Assembly had favored colonial opposition, but had been hampered by the loyalty of the Governor and upper house, and was not prepared, moreover, to go so fast or so far as the more radical of the people desired. A Provincial Congress representing the more progressive element in the Colony had therefore come into being, which was drawing to itself the powers of government and preparing for war. It was to keep this Congress in existence in some form, that its work might not suffer while a majority of the members took a recess, that the Committee of Safety was appointed. A second Committee was chosen at the October session and the practice was continued until the meeting of the Assembly under the new constitution in the fall of 1776.

The Committee was designed as an executive to carry on the government when the legislature adjourned, and its discretion was allowed to be the guide and sanction for its acts. No definite commission was given it, but we can gain from various resolutions of the Congress or Convention some idea of its power.

It possessed equal authority with the legislature to commission military officers and to appoint all above the rank of captain. The minute-men took oath to obey its commands, and any militia officer was answerable before it, in the recess of the Convention, for any disobedience or irregularity.

It shared the power of the purse. The balance of the money, that the Treasurer had received for paying delegates to the central Congress, together with all that might hereafter come into his hands, was, the Provincial Congress declared, to be drawn out at the direction of the Provincial Congress or the Committee of Safety. When the legislature issued 30,000 of paper money it was to be spent only as the Congress and Committee of Safety saw fit and could be drawn out on their order and not otherwise.

It was further granted authority to convene the Congress before the time appointed, if it thought best. Its compensation was left at first to the committees of the counties which the members represented. In 1776 the Provincial legislature voted the members six shillings a day.

Extensive and indefinite as the authority of the Committee was, a sufficient safeguard existed in the fact that it was limited to the adjournment of the legislature, disappearing as soon as that body came together. So far from using its prerogatives despotically the Committee seemed rather to shrink from the responsibilities which its position imposed, and to refer to the Provincial Congress matters over which it might have assumed jurisdiction. This was due partly to the fact that power in those days meant not honor and wealth, but danger and hostile criticism, and was therefore little courted.

The new constitution prepared by the Provincial Convention was adopted in the summer of 1776 and the first legislature elected under its provisions assembled in the fall. The following months saw the retreat of Washington through the State and the spread of panic and despair. Many who had been accounted faithful Whigs hastened to secure the protection of British arms; the militia hung back from the contest and the Tories multiplied and rose into importance. The legislature, fearing that the advance of the British left no opportunity to prepare for action or to secure safety, dispersed. The year closed with the battles of Trenton and Princeton, which stemmed the tide and brought back courage to legislature and people.

The danger was not over, however. New Jersey was to be for some time the battle ground of the Revolution and the Tories were still numerous and active. In January, 1777, the Assembly met again and the Governor, to meet the critical situation, advocated the election of an executive body with a larger authority than had been committed to any person by the constitution. Circumstances demanded that the State put forth its hand and compel the exultant Tories to feel its strength, that it force them to realize that treason meant death, that disaffection in itself was dangerous, and that what the State enacted it could enforce. At this time suspected loyalists were dealt with by Justices of the Peace. These officers could summon before them any person who fell under their suspicion for disloyalty and tender him the oaths of abjuration and allegiance. If he refused to take them he was bound over to the next court of General Sessions of the Peace, which, if he still refused the oaths, could fine or imprison him. There were two objections to this procedure. It was slow, and, owing to the state of the province, uncertain. The Tories in those districts where loyalists predominated would refuse to recognize the jurisdiction of the courts and, it was difficult to bring cases before them, or to enforce their sentences. It was to provide machinery to strike down quickly and effectively the smallest sign of discontent and disaffection, that the government might struggle free from the opposition that blocked its path, that the new Council of Safety was created.

On March 15, 1777, the law defining its powers was passed. The Governor and twelve others were constituted a Council of Safety. In criminal matters it was to have the authority of justices of peace throughout the State. It could arrest any persons suspected of being disaffected to the government, and after examining witnesses against them, could commit them to jail. It was to see that the laws of the State were executed and, if it seemed best, could recommend to the Speaker to call the Assembly earlier than the time to which it stood adjourned. Such militia of the Colony as it needed were given it to carry out its orders, and to serve as a body-guard. Each member of the Council was to receive as compensation twelve shillings a day, and any sum not over 1,000 might be spent in the performance of its duties. The duration of the act was limited to six months. The Council was thus a body authorized to sit continually for the next half year, to deal particularly with crime and disloyalty, and supplied with a body of soldiers to render its decrees effective and to free the members from personal fear.

By an act of June, of the same year, the laws against the Tories were made more severe. Any person found attempting to reach the protection of the enemy’s line without permission from a high military officer or from the Governor and Council of Safety was guilty of capital felony, and was to suffer death. The Governor and Council of Safety could, however, offer such persons permission to enlist in the American army or navy and the acceptance of this condition constituted a full pardon. The same privilege was granted to persons found guilty of aiding the enemy or of committing other acts of treason, of maintaining any authority in the State other than the American or of seeking to bring that authority into contempt. At the discretion of the Governor and Council of Safety those crimes which were cognizable before a jury might be dealt with in any other county than the one in which they were committed, a provision of much importance, since it enabled the State to remove the offender from a disaffected district where it would be impossible to secure a condemnation. That it might lead to gross unfairness and place innocent persons at the mercy of a prejudiced jury of Whigs was perfectly true, but the government was fighting for existence and the weapon with broadest sweep was best suited to its purpose, though it struck down as well what opponents might claim as the safeguards of constitutional liberty.

In cases where the Governor and Council of Safety had called before them suspected persons who refused to take the oaths, if they were held too dangerous to be allowed their liberty, they might be imprisoned until the next Court of Quarter Sessions, and any house or building that the Governor and Council chose to use for the purpose was considered a legal jail. The enemy having resorted to kidnapping many on the American side and conveying them into its camp, the Governor and Council of Safety were authorized to retaliate, and to arrest and imprison as many Tories as might be necessary to induce the enemy to release those Whigs that they had taken. An absolute authority was thus granted over those inhabitants of the State, whose only fault was a difference of opinion which might have found expression in no overt act. Such persons might be arrested at the will of the Governor and Council of Safety and imprisoned indefinitely It seems a provision at once despotic and unnecessary. The result of such retaliation must always be doubtful. The knowledge of the suffering of many of the Tories might never reach the ears of the English. If it did, it was far more likely to provoke further reprisals than conciliation. The measure would serve also to drive hesitating Tories to find safety with the enemy. Such legislation was the outgrowth of fear and hatred, not of statesmanlike judgment of the situation. It was further provided that the Governor and Council of Safety should send within the enemy’s lines the families of those who had already sought refuge in its camp. United States troops were ordered to assist them, as the Provincial militia had been before. Permission was granted to the Council of Safety, when it was impossible to secure a quorum, to call in any Judge of Common Pleas or Justice of the Peace, who for the time being was to be considered to all intents and purposes a regular member.

September 20, the Council of Safety having expired with the act that framed it, a new one was created to last until the end of the next session of the Assembly, an unusually strong executive being still necessary in the opinion of the heads of the State. The Councillors were made as before, Justices of the Peace in criminal cases, and in addition it was left optional with them whether they should take charge, in that capacity, of purely civil matters. Some power over the army was granted in the privilege of supplying any vacancy that might occur among the officers, their appointments to be subject to the approval of the next Assembly. The authority over the Tories was retained and supplemented by directions to deprive them of their arms, paying for them an appraised value.

The activity of this Council was found so beneficial to the State that it was felt necessary to continue it at the December sitting of the legislature. Its commission was, however, altered a little. It was forbidden to deal at all with cases of a civil nature and the provision directing retaliation for kidnapping was repealed. The Governor and Council of Safety might exempt militia-men from duty, and were to make temporary provision for wounded soldiers or for the families of those that had lost their lives in the service. Two thousand pounds were granted them for expenses.

In April and in June, 1778, this Council of Safety was continued.18 It expired in October of that year and was not again renewed.

The New Jersey Council of Safety differed from those of the other colonies in that its energies were focused more directly in the judicial department. It was created to try criminals and the disaffected, not to care for supplying and organizing the troops or to act as a substitute executive, there being already a capable Governor.

Turning to consider the actual work of the Council of Safety, we find that it sat in each of the different counties in turn, taking thus the central government into the localities and bringing it visibly before every inhabitant. It did not wait till cases were brought before it, but ordered certain persons whom it could trust to make lists of all dangerous and disaffected men in their county, who were then arrested by the militia and brought to the Council. That body did not try the case and pronounce final judgment. Instead it served to secure the persons of the Tories, to sift the cases by a preliminary examination, to see if any charge was made against them, and to hold the accused in prison till the next Court of Quarter Sessions, before which they were tried. In a large number of cases the work consisted only in binding the disaffected to the cause by administering to them the oaths of abjuration and allegiance. The Council of Safety, however, took cognizance of those men who were accused of selling goods at a higher price in Continental paper than hard money, tried and imposed a fine upon them if guilty.

The Council of Safety was tireless in the execution of its duty. That it was successful is shown by the fact of its being continued from session to session as an essential department of the government. The Assembly found its work both necessary and "very beneficial." In 1780 Governor Livingston wrote, "The Tories are grown so impudent that nothing but another Council of Safety will reduce them to order." The opinion of those persecuted can be easily imagined. James Allen, a conservative Pennsylvanian, writing in the period, said: "No country has ever been more harassed than Jersey. Those who are called Tories, though they have been passive, having been plundered and imprisoned without mercy."

u u u u u u u u u u u u u u

Return to Provincial Committees of Safety